Ink Stained

Reflections on newsrooms past

The creation of a newspaper — the fat, opinionated, story-filled scroll of repurposed pulp that used to hit the front door with a thud each morning — was rightly known as the daily miracle. Anyone who talked their way into the biz back when print held sway couldn’t help but be amazed by the warp speed of journalistic transformation: A few hours ago, you were gabbing to your deskmates and lying to the dutiful editor who wandered by to beg for some copy. And now suddenly, the whole building is shaking as the presses roll out your imperfect eye glazer on a neighbourhood zoning dispute that’s propping up a supermarket ad on A22.

There’s always tomorrow, you’d say on the bad days, basking in the daily miracle’s cycle of endless forgetting and the eternal chance of A1 affirmation that bucked up those reporters temperamentally inclined to doubt and distrust. Yes, even a brilliant column in today’s paper would be soaking up battered cod tomorrow, but for a full twenty-four hours, and longer still if you could place a wordy feature in the weekend edition, you were fat-free and attention-getting.

Tomorrow isn’t what it used to be. The paper part of newspapering endures, but only just, an archaic artifact for tactile browsers who want to slow down technology’s unstoppable thrust while advertisers depart in droves. Pretty well everything else is gone — that everyday sense of the miraculous, the quaint division of news into discrete diurnal chunks, the self-deprecating bravado that made you proud to belong to a tough-guy/tough-gal milieu, where your life’s work could be happily dismissed as fish wrap. It’s this lost world of outmoded, overconfident ink-stained wretches that the Quebec writer, musician, and (it need hardly be said) ex-journalist David Sherman conjures up in a lively assembly of twenty-seven free-speaking scribes who somehow survived their profession’s penchant for self-destruction.

Sherman calls Fish Wrapped “a eulogy to an era before Twitter and Instagram and Facebook when newspapers were still relevant and anxiously awaited, often compulsively.” Why that compulsive need for the daily paper turned so rapidly into indifference and even contempt toward dead-tree journalism isn’t analyzed; it’s taken as a given, from the vantage point of 2020, that newspapers were doomed and that their disappearance is the natural result of technological progress, rather than a prolonged act of self-sabotage. And so Fish Wrapped is less a respectful eulogy and much more the manic monologizing that’s half heard at a dive-bar wake, a chaotic paean to glorious irrelevancy from people who consider themselves lucky to have lived large in crazier times before the industry succumbed to what Sherman calls “the wasting disease.”

These recollections cover a huge expanse of newspaper time, from the cocky, often lunatic, anti-authority 1960s, when reporters were the shock troops of information gathering (nothing was true until it was seen and heard by our man on the spot), to the orderly, deferential, corporate present, when managers meet (and meet and meet), hash out the direction of the day’s news, and leave desk-bound keyboard drones to complete the bland vision. There’s a clear preference for a good-old-days nostalgia that’s rooted in booze-soaked risk taking and not giving a damn, which, for all the rampant non-conformity on display, loses its appeal as the superior journalistic model — as if uninhibited carousing by itself produced better newspapers than a devotion to indie coffee blends could ever do, as if a perennial hangover and a trail of broken relationships were somehow crucial to critical thinking in a way that a clear head and a good night’s sleep and a family to go home to at the end of the day could never be. A young journalist who bothered to read the more extreme wallowings of wild-man behaviour in Fish Wrapped could be justified in feeling contempt for all the self-glorifying waste and wastedness on display, rather than wistful regret for the deranged freedoms that have been lost in this better-behaved, better-educated, budget-paring era.

Fun, as defined by old-style journalists, is a challenge to the now dominant orthodoxies of managerial control and eternal belt-tightening. That kind of freewheeling, screw-you independence has been lost in more standardized HR‑run environments, and noisy rebelliousness has given way to a more submissive, well-regulated, middle-class collegiality. Modern newsrooms are filled with people who are glad just to have a decent job, and who can blame them if they don’t instinctively defy authority, internally and externally? The work’s hard enough as it is, and fun (to say nothing of hangovers) would just get in the way when you have to pick up the kid at daycare, get dinner ready, and keep checking in with late-night updates for the news desk.

To be fair, even the antiquated chroniclers of wasted time recognize that their war stories haven’t aged well. “There’s no doubt that today’s scribes will live longer,” writes Peter Cooney at the end of his heavy-drinking reminiscences, noting the hostility of his Concordia journalism students toward beery anecdotage. But this generational shift doesn’t have to be seen as some sort of puritanical preference for dull longevity over a fun-filled journalistic death wish. Fish Wrapped proposes a false dichotomy between the bleary then and the clearer-headed now, when young journalists don’t bother to believe that good storytelling is the product of excess. Unless you’re a name-brand raconteur like Christopher Plummer, writing about treating a policeman’s horse to cocktails in a Broadway bar with Jason Robards, memories of drunkenness grow tedious in their mindless predictability. The true confessions of Fish Wrapped are no more true for being wrapped in an alcoholic haze.

