”Ah, that a man should live so well”
Remembering Jim MacNeill, publisher, editor, iconoclast
At last spring’s convocation for the University of King’s College, the keynote speaker was the 62-year-old publisher and editor of the Prince Edward Island weekly Eastern Graphic: a man renowned for journalistic bravery, who forbade his reporters to attend press conferences, regularly scooped the dailies and insisted on paying his interns. On May 14, 1998, Jim MacNeill exhorted the graduating class not to trust what they read in newspapers or be intimidated by those in power. He concluded with a loose translation of the mock-Latin motto of an old Nova Scotia newspaper, the Cape Breton Highlander. Nulle illigitim carborundum: “Don’t let the bastards get you down.”
It was not the first time MacNeill had spoken to King’s students-he visited the university’s journalism school annually to talk to and drink with the aspiring journalists-but it was the most auspicious. At that ceremony, MacNeill received an honorary doctorate in civil law. Sadly, this address would be his last: two days later, on board the ferry that was to return him to the Island, MacNeill suffered a heart attack and died.
MacNeill was a newspaperman in a small town on a small island. Colleagues admit that he was not a great writer-he used plain English, mixed his metaphors and tended to rant-but they also agree that he exposed inadequacies and even corruption in his community, his county, his province. For MacNeill, “the bastards” was an all-purpose term to describe people in power, no matter what their position or political stripe. It’s hard to be a scrapper in a small town, where a potential friend could be a neighbour, advertiser and elected official all at the same time-MacNeill could have written himself into a very lonely place. But over 35 years, Jim MacNeill developed a symbiosis with the people in his community: he needed them for stories, they needed him for news.
Graphic columnist Jack MacAndrew describes P.E.I. social politics in this way: “On the Island, people like to pigeonhole you so they know what to avoid in conversation.” Islanders consider it their duty to know everyone else’s business but never discuss it with them. That tacit agreement never sank in at the Graphic. MacNeill not only wanted to know everybody’s business, he wanted to print it. MacNeill did the unthinkable when he published the salaries of Island MLAs; readers were both outraged and ecstatic.
Graphic practice is to print the story and let the offended party respond the next week. P.E.I. Premier Pat Binns puts it this way: “Jim liked to be harsher than the facts might suggest. But normally you would have the opportunity to bring the pendulum back to centre.”
Not everyone accepted the Graphic’s after-the-fact style of verification so quickly. Over 20 years ago, Montague entrepreneur Jimmy O’Halloran owned apartments in the area. After O’Halloran tried to collect back rent from a problem tenant, the woman went to the Graphic and said her apartment had rats. The story ran in the next issue. O’Halloran marched over to the newspaper office and said, “Mr. MacNeill, we need to talk.” After that, the two men’s worst disagreements happened over games of pool, and O’Halloran, among other things, is now proprietor of the Dr. Jim MacNeill Memorial Pub. Most people couldn’t seem to stay mad at Jim, no matter what he printed in the Graphic.
But there were a few grudges. Albert Fogarty, a former MLA and now the executive director of the P.E.I. Institute of Adult and Community Education, dismisses the Graphic as a sensationalist publication and calls its hard news coverage “a joke-not balanced, and the opinion of the publisher.” Fogarty believes MacNeill wrote his stories “to sell papers [rather] than represent facts.” Fogarty insists he just ignores the Graphic’sharsh coverage, but his emphatic dismissal suggests something more than indifference.
Provincial Opposition House Leader Robert Morrissey says MacNeill didn’t see any reason to show politicians in a flattering light. After 17 years in P.E.I. politics, Morrissey should know: in spring 1994, the Graphic ran a story Morrissey says implied that he was peddling influence in the allocation of hospital beds. Morrissey sued for libel, but the jury found in favour of MacNeill.
“We’ve never been a paper to put issues in perspective,” says Paul, MacNeill’s younger son and theGraphic’s current publisher. “It takes time, money and staff to call for comment.” This justification rings hollow in journalistic ears, but somehow, rightly or wrongly, on the Island, in the Graphic, the approach seemed to work. Which is not to say that the paper was ignored: angry responses to controversial, even one-sided, stories were expected. In competing with established regional media, the Graphic’s outrageousness helped more than it hurt-controversies sold papers. But whatever else they did, these stories opened eyes and prompted discussion.
Jack MacAndrew, quoting the American humourist Finley Peter Dunne, likes to say that MacNeill wanted to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” But his writing was not malicious. “MacNeill was never a ‘gotcha’ journalist,” says Michael Cobden, a professor and former director of the journalism program at King’s. MacNeill raked more than his share of muck, but never with the intent of burying anyone. He was an equal opportunity critic, always the official opposition, no matter which party was in power.
James Joseph MacNeill was born on January 18, 1936, in Glasgow, the youngest of six children. Seumas, as MacNeill was known as a child, spent his early childhood on the island of Barra in the Hebrides until his family returned to Glasgow when he was seven. Wee Seumas spoke only Gaelic when he began at the city school, but he proved a quick study in English and an exemplary student.
At 18, MacNeill began his national service in the Royal Navy and later worked as a bouncer, a brush salesman and a building surveyor in Glasgow before emigrating to Canada in 1958 with a suitcase and $100. Arriving in Toronto, the 22-year-old MacNeill worked on a road crew and sold insurance. As a volunteer at the Catholic Information Centre, instructing new Catholics, he met Shirley Nicholson, a native Prince Edward Islander. Within three weeks of their first date, MacNeill proposed. They married in Charlottetown on August 26, 1960, and the Island became home.
After much pavement-pounding, MacNeill found a job selling newspaper advertising for the Summerside Journal-Pioneer. He made sales, but because he had a gift for talking to people, he also returned to the office with story ideas and news tips. It had never crossed MacNeill’s mind to become a reporter, but his news sense was sharp and, suddenly, Jim MacNeill was a journalist.
By 1963, the MacNeills had begun a family-they had two babies already, Sheila and Kevin, and were planning a third: a weekly newspaper. MacNeill had been reading up on the subject and once he made up his mind to do something, you couldn’t tell him otherwise. Warnings and admonitions only strengthened his resolve. Drawing on his reporter’s wage, Shirley’s earnings as a legal secretary and a $1,000 loan from Shirley’s mother, the weekly Eastern Graphic was born on December 11, 1963. It was the size of a church bulletin, grotesquely mimeographed and riddled with spelling mistakes. Its tag line-“Serving Kings County and Eastern Queens”-marked it as different from the outset. No other paper devoted much ink to the eastern counties; the P.E.I. dailies were based in Charlottetown and Summerside, and their coverage never strayed far from the city limits.
The second issue featured “An Editorial of Sorts,” the first hint of how MacNeill would gauge his success. He wrote: “Possibly the supreme moment came when we entered a restaurant where a group of diners were discussing the new newspaper. Luckily, they did not recognize the editor, although the fact that their comments left him, at times blushing all the colours of the rainbow and, at other times, jumping ready to do battle with anyone, must have made them wonder. Now that we have calmed down, we can say that we have taken some of their remarks to heart.”
By January 1964, the MacNeills had moved to Montague, a small town on the “untouristy” side of the Island and eventually bought a house on Main Street, a stone’s throw from where the Graphic office stands today. Both MacNeills were ever-busy: Shirley keeping the books and typing the copy, Jim selling ads and writing the stories. Even sick with the mumps, MacNeill was scribbling down copy as soon as the fever subsided. To add to the work-load, baby number three, Jan, was born that year.
From the outset, MacNeill addressed the concerns of ordinary people, fighting by writing. In early editorials, he warned about unsafe bridges and ridiculed the attorney general’s belief that stricter liquor laws would eliminate bootlegging. He criticized tourist publications that left eastern towns like Montague and Souris off their maps. In the mid-’60s, MacNeill wrote on “What Montague Needs from Its Next Council,” he spoke out against the “gentlemen’s agreement” that saw certain political candidacies being given to Protestants and others to Catholics, writing that “a man can represent us faithfully whether he is of our faith or not.”
A favourite issue was closed-door school board meetings; in a preelection editorial, MacNeill wrote, “Because of the refusal of the present board members to allow open meetings, we would suggest that there is no one among the voters in Unit Four who can judge whether they warrant re-election.” MacNeill even staged a one-man sit-in, and in 1975 the meetings were opened to the public.
The paper was not all civic target practice, though. MacNeill made a special effort to print local stories that mattered to his readers: strawberry festivals, fishing derbies, fundraisers. The June 1975 story on an Alliston woman’s collection of 1,000 sets of salt-and-pepper shakers, or the April 1978 half-page piece on a local boy’s worm business-11 column inches and a big photo-these were the kinds of items that would be fluff in a daily but that earned the Graphic a loyal following.
