Nick Fillmore, along with his father Frank, founded The 4th Estate in April 1969. For nine years, it served as Halifax’s most important and influential media voice. On the occasion of the launch of a project to digitize some of Nova Scotia’s historic newspapers on April 23, 2010, I asked Nick to reflect on the paper and its role:
What do you remember about the launch of the paper and the circumstances that led up to it?
After I had worked on Fleet Street with Reuters for a period of time, I was a little disillusioned with the mainstream media. I returned to Nova Scotia not knowing what I wanted to do. At the same time, my father was having discussions with a very small group of people about Halifax’s need for a paper that would be more progressive than the Herald. I became a part of what I think was about five or six shareholders and we launched The People. I was the only one of the group who had so-called professional training in newspapering, and when the first issue came out, a lot of people were quite surprised that The People was quite a professional package — hard-hitting, well edited stories — a publication that brought my father’s social conscience and my journalism skills together.
The People was successful to the point that within just a few issues, it was slightly profitable. My father and I weren’t in this for the money, and we kep hammering away on issues. However, I think three of the shareholders did want to make money so they tried to influence us to tone down the content. As I recall, my father and I held a minority position on the Board, so we developed a little scheme.
The three minority holders had very little to do with the production of the paper. We and staff members who were allied with us put the paper together one evening as usual. However, before sending it off to Kentville Publishing, we pulled off The People masthead, dad wrote an editorial explaining why Nova Scotia needed an independent paper, and The 4th Estate was born.
What role do you think the paper played in Nova Scotia life and politics during its time?
The 4th Estate made a difference on several levels. First of all, it gave a lot of freelance journalists, such as yourself, an outlet for your stories and ideas — often ideas that had probably never been expressed before in the media in Halifax. Secondly, and amazingly, it gave Chronicle-Herald journalists who were censored an outlet for stories. Sometimes if their copy was rejected, they’d just give me a call and march over to our office — less than 10 minutes away — with the story. For instance, I remember when one well-known but angry Herald journalist walked into my office with the story about the incompetence in the construction of the Glace Bay heavy water plant — a story of national importance. I was told the Herald wouldn’t publish it because it would reflect poorly on Nova Scotians.
I think we had an important impact on both bringing improvements to the lives of some poor people and also affecting government policy towards the poor. As far as I know, we ran the only anti-slum housing campaign, certainly in Canada, possibly in North America. It was successful because it threatened slum owners, often Halifax’s elite. People living with rats, no heat, etc. could call an open line, and we would go and have a look at their conditions. (Sometimes we found that poor people were paying more rent per square foot than people living in high quality buildings in the South End.) If we felt there should be improvements, we called the landlord and asked him to make the improvements. We did not take an aggressive stance, and often, improvements were made. But when they refused to do anything, we described the conditions in the paper, with pictures, and named the landlord. As a result, I think a lot of landlords didn’t let their properties get in bad condition.
Investigation carried out by my father and the resulting articles ended people from going to jail because of debt in Nova Scotia. The paper pressured the power company and policy was changed so that the company could not shut off the power in the homes of poor people in winter. The anti-slum housing campaign helped lead to the creating of the first Tenancies’ Board in Nova Scotia.
Do you think a 4th Estate—digital edition?—is needed today? Could it work?
Obviously, I will have to say yes. Independent media, where policies are not dictated by corporate owners and where advertising is not heavily relied on, are needed across the country, whether print or digital. I have to say that media similar to The 4th Estate is needed in Halifax now just as much as it was needed in the late 1960s.
I have indicated to a few people that I would provide advice and help raise money for any skilled independent group that would set up a public-interest news site in Halifax. The offer still stands. Research would need to be carried out to determine if such a site could break even financially, and/or if a determined group of people would be prepared to work for low wages and volunteer for a minimum of two years to see how it would work out.
After his time at The 4th Estate, Fillmore served as an editor and producer with the CBC for 18 years. He was a founding member of the Canadian Association of Journalists (CAJ) and Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE). He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Although he is now officially retired—"When people ask, I tell them that now that I’m retired it just means that I do stuff for free that I used to get paid for!"—he is still very much involved in public interest journalism.
Check out his series on the future of independent and alternative media, including "Could a ‘mini-paper’ nip at the heels of mainstream press?" He recently returned from a month in Kenya working with the national community media network there as part of his part-time effort to develop "independent community-owned small radio stations in poor parts of Africa."