The Soul in the Lens
The unforgiving art of Nigel Dickson
On a Monday night in November, the upstairs floor of Bistro 990 is filled with magazine editors, art directors and writers who have come to see the unveiling of Nigel Dickson’s 30 photographs of Toronto authors. While guests snack on stuffed pastries and sip wine, they examine the portraits that are displayed throughout the room, a series that was commissioned by Toronto Life editor John Macfarlane and that he ran in Toronto Life’s November issue as a piece entitled “City of Writers.”
Photographer Nigel Dickson is in the spotlight. When the 50 year old, who’s dressed in a dark blue suit for the occasion, isn’t doing an interview with the media, he’s surrounded by people wanting to talk about the photographs he spent the summer working on. There’s a portrait of Russell Smith standing with crossed arms in his Shaw Street home and one of Barbara Gowdy sitting at a restaurant table in Cabbagetown. There are two portraits of Margaret Atwood at Mount Pleasant Cemetery. Most of the authors like their portraits. Atwood isn’t at Bistro 990, but she bought her photograph – a good indication she approved. Smith told Dickson that he made him look really good, and Eric Koch wrote a letter to Dickson saying if he received as many compliments about his writing as he had had about the photograph, he’d be really happy.
Not every author, however, is pleased. Katherine Govier, who was photographed in Sir Winston Churchill Park wearing a black sleeveless sundress, her hair blowing in the wind, is more than unhappy. When Dickson approaches Govier and asks, “Well, how do you like the picture?” she replies, “I hate it. I detest it. You must have gotten so many better photographs than that. Why did you use that one?”
Later, Govier says her picture doesn’t look like her. “I had spent two or three hours with him. It was hot, it was windy, there was a hairdresser there, he had a guy moving lights around. There was a lot of fuss about the hair, a lot of fuss about ‘Fold your arms, don’t fold your arms.’ I guess he was composing a look in his lens – he liked it. But it was a horrible picture. It wasn’t a likeness.”
The appeal of Dickson’s portraits – and conversely the reason some of his subjects dislike the way he portrays them – is that he’s able to transform what could be a conventional personality shot into a visually interesting, candid glimpse of the person in front of the lens. This honest approach to portrait photography means the final image can be less than flattering, but it produces results. “You can see the sadness in Tomson Highway, the pain in Matt Cohen’s eyes,” says John Macfarlane, who is a longtime friend of Dickson’s. “Nigel is able to reveal the essence of a person.”
Of course, Dickson’s vision of a person’s essence may be quite different from the subject’s own. Although Govier detests her portrait, Dickson himself thinks it’s a good photograph. “I think I made her look ten years younger than she actually is, and put more life into her than is apparently there.”
Dickson’s response epitomizes both his stubborn determination to photograph people his way and his insistence on allowing the subject enough freedom to reveal himself in front of the camera. Ever since he offended Robert Duvall during a photo shoot for Rolling Stone years ago, he’s been careful not to criticize his subjects. When Dickson was setting up for the shoot, he noticed Duvall had missed a spot shaving above his lip. Dickson politely asked Duvall if he wanted to shave before the shoot, and Duvall exploded in anger. “I don’t need this shit,” he said. “Who are you to tell me what to do?” Duvall walked out, leaving Dickson standing there. “It was my first opportunity to do a cover for Rolling Stone, but I blew it because I asked him to shave,” says Dickson. “All people have egos.”
Now known as one of North America’s top portrait photographers (he’s won 16 National Magazine Awards), Dickson has worked for all the major magazines on the continent, including Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair, Vogue, Fortune, Details, Newsweek, Esquire, Toronto Life and Saturday Night. The list of famous people he’s photographed includes Wayne Gretzky, Jean Chr?tien, Brian Mulroney, Billy Graham, John Cleese, David Cronenberg and Norman Mailer. In the ’80s, then Saturday Night editor Robert Fulford acknowledged Dickson’s photographic presence in the magazine by including him on the masthead as a contributing editor – the only photographer or illustrator up to that point to receive this title. At Toronto Life, he’s credited with shooting more features and covers than any other photographer.
One well-known cover shot was of Ontario Premier Mike Harris. Dickson recalls that as soon as he walked into Harris’s office, the premier began telling dirty jokes. “It was like he was in a bar telling jokes to the boys,” says Dickson. “All he did was tell jokes. It was pretty surprising.” At one point during the shoot, Dickson opened a jar on the premier’s desk that was labelled Common Sense. “It was empty, of course,” says Dickson, laughing. “It seemed quite appropriate.” For the backdrop, Dickson used a frosted piece of Mylar that he had scratched with sand-paper, then lit from behind to pick up the scratches. The final photograph was a head shot of Harris looking utterly bewildered. “He came across like a drunken buffoon,” says Dickson. “And I think I captured that in the photograph.”
