Tall tales from a condemned space

There was a soul in the old Herald building, something it lost when it moved out of the core

With the old downtown Herald building poised to become rubble and dust, those of us who worked there more than 30 years ago are enjoying flashbacks of a long-lost era in Calgary journalism. It was driven by an assemblage of malcontents, eccentrics, drunks, cynics, optimists, left-wingers, right-wingers and moderately inclined individuals who were varying degrees of all the above.

The former Calgary Herald building at 206 Seventh Avenue S.W. is the downtown core’s last remaining monument to a surviving newspaper. Toronto-based Southam Inc., the Herald’s longtime owner, sold the property in 1981 and moved production to a new structure built atop a reclaimed garbage dump in Mayland Heights, where it remains.

I began as a Herald reporter on October 2, 1978. It was my sixth newspaper, and my third daily. My plan was to stay for a couple of years, then amble back to Vancouver after sampling the verve of a youthful city in the midst of its first great oil boom. I had no clue I would remain on the Herald payroll for almost a quarter of a century and never leave Calgary. Our collective preoccupation back then was living for the moment, getting the stories ahead of rival media and slipping over to the old Empress Hotel tavern for a few cheap beers.

THE EMPRESS

The Empress was such a vital element of life at the Herald’s downtown newsroom that almost everybody I talked to for this story shared personal anecdotes about it. Built in 1911, a year before the Herald building, the shabby Empress was long past its best days. Luckily for its bottom line, it was located just behind Calgary’s biggest newspaper. A daily parade of writers, a few managers, and copy editors — known as deskers — required only a short jaunt down a back staircase from the second-storey newsroom and a few outdoor steps along a paved alley to the rear entrance of the Empress. Even on a bitterly cold day, you could leave your coat dangling on a newsroom rack.

“If an architect had designed two buildings deliberately for that purpose, they couldn’t have done a better job,” says former reporter Dave Margoshes.

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Reporter Dave Margoshes, in 1980. (Bob Blakey photo)

The tavern’s battered steel door swung open into a blue-smoke-infused atmosphere laced with the scent of spilled beer soaking into terrycloth tabletops and the occasional whiff of greasy fast food. Above all, it was noisy. The traditional Herald “table” — in truth, a pulled-together cluster of little round tables — hugged the vast room’s back wall.

Bruce Masterman describes his first visit, in 1978, to the Herald newsroom, which soon led to a reporting job. “I met with (city editor) Bob Tate and (assistant city editor) Jim Knowler. Tate said, ‘Let’s have lunch,’ and we went down to the Empress. It got to be 4 o’clock and it dawned on me we weren’t having lunch at all. I was on my eighth beer and was pissed. We were all pissed.”

Reporter Tom Keyser’s inauguration was “lunch” with his new Herald colleagues as well.

“Remember, it was an afternoon paper and most of the heavy lifting had been done by noon,” says Keyser. “I stayed in the Empress for the afternoon and picked up the tab for my boss, and we remained friends for years.

“I’ll always remember the dynamism and energy of the old Herald newsroom. It was my third daily, but when I first walked into it, I thought, ‘This is a newspaper, a real newspaper.’”

Margoshes, whose resumé included the New York Daily News and the San Francisco Chronicle, says, “I’ve worked in a lot of newsrooms and some of them are just soulless places where business is carried on. But that old Herald building had personality. You noticed it as soon as you walked in.”

STATURE

It also reeked of power. The paper’s dominance in those years can’t be overstated. It far outsold its only daily competitor, the Morning Albertan. The Herald reached about 90 per cent of Calgary homes. Rumour had it the operation, the richest paper in the Southam chain, shipped $60,000 a day to head office.

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Part of the newsroom, in 1980. Reporter Vicki Barnett is seen at right, wearing a blue sweater. (Bob Blakey photo)

Herald journalists largely looked down on the broadcast media because ours was the “newspaper of record” for southern Alberta. Filling the space around acres of print ads took immense quantities of news copy, the cream of which local TV and radio reporters scrambled in vain to match. Every event of note, and some that weren’t, got covered in the Herald.

