Journalism 101

From Ontario to Saskatchewan

In every person's life, there are moments that stand out with perfect clarity. The memories are so perfect that, even years later, they are recalled as if they had happened yesterday. For myself, those "moments" encompass a couple of years, from 1982-1984, when I finished my academic studies and started along the path of being a professional journalist.

The adventure began in May 1982 when I spotted a help wanted ad in the Globe & Mail newspaper. The job was for a news editor in the town of Coronach, Saskatchewan. I wondered, "Where the hell was that." I pulled out a map and searched. I discovered that what I thought was a city, was actually a town the south central part of the province. I didn't expect to get a response to the ad and if I did, I thought, it would be probably be negative. After all, I had sent out approximately 100 resumes and in each case had received nothing but letters thanking me for my interest.

Imagine then my surprise a few weeks later when I got a phone call from a Don McCahill, publisher of the Saskatchewan newspaper. He was definitely interested in talking with me on the phone and by the time we finished, I had a firm job offer.

Later that evening when my mother came home from her weekly maj-on game, I told her the news. I'm going to Saskatchewan, I told her excitedly, not realizing the full implications of what I was telling her. It was only weeks later did I finally sit back and begin to examine my decision and what I was doing with my life. It was too late though. My path was set and there was no backing out.

My resolve was further strengthened the next month as I graduated from Sheridan College the next month, learning that I was one of the few in my journalism class who had landed a job in their chosen field. Times were tough in the business that the time and most had settled for any job they could find. Few had been willing to do as I was and relocate to a different province.

After graduation, my mom held a combination graduation/going away party where I acquired many of the necessities of life for my journey west. I packed boxes of clothes and books, sending some out by train and some by mail. The rest eventually went into my car, which, by the time I left, was packed to the roof.

The fateful day finally arrived when I left home early in the morning. It was an emotional farewell to my mother and brothers as I left my home of 24 years with only my handy tape recorder as my traveling companion. That, of course, was for me to record my thoughts and feelings as I made my way from North York, Ontario to Gravelbourg, Saskatchewan. You see, although the job eventually took me to Coronach, I found out that I was headed a little further north to the town of Gravelbourg, where my publisher lived and ran another newspaper.

The first day was a long one as I headed north, winding up in Wawa, Ontario. Little by little, my mood changed as the day progressed, going from regret over my decision to excitement over starting a new life. By the time I arrived in early evening, my spirits had lifted as I called home (before I settled into a pizza dinner) to reassure them that, indeed, everything was on track in my life.

The next day I turned west as I resumed my trek along the Trans-Canada Highway along Lake Superior finally coming to a rest just west of Thunder Bay.

On the third day, I left Ontario, stopping outside of Winnipeg to call a friend of my cousin Larry Sheldon. Continuing I left the Trans-Canada and headed south and then west, traveling through Manitoba and into Saskatchewan. I was finally here, my new home province, I thought. What adventures lay ahead?

I arrived in Gravelbourg that afternoon. Of course being Sunday, all the shops were closed and the main street was deserted. After a brief search, I found the place I was looking for and came face to face with the person who had started me on the path of my new life - the 28-year-old publisher of the Gravelbourg Gazette, Don McCahill.

I settled into a motel in the town for the next two weeks, where I learned more about my new job, covered a few stories for Don's paper (including a visit by the Queen's sister Princess Anne), took in a few movies at the town's theatre, and generally enjoyed the novelty of my new existence. Along the way, the two of us made treks to Coronach, where I got an apartment and the two-person office of his new paper, the Borderland Reporter was opened.

Moving day soon came and I left Gravelbourg to begin my job and life in Coronach, covering the towns of Coronach, Willow Bunch, and Rockglen. It was strange at first walking down the street with people stopping to say hello or just wave in passing. After all, I didn't know who they were. They certainly didn't do that back in Toronto.

Our first issue hit and stands July 1, 1982. (Years later I received another thrill when found the cover of that first issue in the National Archives of Canada in Ottawa.). I had much to do before that happened though, including setting up my apartment and meeting the local folk.

I talked with people, doing story after story heading back to my office after each one to bang out an article on my manual typewriter. Then it would be time to start again. Luckily, for me, it was not all bake sales and teas (just kidding, we never did that.) The local mine in town, which provided more than a few jobs and sustained a good part of the economy, had just gone on strike providing me with my first front page banner story.

Being the paper's sole reporter meant more than covering the news. I covered local sporting events, town council meetings, agriculture, local businesses, fairs, and everything in between. Then every week I would drive back to Gravelbourg where the copy would be typeset, the photographs developed and the newspaper was laid out.