Despite Dickson’s success, he never received any formal schooling in photography. Born in London, England, in 1949, he grew up in a suburb with his brother and two sisters. Although he bought his first camera around the age of 15, he never acquired the requisite course credits to enter a photography program. Instead, he began his photographic career in the darkroom. “I couldn’t be a rock star, so I got into printing,” he says jokingly, adding more seriously, “I got into printing because I somehow wanted to get into photography. But it’s a dead-end way. It doesn’t get you into photography – it just gets you into printing.” Dickson soon tired of the darkroom and became frustrated with doing half of someone else’s photograph. “It was the frustration of being trapped,” he says, “of not doing one’s own creativity but doing it for other people.”
In 1972, he visited New York (“Everyone in England wanted to go to America.”), where he again worked at printing photographs to make money. Dickson saved enough to take almost two years off to travel. In 1974, as he was “wandering aimlessly across North America,” he decided to visit Canada. In Toronto, he was introduced by a mutual friend to photographer Bert Bell. Renowned for his food and people shots, Bell had opened a studio on Toronto’s Wellington Street in 1970 and was in need of an assistant. Dickson showed him eight-by-ten prints of midgets he’d taken while travelling through the States. “He didn’t have many pictures,” says Bell, “but I remember those ones to this day – they were magnificent. As soon as I saw them, I wanted him to work for me.”
Dickson had originally planned to return to London, but instead he accepted Bell’s offer. For the next two years, Bell watched as Dickson’s talents developed. As Bell’s assistant, he’d spend eight to ten hours a day helping Bell set up lights and shots. Afterward, when work was finished, he’d put in hours of his own time learning and practising what he’d been taught. “He’d work nights and weekends,” says Bell. “He put his whole social and personal life on the shelf.” Bell says Dickson’s gift for photography developed quickly – he seemed to know exactly where to shoot when he walked into a room – and it wasn’t long before he was shooting out of Bell’s studio. When Bell moved to bigger premises in 1976, Dickson stayed behind, working as an associate to another photographer, Derek Case, and building his own portfolio by shooting pictures for Weekend Magazine, a colour supplement distributed in The Globe and Mail and other newspapers throughout Canada.
By 1979, Dickson was ready to go out on his own. A bank loan allowed him to open Deluxe Studio, now located on King Street East. During his first year, he did a lot of advertising work, shooting products like cigarettes, but in the early ’80s, he began shooting for Saturday Night, in the process creating his own distinct style of portrait photography. Dickson chose to highlight his subjects with a flash, simultaneously underexposing the background. Most of his early work for Saturday Night was done with a wide-angle lens, enabling him to get close to the subject while keeping the background in focus – a technique that can also alter perspective and thus the shape of the person’s face.
One of his most memorable – and controversial – photographs appeared in Toronto Life’s October 1998 issue. Dickson took portraits of then Globe editor William Thorsell, CEO and publisher Roger Parkinson and managing editor Margaret Wente for an article on the Globe. Both Thorsell and Parkinson appear thoughtful in their pictures, but Wente, with her eyes popping out of their sockets, looks like something from outer space. Dickson received a lot of flack about the photograph, although Wente never complained to him directly. Instead, Martha Weaver, an art director and friend of Wente’s, wrote a nasty letter that was published in Toronto Life. Freelance art director James Ireland admits that when he first saw the portrait, he thought it was vicious, but after seeing Wente on TV one evening, he noticed her bulging eyes and changed his mind. “It wasn’t vicious,” he says. “He got that side of her. We all think of ourselves in a certain way and it’s difficult to see it otherwise.”
For his part, Dickson says the other shots were almost identical. That’s how she looks,” he says. “I think it’s flattering – obviously she doesn’t. I think it makes her look quite sexy, which she is in real life.” Before the shoot, Wente told Dickson she really liked his work, and when Dickson showed her the preliminary Polaroid shots – which Dickson says were similar to the final photograph – she wasn’t displeased. In the end, Wente may not have been happy, but Dickson won a National Magazine Award for the photos.
Dickson insists it wasn’t his intention to aggravate Wente. Still, if he’s provoked, he can sometimes be mean-spirited toward his subjects. While he was shooting William Shatner, for instance, Dickson became offended when Shatner told him what lights to use and where to put them. “He knew the key lights would detract from the fact that he wears a wig, and he knew that if I was not using a wide-angle lens, you wouldn’t see his stomach,” says Dickson. “But it was the way he did it. He said, ‘This is how it’s going to be. This is where you put your lights. This is the kind of lens you use and this is how you shoot me.’ And because of that I thought, ‘Well you’ve asked for it.” Dickson deliberately used a wide-angle lens to reveal Shatner’s belly, but he adds, “if he had said, ‘I’m a little bit overweight. Can you not show my stomach?’ I’d have said, ‘Fine.’ But he attacked me.”
