Sunday, 14 February 2016

Boy drowns: Ottawa Citizen describes the water

I used be a freelance entertainment columnist at the Ottawa Citizen, back when Sting was still with the Police. My job required me to attend three to four bars nightly, and review the bands. It paid $35 a night, and the paper wouldn't spring for my drinks or any cover charge, cheap bastards.

I took this job after the Ottawa Journal folded. It was the only gig I could get, and it was pretty nice, except of course, I usually drank my profits with the bands in the Hull bars after I had filed my column, and last call had been announced in Ottawa.

By the time I got to the newsroom after my shift, it was usually midnight. The place was littered with a few deskers, lonely hearts, ex-drinkers, current drinkers and the odd vampire.

I always thought the Ottawa Citizen newsroom looked like the bridge of the Starship Enterprise. It wasn't a traditional newsroom, it was a tarted up version with a state-of-the-art computer system, and the place made me long for the old ashtray that was the Journal, which still had typewriters, and girls called Tess who took rewrites from the correspondents languishing in the Ottawa Valley.

I imagine the Citizen of today looks very much like that night-time scene, a hundred unmanned, unwomaned desks, and a handful of Carleton students making chump change. Last week, Warren Kinsella reported on Twitter that the vast majority of good, solid, genuine reporters were for the high jump, as Frank magazine likes to say.

I knew most of the names on the list. Chris Cobb gave me my job back 30 odd years ago. Peter Robb bought the last story I sold to the Citizen a couple of years ago. Both used to work at the Journal before it folded in 1980. Peter Simpson, who took up two desks, never bought any of my stories.

It was shocking the number of names I saw who were the people who did the heavy lifting, guys like Glen McGregor who did excellent investigative work at the paper, Mark Kennedy, one of the deans of the Press Gallery, Joanne Chianello, who used to get up under the skin of Mayor Jim Low Wattage. After reading Kinsella, we all wondered: who's left?

Maybe Paul Godfrey has taught monkeys to type. Maybe the Citizen has hired a crack team of investigative reporters in Mumbai to add to its complement of the few Ottawa Sun refugees who are still prattling around, turning press releases into more garbage to recycle.

It got me thinking about the old days when Nelson Skuce ran the Citizen, and turned it into a terrible paper, with its Neighborhood News crews prowling around in yellow cars, and the paper pretty much ignoring the fact Ottawa was, in fact, the Nation's Capital.

I remember one day getting an invitation to a party that Nelson had decided to throw in the middle of the afternoon. It was a command performance and even the lowly freelancers were required to present their faces. For some reason, Nelson had hired hula dances, and there was some very strong Hawaiian punch and a cake.

Everybody got pretty loaded, a few guys were banging their colleagues in the bathroom and nobody answered the phones. Later, I heard from a school board trustee that he had been trying to get through to the newsroom all afternoon, but nobody picked up.

That's what the Ottawa Citizen must be like today. The place must look like a scene from Walle, a junk heap with little or no brain activity.

For me and a lot of us who loved the newspaper business, it hurts.

I can't deny it.

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