Back Where he Belongs
Forced from the Globe four years ago, Norman Webster says he's happy at the Gazette
This is a story of cliches. An interview with Norman Webster sounds like a journalism 101 class, or an introduction to journalistic ethics. Norman Webster is fair to the extreme and adamant in his belief that every point of view has a right to be heard. If there is a “Queen’s scout” of Canadian journalism, it is Webster. He acts and speaks in a way that is almost too good to be true. But I should begin before the “lecture.”
Norman Webster drives his Saab 9000 up the hill and pulls into his driveway. He is wearing a blue housecoat over his running clothes to keep him warm after his workout. He wears an Expos baseball hat. Today he drove to the canal and ran along the relatively flat path next to the water. “Just 12 kilometres today,” he says, as he opens the door to the house in the heart of Westmount. I follow him downstairs, chatting about his training. (Webster, a friend for two years, shares my passion for training.) The basement contains a stationary bike and a television. In the winter, Webster can combine two of his hobbies-training on the bike and watching hockey. Webster does a quick change into some “real” clothes. The Expos hat remains.
Norman Webster, editor-in-chief of The Gazette, is a very happy man. He has returned to Quebec, the place he will always call home. His father grew up just a block away from where we are now. His mother went to school just down the street. The Webster family has almost 150 years of Quebec life behind it, and Webster feels a definite sense of community here.
He has been good for the Gazette because of that sense of community. He is the first bilingual editor-in-chief for the paper this century. Just the fact that he can do interviews in French has eliminated a huge stereotype. This bastion of English Quebec now has a spokesperson who can communicate with the rest of the province on their terms.
Webster is a competitive man. Then is a saying in sports that you are only a: good as your last race. If you believe that, then you approach every race very intensely. It is a burning from inside-the rest of the world rarely judges so harshly.
Canada hosted the Triathlon World Championship on September 12, 1992, in Huntsville, Ontario. After; 1.5-kilometre swim, the athletes ran up a steep hill to a transition are where they discarded their wetsuit and hopped onto their bikes. After biking 40 hilly kilometres, the athletes hurried onto a 10-kilometr run course. Again it was hilly, and challenging. The athletes finished next to the transition area-exhausted, but exhilarated.
This was Webster’s latest race. The Worlds capped off a seven-year involvement with the sport for a man considerably better known for his talents as a writer. How did he do? “I finished in the middle of the pack,” he says. This undercuts the fact that he was racing against the very best the world has to offer.
On Tuesday nights, Webster hits the ice with the boys. He has been playing hockey for as long as he can remember. At 51, he is one of the “old guys” on the ice. The word is he holds his own with the younger pups. After the game, the gang heads out to a local pub. Webster is usually seen as a solitary man, but the camaraderie of those Tuesday nights is very important to him. “He misses the companionship as much as the hockey [when he can’t go],” says Pat Webster, Norman’s wife. Another cliche sports can bring out the true nature of a person. During competition a person’s soul is bared for all the world to see. Maybe through sport we can learn about Norman Webster.
“Norman likes to win,” says Geoffrey Stevens, a longtime associate and friend. Stevens was Webster’s pick as managing editor at the Globe when he became editor-inchief in 1983. What Stevens recalls of the young Norman Webster is that he was a good newspaper man “who always looked like he needed a new suit, and drove an ancient Volkswagen with a dent in the side.” How did it get the dent?
Webster continues: “This was back in the days when filing a story was always a problem. In ’74, I covered Trudeau’s whistle-stop campaign tour for the Globe. Each day I would have to call in a story to a rewrite man, which was incredibly frustrating. These guys used to ask questions like ‘How do you spell Trudeau?’ A year later I was working at Queen’s Park, covering Bill Davis during the provincial election. About 5:30 I found a phone, and called in the story. I got a rewrite man who seemed unable to understand basic English. All the frustrations of a year before came out. As I walked back to the car, I kicked in the front fender.”
Getting the best story is important to Webster. Beating the competition is critical. Being the best journalist he can be is paramount. An incompetent rewrite man could very easily jeopardize any competitive edge.
