‘It’s about service to others’: Wellington Advertiser celebrates 50th anniversary

When Bill Adsett sits down each week to peruse a copy of the Wellington Advertiser, he’s extremely proud of the Newspaper he started in 1968.

“It has accomplished the original image that I had when I first founded it, with improvements and changes,” he said.

Sitting in the boardroom of the Newspaper’s office on Gartshore Street in Fergus, he beams with pleasure as he relays stories and memories about the business’ start, its early years and its progression over five decades.

Now 82, Bill still lives in the same home in which he was born, on a farm in former Eramosa Township.

The eldest of two sons born to Hugh and Ethel Adsett, he attended S.S.#6 Eramosa: Luttrell School before moving on to Guelph Collegiate Vocational Institute (GCVI) for high school.

After graduating, he worked a few jobs before deciding to enroll at the Ontario Agricultural College at the University of Guelph at the suggestion of friend Ken Jessop.

“I thought, ‘My parents have done well for me so I better get to work,’” he recalled.

Yet when commodity  prices took a hit, he decided to try other things, including a stint with Texaco in Hamilton, construction of Wellington Road 26 between county roads 124 and 18, selling life insurance and a position with the nation’s Royal Commission on Farm Machinery.

“I took what I could get,” he said.

Bill married Trudy Ann Hill in 1966 and one year later their son David arrived (son Kirk was born in 1969 and daughter Marie in 1971).

Following the arrival of the couple’s first child, Bill decided to take a leap into the Newspaper business.

“I told (Trudy) I was going to run for council and I told her I was going to start a Newspaper,” he said.

He paused, smiled, and then continued, “I didn’t have a penny to my name – I didn’t tell her that part.”

Yet true to his word, Bill was elected to Eramosa council in 1968 – largely, he notes, on the strength of his disagreement with the initial site chosen for Eramosa Public School, which his children and two of his grandchildren would eventually attend.

And the first eight-page issue of the Fergus and Area Shoppers News was published on March 12, 1968.

“It only took one issue to find out Elora and Arthur are not in the ‘Fergus area’ – they’re standalone places,” he said.

So the name was changed to The Wellington Advertiser and the circulation expanded to include the entire county.

“That was major – a big jumping off point,” he said of the name and circulation changes.

Much like his move into the political arena, the decision to start the paper was rooted in a “sense of community responsibility” and a desire to educate people about municipal politics and processes, Bill explained.

The business was started out of the front seat of Bill’s car.

In the beginning, printing was handled by Williams Printing in Guelph, under the direction of Frank Williams, who was instrumental in helping to get the business off the ground.

(Over the years, printing would move to Acton with Dill Printing, to Durham with Kris Kennedy and back to Guelph with Webman, the old Guelph Mercury. The Advertiser is currently printed at Hamilton Web in Stoney Creek).

“Changing technology, press capabilities, schedules and price were factors in where the Newspaper was printed,” said Bill’s son and current publisher Dave Adsett, who took over as Advertiser general manager in 1992.

Early on, Bill also tried to establish the Dufferin Advertiser in neighbouring Dufferin County (it was short-lived).

And in 1971 he purchased the Community News, a small Newspaper in Drayton serving what is now Mapleton Township, from friend Garrett Wimmenhove.

“I gave Trudy the Community News for Christmas,” Bill recalled, rolling his eyes in hindsight at the idea of such a gift.

Art Carr, another Newspaper man from Palmerston, helped in the next steps of production for both the Advertiser and Community News, which continues to serve Mapleton Township.

It wasn’t long thereafter that Bill took the important step of purchasing his own Compugraphic “photo-typesetting” machine for about $5,000, a hefty sum in those days.

The purchase marked a major milestone for the business, as production became an in-house function.

“It was a turning point,” Bill said. “It made the business self-sufficient.”

The Compugraphic system required a darkroom to process tapes of film that were physically cut and pasted into galleys on a page. Over the decades, gallons of wax was used and hundreds of blades were worn out assembling the paper.

Editorial copy was scarce in the beginning, aided by a number of freelancers and a popular column by H. Gordon Green.

