I have been asked countless times over the years why I got into journalism.
The question was sometimes posed by someone who wondered why a sensible guy like me would go into a business with badly paid jobs filled by scoundrels and malcontents. Often, however, it was asked by a fresh-faced journalism student who was eager to bring a touch of idealism to a world sorely in need of it.
My answer has always been the same. I got into journalism because I figured it was a way to meet girls. The guys who got rich in boring jobs always understood. I’m not sure the idealists ever did.
I arrived at the U of S with no particular inclination toward working on a newspaper. I read the Star Phoenix as a kid and I was a good speller but there was nothing that shouted this would be my career.
This changed in first-year English. I sat beside a guy who had started to contribute things to the Sheaf and who encouraged me to come to a party to meet a few of the staff. I went and discovered the Sheaf was a home for smart, verbally clever and politically committed girls. I was hooked.
Even better, I discovered there was a world filled with people like this – both men and women – when I dropped in on a CUP conference that first Christmas when I was in Vancouver.
In my second year, I started contributing stuff although I’m grateful I can’t remember what it was. They ran it because it was handed in on time and there were no problems with spelling or grammar. By Christmas of that year, the editor-in-chief had fallen ill and I took over because, I suspect, no one else was foolish enough to take the job.
By the spring, I had become the duly appointed editor-in-chief and spent my third year doing this for the princely sum of $125 a month. This mean that I got my name first on the masthead, that the university administration knew who to tell at when something in the paper crossed over the line and that I put out the paper single-handedly at exam time.
This was where I learned the craft of journalism. Everything I picked up subsequently at Carleton University, at the Ottawa Citizen, at the Toronto Star and in three decades at the Globe and Mail merely added polish.
In the old office in the MUB basement all those years ago, I learned things that have been overtaken by the digital age – how to size pictures, gauge story lengths and make headlines fit. I wrote editorials, picture cutlines and news stories. I dealt with the advertising manager and the printer and even tried to stay within budget.
I got my first dateline when I persuaded somebody to let me fly to Edmonton. Thousands more of those followed but I’m not sure if they were as thrilling as that first one.
I learned the burden of responsibility when a libel suit was aimed at me and when the staff – which styled itself as a co-operative – took advantage of my absence one press night to do up an edition in a way that I thought was truly awful. I changed it on the fly and stared down their disapproval.
But I also learned how to have fun with words and pictures and how to use the power of the press to mount political campaigns. I revelled in tweaking the nose of the powers on the campus and in the city.
Mostly, however, I learned to love the company of journalists. As a group, they are funny, irreverent, maladjusted and kind-hearted when they aren’t being grotesquely ambitious. They have proven to be great company in the many continents I travelled to for work. I cherish the lifetime friendships I made from toiling in the trenches.
Nowadays, three years removed from journalism, I often get asked if I miss the racket. Looking around at the uncertainty in the profession and the sorry state of many newspapers, I can honestly say no.
But I am always quick to add that I sometimes ache at missing the company of journalists. For me, that’s the real legacy of my time at the Sheaf.