I met some interesting people along the way, including local clergy when I set up a column in the paper for religious leaders in the area. (Years later at The Canadian Jewish News I would propose a similar column format for Jewish religious leaders. Both columns were successful). The day I went to one of the churches was interesting in itself as I walked to the front of the chapel and there was an open casket.

Then there was the real estate agent who showed me around town, only to suggest I do a story on him in exchange for his advertising in our newspaper. Being young and not too diplomatic, I said I would do no such thing. I told him to immediately stop the car, got out, and walked back to the office (all of five minutes away). My advertising manager Wanda Burns was not too pleased with me.

The mayor of a nearby town was also not too happy after I reported that his son had been arrested for drunk driving. He had called me at home to berate me, but I took the steam out his argument. Before hanging up on him, I told him never to call me at home about a work-related matter.

One of the nicer moments came after I had covered and published one of more important stories. The railway had wanted to close a line, which ran through the town of Big Beaver and in order to do so, had to go before the CRTC for a hearing. I covered the meeting and reported on the events of the day, later sending a copy of my article to the commissioner who had been running the meeting. Imagine my surprise when I received a letter thanking me for meeting with her and praising my professional integrity and the accuracy of my report.

When I was not working there was little, if anything to do in Coronach. My TV only received two stations (the town later got a TV dish and we got more stations) and in order to see a movie I had to go to the next town of Rockglen. The movie theatre there had one screen and if you wanted refreshments, you bought a bottle of Coke from the pop machine and a small bag of popcorn at the ticket counter.

One winter day heading into Rockglen gave me a good scare as I hit a patch of ice. My car did a 180 degree turn on the country road, winding up half in the ditch. I panicked at first, before driving along the embankment until I came to a level crossing and headed home. That was the last time I headed out in uncertain weather.

There were other days I really had to get away from the area. If the job title of news editor brought me a certain degree of prestige in the town, it came with a downside. I was THE journalist whether or not I was working. People continuously approached me all the time with ideas for articles.

To get away I occasionally went to Regina for dinner and movie, sometimes staying over in the provincial capital.

During one out of town excursion, I stopped in the nearby town of Bengough, where the town fair was taking place. I snapped a few pictures for my newspaper and bought a button from a merchant, starting a tradition of collecting buttons, which continues to this day. I also made contact (and friends) with an older couple in Moose Jaw. My initial contact with them started before I even left Toronto when I had sent a letter to that city's synagogue. Somehow, it was redirected to them and with it, an offer to visit with them at any time, especially on the Jewish holidays.

Being away from family during the High Holidays was emotional. I didn't tell Wanda where I was headed that weekend, only that I was going to Moose Jaw for a few days. Since she had never met any Jews before (and I didn't advertise my religion) she didn't ask anything further.

Despite my initial misgivings, I thoroughly enjoyed the holidays. It was very different from attending services at a large synagogue in Toronto. Here everyone knew everyone and after Yom Kippur, the community broke the fast together in the synagogue's.

It was a fairly lonely existence but I didn't mind too much. I was very much focused on my career at the moment and like I said earlier, I did manage to get away to Regina or Moose Jaw from time to time. However, I was flying high when I got a call from my mother (we spoke regularly), telling me she was coming out to visit me.

I super cleaned my apartment for the visit (even made my bed) and got a cot for her (I had a waterbed I knew she would not sleep on.). It was a great visit and she was surprised to see my kitchen apartment set up basically like hers.

By the time she visited, I was a reasonable cook. Of course starting out I learned from my mistakes. The first time I made a roast beef, I put a small roast in for three hours, turning a nice piece of beef into a side of leather.

That mistake was minor though compared to the time I tried to cut a frozen bagel. I held the bagel in my hand and cut and cut with no success until, finally, the knife went through the bagel and, unfortunately, deep into my finger.

I tried to stem the flow of blood in the bathroom sink with no success. I knew I was in trouble when the room started to spin and a few minutes later I woke up on the bathroom floor. After regaining consciousness, I wrapped my finger tightly with a towel and drove myself to the town's hospital. Of course, the first thing they wanted to see when I got there was my health card.

The worst mistake was not mine, of course. It was my publisher's who one day told me that I would not get too far in the journalism business. He said I would probably be stuck in Coronach for many years. Not one to turn down a challenge like that I began sending out resumes again.

The Christmas season came and with it, my first chance to return to Toronto in six months. After finishing off the paper that week in Gravelbourg I headed north to the airport in Regina. Unfortunately, my car was not in perfect running condition with both the speedometer an odometer not working. At the same time, it was pouring rain. Driving was terrible and I had no idea how fast I was driving or how many kilometers I had left to travel.

It was only by returning to Toronto that I realized how much I had changed. At the time though I thought it was my friends who were different. By the time I went "home" to Coronach, I was glad the visit was as brief as it was.

