Michael Cooke stomps around the newsroom, asking anyone who will listen, “Are we pictured up?” TheToronto Star’s editor-in-chief will hold a front-page story if it has no art. He’ll barge around spouting his catchphrase, his doggedness bordering on absurdity. In April 2008, police charged Christine Bedford with assault after she threw coffee in a man’s face on a commuter train. A year later she pleads guilty and Cooke wants to play it big. Obsessed with finding the woman, he wants her photo, and he wants it now. Her story will represent the angry face of the recession in Toronto. Perfect.

So begins the summer of the photo desk’s discontent—the photographers have only a vague idea of what Bedford looks like, which will make picking her out of the downtown crowds nearly impossible. “Every day someone was assigned to the Coffee Lady,” says a veteran photographer. “It became a mission. But I don’t think you’ll find a photographer who would understand why we were still chasing Coffee Lady.” And the chase continues for weeks. Each day, a photojournalist and Dale Anne Freed (the only reporter who’d seen a police photo of Bedford) stake out her high-rise condo downtown. The story runs June 2, 2009 on A1 without Coffee Lady’s photo. But Cooke still wants that picture. So the stakeouts continue. At nearly every morning news meeting in June, Cooke asks, “Are we pictured up?” until someone finally nails Coffee Lady. But the shot never appears in the paper—the story is long forgotten. “For me,” one Star insider says, “the biggest question was really: What the fuck has Honderich done?”

Cooke is an unusual choice to lead the proudly liberal Star, Canada’s largest-circulation newspaper. Conrad Black says the 57-year-old Brit’s a jaded, second-tier tabloid editor, whose conservative political views are at odds with the Star’s social justice slant. (Ironic, since Hollinger employed him for much of his career.) TheNew York Post mocked him for his alleged women’s shoe fetish and nicknamed him the Cookie Monster (which prompted Gawker to paste his head on the Muppet character’s body). Driven by unbridled ambition and a fierce competitive streak honed through nearly 30 years of rugby, Cooke has spent the bulk of his career running major tabloid dailies such as the Chicago Sun-Times, the New York Daily News and Vancouver’s The Province. He packed them with short investigative features, splashy display and human-interest fare—and watched readership numbers rise. Now, he’s brought his tabloid journalism instinct to his own broadsheet.

In fall 2008, after the failures of back-to-back editorial regimes in the previous four years, chair of Torstar’s voting trust (and former longtime Star editor and publisher) John Honderich decided it was time to restore stability to his beloved newspaper. “We’ve been joking in the newsroom for a couple of years, the only constant is change,” says city editor Graham Parley. Honderich first tapped publisher John Cruickshank, who then convinced the most influential person at Torstar (the Star’s parent company) that Cooke, his longtime partner at the Sun-Times, was the one to reinvigorate the venerable institution.

Cooke expects to fight—and win—the protracted Toronto newspaper war for a slice of the shrinking circulation pie in the age of internet ascendance. When he arrived on March 2, 2009, staff were understandably skeptical about him. A polarizing presence in other newsrooms, he was aggressive, blunt and played hard, but also brought contagious energy. The Star became an exciting place to work again. Showing off his feistiness and flair for eye-catching presentation, he devoted half-pages to single photographs. Traditionally quirky Toronto stories got even quirkier, less local and arguably less relevant. But an expansion of the investigative unit paid off, with the paper regularly embarrassing governments into action. And then, on November 3, 2009, morale plummeted. Management announced that to save an estimated $4 million per year, the Star intended to shed nearly a third of the newsroom by eliminating some or all of its copy desk and outsourcing editing. The Star’s readership was on the upswing before the new team arrived: numbers perked up 2.6 percent in NADbank’s interim 2008-2009 report, not easily achieved in today’s newspaper market. It’s too soon to tell whether Cooke’s formula of mixing crusading journalism with lighter stories will keep readers hooked.

His friends and colleagues say he lives for a challenge but, really, he lives to win. Still, strife in the editorial department may make that difficult. After years of infighting and lagging in the race for online innovation, his hiring was a coup for a paper traditionally restricted by hierarchy and ego. Cooke is a showboating editor accustomed to attracting attention to himself and his newspapers, and the Star might well be his last championship run—provided his team stays standing behind him.