Not surprisingly, if a subject treats Dickson with respect, the picture is more likely to be pleasing. In 1994, Dickson photographed Billy Graham at his Smoky Mountain retreat in Tennessee for the cover of the American magazine Regardis. Before the shoot, Graham sat Dickson down with a cup of coffee to talk about the photo session. “He told me that many years ago, he learned you could never underestimate the power of a photographer, because he has the power to make you look good or bad,” says Dickson. “As soon as he said that, I knew he’d get a good shot.” Graham ended up looking as if he were lit by an ethereal glow. “It was the natural light from the Bible,” Dickson says with a smile.
Gary Ross, former senior editor of Saturday Night and a longtime friend of Dickson’s, says Dickson is able to “catch a glimpse of the soul in all its tattered glory. I’d be wary if I was the head of a savings and loan company that had just gone bankrupt, and Dickson was taking the picture.” How does Dickson capture, and then play up, a person’s personality in his photo? How does he anticipate a perfect shot or expression? “My finger twitches,” he says with a laugh. “I don’t know if you’re aware of it, let alone how you articulate that decisive moment. I watch the person from the moment they walk in. I watch them having their hair and makeup done – people have mannerisms they’re not aware of. My job is to be observant.” Dickson gets the person on the set and takes Polaroid shots – observing the whole time – but walks away as the Polaroids are developing. “When I’m not behind the camera, the person’s not being photographed, so without knowing it, they move into a more relaxing position. I take mental notes, and then go back and say, ‘OK, now do this.”
When possible, Dickson has the setting for the shoot prepared beforehand. “The risk of setting something up is when they come down and it doesn’t fit. It’s more difficult when you don’t know who the person is or what he looks like,” says Dickson. If he’s never met the subject, he’ll often do some background research. Writer Ron Graham discovered this when he first met Dickson in the ’80s. Graham was working on a profile of Westmount, Quebec, for Saturday Night and met with Dickson at a restaurant near Yonge and Gloucester streets in Toronto to talk about the piece. From that first meeting, Graham knew Dickson was thorough in his work; he already knew what the story was about. “He does his homework,” Graham says. < p>Because Dickson does his homework, he’s known as one of the fastest photographers in the business. “He knows what he wants in advance, and won’t shoot until he’s ready,” says photographer Brian Smale, one of Dickson’s former assistants who now freelances in Seattle. Dickson is so confident in his work – some might say arrogant – that he often submits only one print to an art director. “I never send in anything I don’t like,” he says. “But I don’t send in a lot just to make it look like I’ve shot a lot. It’s all experience.”
His experience means art directors allow him a lot of freedom. “We’ll give him guidelines, like this has to be closer to the subject’s face, or we need more of the person’s head in the shot,” says former Saturday Night art director Barbara Solowan. “The rest is up to him.” Does this cause tension between Dickson and art directors? Four Toronto art directors say they’ve heard Dickson can be difficult to work with, but none admitted to experiencing difficulty themselves. They did say Dickson, who has something of a reputation not only as a prickly artist but also as a bit of a good-time guy, has mellowed since he married Diana, a garden designer, in 1989. Dickson himself admits he probably had a lot more to prove in the past. “I think being passionate about photography often came off as being arrogant about it. I’ve always been passionate about it, I probably just don’t rant and rave as much as I used to. I’m more quietly passionate about it. It’s not arrogance, it’s just caring about it.”
William Ciccocioppo, Dickson’s assistant says Dickson has very high standards. “He has so many years of experience that when he comes to a situation, he says, ‘We need this, this and this.’ He can be tough, but that’s because he knows what he wants. He may be tough and difficult, but he doesn’t do it because he’s a bad person or because he’s out to get you – maybe you’re just being downright irritating. There are reasons for what he does. This business is a tough business. If you’re soft at heart, stay at home.”
These days, that’s exactly where Dickson spends his non-working hours. In the past, he would fly on a whim to the Caribbean or to New York with friends. “It was like being in a rock and roll band – you lived what you were doing. From the ages of 15 to 40, I had 25 totally selfish years. But when I was 40, I became a parent, and I’ve been giving rather than taking ever since.” Today, Dickson’s work and life are separate. He spends his weekends cooking meals for his wife and two kids, Jennifer, eight, and Benny, 10. In his free time, he reads dictionaries, etymology books, biographies and Moments Preserved, a collection of photographs by Irving Penn. “He’s a master of all things that make up photography,” says Dickson, sitting down in the client area of his studio and taking a sip of his coffee. “It’s his lighting, composition, the camera, the timing. That’s all photography is, and he’s one of the masters at it.” The coffee table is piled with magazines, many featuring Dickson’s work. Black-and-white checkered objects – which Dickson has collected or received as gifts – fill every corner, window sill, and empty space. There’s a pair of black-and-white high-top running shoes, numerous bags, purses, mugs, and mannequins modeling black-and-white checkered bathing suits. Black and white “is more abstract,” says Dickson. “[English photographer] Bill Brandt was one of the pioneers of real contrasty, grainy, black-and-white in the 30s, which I’ve always liked. He’s influenced everyone who does black-and-white, whether they know it or not. There’s something too accurate about colour.”
