The column I never got to write for the Calgary Herald

Posted by on May 30, 2016 in Brian's Blog, Journalism, Newspapers and Magazines | 0 comments

It’s been 16 years since I left my job as a Calgary Herald staff writer and became a full-time freelance journalist and author of books of biography and popular history.

It wasn’t an unforced departure, although the decision to leave was mine alone. Theoretically, I could have gone back into that building after walking a picket line for seven months, but I couldn’t face the prospect of doing that. The atmosphere in the newsroom had become so toxic by the time we hit the bricks – that’s why we unionized – that I expected it would still be the same when the strike ended. In fact, I expected it to be worse. Without a collective agreement to protect us from retribution, and without a formal grievance procedure to deal with staff complaints, we would have been as vulnerable as flowers in a hailstorm.

Most of my fellow writers on the line did the same. We took our marbles and went off to play someplace else. As a result, none of us got to write the farewell columns some might have written under happier circumstances.

Such columns are rarely written nowadays. Job security in the newspaper business has become so elusive that when veteran writers are offered buyout packages they simply take the money, clean out their desks, and don’t look back.

An exception occurred in 2008 when Calgary Herald columnist Catherine Ford retired and wrote a sentimental 2,700-word piece recalling some of the highlights of her 44-year career with the paper. An exception also occurred this week when the Toronto Star’s national affairs correspondent, Tim Harper, wrote his final column after 34 years with the paper.

Harper didn’t make his last column about himself. It was mostly about Justin Trudeau’s take-charge demeanour at the Liberal convention in Winnipeg. But Harper did take the last couple of paragraphs to thank the Star for “giving me the privilege of writing this column” and express appreciation to the readers “who gave me their most precious gift, their time.”

Which led me to wonder, what would I have said if given an opportunity to write a farewell column when I took the package in 2000?

I would have thanked a few people, too. I would have thanked the city editor who “poached” me from the Herald’s sister paper in Prince George when Southam managers were not supposed to do that. I would have thanked the editor who covered my family’s moving expenses to Calgary. I would have thanked the Herald editors who allowed me to do the kind of writing that was more about craft than front-page scoops. I would have thanked the readers, some of whom later bought my books.

My first three publishers at the Herald, from 1974 to 1995, were former reporters who had risen through the ranks. It was great to work for them. They saw journalism as a public service, as a business with a conscience and a higher purpose, not just a license to print money. Which candidates should readers vote for in the upcoming municipal elections? Should taxpayers fund chartered schools? Our job as reporters was not to tell readers what to do but to give them enough information and analysis to make their own decisions.

Back then the reporters had beats. One reporter covered education. Exclusively. Another reporter covered the environment, another covered Native affairs, another covered labour, another covered health. In the arts and entertainment department, where I worked for more than half of my 25 years at the Herald, we had a writer for every discipline. One wrote about dance, another wrote about classical music, another wrote about books, another wrote about the visual arts. I wrote about professional theatre. We also had a reporter who wrote about amateur theatre.

Those were the best of times. I say that not as a misty-eyed nostalgist but as someone who was lucky enough to work at the Herald when the Toronto owners believed their newspapers were important chroniclers of record. They allowed their local publishers plenty of latitude in terms of spending whatever it took to do a good job of gathering and disseminating the news.

So what else would I have said – aside from reminiscing about the good old days – in that farewell column for the Herald? I would have said I hoped the profit motives of the corporate bosses would never serve to compromise the paper’s ability to produce quality journalism. I would have said that while I understood newspapers had to make money to survive, they should not do so by ripping the heart out of the beast. I would have included the quote attributed to New York Times editor Abe Rosenthal that I first heard from Pat O’Callaghan, my favourite Herald publisher: “When times get tough, you don’t dilute the meal by putting more water in the soup. You put more tomatoes in the soup.”

Would the Herald have published such a column from me? Maybe not, but I would have written it anyhow.

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Copyright 2016 Brian Brennan - Author

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