At the start of last year, no one was predicting a pandemic to sweep through, let alone that we’d still be dealing with public health restrictions more than a year later. Likewise, the owners of The Observer hadn’t planned on marking the newspaper’s 25th anniversary during a lockdown.
But if there’s one thing brothers Joe and Patrick Merlihan have learned in the last quarter-century, it’s that unpredictability is part of running a business, especially in the increasingly volatile publishing industry.
The media landscape has shifted dramatically since the first edition of The Observer hit the streets in 1996, timed to coincide with the Elmira Maple Syrup Festival. Back then, the brothers and fellow Elmiran Brian Jantzi saw the potential in a newspaper to serve the residents of Woolwich and Wellesley townships, in effect taking on an existing publication, the Elmira Independent, itself established in 1974 in competition to the long-established Elmira Signet, which eventually folded.
With an idea for a new paper, a personal loan of $4,000 and more energy than experience, the three twenty-somethings formed Cathedral Communications, named for its rented office space in the basement of a former church on what was then King Street (now Memorial Avenue).
Those early days were full of challenges – many of them unknown at the start – that were met with youthful enthusiasm that far exceeded the shoestring budget available to the three young , inexperienced entrepreneurs.
“In retrospect, we really didn’t have a good idea of what we were getting ourselves into. We knew we were on to something with the newspaper, but the rest we had to learn on the fly,” said Joe Merlihan, the paper’s publisher since its founding.
“Even back then, though, we wanted to provide the people of Woolwich and Wellesley with good community journalism without any agenda. We are fans of good newspapers, and we wanted that to be reflected in our paper.”
Given that the competitor at the time, the Elmira Independent, was a subscription-based publication, the fledgling entrepreneurs decided their newspaper would be a controlled-circulation product, distributed free of charge to every household. From the initial run of 7,500 in 1996, that number has grown to 16,000.
“We’ve been able to grow along with the communities we serve thanks to the great support we get from the people here,” said Merlihan.
Beyond a growing circulation, much has changed in the past 25 years. Most notably, the internet was still a fledgling presence in 1996, and social media had yet to develop. The newspaper industry has faced a number of challenges that The Observer’s founders never envisioned when they got going.
“Things started to change fairly early on, and they’re still changing all the time,” said Patrick Merlihan.
As the paper’s production manager, he looks after the online presence, too, and his job involves working with publishing technology on a daily basis. The tools of the trade have evolved dramatically since the early days of The Observer, he notes.
“For our first issues, we relied on equipment at the student newspaper at the University of Waterloo, where I was a student at the time. I was a volunteer at Imprint,” he said. “Eventually, we got our first computer and then a printer. It was a big deal back then, as we were just starting out and really had to watch where the money went.”
Today, that kind of equipment is just par for the course, but the fundamentals remain the same: “We want to put out a good paper for our readers every week – that’s what we wanted to do when we started, and what we still want to do every week,” said Patrick.
He acknowledges, however, that both the look and the content have evolved over the years as experience allowed the Merlihans to improve the finished product.
“When I look at some of those early issues, I just have to cringe at the design. But you have to start somewhere, and I’m pretty sure we’ve learned something over the years,” Patrick laughed.
“Yeah, we were all flying by the seat of our pants back then,” agreed Joe.
The paper wouldn’t be where it is today without an amazing supporting staff. “Making newspapers is the ultimate team effort, working with talented people that are really good at their jobs makes it easier to come into work,” said Patrick.
“We have worked with a lot of amazing people in twenty-five years and The Observer has been a first-job for a lot of people into this field of work. I get a lot of satisfaction seeing our former staff excel and take what they learned here to the next level.”
Now more firmly established in the community, the focus is on serving the public through the traditional role of the press as watchdog and as a reflection of the people who live here.
“We know more about making a newspaper and operating a local business, but we’re still all about providing an informative, entertaining product for the people in the area,” he added. “That’s been the goal for 25 years, and that’s not ever going to change.”