Monday, August 1, 2011



 Many Torontonians don't realize they live in one of the best and most competitive newspaper cities in the world.
The paper wars continue even though the fiercest, the storied past of the hand-to-typewriter combat of the Star vs. the Telegram, has ended because of the Tely's death in 1971. As a bloodied participant, I can assure you that it was far more intense, and more fun, than any Hollywood movie.
There weren't as many fist fights between the champions of the big two dailies by the time I arrived as a kid reporter in 1958.  Not that bare knuckle disagreements had ended. There were several dandy ones between my colleagues, one right by the city desk which was ignored by everyone, including the chap who had been knocked flat. The press club had a few brawls fueled by booze and egos.
But we sure fought it out in print edition by edition five times a day. You could be a champ with your Page One scoop at noon and by the final edition, a chump because the Star beat reporter had been driven through the tongue-lashing of the city editor to find an even better story.
Peter Worthington, who seems to have been writing since Biblical days, gave us a wonderful account of the Tely-Star brawls in a column in the Sunday Sun on July 30. The apt headline: "When Newspapers And Reporters Slugged It Out."
I got an early introduction to the fact I had enlisted in a tough trade when I was assigned to go with a bulldog of a photographer named Don Grant to cover a Teamsters' strike. The picketers cursed us as we approached and one threatened Grant. Grant said: "How would you like a Speed Graphic shoved in your face?" The Graphic was a great big box covered with metal protrusions that could take out an eye. Then Grant added that the young reporter with him could clean the clock of any striker. And I realized that I was there as a bodyguard and had perhaps been hired more because I had been a football lineman than because of any ability to write.
Even the mildest colleague would turn out to be a lion in heat when faced by the Star or adversity, which was often the same thing.
We had a gentle soul named Russell Cooper who looked like a failed anonymous clerk. Except we knew  he lived across the street from his cousin, Premier Bill Davis. And that he was rich enough not to have to work - we joked he had a stock ticker in his cottage outhouse. He drove like a madman and acted like one when anyone told him he couldn't take a picture.
And Cooper was great on police searches for escaped criminals because several times he did the capturing. No wonder he ended up on a police commission.
One day he and a freelancer named Ron Laytner were walking down a farm lane while police searched for a dangerous mental patient. They met a man carrying a shotgun. As they talked, Cooper figured out that this was the escapee. So he leaped on him, they fell to the ground, Cooper wrestled the shotgun away and shouted for the nearest cop. Laytner, of course, took a picture of the struggle and announced he was selling it to the Star.
That night we plotted in the city room about how we could manufacture a picture to go with Cooper's great first-person story. Another reporter and I took a broom to the Tely's skimpy parking lot and in the dark posed in wrestling positions on the ground. The photographer tried various shots including ones slightly out of focus. Except after the prints emerged from the darkroom, everyone decided that the dark fuzzy shots looked vaguely like two guys fighting over a stick.
The next morning, we sent our best copy boy to stand by the Star presses. (They didn't print up at Hudson Bay then.) He grabbed the first clean copy and raced two blocks to the old Tely. We copied the Star picture and then ran it on Page One with Cooper's story and a note saying that this picture had to be copied from the Star because the Tely man was too busy disarming the dangerous escapee.
In the days when even Popular Mechanics didn't predict the explosion of cell phones, getting to a pay phone with your story was just as important as digging up the story. So if the story was in a remote area served by one road, you bribed a bulldozer operator to park sideways on the road so the Star couldn't get to a phone. There were reporters who dictated the phone book over the line just so the Star couldn't get to use it.
Everyone was covering an inquest into the drowning of five Mounties in an overloaded boat on Lake Simcoe in 1958.. (The incident sparked the law mandating that all boats had to have a plate showing its maximum load.) Our reporter got to the nearest pay phone first and after dictating his story unscrewed the ear piece and pocketed it. The Star reporter was shut out for one edition until he unscrewed the mouth piece and kept it.  A smooth flow to both newsrooms resumed when the two worked out a truce.
There were few truces except at the press club bar and even then relations could become strained in a hurry. Brawlers were suspended for suitable periods. And then there was Duncan Macpherson, the wonderful Star cartoonist, who was suspended three times for life. The last suspension was delivered by me as chairman of the house committee because Duncan had eaten the tie of a friend to whom I was talking at the time (while he was wearing it) and then ripped up one end of the bar when I criticized him.
The next day, penitent, he apologized, saying I was a real newspaper guy and not like all those jerk flacks who "infested" the place.
I felt like I had arrived.

No comments: