The Sunday Magazine

A terrible week for journalism - Michael's essay

Michael mourns the ever-diminishing state of the free press in Canada. This week saw a blizzard of layoff notices, the final issue of the Guelph Mercury, and the death of journalism giant Val Sears.
Canadian journalist Val Sears died at the age of 88 on January 21st, 2016. (Courtesy of The Toronto Star)

A  man named Val Sears, a newspaperman, died the other day, peacefully at age 88. For most of those 88 years, he was just that, a newspaperman. To anybody under the age of forty, the name might not mean much. But to those of us who knew him, worked with him, the name meant byline magic. 

He belonged to a long-ago style of journalism which has all but disappeared. He flourished in the pre-digital time of typewriters, teletype machines, rewrite desks, fierce competition between newspapers, limitless expense accounts; an era when being young and a newspaper reporter was all the world and all the gaudy, lurid fun in it. It was also a time when newspapers, fat with classified and display advertising, set record profits year after year.

In the early seventies at The Toronto Star, Sears was the newspaperman we all wanted to be. The more ambitious of us would steal from him, not hìs actual words of course, but his style, his approach to any story, his mordant sense of humour. He was a feature writer who travelled the world writing about the good and the evil he saw, but mostly about the essential absurdity of the human condition. 

He covered  parliaments and wars, movie stars and prime ministers, and saw with devastating clarity what human beings are capable of in moments of great stress and great joy. His tool box contained a profound understanding of irony, a scalding sense of humour and an absolute mastery of the English language.

The world of journalism he leaves is an anemic simulacrum of the one he entered decades ago. The newspaper cosmos he thrived in has been weakened and reduced and is on life support. The health and wealth of newspapers have declined precipitously.
Members of the Halifax Typographical Union walk the picket line outside Chronicle Herald's Halifax offices on the first day of their strike. The Herald is the oldest independently-owned newspaper in Canada. (CBC)
 In the days following his death, the industry was again rocked with layoffs, firings, a strike at the country's oldest paper, The Chronicle Herald in Halifax, and the merger of supposedly competing newsrooms in four Canadian cities.

In chopping 65 of its journalists, Postmedia announced that the Edmonton Journal would merge with the Edmonton Sun and the Calgary Herald with the Calgary Sun. At the same time, The Toronto Star announced the closing of its state of the art printing plant north west of the city. The turmoil is not confined to big cities; community newspapers are dying. The Guelph Mercury announced this week it will stop publishing a print edition; 26 employees were laid off. In British Columbia, the Nanaimo Daily News was closing after 141 years. In the United States, there are only two papers left with a circulation of more than 500,000 a day, both in New York - The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.

In a strange quest of cinematic masochism, I went to watch a newspaper movie at mid-week, a movie about the death of a newspaper. Deadline USA stars Humphrey Bogart as the crusading editor of the paper called The Day, working to expose the corruption of a mob boss even as the takeover vultures plot the paper's demise. It is corny in places, maudlin in others.
Humphrey Bogart makes a call from the press room in "Deadline USA."
 The reporters are hard-working, hard-drinking, large-hearted. Cliché characters to some extent perhaps. But the film captures the drive and spirit of the newspaper men and women of the era, as they toil in what Bogie calls the greatest profession in the world.

I doubt that even Val Sears, with all his talents could have saved The Day. But it was the kind of paper on which he would have thrived -- gloriously.


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