Bill Gold, the editor-in-chief, and his boss, publisher Frank Swanson, grasped the responsibility to readers that came with such supremacy. Although they were resolutely conservative by nature — wry Herald scribes called their employer “the Fearless Champion of the Overdog” — Gold and Swanson respected the time-honoured, invisible wall between the newsroom and the advertising department. (The widespread “advertorials” of today’s daily press, designed to trick readers into thinking the ad copy is news, “wouldn’t have been tolerated back then,” notes former reporter David Climenhaga.)

Longtime theatre critic Brian Brennan recalls an illuminating incident that happened before my time. To help readers choose which movies to attend, the entertainment section had begun a weekly offering of shortened reviews. These ongoing capsule critiques were often negative. One day, an angry delegation of local movie-theatre managers showed up at Gold’s office demanding the little film reviews be killed or the exhibitors would pull all their advertising from the Herald.

Gold agreed that was their right, but added, “If you do that, we’ll decide if and when we let your ads back in the paper.”

“That was the end of the protest,” says Brennan. “It was never raised again.”

But this noble allegiance to readers’ rights was offset by a few sacred cows. Up to the ’70s, management wouldn’t abide any printed criticism of the Stampede, for example, but that was starting to change when I got there.

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The entertainment department of the old newsroom, about 1978. Theatre critic Brian Brennan, left, and copy runner Roman Cooney. (Photographer unknown)

Then there was the “Winnie Dinnie.”

Swanson cherished the Sir Winston Churchill Society of Calgary, which venerated the late British prime minister with an annual black-tie dinner featuring abundant wine, liquor and long-winded speeches. Like other new reporters, I got my obligatory turn to cover it while wearing a rented tux. It was the first time I met Swanson, who wasn’t inclined to hang around the newsroom pretending to be chums with the rabble.

The most beloved boss was managing editor Larry O’Hara. Many considered him the newsroom’s heart. A Second World War navy veteran who survived the death lanes of the North Atlantic, he understood the right mix of steadfast work and tension-relieving play. This was decades before anybody talked of “work-life balance,” but unlike today’s corporate bosses, O’Hara actually believed it.

Arthur Kent, whose father had been a senior editor at the paper, spent four months as a reporter there in the 1970s between school years at Carleton University. “There was a creative atmosphere and everybody was trying to perform,” Kent recalls. “Your copy was edited with much more rigour than you’d see today.

“I had been an ordinary student with a capital O in my first year at Carleton. After four months at the Herald, trying to keep up with the likes of Bob Bragg, I went back and got top marks. That’s what happens when you work with people better than yourself.”

It went all the way to the top. Gold pored over the hefty paper after it rolled off the presses around 11 a.m., then crafted and circulated daily memos that editors dubbed “Goldgrams,” which praised excellence and pointed out transgressions.

Young journalism-school graduate Carol Howes was in awe of it all. “It was a messy, smoke-filled newsroom bursting with creativity and writers I admired,” she says. “Dave Margoshes — what a talent he was. I instantly liked Catherine Ford, who swore, drank and smoked like the best of them. It wasn’t until years later that I appreciated what she and other women had accomplished in this industry.”

Another memory: “I got to tear the wire copy off the machines when Ronald Reagan was shot,” says Kate Zimmerman. “I think it was fellow copy runner Mark Lowey who told the rest of us minions that John Lennon had just been murdered.

“You really felt you were part of world events, and that old messy newsroom, crammed with slovenly journalists who had their feet on their desks and spent half the day shouting witty remarks at colleagues, contributed to the atmosphere,” she says.

Roman Cooney was hired on a few years earlier when his lowly gofer job still had the antiquated title “copy boy” and everybody used typewriters.

“One of my jobs during a beer strike,” remembers Cooney, “was to sit in the sports department and look down the alley behind the liquor store and watch for the delivery of Uncle Ben’s beer, which was the only brewery operating, and alert the newsroom when the truck arrived.”

BOOZE, BOOZE, BOOZE

The drinking crowd included a few night deskers who were such unrepentant alcoholics they astonished even the beer-swilling reporters; competently — miraculously — designing pages and writing headlines. Two of them in particular downed spirits throughout their shifts. As each 26-ounce bottle was drained, it would be stashed above the lightweight ceiling panels.

“I was on the overnight desk for a while,” Margoshes recalls, “and one night the weight of all those bottles got to be too much for the tiles. One of them came crashing down with a bunch of empties, much to the consternation of all of us sitting beneath them. I don’t think anybody got hurt. It was funny as hell.”

