Tough Gig


Sad days for the newspaper industry – in my current home, the UK, with my beloved Guardian, but also in Canada, the country where I learned and practised journalism. The bleeding at Postmedia was painful and shameful (and, thanks to the dubious blessing of social media and the courage of people like Jana Pruden, completely exposed in all its personal minutiae), and then Friday saw the shuttering of the Guelph Mercury and, less significantly for the country (we all know where the power sits) but more significantly for me, the Nanaimo Daily News.

My parents gave me the drop on the Daily News by Skype this week. Nanaimo’s their home, the Daily News their daily, well, news. They knew I’d care because it’s big news from where I grew up, because I study media for a living, and because I used to be a journalist myself until, as happened to so many of my fellow travellers in this reporting game, the axe fell.

But my history with the paper is more entangled even than that paragraph suggests. Barring a mighty letter to the editor of Maclean’s when I was in Grade 9 (yes, I was That Kid), the Daily News was my first gig in journalism.

Back then, it was the Nanaimo Daily Free Press, and I swung a two-week spell of work experience arranged through the school. They put the emphasis on Grade 11 and 12 students, but it was open to Grade 10s if they wanted, and I was already keen. I knew what I wanted to do, and this, I was sure, would be a great start. John Kimantas was the editor, and he got me sat at a desk and showed me what to do. I got to do rewrites of press releases for the Briefs section (ulp! kids – don’t try this at home; that’s not what journalism is about), including one about the new Pearl Jam record, Vitalogy, which was going to have a most unusual CD case made of cardboard like a record sleeve – the idea! Write what you care about, kids.

The paper had four journalistic staff at the time, who conveniently covered the geographic gamut of journalistic education: one apiece from Carleton, Ryerson, Regina, and Cariboo College. You laugh about the final one – Kimantas confided in me that a degree from the college today (or the then-today of this narrative) would not guarantee me a job in the Free Press newsroom. The graduate in question was on staff because of his years of experience; he was the court reporter, and he told me with a laugh that he graduated from the School of Hard Knocks. (I know – everyone’s a hilarious uncle, aren’t they?) There are ironies in this warning comment: first, because with the scarcity of journalism jobs going, who knows what kind of degree you’d need to get a job there these days; first(a), because that doesn’t matter anymore because there is no newsroom; and second, because when I was looking for lecturing posts after my PhD, I saw an advert for Thompson Rivers University’s media department. “Sexy,” I thought. “Wonder where they sprang up from?” And sure enough, it is the upgraded, degree-granting iteration of the aforementioned Cariboo College. Fantastic. The job was already filled when I sent a note of inquiry.

I got to hang around for a day with all three of the others – well, I might have done with Al Cameron, as well, but to be honest, the way his position was described to me, I think I just chucked it out of my mind. I was thinking of bachelor’s programmes, and these three all had some potential. The Regina grad was sweet, kind, and nice. I know – those all kind of mean the same thing. She taught me to always carry a pencil, because if you’re out reporting in -30, the ink in your pen might freeze, but a pencil will always work for taking notes.

The Ryerson grad drove a rusted-out Jetta that stank of cigarette smoke and was occupied ominously by a police scanner. He showed me a file he kept on his desk, full of clippings about the Sally Ann. He’d been gathering things bit by bit, and one of these days (years?) once he had enought to put it all together, he was going to blow the story wide open.

The Carleton grad was most memorable of all. I got the strong sense that she was bitter at being stuck in a remote backwater station like Nanaimo – this was not supposed to be. (Cariboo College in reverse?) She was doing a profile on a child’s entertainer and singer who went by Dill. She visited him at a school show and did an interview when his set was done.

“So what’s your name?” she asked.

“I go by Dill,” he said.

“Yes, but what’s your name?”

“Can’t I just go by Dill?”

“I know that’s your performing name, but we need your real name for the story.”

“I’d rather you just refer to me as Dill…” &c.

She was fuming when we went back to her truck. Guess where I did my first degree?

I know my mother held out some great hope that, after finishing my degree, I would come back home and live and work in town. That was never part of the plan – I just couldn’t see it being right for me. “What would I do?” I would ask aloud rhetorically to my wife when we pondered alternatives to my casual employment with CBC Radio in Ottawa. “Work for the Nanaimo Daily News?”

But now that’s not an option. And as much as I would never have wanted to work for the paper day in, day out, others did – by choice? Necessity? Probably some of both. And now necessity leads them elsewhere. Perhaps out of journalism itself, because that crowded market has gotten even crowdeder.

In the interests of full disclosure, my entanglement with the Nanaimo Daily Free Press goes back even further, because not only was it my first journalism gig, it was my first gig period. Shortly after we moved to Nanaimo, I started delivering papers for them six days a week, after school. Up Arnhem Terrace, Amsterdam Crescent, and the improbably Bergen-op-Zoom. That newspaper filled my coffers for three and a half years, permitting me to buy obscene amounds of Coke, chips, and Three Musketeers bars. But even this cash cow is not available as an alternative for these sad unemployed journalists, for there is no paper to deliver. What on earth is our generation going to do?

Tough gig.

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