From frontier newspaper to digital publication

The Empire-Advance turns 135

In 1885 the Virden Advance broke ground for what would become the Virden Empire-Advance. It was the first newspaper in the area, published just 15 years after Manitoba’s entry into Confederation.

In 2020, 135 years later, Virden’s Empire-Advance continues to supply news stands and subscriptions throughout Virden, surrounding areas and into distant places where citizens with Virden roots enjoy news from home.

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Empire-Advance publisher, Nancy Johnson understands the role the local paper plays.

Johnson says, “It is a privilege and an honour to be a part of a newspaper that has served its community for 135 years. What a remarkable milestone! As we build on the foundations we’ve created over the last 135 years, continuing to deliver community news is the core of what we do.”

From broadsheet-sized publications produced on printers “as big as a car,” said former printer Jim Hall, to offsite tabloid printing and now digitized data, printed in Estevan, Sask., the Empire-Advance continues to chronicle the accomplishments of business, the arts, sports and the human stories of the area.

However, Virden interests are now being read online from anywhere in the world and Johnson celebrates that as well.

“As we move into 2020, I want to remind the community the Virden Empire-Advance is more than a newspaper.” She says, “We are reaching more readers than ever before, both in print and online, and bringing even greater advertising solutions to our businesses.”

Born from The Advance (1885 by C.J. Atkinson) and The Empire (1905 by J.R. McLachlan), the Empire- Advance is the oldest business in Virden and the second oldest newspaper in Manitoba.

True to the newspaper’s name, the town of Virden did advance, establishing itself as a centre for southwestern Manitoba.

What a time to be in newsprint! The Canadian Pacific Railway had just crossed Gopher Creek in the summer of 1883, establishing Virden as a CPR siding.

In those days, a load of wood might be traded for a subscription to the newspaper that connected Virden to a world that would soon be plunged into the Great War.

Over the years other newspapers - the Virden Chronicle (May, 1892 – June, 1894) and the Virden Banner (1895 - 1898) - came and went.

By July 1905 another weekly, the Empire, was started by J. A. McLachlan.

Within two years, in October of 1907, there was a marriage of the Advance and the Empire, creating the Virden Empire-Advance.

Editor J.A. McLachlan set down an enduring philosophy for the paper: “Advertisers will be given every facility to assist us in showing that Virden, as the commercial centre of Western Manitoba, is at least equal to any business centre in the West.

“To the politicians we may say that the new paper will follow the policy of the Empire: to give credit to any party when it does what is in the interest of the people and to condemn that which we think is opposed to the best interests of the people of Virden and District.

“Our first interest will be to give the local, district and general news … and to this end we solicit the help of all the people in every part of our large field.”

Virden’s area-wide influence carried the news of Arrow River, Beulah, Pipestone, Melita, Elkhorn, Miniota, Two Creeks, Montgomery, Elm Valley, Lenore, Kenton, Oak Lake, and Kola.

No one could have predicted that Virden would become part of the greater Canadian economy as the Oil Capital of Manitoba. The Empire-Advance catalogued the start of this journey, publishing “Oil Found West of Town” (Jan. 31, 1951).

In 1965, the Elkhorn Mercury, for financial reasons, amalgamated with the Empire- Advance.
 Years later, another Virden paper started up, the Southwest Gazette (1996-99). About that time, three generations of McLachlan ownership ended and the Empire-Advance was purchased by two publishers: Shoal Lake’s Greg Nesbitt and Killarney’s Garry Struth, in partnership with Grant and Marlain Shoemaker (who had started the Gazette). Marlain was the managing editor and in 2002, Struth and Nesbitt sold their shares to the Shoemakers.

Just a few years later the Shoemaker family sold the Empire-Advance to publishing company, Glacier Media. Long-time employee Gail Longmuir was promoted to managing editor until she left the paper in 2010.

Sales representative Dianne Hanson was promoted to general manager, while continuing as sales manager.

The fortunes of the paper followed the ups and downs of the local economy. During the oil boom of 2010 – 2014, the Empire-Advance often ran two sections with record page counts. In 2013, Hanson won the President’s Club award from Glacier Media.

Hanson retired in 2014.

Several other managers took the reins for a time until, in 2017, Vice President of Manitoba Operations for Glacier Media, Nancy Johnson became publisher of the Empire-Advance and six other Manitoba publications.

Johnson sums up the paper’s 135-year history, “Virden’s history belongs to us all and we couldn’t be more proud to be the community’s voice, or more grateful.”

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