More Than a Love of Craft
Journalists dish on the pleasures and the pitfalls of romance in the biz
Michelle Shephard wasn’t thinking about love when she met Jim Rankin on her first day of reporting for The Toronto Star in 1995. Actually, the summer student was swearing in her car, banging her steering wheel, and idling in a driveway. She was on deadline and didn’t know how to unlock the gate of the company parking lot. Rankin, a full-time staffer at the paper, knocked on the window and introduced himself. He pointed to the key under the seat. That was the beginning of their professional relationship. Like many couples across the country, Shephard and Rankin became as passionate about each other as they are about journalism. They married in 1998.
Shared lives, shared bylines
After joining the Star permanently, Shephard occasionally collaborated with her husband at work. Known for solid investigative reporting, the duo shared bylines on stories from Walkerton’s tainted water to Paul Bernardo’s trial. They were also part of the team responsible for a series about racial bias in the Toronto police force, published in October 2002. Their groundbreaking work won a National Newspaper Award, but also earned its share of critics. “I can’t imagine understanding the stress it would be having on Jimmie if I wasn’t going through it myself,” says Shephard, although she still prefers working apart.
Too close for comfort?
Even when couples don’t pair up on assignments, journalists with the same employer might feel smothered by their spouse and starved for independence. Yet that hasn’t been the case for Peter McLaughlin and Marilyn Saunders of The Daily News in Halifax, where he’s a legislative reporter and she’s the paper’s entertainment editor. They’ve been married for 15 years, have three children, and carpool to work every day. “Living the same life around the clock is not unsatisfying,” says McLaughlin, whose desk sits 25 feet away from his wife’s in the newsroom. Having similar interests and backgrounds has only made their relationship stronger, he adds.
Long distance relationships
Many journalism couples face the opposite problem because of out-of-town assignments, says Gordon Graham, vice president of the Periodical Writers Association of Canada. During most of his three-year romance with fellow freelance writer Anne Gallop, he stayed in Montreal while she lived in Toronto. The long-distance relationship had its obvious pitfalls – reuniting every two months – yet Graham says he actually became closer to his partner. “We had 1,000 emails we exchanged, so that was a pretty nice courtship process,” he recalls fondly.
Whatever the living arrangements, a working couple needs to make an effort to keep the relationship intact. “We have a lot of ways of keeping busy, but do we find time to connect?” asks Sharon Ramsay, a registered marriage and family therapist in Toronto. She suggests planning time for emails, phone calls, and reuniting in person, like Gordon and Gallop. Make visits memorable by laughing together, doing something unrelated to work, and enjoying a kiss that’s more than a peck! And when you’re apart again, don’t forget to say, “I miss you,” even in a note.
Critiquing each other’s work
Aside from exchanging love letters, journalism couples may share other intimate thoughts, from story ideas to first drafts. The Globe and Mail’s Ian Brown says he trusts the editorial judgment of his partner, fellow Globecontributor Johanna Schneller – but asking for her opinion can be risky. Brown admits he’s been wounded by her constructive criticism in the past, which is somewhat ironic, since he taught her at a publishing course in the U.S. before they married in 1989. “You always have to be delicate when you’re dealing with anybody,” he says, noting that most journalists are egotistical, obsessive, and feel vulnerable when it comes to their work. That means any feedback must be tactful and carefully crafted. “There’s an old saying,” Brown says. “The way to keep a man happy was to tell him he’s a genius and he has a great penis.” Giving feedback to writers is no different, he chuckles, but then you’ve got to tell them to correct their copy.
Competing with your partner
For Andrew Duffy and his wife Anne McIlroy, talking about work wasn’t an option in the late 1990s. They both covered the environment beat on Parliament Hill, but he worked for Southam News while she filed stories to her current employer, the Globe. Interviewing the same sources, on the same day, was common.
So how did they deal with the head-to-head competition? Not very well, says Duffy, who jokes about drinking to handle the stress. Naturally, they were tight-lipped during conversations about work. “You definitely had to compartmentalize what you were doing,” recalls Duffy, who now writes for The Ottawa Citizen, while his wife’s new beat is science. “Your natural competitive instinct [told] you when to keep your mouth shut.” McIlroy agrees, saying they’d even rent separate hotel rooms during the Kyoto negations to avoid eavesdropping as they chatted about stories with editors. “It wasn’t fun because we both like to be first,” she says.
