The Leader: In business 88 years

A fast-growing Surrey will need to have a print newspaper with a strong digital presence for many years to come.

The Surrey Leader ceases to exist as a standalone newspaper with this issue. It’s been in business for just a few months shy of 88 years – a very long time in B.C. community newspaper history.

The Leader was not the first newspaper in Surrey. It was at least the third. It was preceded by the Surrey Times, which published briefly in 1895, and the Surrey Gazette, which began publishing as the Semiahmoo Gazette in 1913, lasted until 1918 and then resumed publication in 1922.

It was eventually taken over by The Leader in October 1929 – a few months after The Leader started in business.

It was an inauspicious year to start in business, due to the great stock market crash which deeply affected the North American economy for the next 10 years. Surrey and The Leader were not immune. Many people moved to Surrey from the Prairies during that decade because there was no hope there (my own family was among them). A great many Surrey residents were on relief, as work was very hard to come by.

Leader founder G.W.A. (Bill) Smith made a go of it, but business was often challenging. Some business was done by barter. One of his most important moves was hiring young Stan McKinnon during the 1930s. He was synonymous with the newspaper for the next 50 years – starting as a young man ready to help out where needed, then moving on to becoming a reporter, editor, publisher and owner.

The newspaper could have grown substantially during the Second World War, as Surrey gained many new residents. Many people moved to Surrey because they were able to find housing while working in war industries in New Westminster and on the Surrey waterfront. The opening of the Pattullo Bridge in 1937 was also a significant factor in that growth.

However, wartime newsprint quotas kept the paper small and limited its ability to boost circulation.

Stan McKinnon and George Coupland, who joined the staff after the war to look after the production end of the business, became integral parts of the business after the war, eventually becoming shareholders. They eventually took the newspaper over completely from the Smith family.

My own involvement with The Leader goes back to the early 1970s, when I contributed minor hockey reports. Growing up in Cloverdale, I was very familiar with the newspaper, which had been based there since its founding.

I later sold subscriptions and, after attending journalism school on the recommendation of Stan McKinnon, I was very fortunate to join the staff as reporter and photographer in January, 1979.

The newspaper had just been sold to Hacker Press, based in Abbotsford, which owned three other Fraser Valley community newspapers and had printed

The Leader since it converted to offset printing more than a decade earlier.

It was a paid circulation newspaper and had many competitors – most of whom were free distribution. The intense competition, along with a significant recession in the early 1980s, meant challenging times ahead.

A conversion to tabloid format, free distribution and a move into North

Delta were very significant moves made by publisher Brian McCristall.  At

that time, The Leader had a small staff – two in the front office, doing classifieds, invoicing and accounting, two in advertising, two in editorial, one in circulation and the publisher. Several others helped out part-time in a number of capacities.

It was a great time to be in the newspaper business. Several competitors folded due to economic challenges, and by 1984, The Leader was in good shape  on many fronts.

Stan McKinnon retired that year, continuing to write his longtime “Keeping Tab” column, and I took over his position as news editor, becoming editor in 1986.

There was no shortage of interesting stories – about everything from the teen gang known as the Whalley Burnouts to the ongoing legal troubles of former mayor Ed McKitka.

Surrey was often likened by many outside observers to a gangly, fast-growing adolescent, and when Vancouver Sun columnist Denny Boyd wrote a column filled with Surrey jokes, we retorted by asking our readers to pass on their best Vancouver jokes. We were inundated with responses.

In its almost 88 years, The Leader has had just six editors – Smith, McKinnon, McCristall, myself, Andrew Holota and Paula Carlson. This continuity has made it possible for the newspaper to really dig into many issues affecting the fast-growing city, and to keep pace with all the changes.

It has also had a terrific staff in all departments, from editorial and advertising to production and circulation.

There are far too many to fully name, but in my 14 years as a staff member, some of the best whom I got to work with were Maurice Donn, Ian McKinnon, Shelley Nicholl, Vikki Skytte, Elsie Lick, Erc Leung and Jayne Murgatroyd.

Ron West, who was our longtime courier and also a freelance photographer, was a guy ready to do anything he was asked to. His passing at the young age of 55 in 2013 was a shock and he is missed by many.

In the digital age, print products of all kinds have many new challenges. A merger of The Now and The Leader, both owned by Black Press, isn’t surprising. Surrey needs to have a print newspaper with a strong digital presence for many years to come, as it eventually grows into B.C.’s largest city.

The Leader has played an important role in helping it to get this far.


• Surrey Archives showcases Surrey Leader photographs

• From a weekly paper, to online, on demand

• Paula Carlson: Not just a job, a calling

• Evan Seal: 25 years behind the lens

• Kevin Diakiw: Thank you Surrey – over to you

• Boaz Joseph: Out of the dark and into digital, another door closes

• Rick Kupchuk: The road trip continues for this longtime reporter

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