So the man is competitive. That does little to explain the drive he has to be a good journalist. No one in the industry would say that Webster got where he is through anything but his own talent. Even the fact that his uncle, R. Howard Webster, owned the paper when Norman got his first job as an editorial clerk is forgotten when it comes to his talent as a writer.
David Hayes writes in his book, Power and Influence, “No one dismissed his rise through the organization as a case of nepotism. Webster was simply too hardworking and talented a journalist.”
“Norman not only earned all his spurs, he proved himself in what we all thought was the deadliest assignment-Queen’s Park,” says John Fraser. According to Fraser, Clark Davey, then managing editor at the Globe, had a firm belief that rich men’s sons couldn’t be good journalists. The Queen’s Park assignment would either prove what Webster could do, or destroy him. In fact, it brought out the very best in Webster. “He basically set the benchmark for all subsequent journalists covering Queen’s Park,” Fraser says.
“There aren’t many things that commits to that he does halfway,” says Pat. They met in England. He was studying at Oxford, she at the University of London. Since 1966 they have been a team, with Norman making great grounds in the newspaper industry, she bringing up their five children. Pat has kept the family unit working smoothly throughout their many travels. She is an optimistic woman, and no challenge seems too much. The fact that the family timetable has been quite out of sync compared to the rest of the world has been a minor challenge. That there never were family dinners during a weekday doesn’t faze her. “You either accept it or not,” she says of her husband’s 11-hour-plus work days. The years of travel, while difficult, were ultimately exciting, she says. “Norman has done what he has as a journalist because he wanted to,” Pat continues. “He is an achiever.”
WEBSTER QUOTES FROM JOHN MILTON:
“I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue.” This is for Webster the classic statement of the need for freedom of expression. Rick Salutin, writing in This Magazine, describes Webster’s approach to the media as “noblesse oblige.” Salutin saw in Webster a “sense of responsibility to appear fair, or even possibly to be fair. It arose from a confidence that the authority of the ruling elites could not be damaged by exposure to competing views.” For Salutin, this sense was the reason that Webster was so open to conflicting views in the Globe.
Webster thinks that idea gives the whole concept far more sophistication than it deserves. He might not agree with something that is said, but it is important that it be heard. “For what it’s worth, I really do see public debate in this way.”
Webster leans towards publishing things. His roots are still very much tied to being a writer, and this dominates his theories on what should and shouldn’t go into a paper. Both sides of the story need to be told. Of utmost importance is being fair. The journalistic process is paramount. Robert Fulford, who worked for Webster when the Websters owned Saturday Night magazine, says Webster never interfered with the content of the magazine. “Our business is to put different points of view in front of people,” says Webster. It is this belief that allows, almost looks forward to, columns by William Johnson and Don Macpherson which were staunchly against the Charlottetown Accord. Webster was very much a supporter of the accord, but it would never occur to him to censor any conflicting views.
“In my time with Norman, I never knew him to interfere with news coverage because of his own opinion. He might not like it, but what the hell, it would go in the paper,” says Stevens.
Webster is almost apologetic as he says that he really believes what he is saying. The bottom line is that he likes to see an honest, balanced newspaper. It’s that simple. It is why Webster is doing all this.
“It’s worth doing. That’s the most important thing,” he says. “It matters to society that journalists do their jobs,” he continues.
He uses, as an example, a column he wrote in the fall of 1991 about a speech by Pierre Elliott Trudeau to the Young President’s Organization-“presidents of their companies by the age of 40.” During the off-the-record speech, Trudeau questioned what might happen if the number of French-speaking people in Quebec began to decline. The definition of “distinct society” during the Meech Lake debate hinged on there being a French-speaking majority. Webster reported Trudeau’s words: “It will give the government of this society the power to say: ‘Well, let’s deport a couple of hundred thousand of non French-speaking Quebecers we have a right to expel people, certainly to shut their traps if they think they can speak English in public.'” Even in the column, Webster made it abundantly clear that he had problems reporting an “off-the-record speech.” The peculiar circumstances of this speech made it different in Webster’s eyes. “This man [Trudeau], saying these things-dramatic, scary ideas about the major public issue of the day to one of the most influential audiences in the country, in their hundreds-1 felt, one way or the other, it had to be put on the public record.” Within days, Trudeau’s words would have scattered among Canada’s elite, and Webster felt the rest of Canada deserved to hear what was going on. (In fact, within hours, Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa’s office was given a detailed report of the speech, as was the prime minister’s office, long before Webster’s column was published.) The column created quite a stir, but Webster is confident that it needed to be written. Like it or leave it, you have to respect his principled approach.