Dickson has done some great black-and-white work, such as the portraits seen at Bistro 990. Barry Callaghan, who is a friend of Dickson’s, is one of the writers who is not altogether pleased with his picture. Photographed on a footbridge in Rosedale, he’s looking grumpily up at the camera. When Dickson asks Callaghan whether he likes it, Callaghan says, “Well, no, of course I don’t. But I knew I wouldn’t like any photograph you’d take of me. I have to be honest, though – I’ve had a bad year, and you made me look exactly how I felt.”
The British Are Coming, The British Are Coming
How Fleet Street stormed Front Street and colonized The Globe and Mail
BY JOCELYN BELL
On a cold night in Ottawa last October, a hundred people packed the National Press Club theatre to meet The Globe and Mail’s editor, Richard Addis, the new general in the bloody newspaper war against the National Post. The room buzzed with anticipation. So far, most of the war had been fought with biting columns, front-page scoops and conflicting ad and circulation figures. But tonight the 43-year-old British editor, imported to run Canada’s oldest national newspaper, emerged to share his vision for the Globe.
Addis and his deputy editor, Chrystia Freeland, walked onto the slightly raised stage and took their seats behind a desk. Six feet tall and thin, Addis looked like an adolescent who shot through puberty but had yet to fill out. The straight brown bangs that fall across his right eyebrow were continuously flicked back with a boyish head jerk. Pulling his speech from the inside pocket of his grey suit jacket, Addis swiveled nervously in his chair and began reading in a snooty BBC accent as Freeland looked on.
“No one in my whole life has ever paid a cent to hear anything I had to say before and I hope that anyone here who has paid $5 won’t mind if I pay you back directly after this talk,” he began, earning a few chuckles.
Midway through his speech, Addis began comparing Canadian newspapers and launched a grenade across enemy lines. “As a reader, I have a huge range of choice every morning in Toronto… the wonderful Globe and Mail: a highly credible newspaper full of good writing. The National Post: unreliable, obsessive, vulgar.”
For the National Post reporters in the audience, it was a familiar insult. Globe editors had been dismissing the Post ever since its inception. “Tell us what you really think of the Post,” someone said soon after the floor opened for questions.
“It’s wrong about nearly everything,” Addis responded. “It gets stories wrong. You can’t believe it anymore. Nobody believes it.” Although Addis was having fun, he was also partly serious and the crowd could tell. National Post reporter Andrew McIntosh, for one, wasn’t about to let Addis get away with it.
“You guys ignored, dissed, humiliated and dumped on a story of mine about Chretien,” McIntosh said, sounding annoyed. He was referring to a story the Post broke in January 1999 about $664,000 in federal aid going to a Quebec businessman who bought a hotel from the prime minister, and Hugh Winsor’s dismissive column published in the Globe a week later. “Then you jumped on it. And now you’re actually investigating. If we’re so inaccurate, why are you matching story for story on that subject?”
Addis tried to charm his way to safety. “This must be because you are an extremely good reporter, so you’ve managed to pull – “
Interrupting him, McIntosh snapped: “Flattery will get you nowhere.”
A flustered Addis took another question from the floor.
“So you don’t regard the Post as a worthy opponent?” a woman asked.
“I haven’t even thought about it like that really. It’s a nice – it looks nice. It’s quite pretty.”
Finally a tall, bearded man with a booming voice rose in the shadows and struck his target dead on. “You want the Globe to be known for its accuracy. You just made a statement that everything in the Post is wrong and you can’t even give us one example. Could you or your deputy come up with one example?”
“Well, we don’t – We’re just trying to be polite,” Addis sputtered. “We don’t want to, uh, rub salt into the wounds here. But there probably is an example.”
General Addis had gone to battle with no more ammunition than boyish charm and inflated pride. At best, it was a shaky introduction to the Ottawa media. At worst, the hotshot Fleet Street editor, imported to take over the Globe because no Canadian was deemed sufficient, had made a blunder worthy of an amateur: he’d walked into a room of journalists and lobbed a serious accusation at the Post without even the most rudimentary preparation. Was this the clever, savvy, strategically brilliant newspaperman? The journalist against whom no Canadian could compete?