Fortunately, there’s more to Fish Wrapped than glassy-eyed longings for a rose-tinted temps perdu. Sherman’s contact list may be too closely tied to the tavern-rich Montreal scene of the last century (which at least supplies good period detail about FLQ violence, institutional corruption, Pierre Trudeau sightings, Mila Mulroney’s shopping sprees, and grandiose hydroelectric projects that were secretly infiltrated by the Gazette’s game-for-anything Jim Duff). And with an instinct for antics, he privileges tales from the pseudo-populist Sun school of defiant disreputability over whisperings from well-mannered business-and-politics outlets like the good grey Globe and Mail, where sobriety remains the house style despite endless attempts to loosen up. But, like an A1 editor who knows the front-page news mix needs a few leavenings and treats, he’s made a game attempt at breadth.

The book includes pieces on gathering gossip, buddying up to rockers, and living large on the junket circuit, none of which will convince you that celebrities are as fascinating as writers trick them out to be. But, hey, maybe the same thing can be said about mainstream newspapering’s usual subjects, all those drab politicians, business titans, and millionaire athletes. Making a lot out of a little is one of the reporter’s greatest talents; it fills the space, as we used to mutter with half-praise at the end of yet another day’s skeptical transcribing.

John Pohl covers the local-newspaper realm, a curious habitat of newsy lobster suppers and prize photos of misshapen vegetables, as he details his rocky ascent from the Shelburne Coast Guard and South Shore Gazette, in Nova Scotia, to the Moose Jaw Times-Herald and Saskatoon’s Star-Phoenix, where the owner installed a camera in the men’s room to catch graffiti vandals (bad bosses who don’t care much for troublemaking journalists are a running theme). Liz Pogue contributes a revealing memoir of her formative days making up stories about UFOs and celebrities for supermarket tabloids, where facts may be fungible but the hard rules of spelling, grammar, and style are rigorously applied. Charles Gordon chronicles a once-prosperous interlude at the Ottawa Citizen, where the sophisticated mandarin Keith Spicer arrived as editor and tried to elevate the intellectual tone of the place with refined dinner discussions. By Fish Wrapped standards, Spicer’s underlings behaved extremely responsibly, and there is a refreshingly dainty image of him trying, at one night’s conclusion, to teach the star columnists Roy MacGregor and Earl McRae how to walk like one of his heroes, the former French prime minister Pierre Mendès France. One labours to imagine MacGregor passing on these insider choreographic tips when he worked with Stephen Harper on the PM’s hockey-history tome — but, no, political journalism stiffened up with the times, and the image won’t come to mind.

Sarah Murdoch probes the rise of first-person female journalism, starting with her shy attempt to go undercover as a prostitute in Ottawa’s thriving escort scene. (Why are so many print journalists natural introverts? But it explains the boozing.) That soul-baring experience seems to have prepared her well for the empathetic editing of professional self-regarders like the columnists Sondra Gotlieb and Rebecca Eckler. What Murdoch calls the lifestyle section’s “I‑writing women,” along with their me-first stories of yummy mummies and doggie daycare and girls-night-out cosmopolitans, were notable victims of the modern cost-cutting era, as nervous papers retreated to the comforting core mission of hard news. But more hardened and versatile practitioners of tough-broad opinionizing like the old-schoolers Christie Blatchford and Rosie DiManno lingered on.

The late Blatch and the still-churning-’em-out Rosie would have been useful contributors to Fish Wrapped ’s true confessions. There’s an oft-told story of the pair of them defying the tedium of a charity golf tournament by playing the last three holes topless — yet sober! — that could have neatly challenged the book’s boisterous machismo ethos. Of course, in the real world of non-confessional, keep-your-head-down (and clothes-on) newspapering that most female journalists experience, they were outliers, topless or clad. So it’s actually refreshing in Fish Wrapped to read the recollections offered up by the playwright and novelist Marianne Ackerman, who describes the challenges of starting her career at the late Ottawa Journal, staffing the paper’s Hull bureau, as a penniless single mother. Of course, she missed out on the drunken cavorting and had to develop superb time-management skills that went completely against the male journalistic norm of compulsive procrastination.

