Does it matter more who we were then or what we went on to do?
Graduates from my summer reporting program at the Toronto Star became Editor-in-Chief of the Globe and Mail; a best-selling author of crime fiction; a prominent columnist; foreign correspondents; a journalism professor; a rock critic; and a Pulitzer Prize winner.
But almost three decades ago, we sized each other up around a long table in the Print Room, the bar on the ground floor of the Toronto Star building at One Yonge Street.
There were 18 of us, mostly in our twenties. Four were women. Two others were from Carleton; both were guys, one a very good friend.
At 21, I was the youngest, but one of the few who had daily newspaper experience.
Amid us mostly scrappy j-school graduates, was a summer student who’d gone to Queen’s University and came with a private school pedigree. Another had just finished a Masters in international relations and had already lived in Malawi. There were wild cards, too, like a woman with no reporting experience who spoke three languages and who’d been a guard at a women’s prison, and a guy who claimed to run bets for the Managing Editor at the track.
We’d just endured a weeklong orientation and were having a celebratory and cautionary pint.
The head of our summer student program, a junior editor on his way up, told us that there wouldn’t be any hires at summer’s end, except for three interns returning after exceptional performances the summer before.
I wondered if there really weren’t any jobs. While we’d graduated into a recession, could we report our way into a job that didn’t yet exist? I’m sure the rest were wondering the same thing.
The program head also told us that we’d all be assigned mentors from among senior staff; they’d teach us the ropes and be our advocates.
Then he turned toward me and asked, “How is your health?”
The bottom fell out of my stomach.
“What do you mean?” I asked coolly, borrowing from the question list in every reporter’s toolkit.
I felt like I’d been slapped. I’d never spoken to a single professor in the past year about my recent diagnosis with severe systemic lupus or that I had begun my fourth and final year at Carleton University’s School of Journalism on a mind-blowing 80 mg of prednisone. I struggled through the year on my own, asking for no special favours, so I was shocked that my personal health information would be shared with an employer.
I wondered what it meant that the program head knew I’d been sick? Was hiring me an act of mercy or did he assume, like I did, that I was healthy again? And did it mean that he, and the City Editor who’d hired me, had extremely low expectations for my performance?
I didn’t want the other cub reporters to know I was handicapped out of the starting gate.
“I’m fine,” I said crisply. “Really great.”
The program head had news to share with me.
“I’ve got a very special mentor for you,” he smirked. “Someone who asked for a sweet young thing.”
He went on to describe a senior editor of a special section at the paper, someone who’d never been “given” a summer student before.
“Now he’ll have me,” I muttered.
I’d never been called a ‘sweet young thing’ before and couldn’t believe that’s how I’d be known on the most competitive summer student program in the country.
I fretted over both issues. Would the Star’s knowledge of my health problems prevent me from getting ‘the job that didn’t exist?’ How about being known as a ‘sweet young thing?’ Each seemed bad, but I couldn’t figure out which was worse.
I’d find out the following Monday when we got our first assignments.
Like crows trying to snag the choicest flesh off a dead squirrel, we crowded around the program head hoping to snag the choicest assignments for our first week.
The four-month program was measured in weekly increments. Some of the students would be based at One Yonge, acting as summer replacements for police and general assignment reporters, working early morning and late afternoon shifts. Others would head out, two at a time, to the Star’s north, east and west bureaus. Some got editing shifts.
When all the assignments were dished out, another female reporter (without any experience) and I were still waiting. It turned out we had a special assignment: producing feature copy for a “Fun in the City” supplement.
I’d be ambushing soccer moms with snot-nosed kids, while others covered the Three C’s: car chases, council meetings and calamity. I resolved to hand in a highly polished assignment as fast as possible so I could get to more serious work.
After my first day at Ontario Place, I rushed back for an afternoon meeting with my mentor. He immediately invited me to lunch and told me that he could help me get hired, if I proved to be talented.
“I thought there were no jobs?” I countered, before politely declining lunch.
“Well, we must have a drink, then!”
I learned later that my mentor was known as the Poison Dwarf. It seemed pretty cruel that a guy who’d earned that nickname would be offered up a sweet young thing for sport. But such was newsroom life in the ‘80s.
This is something they didn’t teach you how to handle in journalism school.
I should mention that I was feeling very healthy. I hadn’t had this much energy, so little pain, for a couple of years.
Although I’d tapered down to 20 mg, the objective was to have me taper to zero without having a lupus flare. The dose I was on was too high because it was impacting my skin, bones, and immune system. But it was a high enough dose that it gave me artificial energy.
After racing around Ontario Place, I filed my feature in just a few days. The editor who handled my copy said it was excellent. I anticipated getting to chase cops and robbers the following week.
I’d worked too fast. They were so happy with my first feature that I had to write two more. By my calculation, writing fluff would chew up a full month of a four-month reporting program. Already the other students had scored front-page stories.
My next feature was about the entertainment district around King Street West. Seemed easy until I encountered another problem that j-school hadn’t prepared me for.
One venue’s communications director insisted on a lunch interview and told me he was a failed musician and his wife was cheating on him. He showed up at the Star the next day to chat about theatre.
I’d mistakenly told him at the lunch that I had an apartment, with other students, in Yorkville. The following day, he was trailing me out of the subway toward my apartment. I ran into my apartment and slammed the door, while he stood outside under a streetlight looking up at my window.
I quickly completed that piece and told the program head that I wasn’t doing another feature. I wanted to cover news.