Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Confessions of a tabloid hack


By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
July 29, 2009

VICTORIA

In the summer of disco and a falling space station, a brash tabloid newspaper appeared on the streets of Vancouver.

It carried bold headlines and published on Sundays.

The Vancouver Courier, a daily launched 30 years ago this month, sought to challenge the cartel maintained by the Vancouver Sun, an afternoon newspaper owned by FP Publications, and the Province, a respectable (believe it or not!) broadsheet published by Southam. The two papers operated in a business partnership as Pacific Press, sharing quarters and otherwise working in tandem to dissuade potential rivals.

The 11-month lifespan of the Vancouver Times (date of birth: 1964, date of death: 1965) served as a warning to all who dare challenge the monopoly.

But when workers at Pacific Press found themselves hitting the bricks on a picket in the fall of 1978, the owners of the twice-a-week Kerrisdale Courier immediately ratcheted up their publishing schedule by a day. Once backing money was arranged, it was decided to go from thrice-a-week to daily.

A 48-page tabloid hit news-hungry streets on the morning of July 4, 1979, with a blaring, all-caps banner headline: ROGUE COPS SPARK PROBE. Inside, readers found stories on Nazis and abused old folks, as well as a fashion spread featuring the latest string bikinis. Page Three, reserved in Britain as well as in the Toronto Sun to thespian aspirants of a buxom nature, featured a female stripper as large as the B.C. Lions front line known as Big Fanny Annie.

In retrospect, the debut issue qualified as the high point.

I started work at the Courier, aged 19, that very day, without having had to undergo the inconvenience of a job interview. The new paper was throwing money around, luring talent from the striking newspapers, including rabid columnist Doug Collins. A cub reporter came so cheaply as to not even be worth the time of a manager.

Scanning the inaugural edition, there was but one inescapable conclusion.

I was a teenage tabloid hack.

Soon enough, my contributions to the city’s knowledge included pieces on a boy with plaster replicas of Sasquatch’s footprint, opinions solicited from passersby about the likelihood of Skylab landing on our noggins, and a profile of a deejay who introduced both Elvis and the Beatles to Vancouver audiences.

These were followed by stories about Vietnamese boat people and an adult who — get this — collected baseball cards (some people never grow up). A pliable rubber doll designed to be beaten as a release of pent-up anger was presented to university president Doug Kenny, who made a ridiculous face as he took out his frustrations. (Perhaps that had something to do with my student newspaper’s cheeky insistence of referring to him as Dog Kennel.)

All good fun. Soon, though, the Courier’s more experienced staff provided a lesson in a certain kind of journalism.

The tabloid had hired enough Brits to warrant an article in the U.K. Press Gazette. These ex-Fleet Streeters, failed or not, did not let facts serve to louse up a good yarn.

The paper’s ace reporter was handed a wire story about an American doctor puzzled by several patients complaining about an odd injury — all sported infected middle fingers. The doc determined all were disco regulars, who, frequently snapping their fingers in time to the beat, had torn open the skin.

The wordsmith called over myself and buddy Geof Wheelwright, the two youngest staffers in the newsroom. What other disco disorders were there?

Wheelwright took the bait. “There’s disco toe,” he said, tapping a foot. “From too much of this.”

“Disco hip from too much swaying,” I added.

“And disco nose,” Wheelwright managed straight faced, “from snorting too much cocaine.”

The following morning our nonsense was included in an article that attributed our wholly conjured ailments to an unnamed local doctor.

If making up facts is easy for a reporter so is it easy for a photographer to use a reporter as a model. So, I appeared in the pages of my own newspaper as a junkie shooting up heroin; a newsboy peddling the paper downtown; as a hapless victim in a magician’s guillotine.

The Courier had a wacky sensibility not just on its pages.

The newsroom was interrupted on occasion by the demented rants of Mr. Collins, a crank transforming into an anti-Semite, who accused copyeditors of various conspiratorial misdeeds.

Another crackerjack reporter once broke the temporary still of the newsroom by asking over the telephone in a loud voice, “So, what was it like to sleep with the prime minister’s wife?” Or words to that effect.

The newspaper included a Lucky Reader feature in which $50 would be awarded to the customer who appeared in a photo holding the Courier. But the photographers spent so much time driving around trying to find someone, anyone, holding the tabloid that they began to stop people on the streets, shoving a copy into their hands with the promise of a reward if they bought the next day’s edition.

As it turned out, the Courier was doomed from the start.

The Pacific Press strike settled just before the daily launched. The plug on the daily tabloid was pulled on Aug. 19. The spirit of the unhappy farewell edition was captured by a sports writer in whose final column the first letter of each paragraph offered a common expletive to a Pacific Press worthy who had disparaged the fledgling publication.

You can find daily Courier alumni (parolees, surely? — ed.) in Microsoft’s employ, at the Goldstream Gazette, working as official photographers at the 2010 Olympics, directing the news at Global BC. Managing editor Cliff Barr became editor of the Globe — not this worthy newspaper, but rather the supermarket tabloid known for Elvis and sasquatch sightings.

In Memorium: the daily Courier (July 4, 1979 — Aug. 19, 1979), son of the Kerrisdale Courier, brother of the Vancouver Courier, inspiration to the tabloid Province, distant relation of the National Enquirer. Lamented by a few, mourned by none.

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