***

Cooke grew up in Lancashire County’s Nether Kellet, a northern English village (population: 646) and developed skin tough as steel. “Whenever we get to cross paths,” says longtime friend and newspaperman Garry Steckles, “we don’t spend our time reminiscing about playing in grim back lanes or having to use outside netties [toilets] in the middle of winter.” Born to a sailor and quarryman father and housekeeper mother, Cooke’s formal education came to an abrupt halt at 16. After failing his O-level exams, he was asked not to return to grammar school. He then worked for a month without pay at the Morecambe Visitor, a small weekly, until the paper hired him. But, ever the boundary pusher, his insolence later got him fired. He went on to Bristol’s Western Daily Press for five weeks before escaping in the middle of the night because he was afraid to give his resignation to the paper’s fearsome editor. He worked casually on Fleet Street for the Daily Mail, The Sun and Sunday Express. On a London street in 1972, a young, barefoot, redheaded art student in an ankle-length fur coat glanced his way. He’d later write that he saw the faces of his three unborn children in his future wife’s eyes that day. Even later, he would write about her in the Sun-Times, recalling a rainy “wet night” they spent together when he was 19 and Barbara was “all tossed red hair and pout.” During a vacation to Toronto in 1974, the young editor visited the Star on the recommendation of Bob Hely, a colleague at The Sun in London. The visit turned into a few trial shifts on the copy desk, which turned into a job. Three years later, Cooke left Toronto for Montreal to become assistant city editor of The Gazette.

***

He grinds his cleats into the slick grass, shoes squelch in the mud. It’s the October 1984 championship game, and Cooke is hooking for the Town of Mount Royal, Quebec. He licks his lips, wipes rain from his dark eyes. The first law of rugby is go forward. Head down, plow through. Run. Glance back only when you’re far enough ahead you can’t lose. Cooke scowls, his chubby, pugilistic body holding firm, bare legs streaked with dirt. There’s an up-and-under coming his way. Where the hell is the fullback? This is the second time.Cooke’s blue-and-yellow striped form shuffles backward to match the faint arc traced by the ball flying through the air. The second law of rugby is support.

Spectators mock him from the line. Glancing at the four grimacing opponents charging toward him, Cooke stiffens and raises his eyes to meet the lingering punt with his name on it. It’s a sucker punch of the worst order: the promise of a rib-rattling tackle if he can make the catch. And if he can’t? The other team might score, and that’s a fate worse than death. He’s not the biggest, or the fastest, or the best. But he has guts. And losing’s not an option. He staggers. Knocked backwards, ribs cracking, stomach in his mouth for a split second. He chokes, catches his breath, spit and iron sticking to the walls of his throat, gasping with laughter before he’s crunched to the ground, ball at his chest. Broken rib? Nah. But it’ll bruise tomorrow. He leaves the field a happy warrior. A winner. Cooke’s own photo appears on the front page of The Gazette’s sports section where he later writes about the game.

***

In January 1988, Cooke sauntered into a Concordia University classroom, banged his black briefcase down and rolled up his sleeves. The 25 students in his copy editing class watched him pull out a copy of USAToday. “I love this newspaper,” he said. “It’s an editor-driven paper. A paper conceived and imagined by editors. Very clear. Very high concept.” One month later, Cooke launched the Sunday Gazette, designed to be a light weekend read full of quirky features and first-person journalism. He shaped his team after the British model, running the Sunday paper as its own entity equipped with a roster of writers and editors chosen by—and reporting directly to—him. It succeeded in stamping out the competing Montreal Daily News, but newsroom critics dismissed it as too irreverent. “The Sunday paper was designed to block a tabloid so it was designed to be a tabloid,” says Maclean’s columnist Paul Wells, who was then one of Cooke’s favoured feature writers. “Young serious reporters would clip out stories they didn’t like and bring them to weekly development sessions. I heard a lot more criticism during the time Michael and I overlapped at the paper than ‘Thank God we’ve got Michael Cooke.’”

