The old Ottawa Journal is one of three newspapers I used to work on that exist no longer. They died more than 30 years ago, victims of the increasing power of television. And they died long before the digital revolution came on the scene to suck even more life out of newspapers.
It was an ugly newspaper (I suppose the term graphic artist had not been coined in those days) fraught with naïve ownership and nepotism and helmed by newsroom management whose major preoccupation seemed to be toeing the budget line.
The only splurging that I recall came in early December when each person in the newsroom received a cheque for a week’s pay and a note saying the Christmas bonus was being handed out to all employees who were “not organized.” That was code for not being a member of a dreaded union, in this case the Newspaper Guild. The printers working in the composing room did not receive the Christmas cheques because they belong to the International Typographical Union.
The Journal, where I worked from 1968 to 1972, was headquartered in a decrepit building on Queen Street and we reached the newsroom on the sixth floor (as I recall) thanks to Walter who operated the elevator cage.
The gloomy newsroom was ventilated in summer by a huge floor-model fan augmented by the downtown air blowing through the windows. They opened like revolving doors and could not accommodate screens.
On a warm summer night, the air would blow in through the windows bringing in moths, flies and other bugs to join the usual coterie of reporters and editors toiling away at their typewriters.
To counter the nightly invasion of insects, a curly yellow anti-pest strip hung uncoiled from the ceiling just over the news desk.
Busy on a section of the ceiling over a pod of reporters’ desks in a corner with a couple of windows was another group of insects. They were spiders weaving webs to take advantage of the influx of would-be prey.
Occasionally a spider would drop down to a desk and it happened to me one day. I brushed the spider onto a sheet of paper and took it to show the secretary of the managing editor. She screamed so I retreated back to my desk, point made (I thought).
I was secretly hoping the ME would notice and call in the cleaners to scrub the ceiling. But that did not happen.
The Journal was a dozy place populated with dozy people in crucial positions.
You would have thought there would be great interest when the Journal’s parent company, FP Newspapers, based in Toronto, submitted a bid to buy a parcel of land a few blocks away. The Journal’s plan, as we later learned, was to build twin towers on the site, taking over some of the space for its own operations. The rest of the space would be leased to other organizations, mainly the federal government that seemed to be expanding exponentially in the years of Trudeaumania.
The land was once the site of an old elementary school, Kent Street Public School, no longer needed as the downtown expanded into adjacent neighborhoods and residents migrated into the growing suburbs.
The Ottawa Public School Board had planned to sell the site to a developer without putting it up for auction and possibly receiving a better price. The decision raised a hue and cry in the city – and in the editorial pages of The Journal and its main rival, The Ottawa Citizen – so the school board reversed itself and put the land up for tender.
The day finally arrived for the public opening of bids on the land in front of the board members and the media. And the winner was the good old Ottawa Journal’s parent company. On hand for The Citizen was reporter Alan Holman.
“The school board usually met in the evening, but the tenders were opened at noon on a Wednesday. I know it was a Wednesday because I worked nights, and covered the school board once or twice a month. I went in on Wednesday morning to pick up my pay envelope. We were paid weekly, in cash (how quaint was that). When I was at the office I remembered that this was the day for the tender opening. I rushed down O’Connor Street to the school board offices and got there just in time for the unveiling of the model of the twin towers and the announcement of the winning bid,” Holman told me in a response to an earlier version of this story. “I turned to the only other reporter there, and said, I guess you’ve already written the story and you’re just here to make certain they opened the bid.
“I don’t work for The Journal,” she said, “I work for the CBC.
“I ran to the phone and called a photographer to get a pic of the model, and then rushed back to the office and threw the story together for the late edition. It was, as you can imagine a delicious scoop.”
The Journal newsroom staff found out about the winning bid by reading the story on the front page of the Citizen. It was like a bombshell had landed in the newsroom. The Journal had been scooped on its own story.
The newsroom was in turmoil when I walked in to start my shift late in the afternoon. City desk staff accused newspaper management of failing to tell them about the impending bid, a valid point. Of course, the city desk staff was supposed to maintain a daily agenda, including such events as public meetings of city council, school boards and other public bodies. That would seem to include a public meeting of the school board on the opening of bids for a plot of land that had become a cause célèbre.
What else could you expect from a newspaper that had given the bum’s rush in 1945 to Igor Gouzenko, a cipher clerk from the Soviet embassy, who arrived at The Journal office with a suitcase full of code books and deciphering information. The night editor said he wasn’t interested, probably in a rush to get out for a beer.
To be fair, Gouzenko had been brushed off earlier in the day by the RCMP when officers refused to believe his story.
He returned to an RCMP office the next day and persuaded some contacts that his documents were genuine and thus began the Cold War, which lasted until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1990.
And if that event did not establish a legacy of incompetence at The Ottawa Journal, it certainly contributed to building one.
All of us who worked there probably did in our own way, cutting corners here and there or not making the extra phone call to round out a story.
I can remember going to work early on a Sunday morning, directly from an all-night party that had been fuelled by various illicit substances.
I told Walter, the elevator operator that I was going to the women’s lounge on the fifth floor. It had several couches and I knew I could stretch out on one of them to catch up on my sleep.
