Tom McConaghy, the creator of the ATA News, is pictured in 1966 preparing the first issue of the newspaper, which was published in February of 1967.
ATA News enters 50th year of publication
It was a blank page except for five words in large red text.
“You’re fired! There’s no appeal,” read that simple cover.
It was the spring of 1999. The provincial government was proposing numerous amendments to the School Act. Among them was the elimination of the Board of Reference as the mechanism by which teachers could appeal a suspension or dismissal. Viewing the move as a direct attack, the communications team at the Alberta Teachers’ Association turned to the organization’s newspaper.
With a four-page section wrapped around the March 30 issue of the ATA News, the Association laid out the details of the proposed amendments and outlined what teachers could do to get involved.
“All of a sudden, across this province, Conservative MLAs were getting a lineup of teachers — their constituents — saying to them, ‘What are you guys doing?’” recalls Larry Booi, who was a vice-president at the time. “The turnaround was fantastic. The government stepped away. They introduced amendments and very quickly the minister, Gary Mar, was gone into another portfolio.”
Now entering its 50th year of publication, the ATA News has always been at its best during times of crisis, says Booi, who credits then editor-in-chief David Flower for the “You’re fired” idea.
“In soft times, [teachers] may not read it. That’s OK; it’s there for them if they want to, and some of them do,” Booi says. “In tough times, they turn to it right away.”
The first issue of the ATA News was published in February 1967. It was four pages of 11 by 17-inch paper and contained a total of six photos (mostly small head shots) and two text-only advertisements. The main headline read “Firm Stand Taken on Evaluations.” That story and much of the first issue dealt with an ongoing dispute — between the Association and the Alberta School Trustees’ Association — over which one should operate a teacher qualification service.
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The newspaper was the brainchild of Tom McConaghy, an executive staff officer who’d joined the ATA in 1966 to work in the communications area. Part of McConaghy’s job was to oversee the ATA Magazine, which was the Association’s main publication at the time.
“We felt that the ATA Magazine was attempting to perform a dual role: one which served as a professional magazine and one which served as a news medium. Unfortunately, it did neither satisfactorily,” he explained in the first issue of the ATA News.
Having come to that realization himself, he successfully pitched the idea of a newspaper to the Association’s elected council. The paper’s purpose was “to bring to our members a news medium noted for its brevity and readability ... to highlight activities of teachers, Association news, and educational news in general,” he wrote.
Apart from a two-year hiatus in the mid-1970s, McConaghy served as the paper’s editor-in-chief until 1982. He died in 2012.
A passionate writer who had earned an undergraduate degree in journalism and political science before entering the teaching profession, McConaghy felt very strongly about the need for good communication within the teaching profession.
“He always talked about, if teachers were going to make wise decisions, that they had to be well informed,” recalls his wife June.
She also recalls that the new publication was well received.
“I remember Tom saying that it was going over well because people liked the idea. And I think, in those days, they appreciated more print in front of them in their hands.”
Cartoon from the second issue of the ATA News, published in April 1967.
McConaghy’s successor was David Flower, an executive staffer hired in 1976 to ramp up the organization’s political program. At the time that he took over as editor-in-chief of the paper, it was an “in-house publication” that was largely focused on professional development, he says.
“It was interesting, but it was very much ... a publication for teachers about education and we didn’t rattle any bones at all,” Flower recalls. “We were very careful to be in the middle of the road and didn’t want to upset anybody.”
In keeping with his overall mandate to get teachers more politically engaged, Flower sought to broaden the paper’s scope to include more provincial issues and make it more political. One of his preferred tools was the hard-hitting, provocative editorial.
“What you try to do when you write an editorial is make people either agree with you or mad at you ... not just sit there and say ‘another one of those,’” he says.
Over the years, the paper’s political temperature increased in step with the increasing tumult that was playing out in provincial politics.
“By the time we got to the early ’90s and Mr. Klein came to power, the lid was lifted,” Flower said.
There came a point when executive secretary Julius Buski said to delegates of the Annual Representative Assembly (ARA) that the Association was going to take on the government in whatever way it could, Flower says.