Rumours, rumours, rumours
Antonia Zerbisias, media columnist for the Star, says her 13-year union with another media professional was strained by rumours, not rivalry. Gossipy colleagues downplayed her skills as a writer and pegged her success on her marriage to Mark Blandford, an accomplished producer at CBC. “Because he was influential,” she remembers bitterly, “a lot of people would say he would do my homework for me.” Being at different stages in their careers wasn’t unique, and neither was the tension it caused before they got divorced. “I don’t see a lot of [journalism couples] last unless someone takes a back seat and the other one is a star.” Add kids to the equation and women are more likely to retreat from the spotlight than their spouses, she argues.
Balancing family and careers
Myfanwy Davies, who’s on maternity leave from CBC radio in New Brunswick, doesn’t agree. In her family, she and husband Andy Campbell have both made concessions. As a couple, they’ve moved across the country, taken contract work, and had to cast aside some ambitions in order to care for their two young children. “His dream was always to be a sportscaster,” she says of Campbell, who now works as a video journalist at ATV, although he loved morning radio and being a play-by-play announcer for a local division of the American Hockey League. “But there aren’t that many jobs, and we’re at the point in our lives where he had to make a sacrifice,” she says. Davies gave up one of her dream jobs, too.
While raising a family has created new expectations and pressures, it’s also brought simple pleasures to their lives. After a long day at work, for example, Davies will talk to her husband about his day over dinner and then it’s on to important family matters.
“With two little kids,” says Davies, “you end up moving onto things like, ‘Did she sleep?’ ‘Did she use the potty?’ ‘Now she’s calling people “stupid” – what do we do about that?’ Children can be a remedy for stress.”
Whether a journalist couple has children or not, spending quality time away from work is a must. Cooper Langford, who met his wife Judy at Concordia’s journalism school in the late 1980s, learned this lesson the hard way. When he joined the industry, Langford worked in Edmonton and eventually climbed the ranks to editor of Yellowknife’s Up Here magazine. While his career bloomed, his relationship foundered. “When you’re trying to get your start, it’s tough,” says Langford, who is now executive editor at National Post Business magazine. “I put one before the other and burned my fingers through it,” he confesses. “That really led to crisis in the relationship,” says Langford, who shifted priorities before it was too late.
Dr. Barbara Killinger, a clinical psychologist and author of Workaholics: The Respectable Addicts; A Family Guide, isn’t surprised by stories of journalism couples in jeopardy. “You’re in a very hyper kind of business and it’s very seductive to get on that gerbil wheel and not get off,” she says. Workaholics obsess over power, control, and performance at the expense of intimate relationships and their emotions, Killinger explains. Other warning signs include chronic fatigue, difficulty making decisions at work, and addictions like sex, drugs, and alcohol that add to a journalist’s daily adrenaline rush. Workaholics should seek professional help to change, Killinger says.
On having it all
Despite all the challenges when a journalist marries a colleague, one of the country’s most accomplished writers says, “It’s the best possible arrangement.” June Callwood and Trent Frayne, both inductees to the Canadian News Hall of Fame, celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary last May. They met – and hosted their wedding reception – at the Globe where they worked as reporters at the old building, 140 King Street West. Although the couple churned out story after story about everything from the Olympics to the education system, Callwood says raising a family was never a problem. “Our kids got used to typewriters,” she says. “One of my children, Jesse, used to bring her toys and play at my feet under my desk so I always knew where she was.”
Asked about the greatest challenges of her relationship, Callwood struggles for words, insisting her marriage has always been strong. But generally, she warns against being competitive, anxious, or insecure with your mate.
And the best part of having another journalist as her partner for life? “They understand the process and how hard it is,” says Callwood. “How lonely it is. The difficulty of getting the research. How persistent you have to be. How hardworking you have to be.”
And there’s the payoff that only a journalist can fully appreciate: “The great pleasure of when it’s over. It’s nice.”
Five Tips for Journalism Couples
1. Slow down. No need to rush when you eat, walk, and talk, says author and psychologist Dr. Killinger. Take your time, so you’re in better shape for yourself and your loved ones.
2. “It’s not fair to the spouse to come home exhausted all the time,” adds Killinger. Don’t wear yourself out completely before you come home to your family. They need you as much as work does.
3. Find constructive ways to communicate about tough issues. “We can’t not communicate,” says therapist Sharon Ramsay. “Silence is even communication. You just don’t like what you’re getting back,” she says.
4. Set realistic expectations you can both live with. Make it a priority to talk about – and agree on – how you’ll actually deal with kids to careers, Ramsay says.
5. Remember, if life is like a box of chocolates, then love is a bowl of oatmeal. “It’s doing the ordinary, mundane things quietly with each other,” says Dr. Killinger, borrowing an analogy from Robert A. Johnson’sWe: Understanding the Psychology of Romantic Love.