In 1992, the Edmonton Journal recruited Cooke as managing editor. He stayed three years before becoming editor-in-chief of The Province in Vancouver. Beginning in 1997, Cooke also commuted to Hamilton as part of the team selected by Conrad Black to launch the National Post. After several years of bitter sparring with The Province’s union over his divide-and-conquer leadership, Cooke was frustrated—and not beloved in the newsroom. (“He was trying to be some kind of Pied Piper,” says deputy news editor Janet Ingram-Johnson. “Those who were not his acolytes would be discarded and treated quite poorly. He was very vindictive if you posed any threat to his management style.”) That’s when Hollinger executive David Radler offered him the job of a lifetime: editor-in-chief of the Chicago Sun-Times. Vancouver Sun editor John Cruickshank would be his co-editor (and eventually his publisher). The Province newsroom cheered at the announcement, but Radler was confident. “Since we put a duo in Chicago and we had the dull Cruickshank,” he says, “we had to have a more exciting presence. Cooke brings a flair to any job that most editors in this country don’t have.”

A half-decade later, his career took another leap forward. He left the Sun-Times in 2005 to become editor of the New York Daily News, one of the most-read newspapers in the United States. “What he accomplished at the Sun-Times and the Daily News is extremely rare,” Wells says. “Someone from a Canadian newsroom making it to that level—it confirms the faith some of us had in him.” But it was apparent upon Cooke’s arrival that he wouldn’t really be running the Daily News. He fought with editorial director Martin Dunn and constantly placated billionaire owner Mort Zuckerman. “From the minute he walked in the building,” says Caitlin Kelly, a former Daily News reporter, “it was never clear to anybody who exactly ran the paper.” As before, Cooke tried to surround himself with people he trusted. He offered Globe columnist Christie Blatchford a job. He gave former Sun-Times columnist Neil Steinberg a column—written from Chicago. (“Why do you have a Chicago columnist in a New York newspaper?” one observer close to Cooke asks. “It was seen as a real slap in the face.”) The newsroom revolted, and Steinberg was fired.

Undaunted, Cooke courted publicity by approving, and starring in, a documentary series about the Daily News for Bravo called Tabloid Wars. He met all the right people—Harry Evans, Tina Brown, Arianna Huffington—and went to all the right parties. But his heavyweight pals couldn’t assuage the barrage of gossipy New York Post headlines about him. The Post accused Cooke of reprinting nearly identical stories he’d written in past papers (which he did) and taking an expensive trip to England from a public relations representative who he wrote was a friend. And, after coming across a column written by Sun-Times columnist (and Cruickshank’s wife) Jennifer Hunter calling out her “former editor” for his women’s footwear fetish, thePost ran with it. (Hunter declined comment for this story.) “That’s absolutely business as usual, for the Post to be pissy just because they can,” Kelly says. “But Cooke was like, ‘Oh my God, it’s open season,’ because he had made some missteps and had some real enemies.” At Cruickshank’s request, Cooke headed back to theSun-Times at the beginning of 2006, as senior vice-president of editorial, to oversee the company’s 100-plus titles. Post editor Col Allan sent him a pair of red women’s boots as a parting gift.

Cooke’s not camera-shy, nor is he shy about playing favourites—star players shouldn’t sit on the bench, after all. For years, he’s fostered the careers of exceptional journalists, nurturing their professional growth. Back at the Sun-Times, he convinced “fraidy-cat” front-page editor James Smith to appear on Oprah to discuss the tabloid’s much-lauded Barack Obama covers after the U.S. presidential election in 2008. “He e-mailed me and told me, ‘This is what we’re doing,’” says Smith of his leap from small-town designer to front-page editor at the Sun-Times. “When he tells you you’re doing something, you really don’t feel like you have a choice. You know he’ll back you up.” Cooke’s talented new hire became one of the chosen few saved during a massive round of last-hired, first-fired layoffs—a decision that infuriated the newsroom. Wells says his former boss’s penchant for picking superstars was controversial at The Gazette. “He always played favourites,” Wells says. “If you were one of them, it was a wonderful place to be.” And if you weren’t? “There’s no time to flatter people who can’t help you put out a paper. He doesn’t like hand-holding.”