MacNeill culled these stories from daily discussions with area residents. He was always out of the office, talking to people on the streets and in stores, diners and bars. MacNeill’s daily ritual included a visit to his friend Tim: Tim Hortons, that is, where the drive-through line stretches to the street and chatty coffee-breakers pour in throughout the day. In places like this MacNeill discovered what people were thinking about, what affected their lives. His best-known advice for reporters was to talk to 50 people every day. If you don’t come back with a story, he used to say, you’d better rethink your career.
Personally and professionally, MacNeill was the same eccentric man: insatiable coffee drinker, champion napper, notoriously absent-minded. He even had a name for his subconscious mind: Sam. If MacNeill was planning a difficult editorial, he would tell Sam the topic and then take a nap or work on another story. When he was finished, Sam would have written the column-MacNeill would just have to get it down on paper. When MacNeill took up curling, he credited Sam with any good shots, but his son Paul says, “Even Dad’s subconscious wasn’t very good at the hit game.”
MacNeill was tall, with dark hair and whiskers: the grey first appeared at the ears and worked its way around. His soft voice rumbled with a touch of Scottish brogue, and he jabbed at the air with his pen, his pipe, his coffee cup, when he was making a point. Listening intently to a story, he would look over his glasses at you and say, “Is that right?” Family friend Ann Galloway thought he didn’t believe a word she said when they first met.
At a bar or party, MacNeill always drew a crowd. He was a Gaelic gadabout-he told stories, loved music and dancing, enjoyed his whiskey and bought drinks even when he couldn’t afford it. “Jim was insulted if you tried to buy a round,” says curling buddy Larry Dewar with a smile. “He?d sit back with a drink, put his feet up and say, ‘Ah, that a man should live so well.'” MacNeill met his best friend, Denis Ryan, a Halifax investment consultant and Irish musician, in a pub in 1969. When Ryan lived in Lower Montague, MacNeill would call late on press nights and say, “She’s put to bed, are you up?” They would break out the single-malt scotch and watch the sun come up over the Strait.
In 1968 the MacNeills moved to 117 Chestnut St., where the rounded foyer is hung thick with family photographs, graduation portraits, wedding pictures and a black-and-white rendering of Jim?s parents. The house on Chestnut Street was, until the mid-’70s, a full-time centre of operations. Money was tight, but the MacNeills were resourceful. The MacNeill children-five in all-sold papers and licked and pasted address labels. Paul says, “You just prayed you didn’t get the Charlottetown or Miscellaneous bags-those had the most in them. And the black ink taste in your mouth….” Paul remembers a beer stein where Shirley kept the money. “Mom had three lists: the things we wanted, the things we needed and the things we could afford.”
For the MacNeills, having a large family and running a community newspaper weren’t incompatible; in fact, Dad’s job often affected the family vacation. MacNeill was involved with the Canadian Community Newspapers Association, which held a family-oriented convention in a different province every year. Over the years, the Clan MacNeill made it to conventions all over Canada. The kids not only got to travel, they also learned about newspapers. Today, three of the MacNeill children-Paul, Jan and Gail-are involved in the family business.
By the mid-’70s, the Graphic bore the tag line “The Lively One,” but it had settled into a stylistic groove. “Jim won a style award in the ’60s and he never forgot it,” says Andy Thompson, laughing. Thompson, a stringer for the Halifax Chronicle-Herald and former MacNeill employee, notes that readers were comfortable with theGraphic’s familiar look and its profusion of spelling and grammar mistakes.
Stephen Kimber, the director of King’s journalism school, says the Graphic has long been an example in design classes-of what not to do. MacNeill hated front-page jumps; he wanted readers to get the story without having to chase it through the paper, so whenever possible, stories would run no more than 500 words. MacNeill favoured content over aesthetics, and it showed. The Graphic might be six columns on one part of the page and three on another, but these inconsistencies didn’t seem to bother the readers.
The 1980s were a flurry of activity: MacNeill started two more papers, the West Prince Graphic, to cover the opposite side of the Island, and Atlantic Fish Farming, a sister publication to the Island Farmer, which MacNeill had launched in 1974. As the number of publications grew, so did the staff; MacNeill was soon able to leave the day-to-day operations at the Graphic for other projects. He served as president of the Atlantic Community Newspapers Association from 1980 to ?82 and later became the youngest honorary life member of the CCNA and the first Canadian president of the International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors. A less prestigious but more entertaining distinction was the 1989 Atlantic Journalism Association’s Red Lobster Award for mismatched headline and photo: “Rats Invade Harbour Village” with photo at right of Brian Mulroney shaking hands with a Montague woman.
