The Mysterious East started as a joke. When Russ Hunt, now a professor emeritus of English at St. Thomas University, moved to Fredericton in 1969, he was surprised by the low of quality of journalism. He turned to his colleague, now journalist Silver Donald Cameron.
“Both of us looked at the journalism going on in the province and especially in Fredericton and said ‘this is catastrophic, we’re not used to anything this bad,’” he said.
“The more we talked about it, the less jokey it became,” said Hunt. “[Cameron] started saying ‘maybe we can really do this.’”
It lasted for about 22 issues, and as a recent segment on CBC-Radio’ Shift revealed, attracted the attention of many around the country, including the late Peter Gzowski, who flirted with moving to Fredericton and joining the paper before becoming a Canadian icon on CBC.
The professors brought together a team including graduate students, like Bob Campbell, who went on to become a CBC reporter and executive producer of the radio show As it Happens. And local architect, Jon Oliver, and his then-wife Janice, became the graphics department. They produced a monthly black-and-white publication sold by subscription and on newsstands. This became Fredericton’s first alternative newspaper.
However, the Mysterious East did not limit itself to pop culture, trendy stories and personal ads, as the more recent batch of alt-weeklies have.
“We were going to do investigative journalism where we could, and we were going do thoughtful pieces on public issues.”
According to Hunt, the alternative press caters to people who believe that mainstream journalism is dominated by corporations, and is usually conventional and uncontroversial, or only controversial in socially acceptable ways.
What alternative press did, in Hunt’s opinion, is explore stories that people didn’t think of as news. Early on, Cameron wrote a story about STU and UNB’s campus’ shoddy architecture. To Hunt this is the perfect example of alternative news.
“Nobody thought of that as news, but you make news by raising an issue about it.”
The Mysterious East ran articles about the Irving Press and other publications, and held contests for the worst newspaper in the Maritimes. The worst newspaper received a rubber duck, as the founders’ corporation was called the Rubber Duck Press.
“We assumed that it was going to be The Gleaner hands down, but the best nomination letter we got was the Chronicle Herald. So the Chronicle Herald got the rubber duck award.”
It was easy to define alternative news back then. When The Mysterious East was being published, there were a number of other publications that were doing the same thing, like the Georgia Straight in Vancouver and the East Village Other in New York City. It was a movement, according to Hunt.
“Alternative meant an alternative to the established reading in the morning newspaper.”
Today it is much more difficult to define the alternative press because the number of people reading “the morning newspaper” has drastically decreased while people’s ability to self-publish and get their news from Internet sources has exploded.
Here, originally an independent alt-weekly, was bought by the Irvings in 2005 and stopped publishing last summer. While many blogs and zines, including Saint John’s Hard Times in the Maritimes, continue to stir the pot, few have captured large readerships.
According to Hunt, this brings up a new challenge for alternative journalists today – finding validation for their work. This validation would be guaranteed if it is backed by an established publisher, but then it is not alternative.
The Mysterious East had validation from the commitment and person-power it took to put the project together, so it legitimized its own existence. In the age of instant, free self-publication, a story’s existence is not enough to prove its alternativeness.
If that is true, then what criteria can we use as a test of success?
“I think that’s still being worked out.”