***

Meanwhile, the past five years have not been kind to Torstar. Revenues from the company are a prime income flow for the five families—including the Honderiches—that make up its voting trust. But the company’s fortunes now mirror the newspaper industry’s decline. As dividends eroded, tension between the families heightened. The younger generations no longer stood united behind the unwritten rule: the Atkinson Principles trump the bottom line. These six governing editorial tenets are modelled after influential editor Joseph E. Atkinson’s advocacy for social justice, the rights of working people and a strong, united Canada. “It’s not Mao and his Little Red Book,” says managing editor Joe Hall. “We don’t go around chanting. It’s almost instinctive—you know what’s wrong.” Critics say the principles are noble in theory but fungible in practice, conveniently bending to be everything to everyone. When Torstar is making money, they are easier to embrace. But in 2006, a Merrill Lynch report bluntly expressed the glaring conflict between the profit motive and the Atkinson Principles: “The content of the newspaper is constrained to report in a manner that reflects the Principles, and this puts a potential cap on the audience size.”

Torstar makes much of its profit from publishing Harlequin romance novels. (Will a plot line of the dashing Fleet Street reporter sweeping a barefoot, fur-clad lass off her feet soon appear?) The bodice-rippers steadily pick up the slack for the company’s media holdings: a 19-percent stake in British Columbia’s Black Press, a 20-percent stake in ctvglobemedia, the Metroland empire of community newspapers in southern Ontario’s Golden Horseshoe and of course, the Star. Without Harlequin and Metroland, the flagship wouldn’t have nearly the same resources at its disposal. Torstar’s profits have decreased substantially in the last five years. It reported a net loss of $180.5 million in 2008, due in part to an investment in ctvglobemedia. That’s down from a $101-million net profit the year before, and even that’s far from its $124-million profit in 2003.

***

David Olive sits in a circle with about 20 colleagues. It’s spring 2007 and Toni Antonellis, a consultant from Atlanta-based TSA & Company, is leading a training session in a room adjoining the Star newsroom. She says they’re going to play a game that will help them work better as a team. “It was as though it was a preschool class,” says Olive, a business columnist. “For God’s sake, this is three hours out of my day.” The consultants crawl all over the newsroom. “Whenever the consultants come,” he says, “it means management doesn’t know what the heck they’re doing.” Fred Kuntz was the editor at the time. When then-publisher Jagoda Pike appointed him in 2006, staff welcomed the change. The previous administration of publisher Michael Goldbloom and editor-in-chief Giles Gherson had lasted just two years. In contrast to Gherson’s outside experience as Report on Business editor at the Globe and editor-in-chief of the Edmonton Journal, Kuntz was the ultimate insider, with more than 20 years experience at the Star and Torstar’s regional papers. Although the newsroom celebrated then, within a year, confidence drained. “Fred was just so tightly wound and the whole newsroom was tightly wound and people were scared,” says Kevin Donovan, a 25-year veteran who leads the investigative team. During Kuntz’s second year—the year of consultants, confusion and budget cuts—a much-publicized disagreement between then-ceo Rob Prichard and Honderich led to divisions on the Torstar board. Because Prichard had installed Pike as publisher, and Pike had installed Kuntz as editor-in-chief, there was fealty in the hierarchy. Senior editors were told not to speak to Honderich. If someone went to dinner with him, for example, staff would snitch to upper management. Then the axe fell on Pike and Kuntz, and then Prichard, who received a controversial $9.6-million severance package.

The paper desperately needed stability after five years of rotating-door management and declining revenues. “There had been blood on the floor right up to the publisher and chairman’s office,” says Rosie DiManno, columnist and 27-year veteran. “We just wanted somebody to come back to us who knew newspapers.” The glorious appointment of Honderich—the Star’s “captain, my captain”—as chair of the board, which officially took effect May 6, 2009 but in practice happened months earlier, re-established an energy that had faltered after the arrival of the consultants. In late fall 2008, Honderich phoned John Cruickshank, who’d been at his specially created publisher position at CBC News for just over a year. It took little coaxing to get Cruickshank interested in moving. Hindered by bureaucracy, things were moving too slowly for him at CBC.

Cooke, still at the Sun-Times, moved to the top of a short list of potential editors. “This was certainly John Cruickshank’s preferred choice,” Honderich says. After dinner at a Florida crab shack, Cooke and Honderich left with an understanding. “I came out of the conversation a complete believer that he was the one,” he continues. “He was going to bring life, fun, humour, the traditional great old-fashioned investigative reporting—a newspaper that was going to make a difference and have fun doing it.” Finally, staff would have an editor who used the newsroom bathroom along with the closer executive one—an editor who would crusade for the working people, just like the Star.

