Ten candles


 

“I’m glad I didn’t pick the restaurant,” Ken Whyte said as he looked around our meeting place, a truly mediocre Cajun place in the Mirvish Village.

“So we’re going to be starting this newspaper. We kind of assumed you’d come work on it.” Gee, thanks. “National politics is going to be one of our anchors. We’re going to have a daily Parliament page. We want you to be on it every day, covering debates and Question Period and so on. More like a theatre critic than like an ordinary columnist.”

When I went to Don Mills for the first time, in May, there weren’t a half dozen people in the “newsroom,” which was still a suite of offices for mid-level executives Conrad Black had recently fired. One member of the skeleton staff was Martin Newland, the Daily Telegraph man Ken had brought back from London. Martin told me he’d also brought a Telegraph man along to run our Arts pages. “So a new national Canadian newspaper will have its arts coverage run by someone who isn’t even Canadian,” he said. “I suppose the Toronto arts establishment will like that about as much as they’d like a bucket of spit.” He cackled.

When we launched my rule of thumb was that if anybody on the staff had grey hair you had to assume they were excellent at their job, because how else had they gotten past the Logan’s Run hiring preference for reporters and editors under 30? The first edition landed on my doorstep on Oct. 27, 1998, in two pieces, the way it would arrive for weeks after: The front section and Arts&Life, and then the two business sections. Alan Abel on the front page writing about John Glenn’s trip back into space. The staff had spent months banking feature stories for use as needed, but Don Mills had decided that on the first day we would mostly just cover the news of the day. Coverage in other media had a marked “is that all there is?” tone to it.

The paper’s politics ranged from more conservative than I was used to, to insane. Half the staff were true believers, the rest a bit bemused. What very few of the paper’s critics (and not all of its fans) understood was that politics is only one way to look at a paper. The arts coverage was a bit haphazard, but on its best days it was amazing. Noah Richler came back from overseas and decided he was a late-blooming Canadian cultural nationalist. His books column soon became required reading. I’ve never read fashion coverage before or since, but Serena French was just a joy to read.

Wayne Gretzky agreed to “write” a hockey column. Nobody expected it to be wonderful hockey journalism, but we loved the ads: a guy in a locker room, taping up a fountain pen.

The first person I saw in Ottawa just walking down the street with a copy of the National Post was Ian McClelland, the Reform MP. The Ottawa bureau would hold weekly story meetings, always a bit haphazard. Al Toulin would tell us anecdotes about all the wild goings-on at Finance, the wars between Natural Resources and Environment over Kyoto. “Al, I think that’s a story,” Bob Fife would say. “Could we get that into the newspaper?” Andrew McIntosh would say about six words, perpetually afraid one of us would blab about his scoops all over town. “I’m still working on…” eyes darting around the room, “…that thing. You know.”

For the first year or so, the Post was printed in Ottawa before the Ottawa Citizen, so it was in boxes along Elgin Street before midnight. I used to buy tomorrow’s Post and take it to Darcy McGee’s to read, imagining the trouble we would make when everyone saw what was coming. I had a friend who helped prep Jean Chrétien for Question Period. “It’s crazy how much the opposition depends on the Post for their questions,” she said.

About every two months, usually on a weekend, Scott Feschuk would come to the office to collect his mail. His reviews were so scathing the movie studios got mad at us, so Marketing engineered a massive make-nice-to-the-movie-industry project. A bunch of personalities from the paper were convened to Don Mills to sit in front of a camera and talk about the National Post and movies. Eckler, Ken, me, the proprietor, five or six others. What do you like about the Post? Why do the Post and movies go so well together? What’s your favourite movie? Ken’s was the movie he saw with his wife on their first date. Mine was The Sting. Conrad had two: Citizen Kane and Patton.

Once at a Best of Summer party in Montreal, Ken put one hand on my shoulder and another on Andy Lamey’s and pulled us out of the conversation we were in the middle of. “Come here. Mordecai’s bored.” We were deposited in front of the great author, who made small talk with us for two minutes and then gave up. Oh well. Worth a try.

Editors, streaming out of a story meeting, cradling their heads in dismay. What’s wrong? “Ken’s back from vacation,” Mark Stevenson said. “He’s got all these ideas.”

Newland at the other end of the phone, listening to my latest news about Stéphane Dion’s wars with the separatists. “I don’t understand a fucking word, mate. Is it important?” Yes. “All right, page one. Now look, I need your advice. There’s a cat in Windsor, Ontario that’s been stuck up in a tree for three days and its owner is very worried and nobody knows how to get this cat down. And I’m wondering whether I should make it the basement on page one tomorrow.” A cat stuck in a tree? We wouldn’t be the National Post if we didn’t put it on page one. “Yeah, that’s kind of what I’m thinking.”

Martin sent Charlie Gillis to Florida to drive over the speed limit in two cars, one with American plates and one with Canadian, to see whether the police were targeting Canadian speeders.

When we launched, one of the most famous journalists in Canada told friends we were a disaster and Black would have to go right back to the drawing board or a complete, humiliating relaunch, or fold the paper in months. A year later this fellow applied for a job. On Fridays one section of the paper would be responsible for buying drinks for everybody in Don Mills. Pitcher of martinis. Beaujolais nouveau. Margaritas and Corona from Sports. Nobody ever said so, but one unspoken theme was: There. we’ve lasted another week longer than anyone said we would.

Everyone who came from another Southam paper had a clause in their contract stipulating that if the National Post folded within two years they could go back to their old jobs. Everyone except me; I didn’t know I was allowed to ask for that. No matter: today the National Post is 10 years old.


 
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