Home | News Releases | Calendar | Getting Publicity | Media Lists | | Contact |

Counterpoint: an underground newspaper with a rural route

By Ellen McRae


Bob Roth carries a plastic bag across a long room and rustles down among newspapers and clippings on a couch of piled-up blue mattresses. Anne McRae sits barefoot on the floor in the middle of a faded Persian rug, a half-empty bag beside her, reading a newspaper. It's lunchtime on a Tuesday afternoon in Lancaster, Ontario for the co-publishers of Counterpoint Monthly Newsmagazine.

Their office is a former workshop in the County of Glengarry, 100 kilometres south of Ottawa, where the establishment weekly, The Glengarry News, reminds the old-fashioned farming community it has been "Serving You Faithfully Since 1892."

Counterpoint is the paper across the street, a journalist's dream, "Serving You Faithfully," Roth and McRae rejoin cheerfully, "Since 1983." When the two journalists left the independently-owned News in the summer of '83 and re-emerged a few months later as the competition, it constituted a minor uprising in the tradition-bound area. Counterpoint is published, edited and marketed by two people, and it is such an entirely new concept in Glengarry and surrounding Prescott and Vankleek Hill that it's called the underground paper, even the rebel newspaper.

One year after the first issue fairly grinned from thousands of rural mailboxes, with a front-page graphic of then cabinet minister Ed Lumley parachuting into his riding with "LUM'S $2 MILLION PLUMS," and articles supporting the small business sector, farmers' rights and the public's right to know the school board superintendent's salary, its controlled circulation figures have risen to 16,500 from 10,000.

It has proven itself stronger than anyone believed it could be. Grass roots supporters who fostered the monthly's creation are themselves amazed at its success. The co-publishers don't pretend it was easy. But they'll tell you it has been as exhilarating as it has difficult, and as obsessive as sobering. They fought a full page ad in News implying controlled circulation publications like Counterpoint were "junk" with a full page ad of their own headed: "WANTED — The Facts. Not Insults." One of those facts revealed Counterpoint's local circulation figures were double those of the The Glengarry News. The weekly backed off and total war was avoided.

"People thought Counterpoint couldn't survive because the greatest weapon the system has is the sense of futility it instills in them," Roth says. "People are convinced they can't fight the system, so they can't conceive of a publication dedicated to the little guy surviving against the power of the local political elite. One of the things we're trying to do at Counterpoint is to break that feeling of futility and to show people they have power."

Bob Roth is a vintage hold-out from the radical 1960's. He loathes hypocrisy and is irreverently unintimidated by figures of authority. A student activist and newspaper editor while attending York University, Roth has no inclination — no ability, it seems — to fit into the system now. With a family to help support, Roth still treats journalism as a means to build a better society rather than as a career. "That," says Roth, "enrages some people my age. They hate people who fight back, who haven't sold out to the system, because it shows they had an option. They can't walk around saying everyone has to sell out sooner or later when someone is walking around who hasn't."

The price he pays for holding out? "I have no social position," he shrugs, and adds, "In fact, I'm the only guy I know who can brighten up a room just by leaving it." It depends on whose room. Roth ran for Charlottenburgh Councillor, and the grass roots vote put him first in the polls.

For McRae, social ostracism is not a factor. She's just considered rather unusual. An outspoken feminist, she wears dangling silver earrings, lifts occasional weights, puts on a baseball cap to argue politics with a tableful of friends at the local bar and devours two, sometimes four, books a week.

McRae was on her way to Montreal in the winter of 1979, after completing her B.A. at Waterloo University, when she stopped off at her parents' home in Glengarry. Within a week, she was an advertising sales employee of The Glengarry News, and within a year's time, also a regular columnist. Roth had already been with the News for two years as assistant editor. Holding similar political and social convictions, the two joined forces to help unionize the News staff of nine in 1980, making the News the first unionized weekly newspaper in Ontario.

"We knew we'd be blacklisted for helping to organize a union at the News," says Roth. "But you have a choice, to not act, or to act. To not act means you are in tacit support of the status quo. To act means you have made a commitment to social change." In Roth's eyes, writing about problems while ignoring what goes on under your own work roof makes a journalist merely a careerist. "One of the most disgusting things I've ever seen is a film clip of a reporter who'd been shot in the battlefield. His co-worker, the cameraman, had two choices; to help another person as a human being, or to film him writhing in pain. He chose to record it — to be an observer. To have it within your power to right a wrong, and not to exercise that power, makes you as guilty as the person who created the wrong in the first place."

Besides helping to unionize the News, Roth and to a lesser extent McRae gave its management heartburn. The News was a traditional small-town weekly, a synopsis of meetings, marriages, graduations and mill rate increases. It was not a vehicle for outspoken social change — in Glengarry. When a pregnant 15-year-old ward of the Children's Aid Society who wanted an abortion came to the News with her controversial story the paper's management recoiled from Roth's and McRae's suggestion that the News print the story and openly analyze the problem. In the end, although the national media picked it up, it was considered too hot to handle by The Glengarry News and never printed.

"Most weekly editors display unlimited courage when denouncing corruption or injustice outside their own circulation area," says Roth. "They can get away with those denouncements because they're ineffective. Freedom of the press works fine in theory, but when the exercising of that freedom has a major impact against the power structure in the community, they will act against you. As long as I was criticizing the Ayatollah Khomeini there was no problem,to the best of my knowledge the Ayatollah didn't read The Glengarry News."