***

Cooke rips his glasses off and tosses them carelessly on the table in front of him. He fidgets in spurts: tapping, gesturing frenetically, his eyes darting from kitchen to ceiling to floor, running his fingers through his hair. He’s distracted. He sits at a table near the front door of the Jamie Kennedy Wine Bar, an upscale restaurant in downtown Toronto. He’s slanted forward, leaning in, listening intently. He sips his glass of red wine. He’s forgone his usual rum and coke for something a little more refined tonight. It’s March 1, 2009, and Cooke’s dinner companion is Mary Vallis, a National Post reporter for whom Cooke has been a professional mentor. He’s new again to the city he left more than three decades earlier. And tomorrow is his first day as the editor-in-chief of the Toronto Star. He’s not talking about tomorrow. Trying not to admit he is nervous, trying not to admit that he cares—a contrast to his call-it-like-it-is instincts. He stands, asks: “Vallis, what shirt should I wear tomorrow?” “Pink,” she responds. He thanks her. She wishes him luck as he walks out of the restaurant.

***

Cooke stands in the newsroom before nearly 100 people. He’s rolled up the sleeves of his shirt. (It’s not pink.) He’s talking war. “Look,” he says, “there’s nothing wrong with these newspapers you keep hearing about. It’s all the debt that was taken on by the clowns who bought these newspapers. And we are going to win. If there are going to be deaths among papers in Toronto, we are going to be the last paper standing.” Then he goes looking for recruits. He lands Pulitzer Prize winner Paul Watson, who’d left the Los Angeles Times, to start an Arctic bureau—a “romantic” notion for the local paper that left some staff scratching their heads. He woos back high-profile columnist Jennifer Wells, who’d left the Star for the Globe a year and a half earlier. He picks Gazette editor Andrew Phillips to lend his business section credibility. He refuses to let freelance reporter Sonia Verma go to the Globe without a bidding war. And he hires his good friend, former boss and running buddy, Murdoch Davis, to become his executive editor responsible for exploring outsourcing options and coping with the aftermath. To hire Davis, perhaps best known for writing Canwest’s notorious national editorials, Cooke had to make a personal visit to Honderich, who’d spoken out publicly against the editorials. Honderich had such reservations about Davis becoming a Star man that he insisted on interviewing him personally. Cooke, with the full blessings of Honderich and Cruickshank, had settled into a new rhythm, and despite some reservations about razzle-dazzle and “picturing it up,” he brought a renewed sense of stability to the place. “Prichard, Pike and Kuntz alienated Honderich from the newsroom and they paid with their scalps,” says Dan Smith, book editor and longtime union steward. “Clearly he’s made a decision, for better or for worse: It’s Cruickshank’s newspaper and Cooke’s newsroom.”

***

Cruickshank is the Star’s steady guiding hand who wears the mantle of long-term visionary. A philosophy and politics junkie in Harry Potter–style glasses, he is soft-spoken and pauses pensively before speaking. He first met Cooke in the Gazette newsroom in 1979. Both men were married without kids, exploring the city on double dates with their young wives. Later, as the pair weathered the dot-com bust and Hollinger’s collapse during their eight years in Chicago, they spent their lunch hours walloping the shit out of each other. “There was absolutely no money—we were cutting staff and having issues with Radler—so we played highly competitive Ping-Pong. We probably both threw racquets at various points.” The pair parted ways briefly in 2008, when Cruickshank left to become publisher of CBC News. “Michael and I have had a professional relationship that has been as deep as any friendship,” Cruickshank says. “If a friend is someone you trust with your life and have great faith in, then Michael and I are truly friends.”

In contrast to his publisher, Cooke is the million-ideas-a-day “squirrel on coffee.” He’s the brash but charming Englishman who never tires (provided he’s had eight hours of sleep). Doesn’t leave work before
poring over the front page. Knows what readers want. Makes instinctive decisions. Hooked on BlackBerry. “The attention span of a fruit fly” (Smith). The “master networker” (Davis). “The most fun person I’ve ever met” (Blatchford). A Cooke party anecdote: “Ever tell you about that time Obama saw me naked at the East Bank Club gym? He was in a towel…” (A White House spokesperson could not confirm.)