Bill looked into purchasing other Newspapers in the early years, but nothing panned out. Conversely, the Advertiser was not immune to purchase offers from others in the business.

“They wanted (me) gone because it was free circulation and they wanted to build empires,” Bill recalled.

In the end, his fledgling company, later incorporated under the name WHA Publications Ltd., survived – but not without its struggles.

At the outset, Bill would sell ads, take copy to the printer, ensure delivery and then take the final product himself to post offices throughout the county.

That was in addition to his role as township councillor – and later reeve and warden.

At home, Trudy manned “the Rockwood office” phone line, bagged papers and prepared them for the mail and booked ads over the phone. She also raised their three children.

Kirk and Marie helped out at the Newspaper at various points in the business’ history.

“Over the years, cousins, aunts and uncles helped out too – sometimes paid and sometimes not,” said Dave.

As for himself, taking over as boss at the Advertiser wasn’t always top of mind.

“In many respects, a family business resembles the family farm where it is only natural that the next generation take over, but I had my own ideas,” Dave said.

In the late 1980s, he got his real estate licence, which helped him learn about people, finance and business. He also wanted to farm, but quickly  realized “there wasn’t a living to be made” on a few hundred acres.

“As fate would have it, dad had some health issues in the early 90s and I seemed to be spending more and more time at the Newspaper helping out,” Dave recalled.

“Around that time, I abandoned my own path and joined the business full-time (as general manager).”

Until the mid-90s, Drayton was the hub of production for the Advertiser and Community News.

The introduction of desktop publishing meant less space was required and production moved to the Advertiser headquarters at 180 St. Andrew Street in Fergus.

The business marked another significant milestone with the hiring of its first full-time reporter.

After the Elora Sentinel folded in 1995, David Meyer, from whom Bill Adsett had purchased rock and roll album reviews in the early 1980s, figured he would have to leave town to find another journalism gig.

But first, he contacted the Adsetts to see if the Advertiser was interested in his services.

“We had a number of freelancers and reporters over the years but in 1996 I got a call from David Meyer looking for work,” said Dave.

“I rolled the dice with David … Very quickly, his nose for News and prolific writing capabilities made a huge difference to our standing as the Newspaper of record for Wellington County.”

Long days – and nights – were often the norm in the late 1990s, when Meyer, Dave Adsett and the Newspaper staff worked hard to grow the Newspaper.

“It was crazy hours, a crazy time, but it was exciting,” Meyer said. “We ran on adrenaline.”

In hindsight, “the whole thing was a real gamble,” Meyer said, alluding to the business’ transition from an advertising publication with a few press releases into “a full-fledged Newspaper.”

Bill, too, credits his son with making bold, yet wise, moves to advance the Advertiser, both as a business and as a News outlet.

“He’s a good businessman. He’s bright, he’s community-oriented and a responsible journalist himself,” Bill said of his son.

“And he is committed to ensuring Wellington County will continue to have a weekly, free circulation Newspaper.”

Dave noted he was always cognizant of balancing growth with paying bills and ensuring employee obligations were met.

“It’s much the same for all employers: you want to hire the best people possible and be able to hold up your end of the bargain – chiefly job security and a good work environment,” he said.

As luck would have it, amalgamation in 1999 eliminated the monumental task of trying to cover 21 municipal councils.

“That really made everything possible … everything sort of just took off from there,” Meyer said. “We knew that we had something.”

Meyer counts the county’s transformation into seven larger municipalities as one of the most important News stories he has covered in his career.

“We helped explain the government structure very well,” Meyer said. “People were less confused in Wellington than they were elsewhere in Ontario because the coverage was so thorough.”

Dave Adsett remembers the Newspaper “pouring resources into informing our readership” about amalgamation.

“There were many weeks of loose papers – full of News, short on ads – but it was a conscious choice to do the absolute best job we could,” he explained.

Slowly but surely, the business’ reputation as a reliable News source grew. So too, did its staff complement and its overall operation, thanks  in part to leasing mailroom space across the road from the St. Andrew Street office in 2002.

