After 124 Years, One of Canada’s Oldest Independent Newspapers Dies

The Whitehorse Daily Star ’s closure will deepen the country’s local news crisis

A dark winter night with a neon blur over the Whitehorse Star building
(Christopher Wheeler)

For my first day at the Whitehorse Daily Star, I wore a sweater and dress. I’d interned at dailies down south and thought I knew the attire: business casual. In the second-floor newsroom, I met my boss, editor Jim Butler. He was wearing jean shorts, tall, thick socks, and hiking boots. That was my first indication that working at a small, Northern paper would be a unique experience.

I started at the Star in June 2014, back when it published five times a week. I’d moved up to Whitehorse from Hamilton, Ontario, for the job, one of a long line of reporters—many of them young and from southern Canada—who’d filled the paper’s pages since its inception in 1900. The Yukon became a territory in 1898, so the Star offered a nearly complete documentation of its existence. Reporting stretched from the first fully elected legislature in 1909 to the capital moving from Dawson City to Whitehorse in 1953 to the signing of the framework for Yukon First Nations’ land claims and self-government agreements in 1993.

Today, the Star publishes its last issue. The shuttering isn’t a surprise—newspapers aren’t a viable business anymore. Canadians increasingly get their news online, and advertiser dollars have followed suit. Papers across the country have been hit hard by layoffs and closures over the past several years. My hometown daily, the Hamilton Spectator, is a shell of what it once was. These changes are hitting smaller markets like Whitehorse too, despite the Star’s status as a community institution, independent and locally owned for all of its 124 years.

While the Star’s end isn’t surprising, it is sad. It’s hard to overstate the importance of local news produced by local journalists, people who live in the community and are trained in gathering information and conveying it clearly and accurately. During my fifteen months at the Star, I was at the courthouse every day, checking the docket and sitting in on hearings. My co-workers and I covered Whitehorse city council, the Yukon legislature, protests, fires, murders, mining, dog-mushing races, soccer games, the treatment of First Nations inmates at the Whitehorse Correctional Centre, and cultural events.

My co-worker Christopher Reynolds broke a story about an assistant deputy minister in the Yukon government who earned his PhD from a diploma mill. Another reporter, Ainslie Cruickshank, put the government in the hot seat over its decision to cancel an affordable housing project in Whitehorse.

Butler gave us a lot of autonomy. I’d tell him about a little-known trial I wanted to cover, and he’d give me the go-ahead. When I wanted to write a series about the deaths of three vulnerable people who were on social assistance and lived at a rundown hotel, he said yes. His approach allowed me to explore what I was interested in.

But working at the Star had its share of frustrations. With some frequency, the paper would run Yukon government news releases—hardly unbiased sources of information—word for word, with no reporter follow-up. I also sensed resistance to change. The paper didn’t publish breaking news online in real time; stories were posted to the website after the daily print deadline. And while ambition was allowed, it wasn’t encouraged. If you wanted to sniff out stories and tackle big projects, you could. But if you wanted to do the bare minimum and file mediocre copy, you could do that too. That’s ultimately why I left. I liked my co-workers and the diversity of stories I got to file but felt I needed more mentorship, more editorial feedback.

After 2015, when I left the Star, reporter turnover seemed to become more frequent. As staff quit, they were replaced by new southern journalists, who, like me, had to figure out quickly what it meant to live in and report on the North. In 2019, the Star dropped down to publishing three days a week, a cost-saving measure. Former publisher Jackie Pierce, the Star’s sole owner since 2002, died last year; her four daughters and daughter-in-law have owned the paper since.

In January of this year, the Star launched a survey to assess readers’ preferences for news and information consumption (the results weren’t shared with the public). The owners also brought on a former editor, Max Fraser, as a consultant to create a business strategy that could, according to Butler, “meet the challenges of operating in the complex 21st-century media environment.” In the spring, a group of locals, including Fraser, showed an interest in buying the paper. Ultimately, the owners said the group didn’t have a sustainable business model, and they decided to close shop, “with heavy hearts,” as they wrote in its pages.

Yukon News, the Star’s main competition, has also had a rocky period. It’s owned by Black Press Media, which publishes many community papers in Canada and the US. Earlier this year, the company entered creditor protection and was sold to new Canadian ownership. As of the spring, though, Black Press said it was on solid financial footing.

The larger media scene in Whitehorse is holding steady. The CBC provides thorough daily news coverage. Two radio stations provide news updates as well, while a weekly called What’s Up Yukon publishes arts and entertainment stories. L’Aurore boréale is the community’s French-language newspaper, and Yukon, North of Ordinary is a quarterly magazine that covers the territory. Its owners recently bought Up Here and Up Here Business magazines. (I work at Yukon, North of Ordinary and have worked at Yukon News.)

I think a future without newsprint is likely and not far off. But what about a future without local news? Without Whitehorse’s reporters, I’d worry about institutions not being held to account and important stories going uncovered—stories that wouldn’t receive national attention, such as the 2014 inquest into the death of a woman from Watson Lake, Yukon, which shone a light on territorial health care practices. Community Facebook groups are a great way to share information; they’re also full of rumours and unverified reports. They’re no substitute for journalism, which requires both an education or training in journalistic practices and ethics and a commitment to integrity.

I wish the Whitehorse Daily Star, as one of the last independent papers in Canada, had in recent years been feistier, had done more to support and mentor reporters, had covered the community in a more dogged way. I don’t know that this would’ve made the Star profitable or made it more appealing to advertisers—no media outlet, except perhaps the New York Times, has cracked the code on how to make print news work. But I suspect it would have resulted in more passionate and determined journalism.

I am, though, forever grateful for the start the newspaper gave me. I learned how to cover the courts, write fast on deadline, and advocate for stories. And I realized that I love living in a small Northern city. I intended to stay in Whitehorse for only a year, but I’m still here. I’ll always take to heart the Star’s motto, published on the front page of every issue and displayed on the side of its pastel-blue building: Illegitimus non carborundum—mock Latin for “Don’t let the bastards grind you down.”

With thanks to the Gordon Foundation for supporting the work of writers from Canada’s North.

Rhiannon Russell
Rhiannon Russell (@rhrussell) is a freelance journalist based in Whitehorse, Yukon.