“I was given almost free rein from that point on to put in whatever I thought was suitable.”
Flower went on to become the paper’s longest serving editor-in-chief (from 1982 to 2001, with a one-year gap in the early 1990s). Several elements that started during his tenure — Moot Points, Tale End and the Gotcha! Photo Contest — are still mainstays in the paper. He credits other staff members for coming up with those ideas.
Flower says he failed miserably to motivate teachers politically, but former president Bauni Mackay remembers his editorials as brilliant.
During her tenure, from 1993 to 1999, the newspaper was very influential as the Association worked to preserve public education in an environment of cost cutting led by Ralph Klein, she says.
“The ATA News was absolutely critical because we used it as the mechanism by which we kept our membership informed, by which we motivated them to take on the challenge and also to instil their trust in what the ‘big ATA’ was doing,” Mackay says.
There when you need it
While the ATA News isn’t read by every teacher all the time, it does get noticed and hot topics do generate staff room chatter, says Buski, who was executive secretary from 1988 to 1998 and a classroom teacher when the ATA News came into being.
“I think it became more reader friendly in terms of mimicking what people expected in a regular newspaper,” he said of the paper’s evolution.
A few times during his tenure, the paper came into the crosshairs of would-be cost cutters at the ARA.
“It has always survived because delegates said, ‘no, that’s a primary communication vehicle,’” Buski says.
Those ARA motions to axe the paper in order to save money became a regular occurrence as digital technology began to supplant the printed form as a means of relaying breaking news, says Donna Swiniarski, the paper’s editor-in-chief from 2001 to 2008.
“I can remember all kinds of presidents that would stand up and say, ‘Are you crazy? We need this. This is our face,’” she says.
The newspaper survived such threats, but it also evolved from being the primary mechanism for spreading breaking news into more of a resource for in-depth coverage of issues, she says.
“It wasn’t the first go-to [for breaking news] any more as we started getting more technology,” Swiniarski says.
In 2008, an ARA motion to cease printing newspapers was approved by delegates only to be reversed later by Provincial Executive Council, pending a communications audit aimed at improving the Association’s Internet presence and capacity to use a variety of media. Subsequently, a thorough survey of readers’ habits brought about a redesign of the paper aimed at improving its level of engagement and readability, says current editor-in-chief Jonathan Teghtmeyer.
“My takeaway from that whole conversation has been that we need to make sure that we find a way to get the information that matters to teachers in a way that will engage them and will grab their attention,” he says.
He knows that some teachers are inclined to grab the paper from their mail slot and toss it directly into the nearest recycling bin. He feels that the paper, with the portion of the front page that appears “above the fold,” has three seconds to change these teachers’ minds.
“That’s sort of our first goal ... to get them to open the fold. And from there, can we get them to open the front page?” he says.
Despite changing technology and adjustments to its appearance, the newspaper’s overall purpose hasn’t deviated much from the original summary that McConaghy composed for the very first issue, Teghtmeyer says, adding that the paper remains the best way to reach all members with important information.
“I know with the ATA News that we have at least three seconds with virtually every single one of our members,” Teghtmeyer says. “That’s very, very difficult to replicate in this world where there are so many media formats and there is content basically everywhere around us.”
Figure skater Jamie Sale is pictured receiving a high-flying send-off by Ross Sheppard High School cheerleaders prior to the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway.
Is it real?
The question of whether or not the ATA News is a “real newspaper” played out during a nine-year legal battle that went all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada.
The case related to an Aug. 30, 2005 ATA News item that reported the names of people who had opted out of active ATA membership and thus were no longer subject to the Code of Professional Conduct. Some of these former members complained to the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner that their privacy protections under the Personal Information Protection Act (PIPA) had been breached.
The final decision found that the ATA News, like any commercial newspaper, is subject to the same journalistic exemptions that exist in PIPA even though the Association doesn’t operate solely for journalistic purposes.
For Teghtmeyer, the decision was both a validation of the ATA News’ work and a reminder of its obligation.
“We need to hold ourselves to those higher standards because we are more than just a newsletter for our members.” ❚