A busy woman of many jobs, Karen Mykietka admits that she spends too much time in front of a computer. In the past 20 years, she has lived in the north central Edmonton communities of Eastwood, Alberta Avenue, and now Parkdale, meeting “awesome people everywhere I go.” First as a volunteer for the Rat Creek Press in 2004 and shortly after that as the Publisher, she is a natural born organizer and leader who has a passionate commitment to community.
From the Desk of Karen Mykietka
When people think of “publisher” they may only think of getting the finances to bring out a newspaper. You do much more.
As publisher the entire operation of the Rat Creek Press newspaper, my responsibilities include everything from budgeting, fund development, hiring, advertising, content, and community relations. We cover the news in the seven neighborhoods of Alberta Avenue, Delton, Eastwood, Elmwood Park, Parkdale-Cromdale, Spruce Avenue, and Westwood.
I’ve lived in the area almost 20 years and have been active in leagues, festivals and revitalization. I created this newspaper out of a newsletter over 10 years ago. Because of this history, I tend to be the most in touch with what’s happening in the community. I’m heavily involved in generating story ideas and community projects.
When you’re in the top job, you’re ultimately responsible for getting a newspaper into people’s mailboxes each month. You do whatever needs doing. I’ve done it all—writing, photography, advertising, ad design, delivery, book keeping, community events, consulting.
What does the community mean to you?
Community means getting involved. Without involvement, it’s just a bunch of houses and businesses. I must say our community is alive and full of activities, friendly and welcoming to all. I am deeply proud to be involved. I love the people, the stories, and the issues that make up our seven neighborhoods.
What is the purpose of a community newspaper?
While a newspaper’s purpose is obviously to communicate and inform, a community effort has the potential of going beyond mere one-way communication. The larger purpose is to help develop community. We also provide the opportunity for people to explore their creative side, to try a hand at writing and other journalistic skills.
A community newspaper may seem to be an anachronism in the era of social media. What do you think?
With journalism and communication being pushed online more and more, community newspapers are even more important. Social media and online don’t work for many groups, especially the more vulnerable–seniors, immigrants, low-income. Social media is good at connecting people over a larger geography. I think a free community paper delivered to every household in a small area gives everyone equal opportunity to learn about and get involved in their neighborhood.
How did you get involved?
In August 2004, I volunteered to look over the then-new newspaper’s financial books and bring them up-to-date as no one had been taking responsibility for them. I discovered the paper was in financial crisis and called a partner meeting. In September 2004, I took on the task of bringing new life to the paper.
The Rat Creek takes up hundreds of hours of my life but the paper was keeping me up at night long before I volunteered to work on it. Every month when I got my issue, my mind would spin with ideas and possibilities, with vision and hope for a community paper. Finally, I succumbed and decided to try making some of my grand visions reality.
I left the September 2004 partner’s meeting and was a little freaked out that I had to somehow get a paper produced and distributed in three weeks and I was starting from scratch with nothing. I put the word out and slowly found volunteers to help with design and editing skills.
We pulled off producing our first issue but unfortunately encountered major distribution problems and many homes did not received the paper into which we put many hours of labour!
I am happy to say we now publish 12,500 copies of a 16 page full-color paper every month.
What inspires you?
Twelve years ago, when I first received the Rat Creek Press newsletter in my mailbox, I could see the potential of what it could be. It felt like I was being “chased by a vision.” I had no background in journalism, no knowledge of the printing industry, and no one to show me the way. But I leaped in anyway and with my eye on the vision I plugged away day-by-day.
Thankfully, I not only had vision but persistence and commitment and a great partner – Dawn Freeman. Dawn worked side by side with me at the beginning to make the paper what it is today.
My day to day person is now editor Talea Medynski. Talea is committed and creative, tough and resilient.
These are the qualities needed by individuals who are drawn to the daily grind of producing a community newspaper with very little cash.
We’ve had dozens and dozens of people participate in the Rat Creek Press in one form or another over the years. It truly is a newspaper for the community by the community.
