By Stephen Harrison
The James Bay Beacon turns twenty-five this year, a remarkable feat for a paper driven almost entirely by volunteer contributors and production staff.
The first issue of this paper went to press in 1992, but its origins can be traced back another 20 years. What started as a newsletter for the James Bay Community Association in the 1970s soon became the James Bay News, edited by Bob Pankowski. In the early days the newsletter and the paper reported on the perceived over-development of the James Bay region.
In July 1973, Bill McKechnie wrote that “one of the fundamental problems facing this area is the evaporation of the pride and sense of community which residents and homeowners feel for James Bay.” He felt that the neighbourhood was at risk as houses gave way to apartment blocks.
James Bay’s makeup has undoubtedly changed over the years, but Pankowski went looking for a sense of community, and he found it. He interviewed residents to discover what drew them to James Bay, what they liked about the neighbourhood, and what they might improve. James Bay was a growing and changing community, but it was still a community.
The paper was evidence of this community spirit. Driven entirely by volunteers, advertising sales, and donations, the James Bay News continued to thrive and publish until Pankowski became ill. Rather than continue the paper under different stewards, Bob and his wife Mary decided to retire the name, using the paper’s remaining funds to establish a journalism scholarship at Camosun College.
The James Bay Beacon was established shortly thereafter, debuting in September 1992 as the James Bay Chronicle. By October its name had changed to the Beacon in response to a reader poll.
The Beacon was still a volunteer paper. In 1993, the editor said the paper was run by committee, with “enough helping hands and people willing to share the chores so that the paper has eventually made it to press.”
Much like today, the paper offered community news, profiles of James Bay residents, updates from local politicians, and the occasional fitness tip, and it still “runs on volunteer energy.” Jim Gerwing volunteered with the Beacon for years, and he described it as “a tremendous community paper.” He had written for newspapers before, and he began volunteering for the Beacon because of his wife, Sharon Max. She has been with the paper since 1996, and is still an active volunteer. Both Gerwing and Max served as board members in the past.
By virtue of its monthly publication schedule, said Gerwing, rarely does the Beacon beat the Times Colonist to a scoop, but the articles are relevant to James Bay and all original material. He praised the volunteers who put the paper together each month. For a paper that “operates on a shoestring,” it’s working, and he said he was “delighted to be a part of it.”
Gerwing passed away this April; Max is involved in setting the paper’s layout each month.
Dan Klein volunteered with the Beacon for 18 years. He moved to James Bay in 1995 and picked up a copy of the Beacon that was delivered to his apartment, discovering that, as always, the paper was looking for volunteers. Klein “went to see what it was all about,” and never stopped going.
Klein had many roles with the paper over the years, from creating and laying out ads to serving as the resident “technical wizard.” He kept the hardware and software in the Beacon office running smoothly, and said his experience with the paper had “been a lot of fun.” Klein passed away December 31, 2013.
The Beacon has had many homes over the years. In the early days it operated out of the James Bay Community Centre School, with its volunteers cutting and pasting articles with X-Acto knives and glue sticks to put the paper together. The Beacon briefly published out of a house on Toronto Street before it moved to James Bay Square. The rooms currently occupied by the denturist and drycleaners were once home to the Beacon, which has since settled into its current location on the Croft Street side of the Square.
That there have been enough volunteers to sustain a newspaper for decades speaks volumes about the community spirit that has always been a part of James Bay. The Beacon has been James Bay’s community paper for 25 years, and as long as there are volunteers and businesses to support it, there will be a newspaper to give this community a voice.
A version of this article previously ran as part of the Beacon’s twentieth year; it has been updated for the Beacon’s twenty-fifth year.