A short while later I got a call from Dave Yanko, editor of the Battleford Telegraph, asking me if I was interested in meeting with him. I said yes, and headed north to the Battlefords, stopping off in Moose Jaw for the night. The next day I went to visit the editor at the paper's office in Battleford.

What a difference between the two of us. While I wore a suit for the occasion, he was more casual, wearing jeans and a t-shirt. Still, the interview went well and I got the job.

While my publisher at the Reporter was not too pleased with my decision, the staff at the Gazette congratulated me and took me out to lunch. I was disappointed though that my publisher declined to join us in the farewell sendoff. I also got a present from Wanda, a souvenir from the local mine (I still have it, but the pen is gone.)

Moving proved to be quite a challenge. When I had first moved to Saskatchewan, I mailed some boxes to myself and shipped a trunk by train. The rest I packed into my car. Now I was moving intra-provincially. As far as I can recall, I made the move in two weekends, packing everything into my car.

Being in such a rush, I had to settle for a basement apartment. I hated it. Every night it felt like I was descending into a dungeon. After very short time, I managed to find a better apartment and, once again, moved.

Weeks after I settled in, I sat back one evening, along with the rest of society, as the final episode of MASH played out on TV. It was history in the making.

The Telegraph set-up was quite interesting. The newsroom - situated in Battleford - was a former gas station. The main drawback was the lack of proper insulation, so that the building became quite cold in the winter. Still, it was equipped with a good computer system for reporters. After stories were finished and edited, they were electronically sent across the river to North Battleford to our production office. There the newspaper was put together.

Journalistically, the Telegraph was a major step up from the Borderland Reporter. I continued to cover the agriculture beat - quite an accomplishment for a Toronto boy - and picked up the political, police and court beats. All were interesting. I got to meet and interview former Prime Minister Joe Clark, and deal with a number of provincial and local politicians on a regular basis. As a court reporter, I managed to cover a number of interesting trials.

As well as being a beat reporter, I also shot and developed my own photos. There were also some unusual spot stories and features, including one where I got to fly in a glider, a local fair, and coverage of a fire, which destroyed a drug store.

With the drug story, I was on my way back to work one day after lunch one and came upon the fire. I raced home, grabbed my camera and - presto, I had some truly amazing shots, including the inside of the store which I took using the point and shoot method (not using the viewfinder).

There were the unpleasant ones as well. I had to interview a woman who had just learned that her son had been killed. Another time I had to call a man whose barn had just burned down. He was not too pleased with me and hung up the phone.

On the production side, I helped "dummy up" the layout of the regular paper, as well as the weekly advertising supplement.

Outside of work, I hung around with other staff members of the editorial department, as well as other members of the media in The Battlefords. There was one other weekly newspaper in the town, as well as a radio station.

The Christmas holidays that year were a real turkey, literally, as the publisher gave all the employees turkeys. Imagine one person with a turkey. I took it home and on Christmas put it in the oven in the morning. I then went out and rented a VCR and some movies and bought stuffing and some wine. That evening I sat down to a turkey dinner, and then enjoyed some movies with my editor's cat, which I was cat sitting. (He was out of town at the time.)

The year 1984 started out with a bang with the publication of a major feature planned, and executed by myself. I created, distributed and compiled a survey of all high school students in the area about their feelings on nuclear weapons. The idea had come to me after watching a TV show called "The Day After". I put together the entire page complete with graphics, quotes and interviews.

Around this time, my editor decided to leave the newspaper, which resulted in my making a mistake, which altered the course of my life. At the time though, the move seemed perfectly logical. I went into the publisher's office and told him I would take the job but for an increase in pay.

I guess this did not impress him too much.

When I was asked into the publisher's office shortly after the article's publication I assumed it was to offer congratulations. I was surprised when I was told that some members of the police (never which one) had complained about my work ethics and the paper was cutting back staff in every department. I thought being senior reporter would protect me, but I guess they had it all worked out beforehand and I was asked to leave.

I was more than a little shocked and asked them if I could stay on till the end of February, as it would take me some time to sort out my life. (It was early February already)

That day I called home and told my mother the bad news. While I thought I would search for a new job out west, she said to come home. Before I knew it I found myself saying yes and spent the rest of the month packing up my life once again to make the return trip east.

As the month came to an end, the reporters from the OTHER newspaper in town took me out for a goodbye dinner.

Finally, my bags were packed and I was ready to go. Unfortunately, just days before, my car broke down. I took it into a repair shop and the problems were fixed (so I thought). By the time I arrived in Moose Jaw I thought quite differently as my car broke down again. (I kept all the receipts from my first repair at a Shell station and eventually got reimbursed from the company when I returned to Toronto, but not until after a long drawn out war of words with the company)

My trek eastward continued along the Trans Canada Highway until I was east of Brandon, Manitoba. There a winter storm forced police to close the highway, sending me back to Brandon to bed down for the night.

