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Gaspé's SPEC newspaper celebrates 40th anniversary

05/15/2015 06:00 EDT | Updated 05/15/2016 05:59 EDT
John Brooker says he's always happy to see the Gaspé SPEC land in his mailbox in Adelaide, South Australia – even if it arrives two to three weeks after it was published.

Brooker's grandmother was Gaspesian, and he visited the region twice. He is still in frequent contact with extended family in the New Carlisle, Que. area.

"It's really exciting because a lot of the people and places I visited are still mentioned in the SPEC," he said.

Faithful readership

Brooker is one of about 2,000 subscribers to the independent weekly paper, which will celebrate its 40th anniversary when the SPEC's board of directors and staff meet for their annual general meeting today.

The paper not only has readers all along the Gaspé coast, but it keeps former Gaspesians who live all over the country and around the world connected to the region.

"[Readers] see on a weekly basis the events that are going on, and they can put themselves back here when they lived here" said Joan Sawyer-Imhoff, the SPEC's office manager who has been working at the paper for 25 years.

"It's a sense of community, that's what the paper gives to them."

A fragmented coast

The catalyst behind the newspaper is former teacher Lynden Berchevais – a Gaspesian born-and-raised.  In 1975, he helped found the SPEC, which stands for "social, political, economic and cultural."

At the time, there was next to no media coverage of events happening on the Gaspé coast, he says. News came instead from New Brunswick or Prince Edward Island.

"There was no sense of community, no way of getting information out about programs or information that people could share. There was a need, in a sense, to create an anglophone community on the Gaspé coast," Berchevais said.

At first, the  newspaper was published monthly, then went bi-weekly. In 1980, it became a weekly.

Gilles Gagné, the SPEC's news editor since 2001, says he came to understand how dedicated the readership is when one subscriber in Calgary accidentally received all the copies belonging to Calgary readers. It was just before Christmas. She took it upon herself to hand-deliver the paper door-to-door across the city.

Gagné says the welcoming nature of Gaspesians – even those who live in Calgary – meant it took that woman many days to deliver the paper, because at nearly every address she was invited in for a meal or a drink.

A milestone

Gary Briand, another founder of the newspaper, now  in his 70s, is still an avid volunteer in the Gaspé.

"When I'm asked, 'What is the most important thing you've done in your life?' it is definitely helping found SPEC," Briand says.

Bernard St-Laurent, CBC Quebec's senior political analyst and the host of C'est La Vie on CBC Radio One, was also part of the team that put together the paper's first editions.

"I think that it's absolutely fantastic!" he says of the SPEC's 40th anniversary.

"[They went from] counting syllables to make sure they fit in the paper, to presenting a complete package that has information, that has entertainment, that has advertising – everything that you would want in a newspaper. And to be able to do it so successfully and with such dedication, it's a real special thing," St-Laurent said.

The future of the paper

The anniversary of the SPEC coincides with another major change at the paper.

Longtime publisher Sharon Farrell who worked at the SPEC for 38 years retired at the end of the winter, and a new publisher, Penny MacWhirter, took over in March.

MacWhirter says embracing technology is a big part of the paper's future.

"We recently started a Facebook page," she said. "We now offer digital subscriptions through email."

MacWhirter says she wants the paper to become closer to the English-speaking community on the coast and to include more human interest stories.

She says the biggest challenge remains finding enough advertising revenue, especially since the federal government has greatly diminished the number of ads it buys – instead encouraging newspapers to print news-style stories written by government bureaucrats and distributed on newswires.

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