But MacNeill was most prolific when “the bastards” in Charlottetown struck again. In 1987, when the provincial government announced a plebiscite on a proposed fixed link to the mainland, MacNeill plowed through stacks of documents and wrote nearly 40 stories in six weeks, criticizing the ministry of public works procedures and cautioning readers to consider the issue carefully. MacNeill’s research and insight earned him a nomination for the Michener Award for Meritorious Service in Journalism. Faded green and red Yes and No buttons still decorate MacNeill’s office.
For all his professional success, MacNeill had human failings. In December 1990, he was charged with impaired driving in Nova Scotia. Keeping with Graphic policy, MacNeill’s conviction ran on the front page. For the year his licence was suspended, MacNeill barred himself from writing editorials; he left that to managing editor Heather Moore and the rest of the staff. Moore, now in her 26th year at the Graphic, says MacNeill’s decision was not unusual-he had quit editorial writing before to give others a shot at it. In this case, MacNeill felt his reduced mobility might prevent him from gathering the information to do justice to the job.
Like the fixed-link stories, MacNeill’s best work at the time sprang from something that simply made him mad. In 1991, Charlottetown teenager Michael Miller was killed by an off-duty Mountie who was driving home from the RCMP mess after having a few beers. The investigation was a disaster-evidence lost, questions unasked-and two years later, the officer was acquitted. Islanders were outraged and Charlottetown newspapers received letters crying injustice, many of which were never published.
MacNeill had long denounced what he called the “two levels of justice” in P.E.I. When he got word of the Miller?s case, the editorial claws came out. In his December 15, 1993, Fact or Fancy column, MacNeill wrote: “This case [must] be appealed…. If it isn’t, it will simply mean that the Miller family hasn’t been given justice. Neither have other Islanders-justice denied to one is justice denied to all…. Michael Miller was killed by a police corporal who was legally found to be drunk. That can’t be left as simply ‘Not guilty.'”
The victim’s parents launched a civil suit against the attorney general of Canada, and MacNeill followed the proceedings: “The Millers are claiming damages for the loss of care, guidance and companionship suffered by the wrongful death of their son. What’s the RCMP response to this? Certainly not one word of apology; not one word of condolence; not one word to ease the terrible loss and stress of the Miller family…. The RCMP, in its defence, claims that the teenager failed to look out for his own safety and that he actually walked into the path of Cpl. McGregor’s unmarked RCMP car…the official position of the force is that Mike Miller was mainly responsible for his own death. That is almost obscene.”
Even after the suit was settled with the Millers, MacNeill’s outrage didn’t abate: “This isn’t a case any longer of wrongdoing by Cpl. Gary McGregor…. It’s of wrongdoing by other RCMP, in superior positions, who have allowed their men to act in a totally unprofessional manner. Who haven’t ensured the public scrutiny this whole case needs. The settlement may be sealed but the questions remain right out there in the open-dangling, unanswered-telling us the Mounties got their man. Clear, that is!”
In recognition of MacNeill’s work on the Miller case, the International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors gave MacNeill the 1994 Golden Quill Award for best editorial and the Eugene Cervi Award for “a lifetime of courageous editorial writing that adheres to the highest standards of the craft…and also recognizes consistently aggressive reporting of government at the grassroots level and interpretation of local affairs.” However, two RCMP officers involved in the case sued MacNeill and the Graphic; the case was still pending at press time.
In June 1994, seeking a new challenge, MacNeill bought a faltering weekly in Truro, Nova Scotia. At the time, the Weekly Record published mostly social announcements, but MacNeill intended to make it a real newspaper on the model of the Graphic: close to the community, but sharp and surprising. He made frequent trips to Truro and brought some of his own staff, including former Graphic intern Shawn Fuller, a graduate of the journalism program at Charlottetown’s Holland College. Despite Fuller’s youth, he was soon named editor and hired another young journalist, King’s grad Andy Thompson, who would also wear the editor’s hat.
The young writers practised MacNeill’s “bird-dogging” style of journalism and turned out stories of a whole new kind: a hidden camera in a Department of the Environment boardroom used to spy on employees following computer thefts; an attempt to cover up misuse of a county credit card by the CEO. Thompson recalls looking over the flats and seeing sticky notes with MacNeill’s scribble on them: “Dandy story” or “Good friggin’ story”-high praise from MacNeill.