Cooke has endeared himself to readers—and opened himself up to scrutiny—in part by writing deeply personal travel pieces and columns. One was about his best-man speech at his brother Frank’s wedding; he called the bride by Frank’s ex-girlfriend’s name (the marriage didn’t last). Another was about being tricked into pressing sheep’s testicles to his ear at 11 years old. A third was about a family video diary he, his wife and his three children kept in the 1980s. Cruickshank is certain: “Michael has an innate ability to connect with newspaper readers.”

***

Standing in the third-floor auditorium at One Yonge Street, Cruickshank is hosting a town hall meeting in July 2009. As his PowerPoint slides flick by, the publisher announces options the board is considering for the Star. The first involves keeping the paper more or less the same, with a smaller team producing content for both the paper and the web, provided advertising revenue goes up. The second explores the idea of producing niche publications in much smaller numbers and with content selected based on demographics such as teenagers or women. The third option: phasing out the paper entirely. He flips to a slide reading: “Death of print: 2020.” “I think Cruickshank thought, ‘Why aren’t they hearing me?’” Smith says, adding that the publisher never definitively said the paper’s last print edition would be published in 2020. Nevertheless, the newsroom woke up that day—the journalists were outraged.

***

On November 3, 2009 Star management announces its plan to outsource copy editing and offer a voluntary severance program to employees. That night, Cooke heads to the Air Canada Centre for a hockey game. He’s invited 15 employees, all managers but one, to the Torstar corporate box. It looks bad, and he knows it, but he can’t cancel the fun. How would that look to the other two guests he’s invited—directors of Pagemasters North America, the editing firm the Star might hire? He planned this weeks ago. He didn’t choose when the announcement was coming. He wants his managers to meet them in a social setting, give them time to ask questions. The following week, Cooke stands with Davis—whom staff have taken to calling “the man with the axe”—in the Star cafeteria. He reads from a prepared script about how outsourcing copy editing can work.  Smith, the union veteran, calls out: “If you’re actually serious about waiting for the union alternative, why did you go out drinking with Pagemasters on the night you announced it?” Cooke runs across the room at him. The two men square off, nose to nose, both just shy of five-foot-eight. “Oh yes, that’s right,” Cooke barks sarcastically. “We picked the worst possible thing we could come up with to show our contempt for you and everybody that works here.” Three weeks later, Cruickshank publicly announces the plan to use Pagemasters to replace nearly 80 editorial employees. Staff show up to work wearing black t-shirts emblazoned with “dead editor walking.” But in early January, management and the union reach an agreement to save most of those jobs. The Star never makes the deal with Pagemasters.

***

The Star’s challenge is to be everything to everyone. Its demographic is regionally limited, in contrast to the rival Globe’s more affluent, highly educated readership. Still, an average weekday edition of the Star boasts 974,000 readers, more than twice any other Toronto-area paper. And thestar.com’s weekly readership also grew by 15.6 percent in nadbank’s interim 2008-09 report. Sparring with dailies is one thing—taking a swing at everything is quite another. Cruickshank says his paper no longer competes with just the Globe and theToronto Sun. It faces the same vertiginous test as every other news outlet—going up against the rest of the world. “We’re competing for people’s attention.” That’s why, he says, the website must become the focal point as its print publication services an ever-smaller group of niche readers. Of course, he admits, that requires an online business model that pays.

Despite Cruickshank’s talk of becoming a web-based organization, nearly every writer and editor interviewed for this story calls last year’s website redesign a work-in-progress at best. Although thestar.com is the most read newspaper website in the Greater Toronto Area, it trails theglobeandmail.com in online innovation. Cooke is the first editor to run both the print and online branches, and Cruickshank speaks vaguely of more centralization to come. This unknown future platform strikes fear into the hearts of print-centric journalists, but even Smith thinks the Star needs a stronger web presence. “This should have been done 10 years ago,” he says. “To give Cooke and the people who run the place credit, they recognize that and are trying to get there quickly.”