The next day I made it back into Ontario (stopping at the "Welcome to Ontario" sign for an official photo) before stopping just west of Thunder Bay in Upsula, where, once again, my car broke down. I stayed overnight and after my car was patched up I left, but not before the service station attendant told me not to shut my motor off again.

This of course meant keeping the engine running when I stopped for gasoline. I later learned this was not the wisest of moves. Still, it was the only one.

When I finally pulled into the driveway at 26 Evanston Drive, after 18 hours on the road, I put the car in the garage and turned the motor off. I tried to start it again with no luck. The engine was dead. There the car remained until it was finally towed away and I was forced to go out and buy a new car, a 1984 Toyota Tercel.

Unlike my departure, just 18 months earlier, the only one home at the time I arrived was our cleaning lady. It was just as well, as all I wanted to do was sleep.

The dream was over. I was back where I started. Can one go back to their old life after being completely independent? The answer was definitely not.

Fortunately, my mother gave me in the independence I needed. While I still did not have a job, I soon took a temporary job at a video store owned, in part, by my cousin Howard Sheldon. At the same time, I kept a lookout for new journalism positions. What I found was a notice in the local newspaper about a group of people who were meeting to oppose a proposed domed stadium in Downsview. I decided to cover the meeting and to freelance the story to different newspapers.

One of those papers was The Canadian Jewish News, who decided to buy the story. At the same time they said they would be interested in further stories from me, but that they should call me rather than me call them.

I realize this sounded like a brush off, but they did call, and before you know it, I was back I the saddle again, writing stories for The CJN.

This led to an offer to come in and fill a temp spot when one of their reporters had to go out West to cover a trial. From there I happened to be in the "right place at the right time", when an opening came up at the newspaper and was offered a position as a staff reporter.

And that, as they say, is how it went. As of this writing, January 15, 2005, I am still at The CJN, having moved through the ranks from reporter to news editor to news editor/Internet Editor. As for the fate of the proposed domed stadium…. it was finally built in downtown Toronto and christened SkyDome!

June 1984 - June 2010

Twenty-six years is but a blink of an eye in the grand scheme of things. Yet in the life of this journalist, it's practically an eternity. If not that, well then it constitutes half of my life.

I was thinking about the passage of time just the other day. Who could have imagined back in 1984 that I would still be at The Canadian Jewish News in 2010? I know I couldn't. Hopefully, all being well, I will have many more productive years to contribute to the Canadian community's premiere Jewish publication. I often wonder: has the best years already happened or is the best still to be? Whatever, I'm certain it won't be disappointing.

We may not be the largest Jewish newspaper in existence these days, but I'm certain we have one of the best workplaces. The camaraderie is fantastic. When something has to get done, it gets done, whether the newsroom has a full compliment or is short-staffed, which is often the case during the summer months. Everyone pitches in for the greater good.

Perhaps this is why we have such a low staff turnover. Everyone realizes what a great atmosphere exists around the office. We have had people leave and come back months and years later, all singing praises of our work environment.

This continues to be one of The CJN's greatest strengths. Many of the issues we delve into have changed over time (although surprisingly many are still the same) but the people here continue to make this a great place to spend most of your prime time.

Among the many whom I have worked with are three special people: namely the editors of The CJN. All of them have been very different in style and temperament. Yet I have learned from each of them and they have helped make me the journalist I am today.

It's also been interesting going from being one of the youngest people in the editorial department to being one of the "senior" staff members. Of course, it's not only personalities that have changed around here.

Back in 1984, I was thrilled when I got a new electric typewriter (I was using a manual machine when I started). The arrival of the fax machine was a real eye-opener at the paper allowing us to get news copy from freelancers without them having to come to the office. Prior to its arrival, we relied on a teletype machine to connect our Toronto and Montreal offices.

Today, news copy and photographs arrive almost instantaneously through e-mails, something we could not have fathomed 26 years ago. Back then every article had to be typeset and proofread before being "waxed" and laid down in production. Now a single page is created in minutes on the computer and printed out.

I have noticed that the pace of technological change keeps changing, mostly for the better. Where will we be in another 26 years? I'm certainly not one to guess because I still marvel at the changing pace around the office. Where The CJN was once just a print publication, it now encompasses so much more with links to You Tube, Facebook and the Blogosphere.

Wherever we go from here though, I firmly believe that there will always be a place for our Jewish newspaper. We provide information that can't be found elsewhere. Will we look the same in 2036? Probably not, but that will be the decision and responsibility of journalism's next generation.

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