At first it seemed as though MacNeill might be able to make a go of it-under his guidance the circulation went from 1,400 to its peak of 5,300 in the winter of 1996, but the Weekly Record ultimately became one of his few failures. What had worked in Montague fell flat in Truro-he tried to shake up a town that preferred to be stirred. Andy Thompson explains it this way: “Truro is a very staid, Tory town, very cliquish. They never understood what Jim was trying to do.”
The beginning of the end was Shawn Fuller’s story on employee safety in the Sobey’s grocery chain; after that, the East Coast’s largest advertiser took its business elsewhere and others followed. No ad boycott had ever seriously wounded the Graphic, but this was a mortal blow to the Record. Resources dried up, bills were unpaid, and the office locks changed. On May 13, 1997, the last issue of the Record hit the streets, but distribution was almost nil, since the postal bill was past due, too. Four days later, at the Atlantic Journalism Awards, Andy Thompson represented a defunct paper in the Enterprise Journalism category.
The failure of the Record may have disappointed MacNeill, but he didn’t discuss it. He had the thriving Island Press papers, and a new project as well: the 1997 launch of Atlantic Gig, a magazine celebrating East Coast music. The subject was near to MacNeill’s heart, the publication less so: it was run out of Halifax and sold after MacNeill’s death.
MacNeill had been diagnosed with diabetes in the late 1970s, a condition he had always managed quietly. In May 1998, he developed a foot infection: he was hospitalized for a month and doctors amputated his left big toe. But rather than take it easy, MacNeill decided to walk around the Island, talking to folks and writing stories he dreamed of compiling into a book. The walks seemed natural outlets for his restless energy and curiosity. MacNeill published 17 of these stories before he died-not enough for a book, says Shirley, and MacNeill wouldn’t have wanted it done halfway.
The King’s College doctorate was the highest honour MacNeill had ever received. Proud as he was, MacNeill was a little unstrung. He had occasionally appeared on television and radio, but as a public speaker, Graphiccolumnist Jack MacAndrew says, “He was terrible. He didn’t have the gift.” He worked on his acceptance speech for weeks, rehearsing after Shirley had gone to bed.
Two hours before the ceremony, Michael Cobden, a professor at King’s, asked to see MacNeill’s speech and marked it with corrections. Cobden says the gesture was friendly-familiar with MacNeill’s “rough” style, he wanted to save MacNeill embarrassment. Perhaps he succeeded: in the original draft, MacNeill mentionedGlobe and Mail columnist Robert Fowler. Cobden changed it to Fulford. However well-intentioned, the incident rattled MacNeill further.
When he rose to give his address in the Cathedral Church of All Saints, MacNeill dislodged a tooth. There was a pause while MacNeill tucked the tooth into his cheek with his tongue before continuing. In the end, MacNeill gave his original speech: he had earned the doctorate by being himself and he was determined to accept it in the same way. When it was over, MacNeill was visibly relaxed, grinning, brandishing his degree. “It was the highlight of his life,” says Shirley firmly.
On May 16, two days after the ceremony, the MacNeills enjoyed a leisurely morning before driving to the ferry. Noticing that her husband was restless, perhaps sleepy, Shirley offered to drive, but MacNeill declined. At the dock, MacNeill rushed to the restroom and returned looking unwell. The moment they stopped on board the ferry, MacNeill was out of the car. Shirley last saw him alive as he dashed to the restroom.
Despite the efforts of crew members, a retired Cape Breton nurse and an Ontario pharmacist who tried to revive MacNeill, he was dead at 3:45 p.m.
MacNeill’s funeral was a P.E.I. event. Cards and letters arrived from all over Canada and the United States, and guests included colleagues, competitors and a group of recent King’s grads. A dram of whiskey sat atop MacNeill’s coffin and Dave Cadogan of The Miramichi Leader gave a fond eulogy. Dr. James Joseph (Seumas) MacNeill was buried beneath a simple headstone bearing a Celtic cross and the traditional newspaper symbol marking the end of a story: -30-.
At the Curling Club for the reception, Shirley approached the bartender and said “Open up-and put it on MacNeill’s tab.” The drink flowed freely in MacNeill’s memory until the small hours. In the end, members of the Curling Club insisted on paying the tab. That might have been the only part MacNeill would have objected to.
The ironic and untimely nature of his passing would have pleased MacNeill. He was never one to rest on his laurels and it would have been hard to top his doctorate. “It was the way he would have wanted it,” says Shirley, “He went out on a high.”
Adrienne Hurst was an Online Editor for the Summer 1999 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.