I first met Ralph Klein in April 1974. He was a 31-year-old city hall reporter for CFCN TV in Calgary. I was a 30-year-old police reporter for the Calgary Herald.
As a newly-arrived staffer at the so-called “newspaper of record” for Southern Alberta, I was led to believe that television reporters were a lower form of journalistic life. They did little more than parrot on the six o’clock news the stories the Herald had broken earlier that day. “We have a saying about Ralph Klein,” one of my newsroom colleagues told me. “There are eight million stories in the Naked City and Ralph doesn’t have any of them.”
As it turned out, Ralph had lots of them. But they weren’t necessarily the kinds of stories Herald reporters were encouraged to pursue. We interviewed business leaders, sports heroes and politicians. Because of the unashamedly pro-establishment bias of our editorial bosses, we referred to ourselves, ironically, as the “fearless champions of the overdog.” Klein talked to bikers and hookers, and saw himself as a voice for the dispossessed. He offered the view from the street, focussing on those marginalized by society. In the process, he abandoned all semblance of journalistic objectivity.
He told me this after he’d been mayor for eight years. He said he eventually had to get out of television news because he reached a point where he wasn’t reporting fairly. “It bothered me when I realized I was writing one-sided stories instead of getting all the facts.”
Case in point was a year-long crusade he had waged, starting in 1978, against a grandiose city council plan to spend $234 million on a civic centre complex to house an ever-expanding city hall administration. Klein never tried to hide his feeling that this monument to civic bureaucracy would be a colossal waste of taxpayers’ dollars. “I really couldn’t present a balanced report because I thought everything that was happening was so wrong.”
Calgary voters who shared Klein’s concerns about the exorbitant cost of the civic centre rejected the proposed expenditure in a 1979 plebiscite. When the mayor of the day, Ross Alger, announced he would try to get the project approved when he ran for re-election the following year, Klein saw red. He decided to do something about it and run for mayor himself. “Nobody suggested I do this. Everyone thought I was absolutely crazy.”
But Klein didn’t think he was crazy. He felt Alger had lost touch with the voters, and that a television reporter who knew the inner workings of city hall could be a viable alternative. With a 27-year-old political science student named Rod Love orchestrating his campaign, Klein ran on a platform of keeping the lines of communication open at city hall. He soundly defeated the incumbent by more than 15,000 votes.
I never thought he was going to win. Neither did my Herald colleagues. We thought that if Alger lost, it would be to an opportunistic former alderman named Peter Petrasuk, not to a 37-year-old reporter named Ralph Klein. So in a spirit of journalistic solidarity we gave Ralph our sympathy vote. But in the end he hardly needed it. His support came from not from the suits who frequented the Petroleum Club and occupied the Stampede boxes but from the ordinary folks who went to the beer parlours and the curling bonspiels. In his first speech to the Chamber of Commerce Club after his victory, Klein quipped: “I’d like to thank all the people who voted for me in the recent civic election. I understand they’re all working in the kitchen.”
After having asked the tough questions as a reporter for 11 years, Klein was more than ready to mix it up with other reporters when he found himself on the opposite side of the microphones. When a CFCN newsman, Murray Cunningham, criticized the mayor’s office for refusing to act on a sexual harassment complaint from a Handi-Bus passenger, Klein – in the presence of other journalists, with cameras and tapes rolling – accused Cunningham of “torquing” the story, i.e. giving it a harder edge for the sake of urgency. Replied Cunningham, “Well, you should know about torquing. You did enough of it in your time.” Retorted Klein, “That’s how I can tell when a story is being torqued. I’ve been in the media long enough to know all the tricks.”
Afterwards Klein conceded that had he been in Cunningham’s shoes, he likely would have played the story the same way. “But maybe being mayor has taught me a little bit more about getting both sides of the story.”
There was nobody on stage to talk about Ralph’s journalistic achievements during his memorial this past Friday. All the eulogies were given by politicians, present and former, who talked about his political contributions and drinking escapades. That left a big part of his story untold. Ralph was a reporter before he was a politician. Though he often wore his heart on his sleeve, he did so because he cared. Even if he only told one side of the story, he could never be accused of having willfully distorted the truth for the sake of being sensational. He carried that reporter’s passion for truth telling through 26 years of often turbulent political life to the end of his days.
You can read an excerpt from Leaving Dublinhere on the Amazon website. What follows in this post is a summary, chapter by chapter, of what else you can find in my book of memoirs. If it whets your appetite for more, you can order your copy (paperback or e-book) here.