Robert Fulford chooses to leave it. “It was a mistake an athlete shouldn’t have made,” Fulford says. “You can’t change the rules in the middle of the game.”
It is now late on a Sunday night. We have adjourned to the living room. Norman Webster is trying to help me understand what makes him do what he does. He has been very direct, and words I might doubt from someone else (the importance of being fair could be a stock answer for some people) I am believing. Then comes the clincher. Webster sits back on the couch, the comfortable couch that fits so nicely in the comfortable living room, with its Chinese ceramics and Canadian paintings.
The clincher. “Cecil Rhodes puts a tremendous obligation on you. Whenever you might be tempted to say ‘to hell with it,’ you realize that you haven’t the right to sit on the sidelines.” Suddenly I begin to realize just how seriously Webster looks at this endeavour he has chosen. No wonder he works so hard to make it just right. With that burden on his shoulders, he would have to.
This would be too much coming from most people. Now the references to the “Hardy Boy,” and the “boy scout” begin to make sense. For many people, Webster must be too good to be true. There is a certain amount of contempt in those references, but probably also a grudging bit of respect. What else can you feel for a man who works so hard every day just to prove to himself that he can do it. Just to get the story right. This from a man who could live quite comfortably without that job.
“MY CAREER HAS BEEN A SUCCESSION of interesting tasks,” he says. The tasks began at university, but to tell the story properly, we have to begin a little earlier. On June 4, 1941, Norman Webster was born in Summerside, Prince Edward Island. He was the oldest of the three children-William and Margaret would follow. The family was raised in Sherbrooke, Quebec. Both Norman and Will went to Bishop’s College School, a boarding school in Lennoxville six kilometres from Sherbrooke. Webster grew up in a pocket of English Canada that was surrounded by French Canada.
Webster followed up his time at Bishop’s College School with a degree in Economics at Bishop’s University, just across the river. Webster was a good athlete at University-he played on the school’s hockey team. He was also a scholar-one of two Rhodes Scholars from Quebec in 1962. On top of all that, he was also a journalist. Webster served as the Sherbrooke Records stringer for the last two years he was at Bishop’s. He routinely wrote half-a-dozen stories for the paper each week, along with a column. Webster remembers himself as much as a journalist as a student in those days.
He really got the “bug;” as he calls it, in 1959. This was that editorial clerk job. But his love for newspapers really came a lot earlier than that. Webster remembers being fascinated with them at a young age. It began with keeping up with sports. From there it grew.
“What interested me then was the tremendous satisfaction with getting the story-it interested me then, and is still interesting to me now.”
Webster returned from Oxford to work for the Globe. His command of French made him a natural as the Globe’s correspondent at the Quebec Legislative Assembly. After a year there, he was moved to the Ottawa bureau. He edited The Globe Magazine, then worked as the assistant to the editor of the paper.
In 1969, Webster was stationed in Beijing, one of only three foreign correspondents in China at the time. After a two-year stay there, it was back to Canada where he worked as assistant to the “Brigadier”-Richard S. Malone, publisher of the Winnipeg Free Press. After a year in Winnipeg, he spent the next six years at Queen’s Park, first as Queen’s Park bureau chief and then from 1974-78 he wrote a daily column on Ontario affairs. “It was the best writing I’ve ever done,” he says.
Webster spent another foreign stint in London, where again he excelled, and was seen by many as one of the best London correspondents the Globe has ever had. He returned to Toronto in 1981 as assistant editor and became the editor-in-chief in 1983.
