In praise of “ink-stained wretches”

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Well, if there’s a daily prompt I can’t let pass it’s this one – newspaper.

I was for 30-plus years, and still at least part-time, what veteran Canadian journalist Allan Fotheringham has often called an “ink-stained wretch.” (Now Foth, don’t deny it, I remember you using that expression quite often when your column appeared regularly in Maclean’s Magazine. I trust you still do wherever your work now appears in print, as it must surely. It gets to be a habit doesn’t it, this work we do? Like breathing.)

Anyway, his description is apt. Many were the political meetings and various other events I left with ink-stained fingers as I hurried back to the newsroom, five minutes or more than an hour away, and tried to focus on a lede. Sometimes it was pretty obvious; sometimes not. Sometimes I nailed it; most often, I like to think. Sometimes I blew it, like the time I buried the best lede of my career in the last paragraph of that Grey County Council story in 1993. My city editor (Hi, Bill) was not amused.

But on the whole I think I did okay, for a guy without a journalism degree.

I managed to win a Western Ontario Newspaper award in 1994 as a member of a three-person, Owen Sound Sun Times team that did a series on fresh-water as a diminishing and threatened global resource. I also won an Ontario Newspaper Award in 2005 for my weekly column, Point, Counterpoint which still appears every Saturday in the same newspaper.

I was hired on as a full-time staff reporter on the basis of the quality and quantity of my performance as a freelance correspondent covering local news on the Bruce Peninsula. Every other new-hire usually had an M.A. in journalism.

Yes, they were hiring reporters in the 1980s. The Sun Times, a Southam daily at the time, had a well-earned reputation as a proving ground for journalists who often went on to bigger things, at the Toronto Star or Ottawa Citizen, for example. Nowadays though, with the digital age and social media in full swing, the newspaper business is struggling. The Sun Times had an editorial staff at least four or five times bigger than it is now. Based in a small city of 21,000 people it had a daily circulation of 25,000 because it covered the large, surrounding small-town, rural area so well, in addition to the city.

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A recent front page of The Sun Times

I moved up to the peninsula in the summer of 1979. I had a wife and a child, and another on the way; and no job. But I soon found work at a local sawmill, and also as a construction labourer. Then one fateful day I saw an ad in The Sun Times’ help wanted classifieds for someone to do freelance reporting in the Wiarton area, mainly provincial court and council

“Not much happens up there,” I was told when I asked if they would take other stories I might find. Well, that turned out not to be true, quite the contrary. To a certain extent, I got lucky with the timing of some local controversies. But I also showed that I had a flare for doing interesting features about local people, especially elders, and local landmarks. I also developed a reputation as someone who liked to dig deeper, in an investigative way.

Possibly because I always had more than a bit of an inferiority complex I over-compensated by being very prolific. I was also just simply driven, to get to the bottom of the story and ask the hard questions of local politicians, for example, who seemed to be hiding something. Refusing to answer my questions just made me all the more determined; then I knew for sure I was on to something.

Underlying my approach to my job as a journalist was a deep-seated belief that people had a “right to know” what public officials, elected or otherwise, were doing with the public trust.

But it was always troubling and confounding that journalism and journalists are not held in high regard by a large segment of the public. I think it’s been said we rank somewhere in the vicinity of lawyers in that regard. In my experience, watching the way my colleagues at The Sun Times worked so conscientiously to get the story right and be fair to all concerned, I know the profession deserves more respect.

I have made my share of mistakes in print. Thank goodness most of them were caught by copy editors, the unsung heroes of the newspaper business. Nowadays I fear the pressure on journalists to produce too many daily stories in under-resourced newsrooms is doing the profession no favours in that regard.

One of the great things about newspapers in print is they stand as part of the public record of events for as long as the paper they’re printed on survives. Being aware of that is also part of the huge responsibility that comes with being a journalist.

It’s hard and demanding work, mentally and emotionally. It’s not for the faint of heart, or the careless, or the foolish.

But it’s very important work. There’s a reason why Freedom of the Press is one of the first of the Rights and Freedoms included in the written constitutions or the long-understood conventions of free countries.

Hear me, my children, beware of anyone who says or  acts otherwise.

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