Lauren MacLaren
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Smooth Operators

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The Toronto Star switchboard has built a legendary reputation. And when it comes to tracking down underground criminals or imprisoned reporters, these ladies always get the call

It was after noon on October 29, 1977, when the phone rang in The Toronto Star newsroom. Novice reporter Richard Brennan, working on the rewrite desk, picked up his line. “I want to speak to a reporter,” a woman said. “I was just taken hostage in Northtown Shopping Plaza.” Held captive for half an hour, she had been freed, along with three others, from a National Trust Company branch, where a gun-wielding man was still holding 14 people.

It was a good story, and if Brennan could speak with the armed man, it would be a great one. He put a call into the Star‘s switchboard and, within minutes, an operator called back. She had a hostage on the line, waiting to pass Brennan to the gunman. Brennan landed two interviews with the captor and learned details of the 12-hour standoff two hours before police, and several hours before his competitors at the other papers. It was a killer scoop and Brennan credits his access to the Star‘s secret weapon – its switchboard. “They’ve got all the tricks in the world,” says Brennan. “They are beyond invaluable.”

The switchboard’s all-female staff of eight has helped reporters find elusive sources and break seemingly impossible local and international stories. Its top-secret source-tracking services are considered by Starjournalists to be the best in the industry. Many were disappointed when management considered hacking it up by offering early retirement packages and not replacing departing operators. Now, reporters worry the institution and its legendary work will be reduced to memories.

• • •
Intentionally hidden somewhere at One Yonge Street, there is a vault-like wooden door, and behind that, an area the size of a high school locker room, with pale yellow walls covered in whiteboards with phone numbers. This is the switchboard office. Supervisor Linda Turner sits in her tiny corner office behind a door decorated with greeting cards and a For Better or for Worse comic strip. The 60-year-old has worked in the research and communications department at the Star since 1979, and this is her home. She knows every inch of it and displays each resource with motherly pride. “I got this book at a church bazaar for 50 cents. I was so excited,” she says, stroking a 1991 edition of Who’s Who in Canada, her blue eyes sparkling behind her large-framed glasses. She returns the book to its place between a binder full of contacts in Kurdistan and a ragged copy of Joy of Cooking. Against each wall, bookshelves overflow with tattered phonebooks and corporate and government directories. Three black books on top of a large filing cabinet by the windows contain private phone numbers of politicians and other bigwigs, and are the first things Turner would grab during a fire alarm. “If I were to sell them,” she says, “I’d be extremely wealthy.” In the middle of the room, six desks form an island – each desk with a computer and a telephone as wide and as long as a cash register. The women finger them effortlessly, greeting each caller with a sweet yet authoritative “Toronto Star!” Besides fielding all incoming calls and providing investigative service to the reporters, the operators handle much of the Star‘s customer service – fielding calls about everything from circulation to complaints about careless delivery persons.

While the Star has had some form of research department since its inauguration in 1892, no one knows for sure when the switchboard itself was created. The original switchboard office was housed within a larger room where the windows overlooked the desks of the accounting department. It was in this tiny room where Joyce Milgaard – the mother of the wrongly convicted David Milgaard, and, at the time, a new recruit to the switchboard – broke her first story on September 17, 1949, when the SS Noronic caught fire. Milgaard was on her way to her Centre Island home from a party when she saw the fire. After helping a man out of the water, Milgaard headed for the Toronto Island Ferry and raced to the switchboard office where the nighttime phone lines were routinely forwarded to newsroom answering machines. Knowing there would be calls about the fire, Milgaard disconnected the answering machines and fielded all incoming calls, running the switchboard alone until the next shift arrived an hour later. Milgaard wrote her own account of the fire and her efforts to pull the man out of the lake – it was her only byline in what was then called The Toronto Daily Star.

Such devotion to the paper is one of several characteristics switchboard operators must possess, according to Turner. The others include tenacity, diplomacy, and persuasiveness. Crime reporter Peter Edwards observed those qualities in 2003 while reporting for a piece about a marijuana grow-op and the Hells Angels. The story involved a murder and suicide, and one of the sources Edwards needed was an “alleged nasty guy.” He had only this source’s last name, a nickname, the general area of his suspected whereabouts (north and east of Toronto), and a warning: this was a sinister character. An hour after sharing that seemingly inadequate information with the switchboard, the operators had a full name and phone number. “They can take those stressful calls,” says Edwards. “They don’t get skittish or nervous. In 18 years, I’ve never heard, ‘Give me a break; we can’t get that.'”

To read the rest of this story, please see our ebook anthology: RRJ in Review: 30 Years of Watching the Watchdogs.
 It can be purchased online here


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