Richard Addis is one of four editors plus a publisher imported from Britain to the Globe since October1998, when the National Post destroyed the Globe’s comfortable claim as Canada’s only national newspaper and turned Toronto into the most competitive newspaper market in North America. Beautifully laid out and fun to read, the upstart was the opposite of the Globe, in almost every way. It caught readers’ eyes with big, striking photographs, gorgeous women and an airy, modern design. Silly and smart-ass stories ran on the front page alongside alarmist headlines and columns that boiled the blood of left-leaning readers. It quickly became a newspaper that was talked about.
Prior to the Post’s arrival,the Globe had been the paper of the chattering classes, routinely upheld as the icon of Canadian journalism. It was the paper of record that gave readers serious, sober news in a level, understated way. Its headlines and photos were quiet and small. It took arts as seriously as it did national and international news and politics. It assumed a Saturday readership that included intellectuals and thinkers. It didn’t revel in gossip or personal testimony and its columnists wrote about issues, not about their own lives. Sometimes the paper was boring and stuffy, which earned it the nickname “the old grey Globe,” but somehow it suited the Canadian personality to have a paper that was earnest and dull.
All of that would change. Faced with a rigourous competitor, the Globe had two choices. It could fight back by emphasizing its own character and traditions or it could remake itself into a paper with a wider and younger appeal. Adopting the latter strategy, Thomson handed the Globe over to British talent. Stuart Garner, a Brit who has been running Thomson’s soon-to-be-sold newspaper division out of Stamford, Connecticut, hired Phillip Crawley, a former colleague and fellow Brit, to be president of the Globe in October 1998. Crawley was promoted to publisher and CEO in mid-1999 and began replacing the paper’s senior editors with Fleet Street journalists. Review editor Simon Beck joined the Globe in May, followed by Addis and Freeland, an Alberta native who left Canada as a teen to study in the U.S. and Britain, made her mark at the Financial Times of London and had never worked in the Canadian media. In January, Nigel Horne was imported from London to run the Report on Business magazine and Broadcast Week, and to consider starting up a weekend magazine.
“We were looking for people who are used to doing daily battle for the news and sources and information,” Crawley explained. “The criteria was to look in places where you have a competitive marketplace. And that means we’re probably focusing on a relatively small number of major newspaper centres where there is a real battle. London is obviously one.”
But running a newspaper like The Globe and Mail isn’t only about battle experience. The Globe has a character, a personality, a soul. A Canadian cultural institution, it has a core readership of loyal subscribers who’ve been shaped by the paper and have grown up associating themselves with its viewpoints. Now, for the first time in its 156-year history, the Globe is in the hands of non-Canadians. The Brits who have taken on the Globe as their latest project know very little about this country and have only their best guesses to rely on – gut feelings and news judgement developed in a country and a culture very different from this one. They’ve already altered the paper’s character in the race to beat the Post, and they seem unconcerned at the prospect of alienating core readers to draw in a different, larger crowd altogether. But that’s precisely the point. The question is whether or not the British influx will spell the end of The Globe and Mail as we’ve known it.
Nowhere in the Globe have the differences between British journalism and Canadian journalism been more apparent than in the dramatic changes to the Saturday paper. In March 1999, when William Thorsell was still editor-in-chief, associate editor Sarah Murdoch was responsible for the Focus and Books sections as well as the Commentary and Facts and Arguments pages. But Focus was her baby. In nine years, Murdoch had developed Focus into one of the most highly regarded sections in the Canadian newspaper industry. A typical Murdoch Focus section would tackle the flaws in the supreme court or the codes of conduct in warfare on its front and anything from Japan’s foreign policy to gardening tips on the inside pages. It wasn’t an easy read but it was almost always worthwhile. Its writers regularly won National Newspaper Awards and the section got top grades in reader report cards.
But Crawley wasn’t satisfied with the section. The short and wiry publisher, who has been described as tough but respected, asked Murdoch to tone down the public policy and politics pieces in favour of what he described as “a bit more variety of material.”
“He explained that readers want to have ?foon’ on the weekend,” Murdoch recalled, mimicking Crawley’s northeast England accent that makes book rhyme with fluke and number sound like noom-bah. She made the changes and the section started to have a softer appeal. For example, one piece, with the headline “No Place for Anger,” was about a young woman’s search for her long-lost father ending in “tears and triumph.” But it still wasn’t what Crawley was looking for. Murdoch and Crawley were either on different wavelengths or he didn’t communicate what he wanted. In any event, the changes she made would prove to be too little too late.