Piano Lessons. You can read some of this on the Amazon website. My mother tells my father it’s more important for us to have a piano than a family car. The lessons pay off. At age 14, I land a paying gig as a church organist.
Boys Will be Boys. It’s Dublin in the 1950s, long before the Celtic Tiger roars. Life for us as kids is a carousel of playing in the lane, going to the movies, and eating french fries. Our parents teach us that a good education is the key to everything good in life.
Coming of Age. I get my first summer job away from home and learn about girls. I join the civil service and become bored stiff. My friend Michael Murphy and I talk about moving to another country.
Coming to Canada. We immigrate to Canada. Vancouver is our chosen destination. We have no plan. We just want to see if the grass is really greener.
Journey into Show Business. I join forces with an Irish tenor named Shay Duffin. We call ourselves the Dublin Rogues. We make records and tour the clubs and concert halls of eastern Canada. My mother wonders when I’m going to get a real job.
Journey into Journalism. I go to journalism school for two months. That’s good enough to land me a reporting job at the weekly newspaper in Smithers, British Columbia. My mother is relieved. Zelda and I get married and Nicole is born.
Nights on Air. We move to Prince George. I read the news on CJCI Radio. I quit to play piano in a local pizza parlour. My mother gets anxious again.
Give My Regards to Old Prince George. I join the daily Citizen as a reporter. My mother is happy that I’ve finally gotten the music thing out of my system. I cover city hall and write pop music reviews.
Remember Me to Herald Square. We move to Calgary. I cover cops for the Herald and then start writing about theatre. What do I know about theatre? Not much but I’m a quick study.
The Tribute Column. After 13 years on the theatre beat, I’m ready for a change. I write features for the Herald’s Sunday magazine and then agree to write an obituary column for the daily paper. My colleagues think I’m one brick short of a full load.
Locked Out. We unionize the Herald newsroom and get locked out while bargaining for a first contract. After eight months on the picket line, some of us go back into the building. Most of us go on to other things. I write my first book.
In Search of a Literary Ancestor. I discover my maternal grandmother’s great-grandmother, Máire Bhuí Ní Laoire, was a renowned folk poet in West Cork. I write a book about her.
Moving to the Front of the Generational Train. Reflections on the lives and deaths of my parents. They wanted for nothing more than to give their children a good start in life. They surely succeeded.
Postmedia Network has scrapped the Sunday editions of the Calgary Herald, Edmonton Journal and Ottawa Citizen, put the National Post’s Monday edition on hiatus for the second summer in a row, and announced plans to stop publishing print editions of the chain’s papers on national holidays. More newsroom jobs will be lost, local news coverage will continue to shrink, and the future of the business will continue to look bleak. Pat O’Callaghan must be turning in his grave.
It seems like only yesterday (it was actually in 1982) that O’Callaghan came to Calgary from Edmonton to become the Herald’s publisher. At the time, the upstart Calgary Sun had a Sunday edition, but not the Herald. ”This minor daily paper should not have the Sunday market all to itself,” said O’Callaghan. He announced that the Herald would thenceforth publish its own Sunday edition because “we live in a seven-day world.” Three years later, he added a Sunday magazine to the paper. That supplement appeared for the next six years, and won a few national and regional awards for writing and photography. (Full disclosure: I was one of the magazine’s writers.)
Although the Sunday magazine had its own dedicated staff – two full-time writers, one full-time photographer, two full-time copy editors, and an editor-in-chief – the same did not hold true for the Sunday paper itself. That was a missed opportunity, to my mind. Instead of stretching six days of coverage over seven, Herald management should have put a full-time team of reporters, editors and photographers in place to produce an independent Sunday paper.
Management should also have taken some of those additional Sunday advertising dollars and used them to recruit a rotating roster of guest columnists (Aritha van Herk, Sharon Pollock, Fred Stenson, Sid Marty, Sam Selvon, etc.) to give the Sunday paper its own voice and identity. The resulting publication might not have had the same cachet as the Sunday New York Times, or even the Saturday Globe with its great standalone book review section, now much missed. But at least it would have stood out from the Monday to Saturday editions as a paper with a distinctive style and tone.
By the time Herald management finally got around to remaking the Sunday paper in accordance with reader surveys, it was too little too late. The paper was heavy on cosmetic changes and light on content reimagining. There was little in it for readers who had grown used to living without a local Sunday paper.