It was the culmination of almost a quarter-century involvement with the paper. It was the best of times, for a while, but somewhere along the line Webster’s relationship with his publisher went awry.
Possibly the most fundamental difference between Webster and his publisher, A. Roy Megarry, was their view of sports. Megarry was not a sports fan. In fact, on one occasion, when he was taken to a baseball game by some of the Globe staff, the rules of baseball had to be explained to him. Megarry had a disdain for the sports section of the Globe.
“He had a funny way of accounting,” Stevens says of Megarry’s approach. Megarry would break down the different parts of the paper, and do a cost analysis of each part-how much advertising was brought in, compared to how much it cost to produce. Sports was always a big loser. Megarry never understood why Webster and Stevens felt the sports section was so important.
Sports was but one of a number of differences the two men had. Webster, who even just a year ago was hesitant to speak much about the rift, is not nearly so hesitant now. “Megarry didn’t and doesn’t like journalists,” Webster says. There is no animosity as the words come out. Webster appears to have come to terms with his final break with the Globe.
If Webster had it in him to put aside what he thought was right, things might have been different. John Fraser says that Webster “could not prevent himself from saying what he thought.” His rigid belief in both rules and roles in the newsroom brought him to loggerheads with Megarry, since Megarry played the game very differently.
It was Boxing Day, 1988, when Megarry relieved Webster of his position as editor-in-chief. Webster looks back at that last year
at the Globe not with nostalgia, but as a very difficult time.
According to some, Webster’s apparent shyness prevented him from being good at staff relations. Mel Morris, the executive managing editor at the Gazette during Webster’s first year, remembers him as being “a bit remote.” Stevens says that “Norman’s door was always open, and people were in there” during Webster’s time at the Globe. That wasn’t the case at the Gazette, Morris reports-especially on a Friday when Webster prepared his Saturday column. “He was not as involved with the day-to-day running of the newsroom,” Morris says. “He preferred to let his managing editor run the newsroom.”
“Norman is probably miscast,” Morris says. “I say that for all the good reasons. I think writers are more valuable than managers, and Norman is an excellent writer.”
His shyness might be a managerial fault, but the most important measure of Webster’s popularity and respect from his fellow workers at the Globe must have been the “gift” he was given when he left: a scholarship in his name at Bishop’s University. According to Pat, it was the perfect present for her husband.
Webster sips a cup of tea in his at the Gazette. He is wearing a neat blue suit. The editor-in-chief of the Gazette is very much a public figure in Montreal. Webster dresses the part. The Gazette is well represented.
The office is crowded with newspapers. Webster apologizes for the mess. It is a week to the day that Canadians voted on the Charlottetown Accord, a missed opportunity, says Webster. In his view, the Meech Lake Accord was a tragically missed opportunity that came close to bringing down the country. He pulls out from one of the piles the special section the Gazette put together the day after the vote. “It was really well done,” he says with pride.
This is not a boast of anything he has done. He is quick to praise the work of the people at the Gazette. But the Gazette is a very different paper from the one that was the number one priority of his working life for so many years.
“I have moved on,” he says. Could it be that simple? Can I you go from being the “head honcho” at Canada’s National Newspaper, to I not, and Just move on? If anyone can, it’s probably Webster.
Pat expresses what most of us imagine her husband would say. “The whole Globe thing was tremendously difficult for me,” she says. In her eyes, though, Norman really has moved on. “He honestly doesn’t seem to mind. I think he’s giving you the honest goods about it,” she says from a different couch in the living room the next day. “Neither criticism nor praise seems to affect him. He doesn’t depend on other people for appreciation or blame.”
But even for Webster, there was anger. No Volkswagens this time, but anger. “The truth is that I’m a lot happier now than I was for my last year at the Globe. That last year was very unpleasant. I haven’t said these things to anyone-I really can’t emphasize enough that I’m a pretty happy man these days.” Webster has found a new place to ply his trade, to play hockey and to do triathlons. And boy is he happy to be here.