Canada’s News Hall of Fame (yes, there is such a thing) is a collection of engraved plaques shaped like single quotation marks. The location has changed quite a few times over the years, but these days the wall display can be found hanging in a swank hotel in downtown Toronto. In the basement. In a room that is locked most of the time. Even if someone did happen to stumble across the exhibit, he would have a tough time figuring out exactly what it is. The sign, CANADIAN NEWS HALL OF FAME, is missing a few letters.
It reads: CANADIAN NE ALL OF FA E.
Something else is sorely lacking: new members. The shrine that is supposed to showcase the country’s most renowned and respected reporters—names like Gordon Sinclair, June Callwood, Knowlton Nash, and Austin “Dink” Carroll—has not inducted anyone since 2001. “One prefers journalists who don’t take life too seriously,” says Peter Worthington, founding editor of the Toronto Sun tabloid and himself a Hall of Famer. “But I do think it’s a pity. We all know people in this business who are somewhat special, and the trouble is when they die or retire, they’re forgotten.”
At a time when the entire news business is suffering—circulation is nose-diving, ad revenues are plummeting, and local newscasts are dying—perhaps it’s only fitting that the News Hall of Fame is in equally rough shape. Ed Patrick, president of the Toronto Press Club, certainly doesn’t need anyone to point out the symbolism. “It’s a bloody disgrace,” says the former Fleet Street reporter and Canadian editor, whose club created the Hall of Fame in 1965. “We have to revitalize it, get it out of there, and put it in a place that can be viewed by the public.”
The story of our shameful Hall of Fame can be traced back to one person: Gordon Donaldson. A legendary journalist in his own right (Toronto Telegram, CBC, W-Five), he was “the one-man band” behind the plaques, Patrick says. Donaldson—most remembered for his definitive history book, The Prime Ministers of Canada, and his television coverage of the first moon landing—recruited the judges, tallied the results, and hosted the annual induction ceremony. (He also defended the controversial selection of Conrad Black, who was added to the wall in 1999 after launching the National Post.) However, when Donaldson died of a sudden heart attack in June 2001, nobody picked up his torch. “The person who was the spark for it died, and it ended right there,” says 87-year-old Simma Holt, the former Vancouver Sun columnist and federal MP who was inducted in 1997. “It bothers me terribly. The Hall of Fame is the most important credit I have in my life.”
Not everyone is quite so sentimental. When told about the missing letters and the lack of new members, former Maclean’s editor Peter C. Newman (class of 1989) actually chuckled. “That’s a great story,” he says. “It is a sign of our disappearing industry.” Newman hasn’t thought about the Hall of Fame—or his place in it—for many years. He doesn’t even know where it is. But since we’re asking, he does believe the exhibit deserves a more prominent home. “I don’t think it’s going to happen, but it would be nice to think so,” he says. “You’ve got to get somebody to put some money into it, and who is going to do that? It’s not going to be the publishers, because they don’t have any money. And it’s not going to be the journalists. So what do you do?”
Ed Patrick is still searching for the magic answer. But to be fair, the Hall of Fame is not his only worry. The Toronto Press Club has fallen on hard times (membership has dropped to 125, from its peak of 750 in the mid-1980s) and as of today, the club does not even have an official clubhouse. “We’re back in the same situation that we’ve been in so many times in our history: out on the street and looking for somewhere to hang our hats,” he says. “We don’t even have a park bench.”
That hotel basement—a former bank vault—was supposed to be the club’s headquarters, but the arrangement didn’t last. The ownership changed its mind a couple of years ago and decided to use the room as a banquet hall for private functions. The Press Club was out, but the Hall of Fame was allowed to stay. In other words, if you’re invited to a cocktail party in that room, you’ll see the display. If not, you’ll have to do what Maclean’s did last week: ask the manager to unlock the door.
“We would like to move it as soon as we have a good place to put it, but our prospects of finding new premises are rather dim at the moment,” Patrick says. “We are waiting for a white knight to come along and say: ‘I’ve got these wonderful premises downtown where you can erect the Canadian News Hall of Fame and people can come and admire it.’ We haven’t found anything yet.”
Nobody has found those missing letters yet, either.