J.C.R. "Chuck" McKnight
He was one of the most influential people in the Canadian community newspaper industry, but had anyone asked J.C.R. “Chuck” McKnight how it all began, he would have said it started as all good stories do, with a typewriter.
It was in the autumn of 1947 when McKnight first stepped inside the Tillsonburg News looking for work. At the ripe old age of 19, he was a news veteran, having started reporting at age 14. Significantly, he used to say, he also happened to own a typewriter. “That’s the only reason they hired me!” he’d joke.
But there was more than serendipity at work. He was a third-generation newspaperman whose passion for news would eventually evolve into expertise at all levels of the business. In his time, McKnight would become one of the most feted leaders in the community newspaper industry. Under his guidance, the Tillsonburg News would grow from a once-a-week publication that employed a few dozen people to become part of a newspaper chain that employed hundreds. Among his laurels would be an honorary life citation from the Canadian Community Newspaper Association, and being named, along with his business partner William “Bill” Pratt, one of the Ontario Community Newspaper Association’s 50 most outstanding contributors to the industry.
He was a commanding figure, but those who knew him best knew he never strayed too far from his humble roots.
Born to a farming family in Wainfleet, ON, McKnight was named after his grandfather, Charles Ramage. As destiny would have it, he would follow in his namesake’s footsteps. Ramage was publisher of the Durham Review and his sons Peter, Art and Harold owned newspapers in Medford, Thornbury and Petrolia. McKnight spent summer vacations at his grandfather’s newspaper shop. Under the direction of his granddad and his Aunt Alice, who also worked at the paper, McKnight took his first steps into reporting.
He discovered it was something he enjoyed and was pretty darn good at.
In high school he worked as a part-time sports reporter for the Welland Tribune, though his long-term plan was to seek higher education for a higher calling; he hoped to join the Anglican ministry.
Fate had other plans.
His uncle Harold, publisher of the Petrolia Advertiser and Review, had a newspaper friend who was hiring. And so it happened that in the fall of 1947, McKnight, with trusty typewriter in tow, met Harvey Johnston, publisher of the Tillsonburg News.
He took a reporting job temporarily vacated by Pratt, after Pratt enrolled in Western University’s journalism program. Within two years, Pratt had graduated and was back at The News, first as a reporter and two years later, as editor. McKnight meanwhile, moved into the editorial spot at The Sportsman, a harness racing magazine that was an affiliate of The News. Working side-by-side the two forged a friendship and a business partnership that was to last for years.
A year later, McKnight married Ruby Louise Johnston, the daughter of Harvey and Ruby Johnston, with Pratt as one of his ushers.
While McKnight always maintained his love of journalism, it was in sales and management that he found his niche. In 1959, McKnight was named vice-president and general manager of The News. A year later the paper began publishing twice weekly, and by 1968 it was publishing every Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
In 1971, McKnight became its publisher and that same year, under his initiative, the company purchased the Ingersoll Times. It was then McKnight set a goal for himself -- he would own seven newspapers, one for each of his children.
Over the next decade, he achieved that and then some, with the acquisition of eight more titles: the Norwich Gazette, Port Colborne News, Consumer News, Thamesford Town Crier, Caledonia Grand River Sachem, Paris This Week, Burford Advance and the Dorchester Signpost. Otter Publishing and Otter Printing were also launched.
As his newspaper holdings expanded, so too did his reputation as a news leader. On numerous occasions he travelled with Canada’s United Nations’ Peacekeeping Forces as a representative of community newspaper industry, touring such locations as Egypt, Germany and Cypress. He also travelled throughout Canada and the U.S. to support and promote the industry.
Career distinctions included presidencies of the Class A Weeklies of Canada, the Ontario Community Newspaper Association, the Southwestern Ontario Newspaper Association and the Canadian Community Newspaper Association. In 1979, as CCNA president, McKnight and his second wife Patricia travelled across Canada to visit its community newspapers. A few years after leaving that post, he won the CCNA’s President’s Award in recognition of his commitment to the betterment of the newspaper industry.
In 1983, after passing the reins to his eldest son Cam, McKnight retired. Within a few short weeks though, he landed a job with as Director of the CCNA‘s Presentation Bureau, handling federal government relations and advertising sales.
Five years later, in August 1988, Otter Publishing and all of its holdings were sold to Newfoundland Capital Corporation.
Until his death on September 13, 1995, McKnight was a consultant to numerous community newspapers and an advisor to each of his seven children.
He was also active in community work. McKnight served as president of the Tillsonburg Chamber of Commerce and was a long-standing member of its executive. He was president of the Tillsonburg Business Improvement Assoc., the local Minor Hockey Assoc., was chair of the town’s Parking Authority, and was a warden and director on the board of management for St. John’s Anglican Church. He was a member of the Kinsmen Club, president of its K-40, a member of Ashland Lodge, a long-time member of the Tillsonburg Tri-County Fair Board, and a member of the Niagara College of Arts and Technology journalism board.
Politics at the provincial and federal levels were a life-long interest, along with his passion for the harness horse racing industry.
His greatest love was his children: Cam, Carol, Ann, Ashley, Lisa, Louise and Rene. So deeply rooted was the family connection to newspapers it seemed predetermined his children would follow his lead.
At various times, all seven of McKnight’s children and many of their spouses worked in the business, along with grandchildren taking on delivery routes. Four of the children owned newspapers of their own. Today, only McKnight’s youngest daughter, Rene, still works in the newspaper industry.
Under the guidance of Chuck McKnight and Bill Pratt, the Tillsonburg News consistently earned awards and accolades for its editorial leadership, advertising programs, design and layout, and the press work. The two ran a top-notch shop filled with dedicated and creative employees and had a mutual respect for one another’s jobs, knowing the best editorials needed advertising to pay for the printing, a press to print it on, and a team to circulate it.
McKnight and Pratt began their careers at the News at a convenient Broadway location, where the letter-set press and circulation departments were located in the basement, reception and advertising departments were on the main floor, and editorial was on the second floor. In the late 1960s, the company relocated to the former Jackson’s Bakery building at the northeast corner of Tillson Avenue and Brock Street. In 1978, with the continued growth and a busy web press, they moved to a much-expanded location on Townline Road, a site the paper still calls home.
“Because my father had the foresight to invest in a web press, Tillsonburg became a hub for a number of community papers in the area,” said Cam McKnight.