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An early issue of the Drum speaks to finicky presses malfunctioning in cold weather, resulting in a cessation of subscriptions until the problem could be solved. When the newspaper did make it to the press, it was under the motto Hodie Acta Cras Cacarta Charta, which translates to, "Today the newspaper, tomorrow toilet paper." - Sarah Ladik/NNSL photo
50 years of drum beats
Publishers past and present look back on a half-century of stories

Sarah Ladik
Northern News Services
Thursday, January 14, 2016

Running a newspaper is not a path to easy money, as decades of owners and their families can attest.

NNSL photo/graphic

Ian Butters stands in the kitchen in the house on Reliant Street where he grew up and where the Drum was produced in the early years. - Sarah Ladik/NNSL photo

"I don't know what motivated him," said Ian Butters, the son of Inuvik Drum founder Tom Butters who died last year. "But he knew the power of the word and saw the need for a word other than the official one."

An inherent lack of stability didn't stop Tom Butters from giving up a lucrative career in government to start the Inuvik Drum in 1966. This year - this week - the newspaper celebrates its 50th anniversary. This story not only looks back on how far it has come but also how little some things have changed.

The house on Reliant Street where the majority of the newpaper's production took place in its early years has changed but Butters' son, Ian Butters, still lives there. Sitting in the kitchen where copy was written, pages laid out, and papers assembled, he said his childhood was caught up in the story of the paper itself. His whole family was involved in its creation.

"It was a family business," he said. "At 12 or 13, my brother and I walked around with cameras in our coat pockets under instruction to take photos of anything; especially kids on sleds, things like that."

Tom Butters moved to Inuvik in 1961 after a few years as a northern service officer in Baker Lake. He soon became the top federal government official in town for anything outside of health and education but became disillusioned with the promises and decisions made by faraway politicians.

"They lived on Snob Hill - what they called Spruce Hill at the time - for about six months," said Ian. "But he thought if he was going to be serving the people of Inuvik, he should live among them."

Ian and his siblings grew up in a house in the West End with a honey bucket and a 45-gallon drum in the front yard for water. On Jan. 6, 1966, his father printed the first issue of the Inuvik Drum on an off-set press in a drafty old building on Mackenzie Road. It was only a few pages but it certainly made an impression.

"He wanted to give a voice to the ordinary person," said Ian. "Largely the people who lived on this (the west) end of town. He was a man of principles, a man of honour, and a man of his word."

Tom Butters' daughter Meg Innes worked as a paper carrier growing up, along with her siblings. She said the people she met through the family business were real characters.

Copywriter gives birth, gets back to business

"Women especially were really tough," she said, recounting how Jackie Norris, a copywriter for her father with four or five children and another on the way, had called one day to say she would be a bit late with the week's work but that Tom should go by her house later in the evening. He went to her house around 8 p.m. to find Norris had given birth at home and still managed to get the copy done, a mere three hours late.

"Because he grew up as a foster child he was very aware of the paternalistic attitude the government could have when it came to people," Innes said. "He named it the Drum because drums were a method of communication. Dad never took himself that seriously but he took what a local paper means to community very seriously."

The person who allowed Tom to take the paper so seriously, despite the patent lack of advertising in the early issues, was his wife Peg Butters. Not only did she go back to work as a teacher to support the family when the newspaper was founded, she raised four small children while allowing her kitchen to be taken over for production night every week.

"Behind every great man is an even greater woman," Innes said, laughing. "I don't think people realized how much she did to make the Drum possible for Dad."

Tom Butters is now remembered for his massive contributions in the development of responsible government in the North, and until recently, was the longest-serving MLA on record in the NWT. Ian said his experience owning and running a newspaper was a large part of why he got into politics in that writing articles exposed him to all the issues of the day. He said the motivation, namely giving the people a voice, were the same.

When Tom was elected to the legislative assembly in 1970, he continued to run the paper, making provisions for the few weeks a year when he was busy in session. When he became a cabinet minister the company was put in a blind trust.

When Ian reached the end of his university career, his father asked him if he would be interested in taking over the family business. While he liked the writing well enough, Ian said he didn't like living under the pressure of a weekly deadline and decided to pursue a career elsewhere.

