Stepping onto Danforth Avenue with Shahidul Mintu, you can see right away why he calls journalism a charming job.
By 6 p.m. on a Thursday, the founding editor of the Bangla Mail and Bengali Times can’t walk half a block before one and then another friend stops to say hello.
“It’s a tight community,” said Mintu, smiling.
Now 39, Mintu was still in high school when he started reporting for a big-city daily in Dhaka, Bangladesh. By 18, he was a staff reporter at Ajker Kagoj (“Today’s Paper”) and the elected president of the Bangladesh Cultural Reporters Association.
Then, as now, Mintu says his great achievement as a journalist is simply meeting people – lots of people.
So walking towards Danforth and Victoria Park, crossroads of Toronto’s large Bangladeshi community, it’s hard to find anywhere to interview the long-time journalist, who three years ago co-founded what is now the most read Bangla-language newspaper in Canada.
Ducking into a café is no help – another friend is in line. Thankfully, Mintu knows the man at the counter, too, who opens a side door to the basement.
After finding the lights and two cups of tea, it’s the perfect place to get the story behind the story of the Bangla Mail.
Right now, Mintu said news media is growing fast in Bangladesh, with over 100 newspapers and 40 TV networks serving the country of 169 million. But in 1989, when Mintu was a teen gripped by stories about Gorbachev’s Perestroika or the Sri Lankan civil war, Dhaka had only a handful of daily newspapers.
His start at Ajker Kagoj wasn’t glamorous — he covered the schools beat, right down to the state of repair in school bathrooms – but Mintu said the newsroom was full of amazing mentors.
And with so little competition, people returned his calls, whether or not they knew he was in Grade 11.
“A lot of people were surprised when they met me,” he said. “I was the smallest guy, a tiny guy at the time.”
Even after Mintu began studying sociology at Dhaka University, he didn’t quit reporting. In fact, he took on more, moving to general assignment reporting, then political affairs.
Mintu covered the ruling party in Bangladesh for five years, and another five covering the opposition. Once, he got a special assignment – to go out to the villages and report on the inner workings of the Sarbohara Party, a Communist group since banned for its use of guerilla violence.
After the story ran, Mintu got a package full of white funerary cloth printed with the words “Your time is finished.” Police never found out exactly who mailed the threat.
Mintu moved on to another paper, and began producing documentaries and TV dramas on the side.
“Once upon a time, I also wrote some stories,” he said, smiling about the several novels he’s published.
But by the time he and his wife were getting set to move to Canada in 2004, Mintu decided to refocus purely on reporting.
In Toronto, Mintu quickly realized he would have a tough time landing a reporting job – there were few Bangla-language outlets of any kind. But after finding work in the hospitality industry, he took a journalism diploma at Seneca College that gave him a much better sense of the Canadian media scene.
In 2008, with no real web experience and another full-time job, he launched the Bengali Times site.
“I learned from YouTube, I talked to a lot of friends, I called back home,” he said. “Now I realize I was doing jobs that were supposed to be done in four hours, and I spent 24.”
Nonetheless, within a year Mintu had lots of positive feedback about the Bengali Times and decided to raise the bar. He hired a web designer, bought the domain name for thebengalitimes.com, and today the site has some 180,000 likes on Facebook.
But in the Victoria and Danforth area, Mintu found there were many Bangla readers who weren’t online. He wanted to start a print newspaper, with more Toronto stories.
He found a big supporter in Rezaul Kabir, owner of a Danforth Avenue electronics shop and, since 2012, the publisher of the weekly Bangla Mail.
Asked why he took on the role, which often involves more money spent than earned, Kabir said it’s because the Bangla Mail is the only Bangla newspaper that carries local news.
On the front of a recent issue is a photo of cricket fans waving flags on Danforth Avenue to celebrate the national team’s “magic” win over Britain. Inside are stories about the International Mother Language Day monument planned for Taylor Creek Park, and a local women’s employment program.
“The other thing is, he’s the editor,” said Kabir, nodding at Mintu. “He’s a very big journalist back home, so the main thing is to keep him with me.”
Mintu said he is thrilled with the Bangla Mail. Other community papers have struggled, but its circulation and page counts are growing, and readers can pick it up in Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa and Saskatoon.
“Now, I’m happy,” Mintu said. “I’m serving my community, and this is the great thing for me.”