In the early years, I enjoyed learning to write all kinds of articles. I loved having a reason to be nosy and ask questions. I met many interesting people and made new friends.
In every issue, you are constantly thinking of ways to survive and thrive as a community newspaper.
Money and people power are two important and interrelated factors when it comes to survival. The paper has survived because people have been committed to it regardless of whether they were compensated for their time and skills. Today, our staff of three, myself and editor, Talea Medynski and designer Lorraine Shulba are paid a modest monthly contract fee. We rely heavily on over 30 different volunteer contributors and are happy we were able to start giving them a small honorarium.
Thriving on the other hand is more about being in touch with and connected to the community. From the start, I was trying to build a community newspaper for the community by the community. In 2005, only three of the seven community leagues contributed. Just this past year, we finally got all seven involved.
We are incorporated as a non-profit society. This provides the Rat Creek Press with a more formal structure and the opportunity to recruit board members from across the community. It also enables us to apply to do a casino and for a variety of grants.
What are some of your proudest accomplishments?
Most recently, my pride and joy has been getting our website up and running. Articles from the editions are posted and shareable.
Another major accomplishment was our eight page pull out feature on Shared Housing in November which put that issue to 24 pages!
The Rat Creek spearheaded a fantastic history project in 2011 which culminated in a theatre performance by local actors based on interviews with residents and seniors connected to the area. In 2012, we received honorable mention for the Governor General’s History Award in Community Programming for this project.
I’m proud of the great writing of our contributors from profiles to features to editorials. Our paper is such an interesting and great read every month. We cover sensitive and touchy topics in a respectful, uplifting way focusing on solutions or calls to action, not sensationalism. All communities have issues and they all have strengths and hidden gems. We show off the greatness of our community while still acknowledging the issues.
The newspaper, and also our new website are informative and attractive. They provide a “good read” about people, businesses, interests, developments and challenges in the area.
Yes, the paper flourishes, and looks inviting and professional. Our new website finally has the ability to post and share articles individually which is important in today’s social media world. You can find our mission and goals, advertising information, contributors as well as all our back issues and a community calendar.
What are the goals of Rat Creek Press?
Our three goals are to build community, encourage communication, and increase capacity while growing a dynamic and vibrant community newspaper.
I am proud to say we have committed advertisers, and are always reaching out to new ones in the community. The paper is financially viable and self-sustaining in terms of production costs. I’m glad we now have a small paid staff. It’s not reasonable to ask volunteers to continue putting in the number of hours that are required to produce the paper.
We are working on building up a strong and diversely skilled board who can guide the future of the paper, who develop funding sources, and who help Rat Creek Press continue to meet its three goals. Right now we are focusing on volunteer development and creating deeper connections with the neighborhoods we serve.
What are the ingredients of success?
Good relationships. Everything depends on good relationships—an effective production team, a functional board, happy advertisers, willing financial supporters, and giving volunteers.
What are your professional challenges as publisher?
What I can’t find someone else to do, I have to do myself.
Soliciting advertising is time-consuming work, with sometimes little pay off in terms of paid ads. We’ve had a number of ad reps over the years but the job always seems to end up back on my plate.
In our early years, finding, coordinating, and keeping more than 70-plus volunteer carriers was a never-ending job which is why we moved to Canada Post delivery. The financial cost of this is significant. Sometimes it’s a threat to staying in the black but it is effective.
What are your challenges as a person?
I live, work and play in the same community. In most ways, it’s awesome. I love the opportunity to meet many interesting people, develop deeper relationships, and really get to know my community. On the downside, it’s almost impossible to just live and enjoy and not go into work mode.
Everyone I meet, everything I do, everything I learn is a potential story! I can’t unplug from the community for any length of time. My job depends on knowing the community.
By Constance Brissenden for MediaMag.ca
Constance Brissenden’s writing, editing, and teaching career spans more than 40 years. A Masters graduate of the University of Alberta (Theatre), she is co-author of award-winning children’s books by Cree author Larry Loyie, as well as more than a dozen titles of history and travel. Website: www.firstnationswriter.com.