But local people did read the News, and Roth's frequent forays into the heart of controversial issues held readers spellbound. There was the time, for instance, that the Town of Alexandria in Glengarry violated the Anti-Inflation Act by approving raises for town employees that exceeded guidelines. The town was ordered to pay it back. Roth wrote a series of editorials on the moral issue: where should the money come from — the taxpayers, again? He called for an open meeting to publicly resolve the question, but the town refused. The News chose not to pursue the matter and told Roth retroactively he'd written too much about the controversy, citing it as an example of what he shouldn't be doing.

The boat rocked on. At one point, the town's mayor claimed Roth hadn't given his side of a contentious story, and wouldn't answer Roth's phone calls. Town Council stopped giving the News its council minutes. When things came to a head, the paper pulled Roth's column, then hired a new publisher who informed Roth the News no longer required an assistant editor. Armed with a union contract, Roth through arbitration successfully fought against a $100-per-week pay cut when he was moved down to reporter. Petitions and letters came in to the News demanding that Roth's column be reinstated. Five months later, when the paper and the journalist agreed on a financial settlement and they washed their hands of each other, the News granted Roth one final column. "Everywhere, there are embers of hope blowing through the darkness. Fan them."

These were the last words Bob Roth wrote for The Glengarry News.

McRae in the meantime was establishing sympathetic contacts along her ad sales route, contacts that would eventually provide Counterpoint with its strong advertising base. Her own News column was widely read for its razor-sharp focus on sensitive problems such as battered women, and the difficulty of raising a handicapped child. The response to her work convinced McRae ordinary people wanted to hear more about problems in their community: "I once wrote about an elderly woman five miles from Alexandria who was on welfare, really poverty-stricken. When the paper came out, two women's church groups phoned the News and offered the woman help. I don't think they'd had any idea how bad it was for some people on the back roads they passed every day."

McRae and the News management didn't clash directly, but she found it difficult to work under a publisher whose first move was to eliminate Roth's position. She quit her lucrative sales manager position soon after he left.

Borrowing a phrase he must have heard countless times as publisher and editorial writer with The Glengarry News, Phil Rutherford has no comment: "I say politely, I do not wish to comment on Counterpoint."

Forty Glengarrians had the right to smoke cigars when the first issue of Counterpoint was printed. They had banded together to nurture its creation as their idea of a free press — an alternative paper owned, operated and penned by rebels Roth and McRae. Providing well-meant financial support (that totalled only a few hundred dollars) and sustained moral backing, the group alternatively cheered and fretted as the pair struggled to publish their own paper without a big financial backer.

When I brought my camera into her home, McRae showed me a notepad: "You should read what two priests from Peru told me last night, it's incredible." Just out of the shower, she was wide-eyed under wet, abandoned hair. The notes I read told the kind of story — peasants and priests fighting a gun-slinging rightest government — McRae becomes passionate about. At the end of her notes in a big scrawl were the words, "But what can we do?"

"Our ultimate aim with Counterpoint," she explains, "is to tell people that instead of just talking about a problem, they can help solve it. If it's such a disgusting system, change it. When I write a story about a form of injustice, I try and tell readers what they could do to help."

Counterpoint runs between 50 and 60 per cent advertising. Roth says that makes it more difficult to publish an effective alternative newsmagazine, since it's dependent upon business people with vested interests in maintaining the status quo: "I don't think any paper that relies on advertising for revenue can print the truth because quite frankly, the truth sometimes isn't good for business. Still, even papers that depend on advertising could do a much better job. At Counterpoint, we have to work within certain limitations, but we work right to the edge of those limitations. Most papers hoist the white flag of accommodation before the battle has even begun."

The article "Wine, Women and Councillors" in the March '84 issue of Counterpoint is arguably Roth's most brilliant attack on institutionalized hypocrisy. In a stinging satire, he opened up for public viewing and subsequent heavy debate questionable expenditures of tax dollars at the Ontario Good Roads Convention. For years it had been dubbed the "Good Times" convention by resigned cynics, many journalists among them.

Councillors in Glengarry and beyond were not amused by the front page story. Two of them advertised regularly in Counterpoint. They pulled their ads permanently and one more advertiser followed suit. He gave no reason.

To Roth, who agrees with the Davey Committee's assertion that a paper that hasn't upset anyone isn't doing its job, the clash was symbolic. It illustrated clearly the limits to freedom of the press: "The better you are, the more effective you are, the more ire you raise among the establishment, the more they're going to counter attack."

So why do they do it? Their income from Counterpoint would be considered poverty-line. Politicians bristle coldly when Roth and McRae enter a room. A local marina operator made a point of stating publicly the community didn't need publications like Counterpoint. "If you want to find dirt, you can find it anywhere," he said. And despite a steady core of support, hostility and epithets shadow them darkly.

Roth, with the fervour of a self-described fanatic, rages, "The greatest technological power ever known is being harnessed to cure ring around the collar, when we could be eliminating injustices like poverty. It puzzles me why people, journalists, don't seize the opportunity to build a better world when it's within their grasp. You ask me why I do what I do, but I ask you why everyone else doesn't."

A counter point is an alternative contention, and a counterpoint, according to an Oxford dictionary, is also a method of combining melodies. In Glengarry, a Counterpoint is two journalists composing good, rare songs from which Lord Thomson, cum the status quo, earns no royalties.

Ellen McRae is a freelance writer in North Lancaster, Ont. She is not related to Anne McRae.


Published in Sources, Winter 1984

Copyright © Sources, All rights reserved.