By May, Crawley had recruited Simon Beck, a 38-year-old Londoner he’d known for 15 years. When Beck graduated from Oxford University, Crawley hired him as a trainee reporter for The Journal in Newcastle-on-Tyne, then rehired him eight years later at the South China Morning Post. At the Globe, Crawley made Beck director of editorial development in charge of overhauling the Saturday paper. As someone who knew little about Canada, Beck would, in a few months of conducting feasibility studies, determine what Canadians wanted in their Saturday paper.
What happened next depends upon whose story you believe. Crawley says Beck gave Murdoch “advice and assistance” throughout the summer and that she continued in her position until the end of August at which time she left the Globe on good terms when she accepted a standard company buyout package offered to several senior employees. Just about everyone else says Murdoch was shoved out.
Problems between Murdoch and Crawley came to a head in late June when she published a Canada Day picnic menu on the front of the Focus section. Crawley is said to have thought it was too light. The following week, he put Beck in charge of Focus and Murdoch was left to manage her other sections. Without Focus, Murdoch didn’t have a job she cared about.
All these Brits were treating us like we were lazy, incompetent and stupid,” Murdoch said. “They felt they knew everything and we knew nothing about putting out a newspaper. It was very demoralizing. Phillip has said over and over that it’s still going to be a Canadian newspaper because only a few percent of the people are from Britain. But the Brits are the people who are calling the shots.” At the end of August, Murdoch left the Globe to become editor of the National Post’s Saturday Review section.
A month and a half before Murdoch’s departure, a memo from Phillip Crawley appeared on every desk. Richard Addis would be the new editor to replace William Thorsell. Reporters started typing his name into their database system. Within minutes the newsroom was snickering. The British newspapers hadn’t spared Addis and gossip about his personal life wasn’t hard to come by. Addis had toyed with the idea of becoming a monk and wore a brown monk’s habit around Cambridge University in his school days. There were reports of an extramarital affair. And during Addis’s three-year tenure as editor of London’s Daily Express, a mid-market tabloid, actor Tom Cruise won a six-figure libel suit against the paper after it ran a story on how Cruise and actor Nicole Kidman married to mask their homosexuality. The database search also made reporters fear for their jobs. Several months after arriving at the Daily Express, a cost-cutting measure imposed by the paper’s owners forced Addis to fire 80 staff members on a single day. Asked whether he found it difficult, Addis was reported to have likened it to clearing out an old sock drawer.
Two days later, another memo circulated. Someone named Chrystia Freeland would be the new deputy editor, number two in the newsroom, sending reporters rushing to their databases again. Older staff were threatened by her young age – she was only 30 – and younger staff were threatened by her experience. Freeland had been a Rhodes scholar and a correspondent for the Financial Times of London, first in Kiev, Ukraine, then in Moscow where she was the bureau chief. Since 1998, she’d been the national news editor of the Financial Times before landing her job at the Globe. How could she have accomplished so much at so young an age?
The day after the Freeland announcement, another memo was circulated, this one a sarcastic joke written to look like another hiring announcement from Crawley:
“I am pleased to announce the appointment of Allistair Buffet to the position of inter-departmental editor, effective this fall. Allistair will be an outstanding addition to our editorial team. He is 17, and a native of Manchester, England, where he regularly reads several daily papers. He is also the captain of his Catholic high school’s rugby team, and attends church regularly. He once freelanced a photograph of Princess Diana to the Daily Express. Though he has never been to Canada, Allistair received a grade of 88 percent on his high school history final exam. The course included several chapters on the colonies.”
Jokes aside, newsroom morale took a nosedive as reporters wondered how it was possible that in Canada, a country with so much good journalism, the powers at the Globe couldn’t have found somebody else to be its editor. Addis may be a good journalist, but “that doesn’t get over the fact that he’s English and knows fuck all about this country,” said one senior reporter.
“I think in any other country if a foreigner were appointed to lead the leading newspaper there would be an inquiry,” said another senior reporter. “You can’t imagine a German or a Belgian being brought in to edit Le Monde. The Brits have had foreign publishers before. But it’s not quite the same as being editor. I don’t care what Crawley says. It is different. I think it’s appalling.”
Biting columns claiming that the Globe was being subjected to a British invasion appeared in the Toronto Sun, The Toronto Star, the National Post, Maclean’s and even in Rick Salutin’s column for the Globe. The Star’s Richard Gwyn wrote that although Canada may have needed Brits to lead its institutions 50 years ago, “for the Globe to reach back to the past now is to admit that it doubts itself….The paper no longer has a niche, a distinct constituency, within Canada’s print media universe.” In Maclean’s, Anthony Wilson-Smith wrote: “The Globe has no top figure who connects with people – other than Fleet Street types seeking a better life across the pond.” In Salutin’s column, published on August 12, 1999, he wrote: “I’ll utter two Canadian words: John Turner…. Doesn’t it seem odd to have people running a paper here who won’t twig to the name instinctively if it comes up at a meeting? Alan Eagleson? Gordon Pinsent? Meech Lake?”
