Whitehorse Star marks 120 years in print, not an issue missed

It's not easy for a small newspaper to survive these days — but somehow the Whitehorse Star is defying the odds.

The independently-owned paper is marking 120 years in print this month.

"We're pretty unique. There aren't many like us left in Canada," said editor Jim Butler, who's been with the paper for almost 40 years.

"We like to think that we have a loyal readership, and even though a lot of them enjoy their social media outlets, they also like the feel of a daily newspaper that they can hold and read it at leisure."

The paper was founded in 1900, when the Klondike Gold Rush was still recent news. Percy Fremlin Scharschmidt had been printing The Bennett Sun paper in nearby Bennett, B.C., a year earlier, but picked up stakes when the White Pass & Yukon Route was completed to Whitehorse.

The Whitehorse Star
The Whitehorse Star

It started as the Northern Star, and over the years became the White Horse Star, the Whitehorse Daily Star, and now since last year when it ceased to be a daily, the Whitehorse Star.

For a long time, it was the only news source in town.

"For decades, the first half of the 1900s, there really wasn't much competition," Butler says.

"Especially in the first half of the paper's existence, it has served as a valuable resource for historians doing research and archives. After all, the paper has covered the First World War, the Second World War, the Korean War and the Yukoners who fought in those conflicts."

The paper was also there to cover major local events — the sinking of the SS Princess Sophia, a visit by the first aircraft in Yukon, the moving of the territorial capital from Dawson City to Whitehorse, royal visits, and Robert F. Kennedy's famous ascent of Mount Kennedy in 1965.

The Kennedy trip offered a good scoop for the paper — then-publisher Bob Erlam managed to get photos of a smiling Kennedy striding into camp after his ascent. The photos were then distributed worldwide.

Bob Erlam/Whitehorse Star
Bob Erlam/Whitehorse Star

Butler cites the old adage that newspapers are the "first rough draft of history."

"I think that's true in this case," he said.

'All the old-timers ... would write into the Star'

The paper was also the birthplace of artist and raconteur Jim Robb's famous "Colourful Five Percent," in the early 1970s. It became a regular and beloved column about some of Yukon's most quirky and unique figures, past and present.

"So I had quite a few drinks that one night, and I had my notepad with me and I said, what popped into my head? 'The Colourful Five Percent.' So that was the start of the column," Robb recalled.

He remembers the Star as being sort of "the Bible of the area."

"All the old-timers, if they had something to say, they would write into the Star," he said.

Whitehorse Star
Whitehorse Star

Robb says he still picks up every issue.

"I've never been too good with the internet. I have trouble just turning on the TV, type of thing ... the Star is my number-one source for news," he said.

"I think people depend upon it, and it wouldn't be the same Whitehorse without the Whitehorse Star."

Butler agrees — he is the editor, after all — but says it's hard to predict what the future holds for the paper. The entire newspaper industry was in turmoil even before a global pandemic ate further into precious advertising revenue.

"Our costs go up and up and up — employees, the cost of paper, the cost of ink, the cost of trucking these products hundreds of kilometres from western provinces," Butler said.

Paul Tukker/CBC
Paul Tukker/CBC

Then there's the challenge of finding new, younger readers willing to pay a bit for the news they consume.

"We haven't missed a single edition in 120 years," Butler said.

"But time will tell. It's a difficult environment for newspapers. Some people will say they've served their purpose and they should disappear altogether.

"But when you think about it, there are still hundreds and thousands of Canadians across this country who read newspapers every day."