Eventually, she’d had her fill of the adrenalin-rich, deadline-driven pace. There’s no doubt that daily newspapering, in spite of all the errant undiscipline, was a crash course in the writer’s craft, enabling Ackerman and others to tell a story fast — but also clearly, tightly, and accurately (which takes considerable effort and discernment when the clock’s ticking and a fun-free editor is growling). No one wants to wake up at 3 a.m., the way all fast-moving journalists do, with the gut-wrenching sense of horror that the morning paper will contain a misspelled name. But “in the long run,” Ackerman observes, with a disturbing certainty that lifelong journalists would prefer to shrug off, “deadlines are not compatible with good writing, which takes time, reflection, inspiration and an enormous amount of revision.” What daily journalism supplies to its practitioners most of all is “instant gratification, which can become addictive.”

It’s hard, painful even, to see your work and your way of life (and your legacy, if journalists only had one) dismissed as a self-limiting addiction. Those damned deadlines, and the last-minute inspiration of guilt or shame that went with them, were the only thing that made it possible for a hesitant, over-thinking mind like mine to turn out thousands of articles, features, columns, profiles, reviews, editorials, and charticles over thirty years. I even wrote a weekly news poem to deadline, late-breaking verse as we called it, and once, as my editor shouted out instructions from the Globe’s lawyer on the other end of the phone, I had to rewrite a few merry rhymes about the litigious Conrad Black mere minutes before we went to press. While that was my idea of fun, I sure couldn’t have done it drunk, on no sleep, with cops manhandling my rhyming dictionary. I may well have been a little hungover, given the nightly lure of Aussie shiraz, but the rush of the deadline turned out to be a perfect analgesic.

Yet if it weren’t for all those deadlines, those down-to-the-wire struggles for a few more inches of smart copy and an ending that felt like an ending and not just the residue that survived an editor’s bloodstained delete key, maybe I could have produced a few novels or plays or award-winning poems, like a real writer. Didn’t Richard Addis, the hotshot London editor flown in to rescue the Globe from its innate dullness when it went up against the sassy National Post in better days, nickname me Voltaire when we first met at a French restaurant? Enlightenment philosopher, poet, polemicist, polymath. Yeah, that sounds better on the tombstone than “career hack.”

But that was as good as it got. Every journalist has a best-before date, and few of us manage to get out in time. Fish Wrapped ’s memoirists are sad and angry and disappointed for a reason. They outlasted their era; they had a good thing, and now it’s gone. They blame incompetent owners, greedy hedge funds, dithering governments, slimy technocrats, kids today. But in the end, the problem is personal: you can’t adjust, you won’t adjust, and maybe you shouldn’t have to adjust. Every new proposal tossed out at the weekly features meeting becomes one you did twenty years ago. Every innovation designed to transform storytelling is just an obsolescent plaything for the dumbed-down crowd. Every rah‑rah town-hall business-plan announcement is one more omen that disaster is imminent. Reading the former Toronto Star editor Michael Cooke’s fatuous rallying cry to his troops, awkwardly shoehorned into Fish Wrapped’s more personal memoirs —“Big changes coming . . . all good and all necessary . . . and exciting . . . and fabulous . . . embrace the new . . . brilliant and lasting success”— I can barely choke back the screams of “Bullshit!” Any journalist trusting enough to believe those empty, elliptical phrases was in for the most predictable of shocks. Simultaneous with the publication of Fish Wrapped, the Torstar media empire was being sold for a cut-rate $60 million. The usual external enemies — Facebook, Google, COVID‑19 — got the blame, and little mention was made of management’s disastrous tablet strategy (“Doing for news what Cirque du Soleil has done for circus,” the ever-upbeat Cooke once proclaimed), which lost $23 million. Trying to keep a newspaper going in the digital era, said the departing Torstar chair John Honderich with belated realism, “has been an uphill struggle.”

So shouldn’t someone in the allegedly free-speaking newspaper game have had the courage and integrity to shout down Cooke several years back? If not to save all the jobs that would need to be cut, at least to advise optimistic young journalists that they’d better start thinking about a new line of work? People who used to live out their working lives as journalists, including many of my more presentable ex-colleagues, now find better-paid, better-regulated, and often no less interesting work in university information departments, advertising and public relations, government communications jobs, and a myriad of well-funded hospital posts — anywhere that those with a quick mind, a way with words, and an ability to synthesize complex issues can get their just reward. When I used to speak to journalism students, one of the best pieces of advice I could give them was this: Don’t become a journalist. But if they were determined to do so against the odds, then they should at least be strategic and marry someone who had an assured income: doctors, lawyers, and professors were the best bets, since they actually might enjoy the wit, intelligence, fun-loving instincts, up-to-date opinions, and insider knowledge that an experienced journalist would bring to the table.