Asked what he thought of the British Invasion flak, Crawley grimaced and called it a “nine-day woon-dah. If we were importing boatloads of Brits, yes of course it would be an insult to Canadian journalists. But we’re not doing that. Richard’s skills are in terms of applying professional standards, being as sharp as we can be in a competitive battle. So all right, he’s not going to pass his first-year exam in Canadian history at this stage. But I don’t require him to do that. I don’t think that’s actually the most important thing.”
Even if British journalists are attuned to professional standards and competitive strategies, it’s debatable whether their experience is useful in Canada. “Brits think of national newspapers in terms of British national newspapers,” said National Post editor Ken Whyte. “But this isn’t Britain. It’s a different market. It’s a much trickier thing.” In Britain, 12 national newspapers go head to head every day. In Canada, two national papers compete against each other and various metropolitan dailies in cities across the country. Britain is densely populated and exists in a single time zone. The Canadian market is small and spread thinly across six time zones. In Britain, politics, business, and culture are concentrated in London. In Canada, business is concentrated in Toronto, while very different political battles are waged in each of 10 provinces and three territories, and a definition of Canadian culture depends on whether you’re standing in Cape Breton or in Nunavut. Sex and sensationalism rule on Fleet Street, making British newspapers highly entertaining. Canadian newspapers are like a plateful of vegetables: they won’t make your mouth water, but you need to eat them anyway.
Other differences were described by Martin Newland, the National Post’s deputy editor who was imported to Canada from Conrad Black’s Daily Telegraph in London. “In Fleet Street there are hundreds of agencies up and down the country firing in news and pictures for you. You don’t have to look. So the skills are in what you choose and what you exploit, the skill is in who does it best. Here there’s absolutely fuck all. Reporters believe they have to go out and get stories. And for me, that was an eye-opener.”
All of this may have been lost on Crawley. He told a columnist that he doesn’t think there’s anything peculiar to the Canadian industry in terms of what makes a good newspaper.
Addis first met most of his staff shortly after his arrival in August. Getting the newsroom onside was clearly going to be a bit of a task. Throughout the summer, Frank magazine, the satirical biweekly, had devoted four times as much space to ridiculing Addis, Freeland, Beck, Crawley and the Globe as it had to any other news organization. Furthermore, Globe reporters and editors considered themselves a tough crowd who weren’t to be won over easily. Yet Addis’s introductory speech left most reporters with a favourable impression.
“My vision for the Globe is decidedly not a down-market one of screaming headlines and page three girls. I profoundly respect the view that the Globe is about the important things in life,” he said. “While I don’t think we should ever set our sails by the wind that comes from the Post, we should admit that it does do some things right….It is winning credit for being bright and fresh and new…. Set against this the Globe often looks so forbidding. Despite the improvement that came with the introduction of colour, we somehow still have the problem of ?the great grey Globe’ – as grey as a prison wall, someone I know described it.”
Addis’s vision became reality when a redesigned Globe and Mail appeared on Saturday, October 16 – only six weeks after his arrival. Gone was the old Focus and Books section. Books became a tabloid and Focus became a weekly one- or two-page spread in the front section of the Saturday paper.
Saturday, a new section covering arts, people, fashion, design, food and drink, got the most reaction from readers. The first Saturday section front page featured the couple who produced the TV movie adaptation of Anne of Green Gables (what could be more Canadian?), but it was the inside pages that riled up readers. Columnist Leah McLaren’s musings about cell-phone manners occupied the top of page three, and columnist Robert Mason Lee pontificated on penis size. The Urban Decorum feature explained how to perform a two-cheek air kiss complete with pictures, much to the bewilderment of those of us who aren’t that chi-chi. Another article used a survey to compare the frequency of sex among five different couples, and a two-page spread of colour photos in the centre of the section was a direct imitation of the Post’s Avenue centrespread. It may have been ?foon’ to read but many readers expressed their dismay in letters to the editor.
“Please, I beg you, stop ?improving’ the Saturday paper. I have traditionally read The Globe and Mail because of its unabashedly highbrow analysis, not because of any desire to peruse Robert Mason Lee’s penile ruminations,” wrote a reader from Whistler, B.C. “Dropping Focus and replacing it with Saturday spoiled my Sunday-morning reading treat and left me with the feeling that the Saturday Globe has become little more than a broadsheet tabloid,” wrote a reader from London, Ont. “Please return to the previous format and keep your competitive advantage. The Globe does not have to join the ranks of news-lite,” wrote a reader from Montreal.