What will the Herald lose when the Sunday edition is axed at the end of July? We have yet to hear what sections will move to Saturday and to other days of the week. But I think it’s fair to speculate that books coverage will not be one of them. Book reviews don’t attract advertising and now, more than ever, advertising support is the key to the Herald’s survival. Sad but true.
One section deserves to die. The paper should get rid of the Sunday spreads of photos from the local cocktail party scene that, to my mind, take up an unnecessary amount of valuable space. But Corporate Calgary has to be kept happy, I suppose, so these pretty pictures are undoubtedly here to stay. Atwood will become irrelevant but the Stampede Queen must reign forever.
O’Callaghan was handed a great gig when he became the Herald’s publisher. Not only did he have the freedom to launch a Sunday edition and magazine, but he also had the freedom to make the Herald reflect his philosophy that a newspaper should “never be bland, colourless or gutless.”
Today, there is plenty of bland, precious little colour, and hardly any gutsiness. That’s what happens when you’re owned by a bunch New York hedge funds that care only about profit.
I see no light at the end of this tunnel. The demise of the Sunday editions is just the beginning of the end for Postmedia as a publisher of printed newspapers. I can only echo the wise words of a first-year journalism student who said to me recently, “I feel like we’re being trained to work for a business that will no longer exist by the time we graduate.”
As soon as I read in the paper yesterday morning that the old Calgary Herald building was slated for demolition to make way for a 50-storey office tower, I wanted to have my picture taken in front of the 7th Avenue landmark. A CBC Radio reporter, Mary-Catherine McIntosh, kindly obliged after first interviewing me for a story about the seven years, 1974-81, that I spent working in the building as a reporter and columnist.
I told Mary-Catherine I was saddened to hear about the pending demise of this former workplace of mine because it’s another part of Calgary’s history that’s being sacrificed at the altar of commercial progress. Granted it’s not the most architecturally striking building in the world – a functionalist 1967 makeover took away much of the aesthetic character of the original 1912 structure – but it’s still an important link with our city’s past.
A lot of good journalism was done in that building. A columnist for the competing Albertan used to dub our paper“The Old Grey Lady of 7th Avenue,” which he intended as an insult but which we accepted as a compliment because of the obvious comparison with The New York Times. Like the Times, we saw ourselves as the trusted newspaper of record for our region, not as a purveyor of cheap thrills or sensationalism.
We earned that trust by dint of hard work and independent reporting. We didn’t pander to politicians and we didn’t pander to advertisers. Of course I can be accused of bias but I always felt we were standing on the shoulders of distinguished predecessors who believed their fight to preserve the freedom of the press was a fight for democracy itself.
That's me on the left circa 1980, with a lot more hair than I have now!
During my first week on the job there I was surprised and pleased to discover that back in 1938 the Herald, along with four other Alberta dailies led by Edmonton Journal publisher John Imrie, had been honoured with a special Pulitzer Prize – the first one given outside the United States – for its spirited crusade against the Social Credit government’s attempt to gag the press. I was proud to be part of a news organization that would take a government to the Supreme Court of Canada to establish its right to tell the truth.
The 7th Ave building was the Herald’s headquarters from 1932 to 1981. Located across the street from the Bay, it was connected to the downtown’s beating heart in a way that’s never possible when you live in the suburbs. City hall, the police station, the courts, the library, the school board and the corporate head offices were all within easy walking distance. We did most of our interviews in person, not over the phone. If a freight train had derailed near the Palliser Hotel, the Herald’s reporters and photographers would have gotten to the scene before the fire trucks.
I was disappointed when the Herald moved in 1981 to a new building northeast of downtown near the intersection of Deerfoot and Memorial. Our bosses told us there was a practical reason for this. We had purchased new printing presses that the paper’s 7th Avenue mechanical building was too small to accommodate. But did we have to move the paper’s editorial offices out there as well? I never thought so, but then I was just a reporter. I didn’t have any say in the executive decisions made by senior management.
We did maintain a Herald presence in the 7th Avenue building for a short time after moving out to the Deerfoot and Memorial location. If you wanted to buy a classified ad, you could still do so at the downtown office. But maintaining two separate offices proved impractical during the ensuing economic downturn, and the downtown office was quietly closed in 1982. Removed from the front window were the big clocks announcing the time in Tokyo, Berlin and Los Angeles, and the only remaining visible reminders of the building’s journalistic history were two small “Herald building” signs outside on the southeast corner.