In the newsroom, you had to be careful ­voicing cheery notes of despair. Contempt for grumpy old men with fun buried deep in their past became commonplace as the managerial go-getters touted a more glorious future. Once you lost faith in daily miracles, you learned to keep your mouth shut among people who deserved to have hope, and you tried to stave off the contempt for self and others that salaried disbelief engendered.

Keep your mouth shut? The whole point of being a journalist, the reason you pursue a low-paid job of dubious respectability, is to have the small freedom of being able to hold forth unfiltered, if only among your half-listening seatmates. Or so I used to think. Years later, with the Post reduced to its own version of dullness and predictability, and the Globe reverting to its unflashy dependability, one of Addis’s successors delighted in mocking me as Bartleby the Scrivener, which was his master’s in American literature way of saying that while I might once have been capable of good work, I was now more likely to be found staring blankly out the window, rejecting all story requests with the Melvillian line “I would prefer not to.”

It wasn’t far from the truth. I no longer jumped at assignments. I’d been at the paper for three decades and held to values the new era rejected, like the power of a senior writer to say “No, thanks” (sometimes elevated to “Are you kidding?”) if he thought the assignment was dumb (“Can you do a quick feature on how to save yourself if you’re caught in an air-balloon fire?”) or unethical (“Would you like to cover the America’s Cup in San Diego? Just be sure to mention the New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc tasting”). Or if he disagreed with the paper’s encroaching right-wing bias (“Give me something on how Obama’s politics are coloured by his Kenyan genes”) or thought something was just a really bad fit (“I need you to write about a B.C. child-killer who’s just got out of prison”). My bullying boss actually yelled that last one at me in an unusually unhinged state: “Find the family and talk to them!” I was in Toronto, it was 6 p.m. on a Friday, I wasn’t a crime reporter, and there was a dinner to go to. I told her no, with an overlay of disdain, and contemplated my resignation all weekend. Fortunately, the gods of journalism intervened, and by Monday she was out of a job. Now that was a miracle.

If only the readers could see how badly their well-ordered paper was run. Fish Wrapped offers a sample, but it’s all so picturesque, so long ago. What was I doing in this strange business that was in such a hurry to get nowhere fast? Being a senior writer became a drawback: You lacked eagerness, you couldn’t keep up with the technology, you found fault when you should have seen an opportunity, you held true to the outmoded union rules when everyone else was a team player who took on dubious projects without complaint. No one around you knew who you used to be or cared about the clever columns you used to write, the bright bits of prose their parents or grandparents once enjoyed, the stuff you could still do if only someone wanted it. One of the saddest things about daily journalism, reflected in Fish Wrapped ’s elegiac bitterness, is that it’s so completely ephemeral. That’s no surprise, given that the word “daily” is an essential part of the deal, but it’s still a shock when you reach the end and discover there’s nothing there, that your life’s work is buried deep in a database, and even the fishmongers have moved on to fresher wrapping material. Funerals of dead colleagues become the only place where you feel truly alive.

No wonder, in this worrying place where introversion collides with retrospection, that the most resonant piece in Fish Wrapped is the film critic Liam Lacey’s unflinching, clear-eyed, sweetly melancholy memoir of his thirty-six Globe years. It turns out that good writing, with a keen sense of dark humour, makes everything bearable, even the newspaperman’s long descent toward irrelevance and oblivion.

The grimy, smoky Globe that Lacey joined as a young writer with a reputation for being a “good light read” feels ancient to me, and I arrived just a few years later. We shared the same boss, a tough, laconic moralist who took solitary motorcycle trips on his vacations, advised his writers that journalists should have no friends, and fought fractious turf battles against the higher-ups with the righteous zeal of a guerrilla warrior dealing death to the imperialists. We were journalistic outsiders and even imposters by the standards of the hard-living hard-news crowd, innocent precursors of the now-constant attempt to shake things up, reach new audiences, find alternative sources of revenue, dilute the standards. Lacey chased down urban trends and explained pop culture, while I became the staff writer for a short-lived real estate tabloid designed to bleed off a few ad dollars from the bloated Toronto Star New in Homes section (it seemed to be an advantage that I knew nothing about suburban real estate). Both of our sections eventually failed, as pretty well every innovation was bound to do over the next few decades. But we were literate, irreverent, semi-erudite writers in a conservative institution that valued phrase turners for some reason, and the paper was vast and varied enough that there was always interesting work to be had.

Until there wasn’t.