Beyond the Saturday section, readers found that the essential character of the paper shifted throughout the fall. Its traditional conservative politics took a baby step to the left. Left-leaning columnists like Salutin and Naomi Klein became regulars in the front section while Jeffrey Simpson, the old-school conservative who for years had been anchored on the editorial page, was moved off it and onto the Comment section. Reporter John Stackhouse spent a week on Toronto’s streets as a homeless person to produce a four-day series on homelessness. And the spokesperson for the Seattle protesters got to speak out against the World Trade Organization in the Comment section.
Readers also watched the sober paper become more sensational. Business magnates and high-ranking politicians were no longer immune to invasions of privacy. Governor General Adrienne Clarkson made the front page on October 1, 1999, when a Globe reporter discovered that her estranged daughters would not attend her inauguration. Searing letters to the editor the following day accused the Globe of becoming a tabloid. Low-life crime also gained new importance in a paper that once considered its purpose higher. The Just Desserts trial – concerning a local Toronto murder that the Globe barely considered news when it occurred six years ago – warranted a special pullout section last December.
While the Globe was sometimes still the dependable paper of record, its editors exhibited embarrassing lapses in judgement. When Clarkson gave her speech from the throne on October 7, the Post ran the entire speech whereas the Globe only ran excerpts. When convicted killer Karla Homolka tried to use the courts to get temporary release from prison into a halfway house, the Star’s coverage ran over four pages and the Globe was the only paper in the city to miss the story altogether. Robert Fulford, an eminent cultural critic for whom the Globe had seemed the perfect medium, found that his column, which had been anchored on the front of the arts section until September 1998, was being bumped around the paper. Finally he got fed up and left for the National Post in December 1999. Meanwhile, the Globe adopted many of the Post’s quirks, including big close-up photos, an obituaries page, skyboxes promoting inside stories above the masthead and columns running on the front page alongside funny little stories with no news value.
It wasn’t old, it wasn’t grey, but was it still the Globe?
Not according to John Miller, author of Yesterday’s News: Why Canada’s Daily Newspapers are Failing Us and professor of journalism at Ryerson. “The Globe is doing a lot of unGlobe things,” he said. “It is obviously making a decision to go after a younger, hipper audience. And I think it’s very risky for the Globe to do that. This is turning it into a different kind of paper. They’re going to alienate their core readers. The first rule in the newspaper business is don’t mess with the franchise.”
A month after the redesign, a dozen editors sat in a boardroom at the Globe planning their Remembrance Day issue. At the head of the heavy wood table, Addis perched so far up in his seat that his chair tipped forward. A Comment piece written by a war vet called “Why I Won’t Wear A Poppy Tomorrow” had caught his enthusiasm. “It’s extremely good for a number of reasons. It’s got a very striking headline. It’s written by someone who knows what he’s talking about. And it’s counterintuitive. This is a very good model.” Many of the Globe’s core readers didn’t agree. Remembrance Day was being exploited to shock Canadian veterans, rather than honour their sacrifices. They sent indignant letters telling the editor they would wear their poppies with pride.
Later in the meeting, Addis found himself on unfamiliar ground when the topic of hockey arose. Alexei Yashin had broken his contract with the Ottawa Senators, and Addis launched into a series of questions until he understood the issue. “What’s the sensible view? Do you have sympathy for the Russian? Is it a good issue? Are you getting your blood up?” Someone suggested asking Alan Eagleson, the disgraced founder of the NHL Player’s Association, to write a Comment piece. Addis asked the question foreshadowed in Salutin’s column: “Who is Alan Eagleson?”
A few weeks earlier, on a Thursday night in November, I faced Addis across a shiny black table in a meeting room near his office on Front Street. I asked him how he’s approaching the task of learning about Canada. He said that while running a national newspaper helps, he also reads three or four Canadian papers per day, has made Canadian friends and has done some travelling outside Toronto.
“I think in a year’s time I might do quite well on a Canadian general knowledge quiz,” he told me. I’d come prepared and seized the moment.
“What’s the difference between Moosehead, Moose Jaw and Moosonee?”
“No. Moosonee,” I said.
“Ha ha. I thought you said Mussolini. Just spell the last one? Moosonee?” He flicked his hair back with a quick head jerk and thought.
“The answer is – ” he took a long pause and stared at the table between us. “The answer is I haven’t got a clue,” he said, with a smile.
But then something clicked.
“Moose Jaw’s a place. Moosehead is a beer. And Moosonee? A native tribe.”
“Moosonee is another town.”
by Adriana Lurz
This is a joint byline for the Ryerson Review of Journalism. All content is produced by students in their final year of the graduate or undergraduate program at the Ryerson School of Journalism.