WE USED TO JUDGE BY THE NNAs
When I was a kid reporter surrounded by what I considered the giants of Canadian journalism, the annual National Newspaper Awards were a really big deal.
The Toronto Telegram got more than its share of NNAs. And when I left my decorated colleagues and went out into the trenches to do battle with the Star in one of the toughest newspaper fights in North America, I was facing more award winners, although, as we crowed, not as many as the Tely's.
The NNAs were handed out on a great weekend that was the Toronto Press Club's not-so-humble celebration like the Oscars in L.A. Invitations to some events had to be earned. Politicians on the make made sure they were there. It was the anchor in our claim to be Canada's best newspaper town.
It all began with the Byline Ball on Friday night, then a Saturday brunch for the Canadian News Hall of Fame, then the presentation banquet with a famous speaker like Walter Cronkite. Survivors would struggle into the Sunday brunch thrown by Toronto firefighters where they handed out their awards.
Upstairs in the Royal York were the roaring hospitality rooms of companies like INCO which figured it was a smart idea to wine and dine the press, just as the firefighters did to ensure they got paid as much as the cops. Room numbers were prized.
Now mostly just memories, except for the NNAs. And there are some, particularly at the Toronto Sun, the Tely's phoenix, who claim an official cold shoulder by the NNA committee, although Andy Donato has been nominated this year. Yet with his incredible production record, you would have thought he would have won more than once.
The ball featured a Miss Byline contest, which may seem quaint now, especially to feminists. But many beauty queen winners, such as Judy Welch as Miss Toronto, found it launched great careers. And Carol Goss Taylor, went from Miss Byline to Miss Toronto to head of the CBC and B.C.'s finance minister. The night of the ball, she was just this lovely shy thing from my old high school, Weston, and her parents said she needed a chaperone. So Mary and I looked after her, although if her Dad had known some of my thoughts, I wouldn't have been acceptable.
The ball is gone, along with the Press Club, the hall of fame and most beauty contests. The banquet wanders the land, demonstrating, I guess, that the NNAs are truly national even though the idea was born and nurtured in Toronto which remains Canada's best media town. Firefighters have a separate lunch.
I look back on all this with some bemusement as someone involved in every part of the weekend and press club and later as a NNA judge. And I remember, as many of us do, my entries that I think should have won the NNA instead of that #$%*$##@ one.
That was as a columnist. My record as an editor is much better because I like to think that I was responsible directly for two winners, indirectly for one, and then there was my advice to Donato in 1976 that he was putting in the wrong three cartoons in his entry. So I made the final cut, he won, and for several years, I was pressed into service each January as his advisor. When that didn't work, he went back to ignoring any advice I might try to give him, especially if it was a cartoon idea.
Reguly won an NNA for the story but not for the picture he took with a cardboard camera he bought in a drugstore. (When thugs spotted him and pursued, the cab saved him by speeding away. Reguly was so grateful, he took the film out and gave the driver the camera. Legend says the Star wouldn't reimburse him.)
Geddes was dispatched to Manhattan without knowing the slightest detail about this huge search that Canading authorities had been making for the crooked union boss
He phoned to tell me he was got one picture of Banks on the deck of a tug before goons had chased him. I relaxed. At least we had something. Then the darkroom technician brought me the dripping picture. I phoned Geddes to say he had photographed the wrong guy, that Banks, in casual clothes, was in the background, out of focus, while the guy in the gangster suit, sharp as a tack, was unknown to us. So Wasyl Kowalishen returned to the darkroom, with me standing over him giving unwelcome advice, and worked with the enlarger, dodging and using all the old tricks, until he rescued more of Banks.
And Geddes won that NNA even though it should have also gone to Reguly. Afterwards he turned his back on the business even though he had fluked into the top award. He said if he had continued, it would have cost him his marriage and turned him alcoholic. He never came to collect the award or cheque.
Years later, after Margaret Sinclair and Pierre Trudeau had just married and went skiing at Whistler, we discovered Geddes running the ski lift. He said he had sold all his cameras. I urged him to go to a drugstore, like Reguly, buy a disposable camera, shoot a roll and I would have it collected. He refused for any amount to scoop the country. In those days, not everyone had a camera in their phone.
When Michael Popovich won for the Tely in 1970, it was almost as strange as the Banks affair. He had written, sort of, the account of a drug addict shooting up in the grimy washroom of a restaurant on Dundas near Jarvis before he died.
The tale was all there, mangled, So I rewrote it, completely, from lede to death. Popovich never thanked me, submitted it to the NNAs, won, never thanked me again, and left the business to become a GTA councillor.
In 1989, I was the Sun Editor and determined to get more photographs into the paper. I loved pictures, as do most readers, and we were a tabloid, daily discarding many pictures taken by one of the finest staffs of news photogs in North America. So I started two pages of pictures each Sunday in the Comment section. Some were photo essays, unrelated to hard news.
One day I was brought a compelling array of pictures taken by Sun and other photographers on a private project to capture the gritty side of downtown. Sleeping on subway grates or in cardboard boxes etc. The gifted Fred Thornhill won the NNA that year because we ran his picture in that section that the bosses grabbed away from me months later. The Sun has never repeated on a regular basis.
I was so impressed by a series of political gems by Doug Fisher that I urged him to enter the NNAs. When I found he hadn't at the deadline, I put in the entry for him. He won a Citation, and sat uncomfortably at the presentation because he didn't believe in that sort of thing.
But most of us do. It was wonderful to work with all the stars who won NNAs at the Tely and Sun And I include on my list all those who won before or after they worked with me. I'm looking forward to Donato winning for a second time because he earns it for his wit, his pen and his longevity as a cartoonist and painter. Not bad for a golfer!
My list is a Roll of Honour: Lubor Zink, Peter Worthington (4 times), Judith Robinson, Ken MacTaggart (2), Andrew MacFarlane (2), John Fraser (3). David Billington (2) Bill Dampier, Dorothy Howarth, Laurie McKechnie, Del Bell, Val Sears, Wayne Parrish (2), Jean Sonmor, Bill McGuire, Marilyn Dunlop, Bill Stevenson, Linda Diebel, Bob Hesketh, George Gross, Scott Young, Bob Pennington, Al Sokol, John Robertson, Al Strachan, Russ Cooper, Yardley Jones, Ralph Hicklin, Ted Reeve, Trent Frayne, Barry Gray, Allan Fotheringham, Peter Dunlop, Stan Behal, Mike Cassesse (2), Christie Blatchford, Bob Reguly (3) Ron Haggart, Bill Sandford, Tim McKenna, David Cooper, Sean Browne, Michael Peake, Veronica Milne........
I've probably forgotten some but the list is quite incredible, especially when you consider the bitching that the Sun is ignored. Just look at what its photographers have done, although that staff has shrunk to a pale shadow, along with the space, and the photographs are processed in India.
However, I'll always be quick to add more names from the Sun, and other former colleagues, because every winner should be special to colleagues and readers and be eternal despite any chill in the business.