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Reporter Bob Blakey, 1980. (Photographer unknown)

Then there was Bill Drever, an amiable senior editor who in his final years managed journalists’ expense accounts. Former lifestyle editor Sid Tafler says Drever’s doctor one day warned him he’d soon be dead if he didn’t drastically curtail his drinking habits, fortified in part by an ever-present bottle in his desk. Drever asked, “How about if I drink milk?” Fine, said the doc. So Drever switched to milk, but always laced it with a shot of scotch. “We referred to it as his Southam Comfort,” says Tafler.

One top-notch reporter, whom I’ll call Watson (not his real name), also owned the podium in Olympic-class boozing. Unlike the overnight deskers, however, he imbibed in plain sight. One evening, Tafler accompanied him to a dinner organized in Calgary by the federal Progressive Conservative party.

“A lot of people didn’t know who (Watson) was,” says Tafler. “He was sitting there drinking and he started to say nasty things about the party leader, Joe Clark. One of the members of Parliament at the table, clearly irritated, turned to him and said, ‘Are you a Conservative?’

“Before Watson could respond, the MP said, ‘Act like a Conservative!’

“So the reporter got down on all fours and started to bark like a dog. It was hilarious.”

That could have ended the reporter’s Herald career, but later that evening he happened to witness an MP punching out an unruly party crasher. An agreement was forged: Herald management wouldn’t be told of the reporter’s barking caper if the MP’s boxing prowess was kept out of the paper. And it was.

Today, a reformed Watson concedes his stint in the downtown newsroom “was basically a seven-year party with some good journalism committed along the way.”

TOMFOOLERY AND GOOD JOURNALISM

Not all the highjinks involved alcohol. A strange aspect to the editorial process, post-typewriters, was a primitive mainframe computer that now and then caused copy to vanish without warning. Catherine Ford once beheld Margoshes, ordinarily a mild-mannered guy, as he unleashed a rare fury with one of his trademark cowboy boots.

“He kicked one of those tall garbage cans so hard he sent it flying across the newsroom, and it was forever dented,” says Ford. “He had been working on some story and he lost the whole thing.”

On another occasion, for a reason she can’t remember, Ford kept bugging columnist Pat McMahon until he lifted her up and stuffed her into one of the big wastepaper containers. “All you could see were my arms and legs,” she says, “because my ass was the same diameter as this garbage can.”

Despite all the tomfoolery, solid journalism more often dominates my recollections of the old Herald newsroom. As I settled in, I was impressed by management’s commitment to digging up good yarns — costs be damned.

Reporters were often allowed a week, even several weeks, to come back with a single in-depth story. Writers Vicki Barnett, John Down and I were given two months to fill an entire section about all the stresses and demands on local recreation facilities in a city bursting with newcomers. (Not long after that, Vicki and I began dating, another plus for the old newsroom in my view. We’ve been married 32 years.)

She also remembers the relentless commitment to quality. “News editor Kevin Peterson (who eventually became publisher) was fast-tracked by Gold as his probable successor. Kevin was starting to build a newsroom steeped less in the tradition of the school of hard knocks and more structured around young, bright, university-educated reporters,” she says.

That’s probably why Joanne Ramondt, then an experienced hire from the Albertan, believes the boozy legends are a bit overstated. The practice was already fading, with family-oriented staffers increasingly heading home for dinner instead of getting tanked every afternoon, inevitably changing the newsroom culture. Besides, says Ramondt, vigorous imbibing “was not unique to the Herald. There was always a group of drinkers at any paper.”

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Reporters Robert Bragg and Joanne Ramondt, in 1981. (Bob Blakey photo)

And not everybody partook. Ron Collins and Gord Lee, who worked the Herald’s police desk for a time, both kept tavern visits to a minimum, in part because at least one pair of ears needed to be trained on the emergency radio scanner. “We’d often run out and chase ambulances, cop cars and fire trucks,” says Collins.

THE END

But the newsroom’s days were numbered. The Herald had outgrown the old building, and midday traffic in the city centre badly impeded delivery trucks. On a chilly night in November 1981, newsroom staffers transformed their final downtown shift into an all-night wake powered by beer and liquor they’d been hoarding for weeks. Yet the fuel still ran low. One of the two deskers of collapsed-ceiling fame had to dispatch an empty cab to his house so his wife could replenish supplies, recalls former desker Melanie Collison.

“It was an unforgettable night,” she says. “That newsroom had represented my dream job. I couldn’t believe I’d landed in the newspaper business. I was so happy just to be there, to be one of the boys.”

The next day, we all started unpacking boxes at our desks in the new building, where I would stay for 22 years, working as the TV critic for the final 15. I left just before the daily newspaper business began its long battle to survive in an Internet world, cursed with critically diminished resources. Sadly, the Herald’s newsroom body count has shrunk to the point where the Mayland Heights newsroom was recently rented out, along with a large portion of the building’s upper floors.

For some of my old colleagues, the 1981 relocation was nothing less than physical salvation. One formerly hard-drinking reporter who, like all of us, found the new neighbourhood inconveniently isolated from pubs, confesses, “For many people there was major liver regeneration after the move. In my case, taking the newsroom out of downtown literally saved my life.”

But transplanting the paper came at a price, says Gord Lee. “The best thing about the Herald’s downtown location was the fact it was so close to people we interviewed on a daily basis. When we moved up to Mayland Heights, we lost that personal touch and mostly did interviews by phone.”

I think the city itself lost something when the Herald was transplanted to industrial east Calgary. Watson agrees. “The newsroom was a drop-in place on the main corner in town,” he says. “We used to get elected officials — federal and provincial — and street people, a range of supplicants. It was ‘the Forum.’

“Downtown, there was a lot of action all the time,” he says, “and it made the Herald a better paper.”

 

 


Comments: 6

Kate Zimmerman wrote:

What a wonderfully evocative piece. I only wish that I had been the barking dog at that PC event. The Herald newsroom was full of great characters in those days. Blakey could probably write an entertaining book about it. It wouldn't be VERY entertaining, though -- I clearly remember him informing me, as a younger journalist, that there was no room for the word "very" in newspaper writing. Does any journalist now take the time to give that sort of useful advice to upstarts? I doubt it. Thanks for the great read!

on Nov 29th, 2012 at 10:02am Report Abuse

Brian Brennan wrote:

Great piece! Kudos to Fast Forward for recognizing the importance of this story, and for assigning one of Calgary's top scribes to write it. I started my Calgary journalism career in that newsroom and learned everything there is to know about the business from the experienced hands, Gold, Vickers, Hull, O'Hara, et al, who are now toiling in that great newsroom in the sky. Whenever I sit down to write something today, I still hear the voice of Reg Vickers whispering in my ear: "Make the words sing."

on Nov 29th, 2012 at 10:33am Report Abuse

Melanie Collison wrote:

Bob Blakey has crafted a fine example of the journalism we valued so much in those boisterous days. He stuffs his story full of facts, but the rich detail and human interest make it a pleasure to read. His work is as memorable as our beloved newsroom.

on Nov 29th, 2012 at 8:57pm Report Abuse

Dave Margoshes wrote:

Terrific piece, Blake! You nailed it.

on Nov 29th, 2012 at 9:20pm Report Abuse

David Prosten wrote:

I never worked at the paper but the piece makes me regret not having done so. Margoshes and I did journalism together, albeit at different newspapers, and I met him soon after I tried (unsuccessfully, of course) to pick up his now ex-wife while reporting a story and we've remained friends since. I feel sorry for this generation of newsfolk who will never share the pleasure -- joy, really, when newspapering is in your blood -- of a workplace like this. Wonderful piece.

on Dec 3rd, 2012 at 9:19am Report Abuse

Miles Burn wrote:

Was my dad at the all-nighter? He would have loved it. He had some great stories, one of which there were some naughty boys having a friendly fight, after a couple of drinks. Dad noted he slammed a fellow, who smacked him, and they had offended a goody-two-shoes dweeb who reported them. Vindication came the next day when whoever was in charge blew it off, declaring he didn't have time for such crap. I remember the old Herald building well, having spent countless hours with my beloved father in the darkroom. I can clearly remember the sounds of the two-way radio, the smells, the clattering, facinating, ticker tape machines and the scary cleaning fellow who had a hole in his neck. Dad would have enjoyed the article, and, thanks, Bob, it brought back some vivid memories.

on Jan 16th, 2013 at 4:37pm Report Abuse


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