The City of Calgary considers the Herald building to be of significant historical value and has included it in its heritage inventory. It seems baffling to me, therefore, that a developer can simply send out eviction notices to 60 existing tenants and announce this pending demolition without any word of protest from city council or the city’s heritage planning department. This is supposed to be Calgary’s big year for commemorating its cultural heritage, with centennial celebrations planned by the Calgary Public Library, the Stampede, the Grand Theatre (just across the road from the old Herald) and the Pumphouse. Let’s not spoil it by destroying one 100-year-old landmark while remembering the others.
Herald theatre critic Brian Brennan, TV critic Bill Musselwhite and arts columnist Patrick Tivy were advertised on Calgary billboards and buses during the 1980s
I was appointed chief theatre critic of the Calgary Herald in 1975, when I was 31. I did the job for 13 years and then moved on to other journalistic endeavours. At that point, I knew it was time to try something different. The landscape of arts coverage had changed and so had I. During the 1970s, a flowering of the arts in Canada had brought with it a flowering of arts journalism in Canadian newspapers. By 1988, the primary newspaper focus was on “fun reads.” Instead of exploring and chronicling, arts writers were encouraged to dispense the light, the bright and the trite. One of the Herald’s regular front-page features was a throwaway piece of fluff called the “Daily Dazzler.” Style trumped content at almost every turn.
The theatre beat had been a great gig while it lasted. The Herald portrayed Calgary as a sophisticated modern city with all the cultural trappings. To reinforce this image, the paper had a theatre critic whose job included travelling to such centres of theatrical activity as Vancouver, Montreal, Toronto, Winnipeg, Stratford, New York and London to write about shows that might one day be produced in Calgary. When you consider the size of the Calgary market in 1975 – with only three professional theatres: Theatre Calgary, ATP and Lunchbox – this was pretty amazing. My travel budget was the envy of critics across the country. Aside from documenting the achievements on the local stage, I got to go to these other places and report back. What did I see? Was there anything valuable, useful or important on offer? The local theatres included many of my top picks in their longlists for the upcoming seasons.
There was no Hollywood gossip in the paper back then. Coverage of the pop music scene was minuscule. When Elvis died in 1977, it was front-page news across the country except in Calgary. However, Rick McNair’s appointment as Theatre Calgary’s artistic director did make the front page. The Herald thought of itself as a newspaper for adults, not a comic paper for teenyboppers. Never mind the fact that fewer people were going to the theatre than were cramming into the Corral for the rock concerts. Theatre, opera and symphony concerts reigned supreme in the Herald’s live entertainment coverage.
Another difference between then and now was that the Herald saw itself as a leader not as a panderer. The newspaper bosses didn’t conduct customer surveys or assemble focus groups to find out what readers wanted to see in the paper. They didn’t take their cues from the other media. The editors and the writers gave the readers what they considered important. They did so in much the same way that some literary juries today give prizes to books they think people ought to read. Patronizing? Perhaps. But to paraphrase a later quote from Steve Jobs, we didn’t think readers would know what they wanted until we gave it to them.
Things started to change in the mid-1980s when the Herald allowed itself to become a second-rate player of television’s game. It stopped leading and began copying. Instead of continuing to do what it did best, providing thoughtful, analytical, detailed coverage of the arts, the paper turned into the print equivalent of Entertainment Tonight. The columns became shorter and the graphics became larger. The Herald could never compete with the excitement, the urgency or the energy of television, but it tried. And failed.
There were still some very good things about the arts and entertainment section of the paper. Its coverage of books and the visual arts were still second to none in Canada, though largely confined to one day a week. So too, despite truncated travel budgets and constricted space, were its coverage of theatre, dance and popular music. But classical music coverage virtually disappeared from the paper and opera coverage became essentially promotional. In their stead came celebrity tittle-tattle and an emphasis on pop culture.
Could it be that I had become old guard and failed to move with the times? Perhaps. But as I said in a 1988 article for the Canadian Theatre Review, if moving with the times meant becoming light, bright and trite, then I would remain rooted resolutely in the past. I preferred to think of moving with the times as being aware of what Peter Brook, Peter Sellars and Philip Glass were doing, not developing the kind of glibness that it takes to be booked as a guest on the Letterman Show.
You can read more about that vibrant period in Canadian theatre history as I viewed it from 1975 onwards in my newly published book of memoirs, Leaving Dublin: Writing my Way from Ireland to Canada. If you have an iPad, iPhone or iPod Touch, you can download a free sample from the book via iTunes.