“This was another big step, moving to our own mailroom and delivery apparatus,” Dave said, adding his hands were “visibly shaking” when he signed the lease agreement for the extra space.

The business purchased a forklift and hired urban carriers and rural route drivers to deliver the Advertiser and its flyer package door to door each week.

Just three years later, with the operation “bursting at the seams” on St. Andrew Street, an opportunity arose to move across town to a 10,000 square foot building on Gartshore Street that housed a technology company.

“Although it was a big move – huge in fact – the owner and I shook hands and made a deal after talking for ten minutes,” said Dave.

“We haven’t looked back since this move.”

Initially, Dave was thinking the business could rent out some extra space at the new location, but the business grew and the building was full within two years.

In 2015, the building was expanded by 2,000 square feet to accommodate the business’ growing insert trade.

Obviously technological advancements over the years – from digital photography to desktop publishing – revolutionized the Newspaper industry.

But another key development was the introduction of high speed fibre optic internet lines in the mid-2000s, which facilitated digital delivery of Newspaper pages, negating the need for a three-hour round-trip drive to hand deliver hard copies to the printer.

Since 1968, the Advertiser’s staff has grown from one to 44, including a full in-house production team, an experienced sales force, a five-member editorial team and a circulation department that manages 151 foot carriers and another 20 rural drivers.

The mailroom handles nearly 20 million pieces per year and the Advertiser’s  press run is 41,000 copies, making it one of the largest independent Newspapers in southwestern Ontario.

In an age when many Newspapers are being shuttered and employees laid off, “50 years is a monumental achievement,” said Meyer.

He attributes the Advertiser’s longevity and success to its large coverage area (“it sort of connected the county as a community”), to  continuous improvements in News coverage (shorter stories and more content) and photography, and to its diverse group of employees.

“When you come right down to it, just the basic rules of good journalism,” he said. “Now it’s a Newspaper to be proud of.”

He added the paper has gained the trust of residents.

“If there’s something happening, the Advertiser gets to it or covers it,” he said.

“It was a real thrill to work at the Advertiser and watch it grow. I personally hope they get another 50 or 100 years out of it.”

For the publisher, the Newspaper’s longevity is linked to his upbringing and to the attitudes of his father.

“We don’t give up and our word is our bond … Many operations weren’t as honest and I think that showed up,” Dave said.

He added the Newspaper tries to stick to the facts and keep hyperbole and opinions on its letters and editorial page.

“But most important, we have always had a sense of good will across the county,” he said, mentioning the paper’s aid to various businesses and community groups as well as its countless charitable donations.

“It’s been all about service to others all this time,” he said.

In 2011, succession plans were finalized, with Dave taking over as Advertiser owner.

The move also marked Bill’s official retirement, though he continued to deliver papers until 2015.

Asked when he first felt the Newspaper had finally “made it” as an established business, Bill replied that he “never” truly felt that way.

But his son’s thoughts on the matter indicate Bill may be underestimating the Newspaper’s impact, even early on.

“Looking back at old issues, I would think the paper made it as a household name in the mid-70s. We still run ads for businesses that first advertised in that era,” said Dave.

He also mentioned that in the mid-90s, as farm sizes increased, dealerships closed and remaining farm retailers focused on trade publications, the business shifted from a rural- to a suburban-focused publication.

“We reinvented ourselves and escaped the misnomer of being ‘a farm paper,’” Dave said.

He shares his father’s pride in what the Advertiser has become.

“To think dad started it when I was not yet six months old and watching it grow from its modest beginnings to today is pretty humbling,” said Dave.

“There’s been a lot of hurdles along the way, a lot of fun, a lot of worry and great reward in knowing our business is such a big part of life for people in Wellington County.”

For Bill, whose name will forever be synonymous with the company he started five decades ago, retirement has provided ample time to reflect on how far the Advertiser has come.

Perhaps best of all, just as tens of thousands of others do each week, he’s finally able to relax and silently enjoy the Newspaper as a faithful reader.

“I’m pleased with it beyond description,” he said with a smile.