A new publisher

In 1978, Dan Holman had been driving a truck for the military for a grand total of three days when he got a call from Tom, asking him if he wanted to take over the newspaper. Spurred on by youthful optimism, Holman said yes.

The paper was then being printed in Whitehorse, which meant every page had to be camera ready and driven out to the airport to catch the flight on Tuesdays.

Still, even without the printing, it was a lot of work to get it all typeset. Innes was hired while still in high school to help out and came back to work at her father's former paper from 1981 to 1985. Thinking she would be working somewhere in the back with the machines, she was instead sent out on her first news assignment to cover a tour by the NWT commissioner, trying all the while to not look too lost.

"I really enjoyed my time there," she said. "We were a small crew, everyone had to wear many hats. There was never a dull moment and the people were amazing."

Holman's own recollections from the decade he owned the Drum are colourful to say the least.

One week, he said the military bought 1,200 copies and drove them straight to the dump. That issue contained a story about a boy - the son of one of the people in charge at the base - who had been playing on a utilidor when he fell and died. Holman had written an editorial encouraging people to watch their children and be sure they were safe and the two items ran on the same page.

"That caused some heads to explode," he said.

He successfully fought off a hostile takeover by competing newspaper the Mackenzie Drift, started by the same man who started the Slave River Journal in Fort Smith, and implemented many changes at the paper, including the addition of special supplements. Innes said Holman also bumped up the price of advertising, which her father hadn't changed since he started the paper.

"It was a tough time but I learned and got through," Holman said. "People would say, how do you remain unbiased? It's not really possible; you sideswipe people every week and you don't even mean to. I would say, 'I don't waste my time, I just try to treat everybody equally bad.'"

But the 1980s were a hard time for Inuvik. Holman said the loss of oil field production came as a heavy blow to the community so soon after the closure of the military base. Other publications began to sprout up, representing the interest of various groups in town - something he didn't begrudge them, although he admitted it meant the already-shrinking market was further divided. When visiting a friend in Victoria, B.C., Holman said he came to something of a realization.

"I got on a plane at -30 in Norman Wells, and I got off six or eight hours later in Victoria and everything was green and growing," he said. "I thought about how I was going to have to hunker down at the paper, and I felt like other parts of my life were passing me by."

On top of that, to keep abreast of production trends he would have had to pour tens of thousands of dollars into new equipment. He said he tried to sell the Drum to a few local parties but in the end their pockets were not deep enough to keep the paper afloat.

"My top priority was keeping the paper alive," he said. "Northern News Services could do that."

Ten years to the day since Holman had bought the newspaper from Butters, he sold it to Northern News Services out of Yellowknife.

Northern News Services steps in

That purchase saw the Drum become part of a wider chain that would eventually reach across the NWT and Nunavut.

Mike Scott, operating manager for NNSL, said the acquisition was the next logical step for the company, which had a News/North bureau in the community since the early 1980s.

"We've been publishing the Drum since 1988, 28 years is a long time in any business," he said. "Many of the people working with us on the Drum today were not even born when we first took over with Nancy Begalki as editor and Keera Kieken as manager. The Drum is Canada's most northern weekly newspaper and we are privileged and thankful for the support we've had from great staff, readers and advertisers over the years. Producing quality journalism and being the public record in a community is a responsibility we take very seriously."

Although there have been many reporters and editors working at the paper through the years, Scott pointed out that some employees invested for the long haul.

"Our longest serving employee, Bonnie Rioux (now Logsdon), started her newspaper career at the Inuvik Drum in 1982," he said. "She was designing advertising for Dan Holman before there were computers used in newspaper production. She is now a senior designer in our Yellowknife office."

From here, the paper would continue in its mandate to serve the people of Inuvik, those who live in the West End as much as those on Spruce Hill. As all newspapers struggle to make sustainable decisions in the Internet age, community news remains a strong voice in small towns across the country, as well as a forum for residents.

"Local news has always been our connection with readers," Scott said.

"The Drum has been Inuvik's trusted, reliable local news source for 50 years. Whether you prefer we deliver the news via your phone or printed page, we look forward to continuing being the public record and voice for Inuvik."

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