A couple of hours later, Walter came rushing in to say, “The boss just walked into the office.”
I splashed some water on my face and walked up to the newsroom. I nonchalantly picked up the phone to look busy, tossing a casual wave at Bill Metcalfe, the managing editor.
I was probably able to grind out a story that day, but my heart just wasn’t in my work. Anyway, how many governments can a reporter expect to topple on a lazy Sunday in the summer.
Reporters were also called on to work a double shift from time to time. Work started at 5 p.m. on Saturday and ended at 8 a.m. the next day.
It was the kind of schedule that could play havoc with your social life. I didn’t want it to interfere with my Saturday night date, so I invited a young lady to accompany me to the office when it was my turn to work the shift. We went out for a few drinks (there being no assignment to cover) and then returned, heading to the ladies lounge on the fifth floor. The elevator operator stopped work at 5 p.m. so we took the stairs and we were all alone in the building.
After enjoying some intimate moments, we strolled up to the newsroom where the police radio was crackling about a fire in Westboro, a neighborhood of Ottawa.
We jumped in a cab and headed to the scene of the conflagration. While my date stayed in the cab, I went around to talk to the people watching the firefighters put out the last of the flames that had badly damaged a small hotel.
It was about 2 a.m. and many guests exited their second-floor rooms by descending the hotel’s exterior fire escapes. As I recall, some jumped from their windows breaking limbs, making for extra drama.
With my notebook filled, we headed back to the office where we transferred from the taxi to my car and I drove my date home.
What a night! I had managed to knock back a few beers, entertain my date, cover a story and write it before the first of the reporters straggled in for work on Sunday morning. Nobody could accuse me of slacking.
That was in the late 1960s-early ’70s when reporters were trying to slip the surly bonds of city desk assignments and do enterprise reporting by digging up stories beyond the police blotter, court proceedings, council meetings, press releases and press conferences – in other words, writing about someone else’s agenda. We were approaching the era of investigative reporting. I don’t recall that we used the term at the time, but many reporters wanted to do longer and in-depth pieces.
One of the reporters pushing for a bolder approach to news was Jeff Carruthers who persuaded The Journal to allow him to create a science beat. He produced a steady stream of stories detached from the usual agenda thanks to the fertile presence of the National Research Council and two universities in the city.
He also produced an occasional sheet called the Internal Journal, which critiqued some of the stories in the newspaper and questioned why others weren’t in the newspaper.
The commentaries in the Internal Journal caused a lot of pain to city editor Dave Nesbitt, a very good editor, but very sensitive to the push-back he got from reporters. On one occasion he chased Carruthers around the newsroom demanding to know why the reporter hadn’t done the stories that he alleged were missing from the newspaper.
As I recall, the empathetic Nesbitt, who succeeded the much reviled Jeff Baxter after the latter left for a post in public relations, did not stay long as city editor, preferring a lower-profile and less-stressful post on the news desk.
Baxter later returned to The Journal as a copy editor toward the end of the 1970s. He received his comeuppance when he was given the boot for verbally abusing reporters. It was not untypical of him. In his first sojourn at The Journal, I recall him yelling across the newsroom at Marjorie Nichols, a highly competent political reporter, to speed up her work on some cutlines. It was totally unnecessary. He didn’t do it to male reporters, even those who needed a nudge sometimes.
While he was a congenial and pleasant person, you would not call managing editor Bill Metcalfe the sharpest arrow in the quiver. After all, he hired me on two occasions.
But he was a highly experienced journalist having been managing editor at The Winnipeg Free Press before taking on that role at The Ottawa Journal.
In 1968, he hired Stash Pruszynski on a freelance basis, as did other newspapers, to write stories on the campaign of Robert Kennedy then running for the presidency of the United States. Stash, as everybody called him, had worked at The Ottawa Journal before moving on to The Gazette in Montreal. Multi-talented, he later established a restaurant named Stash’s serving Polish comfort food in Old Montreal.
He took a leave of absence from The Gazette to go on the campaign trail and his stories appeared regularly as the Kennedy campaign moved across the U.S.
Stash was mere meters away from Kennedy when he was shot to death in the kitchen of a San Francisco hotel following a speech.
Stash had the whole scene on his tape recorder including the speech and the sounds of the gunshots enabling him to file a dramatic story to his clients, including The Journal.
A few weeks later, Metcalfe ambled through the newsroom telling people to help themselves to potatoes in his office where there was a 50-pound sack sitting on the floor.
The sack had been delivered personally by Stash unhappy with the payment for the Kennedy story.
“Here, this is what $20 buys these days,” Stash said as he dropped the sack on the floor.
- Thomson Newspapers closed The Ottawa Journal in August, 1980 and Southam closed The Winnipeg Tribune the following day giving each company a monopoly – Southam in Ottawa and Thomson in Winnipeg.
“I was very sorry at the demise of The Journal. I started as a reporter in Charlottetown and also worked at The Star in Windsor. There were no print competitors in either location. When I went to Ottawa in 1967 it was the first time I experienced head to head competition. It was quite a rush, particularly on night-side where I was assigned. It was like playing rugby every night. Our side always wanted to beat The Journal, and we often did,” Holman said.