ON THE WRITE ROAD: Layout sucks but first gig rocks

My first year of college went well. The fish out of water fit into the Journalism program just fine despite not being as well equipped as many of the others. It was great to be immediately thrust into reporting by having to contribute to the weekly college paper, The Journal 3009 (named after the room our main classes were held).

My stories were well-received as, besides a strong vocabulary and writing skills, I already had a good idea of what made a good news story – things like attribution, multiple sources, and short, snappy lead paragraphs (the” lede”) just made sense even before I was told. The reporting end of things was not going to be a problem. Editing and layout, on the other hand …

Editing and Layout class was where the herd would be thinned. “Wait. Math? We’re going to do math?! I thought journalism was about writing!” was the common refrain. It didn’t help that the instructor was a hard ass, the bad cop to the likeable reporting instructor.

Oh, there was so much more to journalism than writing, it turned out. Editing and Layout was a headache, involving making stories and photos fit on a page in a way that was both attractive and readable. It was kind of like Tetris and involved word counts and column inches and reducing or enlarging photos, and dog ears, cutlines – and don’t forget the ¼ page ad!

Photography was also challenging, what with the F-stop and aperture settings but I have a good eye for framing and managed to consistently take good shots, even with the dinky point-and-shoot camera my brother had given me as a Grad gift. We lost about a quarter of the students in that first term, the just-wanted-to-be-writers, which was sad as I had befriended a few of them.

After that first year, I pondered going back home to work in the cannery for the summer but an opportunity came up at a southern Alberta indigenous weekly called Kainai News and I jumped at it. The office was located was in a tall building not far from downtown and it had just two other employees. Rudy Mann was the head reporter and the ads/sales guy was Scotty Many Guns. The editor was Mary Weasel Fat (gotta love those local indigenous names!), who put together the paper at head office on the Blood reserve, about two hours south of Calgary.

Scotty Many Guns is one of the most amazing people I’ve met because of his ability to thrive in two worlds, the white and the indigenous. He was a very good ads salesman; a sharp dresser and seemed to always be able to talk customers into buying just a little more than they originally asked for. On some weekends, though, he discarded the suit and tie in favor of Indigenous attire. He was a fancy dancer.

A fancy dancer wears face paint, colorful regalia, including feather bustles and beaded bodices, knee high moccasins and the good ones compete at large, annual Powwows. Scotty was one of the best in the province and often returned to the office on Monday with a victorious smile.

Rudy Mann was a slick-talking editor who seemed to have been around the block a few times, although he appeared to ju be in his late 30s. He was as dark-skinned as me, wore gold-rimmed glasses, had a receding hairline, smoked non-stop, and seemed to always be grinning as he spoke. When he informed me that I had the job, he smiled and said the first lesson is “You’re going to have to forget a lot of what they’re teaching you in journalism class.”

I was stunned by that statement and, seeing it in my face, he chuckled, “Oh, don’t worry. We don’t lie. We just tell the story from our side mostly.” I nodded, although I wasn’t sure what he meant.

It turned out that Rudy Mann was really Rudy Hageneder, an Austrian who didn’t go out of his way to tell people he wasn’t Indigenous. He was a fun guy and a great mentor who taught me a lot about the reality of reporting, especially agenda writing, which Kainai News definitely was.

Agenda writing is just as it sounds: it is journalism that has taken a position and, while not always peddling in blatant falsehoods, will mostly tell one side of a story and give, at best, lip service to the other side. The most prominent example today is Sun media and, in my neck of the woods, Black Press, which lean largely to the right in the political spectrum.

I was instructed to call the other side, usually government, for comment but not be dogged about it. Let the phone ring three times, shrug, and say you tried. So, our hard news (timely, usually political and having a significant impact) was told almost exclusively from the Indigenous perspective, while the government/business side was copied or paraphrased from their press release.

When I told the journalism head, MacDonald, about Kainai’s practices, he nodded and smirked, and said such reporting was becoming more prevalent in the industry but he was hopeful that objective journalism would always be the rule rather than the exception. I wish I could get his feelings about that now.

And so, I sucked it up and became an agenda writer – and it wasn’t as difficult as I thought it would be. After all, back then the government side, the white perspective, was given far more air time and newspaper space, especially in ultra-Conservative Alberta. Maybe it wasn’t a bad thing to have outlets that told our side of the story, even though the readership was mostly our own, the converted. And, hey, sometimes, you got a chance to piss off some powerful people, like then-Premier Don Getty!

I wrote a story on the Meech Lake Accord talks, which took place in the summer of 1987, and Don Getty’s comments about rejecting the Accord if native rights were to be entrenched in it (which were confirmed in other mainstream publications). The spin I put on it was in line with comments from several Alberta indigenous leaders that I interviewed. Then, a couple of weeks after the story was published, a letter arrived from the Premier’s office, from Getty himself and addressed to me, in which he takes issue with the story and accuses me of “indulging in mischief.”

I was intimidated by the letter. Becoming the target of the Premier of the province didn’t strike me as a good thing. But, then, Rudy Mann said “An angry letter from the Premier, to a student reporter! We’ve got to celebrate this, Mr. Mischief Maker!” and he put on his jacket and led the way to the nearest bar.

From that day on, Mischief Maker was my nickname in the office. As it turns out, Mr. Getty may have been onto something, as there were a few times during my tenure with the Prince Rupert Daily News when the tag fit.

NEXT: Stumbling towards ecstasy

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