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From paper to pixels: Richmond News founder sees bright digital future

Bill Lam wanted to start a newspaper in a community that supported news.
Richmond News publisher Alvin Chow showing the new website functions to founder Bill Lam. Vikki Hui photo

When Bill Lam founded the Richmond News, he knew he was stepping into a community that supported local news.

Now, after more than four decades of serving the community, the News is bidding its print edition adieu and moving into a fully digital era with this being our final issue.

Taking a trip down memory lane on a rainy afternoon, Lam said he envisioned the paper would “entertain and inform readers.”

“Not winning a Pulitzer Prize or anything, but to try and inform people what’s happening in the community,” said the soft-spoken and meticulous founder as he sat in a restaurant at Lansdowne Centre.

Now a realtor, Lam hailed from a reporting background and grew up with an interest in news, often collecting news clippings of events, politicians and sports games.

“Those days, I never got to see an NBA game. But I would read about them,” said Lam.

He pursued his interest at the University of Missouri School of Journalism and went on to report in Hong Kong and the U.K., before taking a job at the North Shore News.

“When I was there, I was given the city hall beat, which is pretty boring, but important,” Lam recalled, adding he learned to be more aggressive while reporting on the beat.

His true passion, however, lay in feature stories.

“For every person, such as the wrinkled image of a senior, it tells a story of wisdom and experience. And there's something of interest in every person,” Lam explained.

“I enjoy doing a sort of writing about the common man.”

Community had appetite for news

While Lam was at the North Shore News, he came to the decision he needed to balance his love for news with earning a living — and running his own paper would allow him to do so.

When Lam came across the News, it was still a shopper called The Richmond Advertiser, hosting ads for local businesses with occasional stories about the community. Its only competitor at the time was the community’s paper of record — the Richmond Review.

In fact, the existence of the Review gave Lam confidence that his reporting would be in good hands.

“I figured there was an appetite for news in the community,” he explained.

Inspired by his old job in North Vancouver, he decided to rename the Advertiser to the News.

The beginning of the News was a humble one, and Lam credited his big leap into the industry to blissful ignorance.

He referred to the term a “three-man newsroom,” which includes an editor, reporter and photographer.

“In those days, those three persons were myself,” he said, adding that he was also the advertising salesperson and, at times, the janitor and paperboy.

“I didn’t realize until afterward that restarting a newspaper was harder than starting one,” Lam said, recalling the initial days of rebranding the Advertiser.

During its final days, the shopper did not have the best reputation as the ads would sometimes be published too late due to expensive printing costs.

“I was so gung ho, I took the last edition of the shopper and I went to approach potential clients, and the reaction was so poor,” said Lam.

But, thanks to Lam’s perseverance and a stroke of luck in advertising revenue during strikes by Vancouver’s daily newspapers, the News was able to grow into a thriving newspaper.

It was not without its blunders, however, as Lam recalled misprinting an ad for a local pet store.

“This particular breed of dog was non-shedding, but when we printed it, it said ‘now shedding.’”

The crisis was ultimately resolved, but not before Lam gave the store owner a discount for the ad.

Legacy of multiculturalism and community

Lam credits the News’ longevity to reporters, sales reps, carriers and publishers, who each left a lasting legacy on the paper.

He is also grateful to the founder of the Advertiser and eventually Glacier Media for injecting new life into the paper.

Under Lam’s helm, the paper was able to showcase Richmond’s multiculturalism by highlighting Lunar New Year celebrations.

He also made sure the News connected with the community through continuing the Review’s Easter egg hunt and participating in local parades.

“So, we gradually became a little more accepted by the community,” said Lam.

The paper also continued to be driven by Lam's passion for human interest stories, with examples being former Richmond mayor Greg Halsey-Brandt's columns and the paper's series of stories about the aldermen at the time.

One reporter of the News had written a story about former council member Kiichi Kumagai, said Lam, which featured a photo of Kumagai mopping the floor.

"Then (Kumagai) said he got lots of calls from men who said, 'Hey Kiichi, what are you trying to do?'

"Because when their wives saw him mopping the floor, they got their husbands to mop the floor!"

The 'heartbeat' of survival is to change

As Alvin Chow, publisher of the News, showed Lam the latest functions on the News' website, Lam is optimistic about the future.

"Sure, putting ink on paper... If you've been to a printing press plant... the smell of ink rolling off the press, I compare it to if you walk by a bakery (with) donuts and fresh croissants coming out. It's just an amazing scent," he said.

"However, each age is an age of change." Although it would be a shame to lose the ritual of having a physical copy of the paper appear on one's doorstep and the opportunity for kids to learn about financial independence, Lam suggested it could help avoid the curse of soggy papers and resolve the problem of having to read smaller fonts.

Having an online website has also helped the News deliver "more relevant" information, as it is not tied to a production timeline for a physical copy.

"The idea is to keep (the paper) alive, and the heartbeat of it is by coping, making changes and adapting to it," said Lam.

"And I'm really grateful that the Richmond News is a survivor. And it only survived because of the new ways to keep it going."

Community newspapers are important, Lam explained, as they serve as "an ambassador" for visitors to the community.

"You have your pulse. You can touch and feel what's actually happening," he said.

Moving forward, Lam wants the News to remain the "heartbeat of society."

"My hope for Richmond News is that it will continue to serve the community," said Lam.

"I'm just talking about the day-to-day news that might not be of importance to others, but it's relevant to Richmond."

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