Wow...what a rush! On this page, I list the Top 10 stories — with a brief introduction in each article — which I have picked from among the hundreds written by me during a 30-year period.
In addition to those stories, I’d like to share a few anecdotes that illustrate just how unpredictable a career in journalism can be. I was rummaging through my old newspaper clippings the other day and came across a black-framed edition of The Montreal Daily Star dated Monday June 26, 1944 with a headline that reads:
Americans Mopping Up Nazis in Cherbourg; White Russia Fortress of Vitebsk Taken
Upon closer examination, what caught my eye was a British United Press story datelined London about “Nazi Robot bombs” hitting southern England in a daylight attack “as hundreds of Allied warplanes swept across the Channel to renew their assaults on the battle lines and enemy communications in France.”
The byline on the article was, By Walter Cronkite. The same Walter Cronkite who would go on to become an icon of American news broadcasts as the longtime anchor of CBS Nightly News for more than two decades starting in the 1960s.
The front page had a place of honor in the mid 1980s on the wall of my UPI Bureau Chief’s office, which had a magnificent view of foliage-rich Mont Royal in downtown Montreal. It evoked memories of the peripatetic meanderings inherent in most journalism careers.
In my case, it brings to mind the odd manner in which I fell into a summer job which evolved into a journalism career and a life-long fascination with media. The year was 1972 and I had just graduated with a Bachelor of Arts diploma from McGill University when Sid Tafler, a boyhood acquaintance who worked at The Canadian Press suggested that I apply to replace their sports reporter, Glen Cole, who was taking the summer off.
There I was on that warm, early June afternoon in the office of CP Bureau Chief Bill Stewart, himself a famous Canadian Second World War correspondent, discussing the prospects of the Montreal Alouettes for the upcoming Canadian Football League season.
Mr. Stewart (I still remember him as “Mr.”) was so enthused to learn that I had played some football at McGill University and had written a few football articles for The McGill Daily that he neglected to ask me whether I had any real journalism credentials.
So I — a two-finger, hunt-and-peck typist — with no journalism training was hired on the spot. Of course, the main filer — the title of the chief honcho in charge of the editing desk — was not as forgiving as Mr. Stewart. Don McLeod, a crusty editor who sometimes came to work with his hunting rifle, told me I had two weeks to get my typing up to speed and a few weeks beyond that to show that I had an aptitude for working at a wire service. CP was considered a rigorous training ground for Canadian journalists, who learned to work under intense deadline pressures and within strict editing guidelines. If not, they would be shown the door or, perhaps, Don McLeod’s hunting rifle!
Of course, this was one year before the infamous Watergate scandal that led to the resignation of U.S. President Richard Nixon and spawned the famous careers of Washington Post journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. They later wrote All the President’s Men. Prior to Watergate, there were few journalism programs offered at North American universities. A few years after Watergate, you couldn’t get a newsroom job interview without having a journalism school diploma.
No diploma...No problem
So thanks to timing, I was able kick start a journalism career without a journalism diploma. Luckily for me, The Canadian Press was superb training for an ambitious young journalist starting out.
Unlike the trajectory of most journalism careers which start with reporting and evolve into editing, I was trained from the get-go to become a Canadian Press rewrite man. Eight to 10 hours every shift, rewriting copy from local papers into wire service style articles for transmission to media outlets across Canada and around the world.
I loved the challenge of learning how to create the building blocks of cogent, concise journalistic prose. By the time I was 22 years of age, I had been promoted to become one of the two main filers — together with Don McLeod — at CP Montreal.
By 1975, I had come to the attention of The Montreal Star, which was looking for a young rewrite man to join veteran rewrite man Russ Peden, himself a stalwart former CP editor from the 1960s. I spent the first two years of my career at The Montreal Star on the main production shift, rewriting reporters’ stories which News Editor Garth Wilton deemed to be beyond the restorative powers of normal editing.
A rewrite entails a major restructuring of a story, not just editing out a word here and adding some punctuation there. If the News Editor and reporter agree on the changes, the reporter’s byline can stay. If not, the byline comes off. The final version of a published story is usually based on the judgment of the News Editor, not the reporter.
Traditionally, newspapers choose as their rewrite men desk editors who are masters of the language in which they are working — from the point of view of syntax, grammar and morphology of prose.
I loved the challenge of working rewrite at The Montreal Star and spent one very solid year there before transferring to an editorial desk known as the "RIM," where a team of editors hailing from countries around the world edited wire copy and wrote headlines, as well as photo cutlines for every story which appeared in the newspaper.
While working on the "RIM" in 1976, I rubbed shoulders with many distinguished journalists, including Jim Duff, who had started his career at The Gazette before switching to the Star and who later went on to a feisty broadcast career in radio. I mention Jim, in particular, because he had a sardonic sense of humour which kept me smiling through the long nights of editing.
So by 1977, after five years solid of doing rewrites, editing and headlines, my brain was “hard wired” for that skill set. I yearned to experience reporting and jumped on an opportunity that year when The Montreal Star appointed me its labor reporter.
But, unlike most reporters, I came from an intensive editing background — which to this day I give thanks for because it has made me a better writer and reporter, while allowing me over the years to help fellow journalists to polish their copy.
Perhaps, in light of my long editing apprenticeship, you can appreciate the joy I felt in having an opportunity later to apply those skills to the new challenges that I faced as a reporter.
The 10 stories I am sharing with you on this page were chosen because I think they represent an interesting range of articles for Canadian readers and, courtesy of the worldwide web, we are able to bring them to you.