The 4th Estate: digitizing a remarkable decade in Nova Scotia

On the evening of April 16, 1969, the editorial staff of The People went about the usual business of putting together their still-less-than-year-old Halifax alternative biweekly newspaper. But, just before shipping it off to the printer, Managing Editor Nick Fillmore remembers, “we pulled off The People masthead, dad [Frank Fillmore] wrote an editorial explaining why Nova Scotia needed an independent paper, and The 4th Estate was born.

Their dramatic “little scheme” not only ended a simmering dispute among the five owners of the paper—Fillmore says the non-family owners wanted to make money “so they tried to influence us to tone down the content”—but the launch of The 4th Estate also launched one of the most remarkable decades in Nova Scotia’s long and storied journalism history. (Full disclosure: I was a contributor to the paper.)

This afternoon, Libraries Nova Scotia, the Nova Scotia Archives and Cape Breton’s Beaton Institute will launch “Nova Scotia Historical Newspapers: An Online Resource,” a project that has so far digitized 18 provincial newspapers, ranging from the Nova Scotia Chronicle and Weekly Advertiser (1769) to the Micmac News (1991).

And, of course, the 4th Estate.

During its nine-year run, the feisty little tabloid challenged—and often bettered—its establishment rivals, the Chronicle-Herald and Mail-Star, which the Fillmores disparaged as “the Old Women of Argyle Street.” Fillmore recalls one incident when an “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.”

The 4th Estate, which Nick says brought together “my father’s social conscience and my journalism skills,”had no such compunctions. It campaigned against slum landlords—threatening to publish side-by-side photos of slums and their owners’ private residences—and laws that sent poor people to jail for debt, or allowed the power company to shut off their electricity.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Fillmore believes Halifax could still use a 4th Estate-style newspaper. “Independent media, where policies are not dictated by corporate owners and where advertising is not heavily relied on, are needed across the country,” he says.

And so are resources like the newspaper digitization project, which showcase our history. While organizers have done a remarkable job of digitizing 19,000 newspaper pages with a budget of just $24,000, there’s no funding to continue the work. “There are many, many newspapers left to do,” says Michael Colborne, one of the organizers, “and with every passing year their condition deteriorates.”

Nova Scotia Historical Newspapers: An Online Resource:”

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