The way things were

I spent my formative, misspent years in the scribbling racket grabbing coffee and cigarettes at 2 a.m. for an unruly crew of Canadian Press editors and rewriters ensconced at the old Roy Building in downtown Halifax.

I was what people once knew in that industry as a “copy boy”. I was 15 and right off the boat – literally. Prior to earning this august position, I had spent two weeks on a tall ship enroute from Halifax to New York just in time for the 1976 American bicentennial. I spent many days and nights clamouring up masts, rigging sails and booms and doing my level best to stay out of Davy Jones’s locker. As I was a small, nimble shite of a boy, I managed to save my own life several times in 30-foot seas.

In other words, it was good training for the rough and tumble of print journalism in the mid-1970s, when everyone in this industry seemed to think he was one acrobatic leap away from becoming another Woodward, another Bernstein, between cigarettes, coffee and hurricanes of bad breath.

Following my extended university career during which I majored in beer and minored in billiards, I managed to land myself a job at the Globe in Mail in Toronto. I was, to say the least, a fraud. I knew nothing abut the stock markets to which I was hastily assigned to cover. Banks, monetary and fiscal policy? Fuggetaboutit! Somehow, I survived.

They say the traditional newspaper is dead, and ‘they’ may be right.

As Paul Starr wrote almost 10 years ago, when the first clarion sounded, “We take newspapers for granted. They have been so integral a part of daily life in America, so central to politics and culture and business, and so powerful and profitable in they’re own right, that it is easy to forget what a remarkable historical invention they are. Public goods are notoriously under-produced in the marketplace, and news is a public good – and yet, since the mid-nineteenth century, newspapers have produced news in abundance at a cheap price to readers and without need of direct subsidy. More than any other medium, newspapers have been our eyes on the state, our check on private abuses, our civic alarm systems. It is true that they have often failed to perform those functions as well as they should have done. But whether they can continue to perform them at all is now in doubt.”

He continued: “Even before the recession hit, the newspaper industry was facing a mortal threat from the rise of the Internet, falling circulation and advertising revenue, and a long-term decline in readership, as the habit of buying a daily paper dwindled from one generation to the next. The recession has intensified these difficulties.”
Now, almost a decade later, the recession is over, the Bank of Canada assures that the economy is going gang-busters, and I still remember my ink-stained friends from my misspent youth: Dan Westell, who literally taught me everything I know about financial journalism; John Wishart, who taught me the value of grace under fire; and now that fine boy Rod Allen, who retired from the Moncton Times & Transcript at the close of business, October 31.

Wise, witty, acerbic, funny and a superbly talented scribbler, Rod has been a great friend to my good self over the years. He is also the best headline writer I have ever known (and believe me, I have known many).

It’s sad to see the finest moving along. But we’re no longer “copy boys”. New lives beckon. Grab them all.

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