In the meantime, Cooke has moved two more reporters, Diana Zlomislic and Moira Welsh, onto the investigative unit to ensure that the  “i-team,” led by editor-reporter Kevin Donovan, publishes more frequently than in years past. Enter the quick-and-dirty, and cheeky, journalism that earned Cooke both readers and revulsion in Chicago. Donovan says he’s thrilled to finally work with an editor who understands the value of high-profile reporters such as Rob Cribb, Dale Brazao and David Bruser. In December 2009, Cooke approved a $12,000 Freedom of Information request in seconds, telling Donovan: “Pay it. Get the story. Appeal.” And when he’s enthusiastic about a story idea,  the boss e-mails, “I want to have your children!”

In September 2009, Zlomislic wrote a story about going undercover to get a fake diploma certifying her as a health support worker. Cooke ran a photo of the slim blond reporter splashed across the front page. The province responded with legislation to monitor career colleges. The i-team has also garnered government attention and forced policy change from stories on maltreatment and exploitation of foreign caregivers, the mishandling of green bin waste and exporting stolen vehicles. Cooke believes in self-promotion, and pieces tagged with “The Star gets action” are now a regular page-one fixture—so often, in fact, that the tags are straining credulity. “We might be using it a bit too much,” Donovan muses. Either way, the paper’s getting results.

Nicknamed “Fluffy” to his Gazette co-editor’s “Stuffy” in the 1980s, Cooke is yet again part of a Fluffy-Stuffy duo. Prizing readability over relevance, the paper’s water-cooler stories are often the most popular on the website—though they’re less popular with some editors. Often penned by writers such as Cathal Kelly and Lesley Ciarula Taylor, staffers have coined them “Barbies.” On any given day, the paper and website will be peppered with stories (some Star and some wire) about New York City residents protesting skinny models, the killing of a transsexual prostitute in Italy and Peruvian police fabricating a tale about thieves draining humans of fat to sell to cosmetics companies. Not to mention the column Catherine Porter wrote about her son and her placenta. Intended to offset the seriousness of the i-team stories and get people talking, Cooke and other editors champion these pieces for their human interest, not to mention schadenfreude—Tiger Woods’s infidelity mea culpa, for instance, landed A1 above the fold. “The secret to Cooke is that he is a great and unapologetic scavenger,” says Martin Newland, former deputy editor of the National Post and current editorial director at the Abu Dhabi Media Company. “He sees something in another paper, he steals it, adapts it and moves on.”

***

Grande skinny vanilla latte. Michael Cooke across the table in Starbucks. Arms crossed. Leaning back. Purple and white striped shirt. Grey jacket. Grey slacks. Rimless glasses nestled in dark hair, grey streaks markedly absent. Face shifts with feeling, save for steady eyebrows, peaked rooftops, like circumflexes. A man who laughs a lot, obviously—all the right lines creased on an otherwise-youthful face. After five months, two e-mails, five phone calls and one attempt to accost him in the newsroom (foiled by his executive assistant Lorraine Campbell), Cooke agrees to meet me. Confident. Doesn’t give an inch. Work speaks for itself. Print and online teams should work seamlessly. Should have the best website in the world—knows they have work to do. Should get more action—should have more, more, more “Star gets action” tags. Globe editor John Stackhouse’s brain, “big as a basketball,” can’t beat Cooke’s all-stars. Not the Toronto he remembers. Not the Toronto of the 1970s. Doesn’t matter—his squad could take Stackhouse’s any day of the week. “If you take any successful sports team—and I don’t do sports analogies, okay?—they know what they are,” Cooke says. “We are an attacking team. We are a team that beats people up. We throw the ball and we beat people up. We have a brand and we have a mission and everybody buys into it.”

He stops. Above us, beside our table, hovers a man in a worn green winter coat, mumbling incomprehensibly, eyes pleading, snot running from his nose, crusting on his face. Cooke looks up, turns to me. “This is going to be a test,” he says. “To see how you’re going to handle it.”

“How I’m going to handle it? The story’s not about me.”

He pauses.

“Sorry, mate, we haven’t got a penny between us. Come back in an hour,” he says firmly. The man slams a toonie and a loonie down on our table, still mumbling. He wanders away.

“You see, this is what you get when you sit with me,” Cooke says with a laugh and a look of surprise (the eyebrows do move after all). “Has that ever happened to you in your life? I didn’t fix this up. This is what happens. Write that down!”

Cooke slides the coins to the empty table beside us. The man drifts one more time around the coffee shop before pushing the door open and shuffling into the cold. It’s not the Toronto he remembers, but Cooke is just the same.