Merv Farmer, who passed away on July 24, at age 74, was widely recognized as one of the leaders in the community newspaper industry, serving as a director and president of the Manitoba Community Newspaper Association and as a director of the Canadian Community Newspaper Association. In recognition of his contributions, Merv received honourary lifetime memberships from both associations. For decades, Merv owned award-winning newspapers published under the banner of Interlake Publishing headquartered in his hometown of Stonewall,
For many now working for newspapers or in radio or television, Merv gave them their first job and then provided the guidance needed to further their journalism careers. I am one of those fortunate to have begun my career in the print media under the tutelage of Merv.
My introduction to Merv was in the early 1980s. An elderly friend had suggested to Merv that I was capable of writing for his newspapers. At the time, I didn’t quite fathom how my friend arrived at that momentous conclusion, but I thought — what the heck!
A rather skeptical Merv greeted me in his Stonewall head office. “So you think you can write for my newspapers?” he asked, staring intently at me for any signs of wavering.
I sputtered out something to the effect that I believed I could, despite having absolutely no experience in the newspaper industry.
“Well,” he continued, “let’s see if you’ve got what it takes.”
To my surprise, Merv expected me to attend and report upon an important and controversial planning district hearing that very afternoon. Fortunately, he did send another reporter to hold my hand — Peggy Coverdale — while I pondered the pressure imposed upon me by my would-be employer.
Later that day, Merv read what I had written.
“What do you think, Peggy?”
“It’s not too bad,” she replied to Merv, with an emphasis on too.
“I agree. We’ll give you a try. You start tomorrow,” he told me.
That was it. I was in shock. I wondered, what had I gotten myself into?
But that was how Merv made his decisions. There was absolutely no hesitation. I could see he was studying me all the while, but once he decided I had potential, he was committed — end of story. With his expression of confidence, although not yet reinforced, I began to write for his newspapers and was based at the Interlake Spectator office in Gimli.
I’ll aways remember the first article I wrote on my own. It was about a tragic boating accident caused by a sudden squall overturning a catamaran on Lake Winnipeg while on the return trip from Grand Beach to Gimli. One of the two men aboard the double-hulled vessel had been tossed into the lake and drowned. The other man barely made it back to the Gimli Harbour in the shattered boat. It was a big-news story for all media outlets.
After I brought my story into the head office, Merv apparently poured over it with a highly-critical eye. Later, and to my utter astonishment, he pronounced it the best of all the stories about the tragedy. His personal endorsement was all the encouragement I needed to continue in the newspaper business.
Over the years, Merv would continually support me, showing great integrity and steadfast resolution in the face of periodic adversity. In one instance, an entire town threatened to withdraw it’s advertising from the publishing company because of an article I wrote about a film being shot in the community. I can still recall the line that had enraged the local populace: “The film is about a mythical town where the people are somewhat backward in their ways,” which was a direct quote from the film’s director. For some inexplicable reason, the local residents ignored the word “mythical” and instead focused on “backward.” The mythical town became their town and so a controversy arose that I had never intended to incite. I may have written the article, but the offending quote was made by the film’s director.
The threat of lost advertising revenue didn’t phase Merv. He supported me and what I had written. He may have been a businessman, but he resolutely stood by his staff. The quote was absolutely no reason for a public retraction of anything, Merv assured me. Instead, Merv said he would personally talk to and soothe the local advertisers, while standing resolutely behind the content of the article.
Merv taught me a valuable lesson that day — one of integrity and trust. He never intruded in the everyday operation of the newspapers he owned, leaving the production of their content to editors and reporters. He may have made the odd suggestion, but it was never done in a manner that could be regarded as intrusive. In all instances, he was fair to his staff and in return Merv expected hard work and attention to details.
In the process, Merv created a highly-successful and highly-profitable media empire in Manitoba, which began with the purchase of the Stonewall Argus in 1967. In 1973, he founded the Interlake Spectator, and in 1985, the Selkirk Journal.
I left Interlake Publishing well before Merv sold his newspaper and printing business to national media-giant Quebecor, which also publishes the Winnipeg Sun, in 1992. But the Quebec-based company, knowing that Merv’s influence was what made the newspapers thrive, kept him on until he retired in 1999.
It was at his retirement party that I last saw Merv. At the time, I had been working for several years as the WREN’s editor. While engaged in conversation, Merv mentioned to me that he read my editorials and liked them, but didn’t always agree with my point of view — a fair comment from someone I respected. The fact that Merv took the time to read them filled me with great pride; after all, he gave me my first newspaper job. He even remembered that I had won an annual MCNA best editorial award while working for another newspaper.
What I soon realized as our conversation progressed was that Merv remained interested in the career paths of every past employee. As they progressed in their careers, he himself was proud of what they accomplished.
The retirement party reflected the respect Merv had earned as a businessman, community leader and employer. Those attending included his beloved family, a host of friends, politicians and past employees, many of whom I worked with and had not seen for years. In fact, although it was a retirement celebration in honour of Merv, it was in some ways an Interlake Publishing reunion. It was truly amazing to see just how many people had been employed and guided by Merv over the years.
Merv will be fondly remembered by everyone fortunate enough to have experienced his generosity and kindness — I among them.