“If there was a single moment when I knew we were screwed . . .” So Lacey begins an engaging chronicle of our collective downfall. But really the screwing up and alienating had been going on for years, as the worried business overlords took control and the newsroom’s self-confidence was sapped. Managers who used to be defenders and protectors of the quirky, creative workforce became cold-blooded agents for the higher powers, skilled at pleasing upwards while autocratically imposing corporate schemes on the cowed rank-and-file — schemes that were designed to help us reach new demographics, generate innovative advertising revenue, and stave off destruction for a little longer. Skeptical writers who used to think they were in charge of the material that appeared under their bylines now did what they were told with all the weary ambivalence of the collaborator.

We were screwed over too many times to count, and so were the readers, disturbed and mystified by a once-confident institution that went through weird annual identity crises. The bosses’ way of dealing with all the threats of cancelled subscriptions was to act pleased that we were shedding older readers unwanted by advertisers. “Publishers pushed to make newspapers more appealing to people who don’t like to read,” Lacey writes all too knowledgeably. “More pictures, shorter stories, more lists, side-bars and ‘value-added’ consumer tips.”

As he notes with restrained horror, our advertisers became the real customers. I knew we were screwed when I noticed a series of unnecessary feature stories in the precious news pages promoting technological innovations above an ad from a company that just happened to be reinventing itself as a leader in the innovation business. This was the beginning of the despised custom-content era, the moment when big-bucks agencies, in collaboration with newspaper management, started directing and reshaping our editorial output, using innocent staff writers to give their sly strategy more credibility with deceived readers.

The concept of “fake news” hadn’t yet been articulated, but savvy newsroom cynics took grim pleasure rooting out the apparent fakery and complaining to anyone who would listen. Much of the travel section was now financed by the people being written about; eventually a lame proviso (more like a postviso) was inserted at the end of each sponsored story, as if that excused the casual attempt at luxury-lifestyle deception. The fashion pages seemed like one long objet-filled excuse for product puffery. More worryingly, news beats like health care and education were expanded in lockstep with the zeal of advertisers in those fields eager to buy space. But in a period of limited economic resources, what news stories and unlucrative areas are you neglecting when you write uncritical feature after uncritical feature on exciting new MRI technologies and the growing number of young women making their mark in STEM subjects?

The writing was on the wall when the shit-disturbing reporter Jan Wong was sent to Montreal after the Dawson College shooting and soon filed an opinionated Jan Wong kind of article that tied the immigrant shooter’s alienated rage to Quebec’s exclusionary pure laine identity. In the fury that ensued (including denunciations by the prime minister and the premier), my vulnerable colleague was left to twist in the wind by Globe bosses who should have owned the story and the reaction that followed, since it was published on their watch and by their designated troublemaker. Journalists who were just doing their job used to believe management would always have their back. No longer. Mess up, by the ambitious editors’ self-serving standards, and you’re on your own against the world.

We believed in our newspaper, yet it constantly betrayed our trust. Lacey articulates the deep faith that came from working for a serious journal with high standards and a palpable sense of integrity, and the Jesuitical knots we tied ourselves into to dissociate our work from the shabbier version of the place that couldn’t rise to its own standards. Whenever that bond was severed, when a tell‑all investigation about Doug Ford’s alleged youthful drug dealing failed to appear or some higher force (the publisher? the owners? the Illuminati?) bypassed the editorial board decision makers and determined that the paper would yet again offer up a tortured argument for a Conservative victory in the upcoming election, we realized we’d made a deal with the devil. And once again, the feelings of embarrassment (in Lacey’s case) or self-loathing (in mine) would wash over us. “It’s more complicated than you think,” whispered the conspiratorial national editor, after I denounced yet another knee-jerk Harper endorsement as an affront to the thoughtful, youthful, educated urban demographic we were supposed to be pursuing (marketing arguments being the only things bosses now understood). I have no idea what he meant, or why he thought my old‑man naïveté needed his sotto voce correction, but then preachy newspapers are among the least transparent institutions in this country.

Maybe we should have untightened our behinds, shed a few polysyllables, and signed on with a spunky tabloid — those folks at least had fun, to judge from all the stories in Fish Wrapped. A large measure of that self-cleansing hilarity came from knowing that there was nothing high-minded to believe in, no justification for taking yourself seriously like the broadsheet boys and girls, when you concocted Sunshine Girl captions and punning headlines on local carnage for a sexist right-wing rag. How could you believe you were on a mission, that you were embodying the J‑school vow to speak truth to power, when you were a young, hungover David Sherman being ordered to interview Montreal strippers shedding their clothes as a fundraiser for the Children’s Hospital — Tits for Tots, as the crass Brit editor called it.

But then you know you’re still, at heart, an old-school journalist when you coolly assess that tight little phrase and say, “Not bad.”