"Where else would you go when you have an ax to grind?"

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

30 years before the masthead

This is from a few weeks back, but listen to Stuart McLean talks about why newspapers are important.  I couldn't agree more.

I've been writing paying copy or editing the words of others since I was 14 years old and sold my first piece to the Sault Star for 25 cents a column inch. I even had a neighborhood newspaper I published with a couple of friends when I was about six years old - as I recall my first bylined piece read something like "Jamie Smith just got a minibike this week for his birthday. What a lucky kid!" - I was editorializing even then.

I wrote for the Sault Star for a few months in high school and then covered Rotary Club meetings for the Ancaster Journal for a year or two while still in high school ( I didn't get paid, but all my friend's fathers bought me gin and tonics to keep me coming back - "follow the free booze" being a lesson I learned early in my career").

From there I went to the University of Waterloo's Imprint, Sheridan College's student paper and the Guelph Daily Mercury for a short co-op spell, where they gave me a front page byline above the fold my first day (may as well have been China white).

Then it was into the professional ranks in Ingersol, Ontario where in a regular week I covered events and wrote stories, took photos, rewrote press releases for publication, developed film and printed photos, laid out pages with a razor knife, hot wax and graphics tape with copy off a linotype machine  and one week even sold and laid out an ad and delivered the paper -- all for $230 a week before taxes and all the newsprint I could eat (and no, I am not speaking of the 1950s here -- this was in the late 80's).  

From there it was onward and upward to the Caledonia's Grand River Sachem, the good old Port Dover Maple Leaf, the Listowel Independent, The Napanee Beaver and finally the editorship of the oldest community newspaper in Canada, The Picton Gazatte. I don't think in the entire seven or so years I worked in the community news trade I ever put in fewer than 55 hours a week and most of the time with meeting to cover and the like, it was more like 70 hours. And I never made more than about $500 a week until I came to Japan a dozen years ago, where I work for a very, very different kind of newspaper for considerably better wages and, sadly in recent years, considerably less job satisfaction. 

The printed newspaper may be a on its way out, but opinion-riddled blogs will never replace good honest local journalism, and woe betide the community that doesn't have some poor, starving, scoop-hungry kid or two with ink in their veins and visions of Woodward and Bernstein  and Hersh and I. F. Stone in their heads, keeping an eye on the town council and the police service and the school board on your behalf. He may not know everyone's grandmother, he may not be from around here and he may have spelled your niece Kathie's name "Cathy" last week, but he's the only one going to all those meetings and putting two and two together to let you know that someone is about to build a quarry on the old swimming hole or tear down the old Johnson house to put in a landfill or that the planning committee is being run by the local real estate bund. 

The New York Times and the Toronto Star can evolve to on-line versions that are half TV and half  news and lifestyle magazine, but you lose that local rag at your peril, especially in a small town. Newspapers may be a dying industry, but the world still needs trained, professional journalists to balance out the pretty show-biz people on television and the national celebrity media villagers in the major magazines. Where will you be without those uncredited, underpaid, underappreciated rock-solid beat reporters who are there to bear witness at every council meeting, who are there at the police station every day, who are covering the endless, dull school board meetings, sifting through the committee minutes for a little gold or checking into the claims of the PR people, the spin-doctors, the press agents and marketing flacks? Up to your neck in bullshit and hype, that's where.

 You think Can-West or the Toronto Star or Edmonton Sun or CFRB give a rat's ass about following up on rumors that the water in some little town might not be up to the proper health standards? Oh, sure they'll pick up the story if somebody dies, but it going to be a little late for the locals then. You think the Vancouver Province or the New York Times or the Montreal Gazette care if half the municipal budget of your little township is being handed to the brother of the Reeve? Not unless he get runs for federal office and get photographed without his pants at kids' summer camp. The local paper is your first line of defense against rumor, official skulduggery and the only place you can find out how the local Jr. B hockey team is doing or who the new high school principal is going to be, or whether a teacher at the local school is going to jail for molesting kids or some 14-year-old just had it in for him and made the whole thing up. 

Read your paper while you still can.

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