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ON THE WRITE ROAD: The buzz of a newsroom

There is nothing quite like a newspaper office.

Unlike other office settings, a newspaper office never seems to settle. People are always moving about, in the reception area, the ads department, the newsroom, the back shop, the collating area – and between them. It’s a beehive.

At The Daily News, the reporters’ desks were smack dab in the middle of all the action, which was appropriate, I suppose. We got story ideas tossed at us from all areas, mostly from the editor, of course, whose wrap-around desk was situated perfectly so she could shout questions or orders to us, on her left, or to the composing folks across from her.

Reporter central was comprised of three desks pushed together, and a separate corner and desk for the sports reporter because, you know, they are a different breed. Against the wall just behind the reporter’s desk were a couple of Mac computers that we shared.

Dina Von Hahn was the editor and, while not a taskmaster, she was not a pushover either and was very capable (contrary to how she described her early days to me over dinner recently). She didn’t have the arrogance or bluster that most editors have, choosing to lead through the odd concept of mutual respect. Sadly, she would only last four months, moving onto the greener pastures of CBC radio.

The other reporters were Surj Rattan, a terrific writer and great guy, and Brenda Halak, a sweet but insecure woman who dressed like she should be working on a fishing boat – eventually having to endure the mortifying experience of being ordered to go shopping with the publisher, Iris Kristensen, for clothes suitable for a “young lady” and the job.

Kristensen was the publisher for decades, an old-school one, brassy and straightforward. I remember her generously leaving the tab open at a Christmas dinner we had at the restaurant by Co-op cannery. The following Monday, she stormed into the office waving the hefty bill and vowing that the paper would never pay for drinks again. I vaguely remember a bunch of us spending a great deal of time standing at the bar that night, like seagulls on a dumpster, ordering rounds of shooters.

Dina’s replacement as editor was Shelly Brown, who immediately informed us with her iron handshake that she was gonna take no guff and could be as hard-ass as any man. In the early months, she gave assignments and orders with a stern glare as if saying “you got a problem with that” even though I did nothing to suggest that I did. Eventually, she relaxed (a little anyway) and our working relationship was fairly amicable.

I got along well with Brenda and student reporter, Anna D’Angelo, and Surj and I became great friends on and off work. Most of the other reporters and editors that followed became good friends. John Farrell made a home and set up businesses in Rupert, and I see Jeremy Hainsworth almost every time I visit Vancouver and frequently get annoying calls from him.

I considered myself a good reporter but not as good as Surj or Jeremy who had that certain quality, oh, what was it … oh yeah, commitment and perseverance. I was a writer first, a reporter second. A reporter first is someone who is committed to getting the best story he can, who looks at it from all angles, who does extensive research, and seeks good, multiple sources. A writer? We want the story to be colorful, to be talked about, clickbait before there was clicking.

Oh, I did try to get at least both sides of the story but I wasn’t dogged about it unless it was a big story and, thus, had a large audience. The pulp mill crisis, for instance. That was some of my best reporting – much helped by me not having to chase anyone. Both sides (the company/bank vs the union) were eager to have their voice heard and they called me every morning. My stories were picked up on the CP (Canadian Press) wire daily by many other papers across the country.

The mill story was a big deal, with big players. It divided the community and strained my friendships with guys who worked there. I think there’s a book there but, for now, it’ll be my next post.

NEXT: Not your run-of-the-mill story

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