It’s easy to lose your way in Saint John. Many summer mornings the skyline is shrouded in a heavy cloak of fog blown in from the Bay of Fundy. There are entire weeks when the cloud barely lifts, and the city becomes a ghostly whitewash. Some say flowers die in August from a lack of sunlight. But when the mist finally does blow off to reveal the city underneath, you realize what the fog was keeping secret.
This isn’t so with New Brunswick’s Saint John-based provincial daily, the Telegraph-Journal—its secrets tend to stay hidden. Consider a typically foggy morning late last July, one of those damp days that leave your clothes wet just from standing outside.
I’m a summer intern, and some colleagues and I have been called to a private meeting with Telegraph-Journal senior editor David Stonehouse. We shuffle from our desks, across the worn carpet to the editorial room on the north side of the Crown Street building. Behind a window overlooking the newsroom’s small sea of desks, I sit with the rest of the business section—three other reporters plus one on speakerphone—clustered around a flimsy round meeting table.
An awkward silence lingers as our session begins. We look at our shoes, the phone, the wall—anything but Stonehouse, who, speaking deliberately slowly, almost in a monotone, tells us what we’ve already figured out: the editor Shawna Richer has been fired and publisher Jamie Irving suspended for their roles in publishing a story printed on July 8, 2009. It accused Prime Minister Stephen Harper of pocketing a communion wafer at former Governor General Roméo LeBlanc’s state funeral on July 3—an accusation Harper hotly denied.
It’s three and a half weeks into my internship, nearly three weeks since the paper printed the wafer story, and I’ve been thrown into the aftermath of possibly the biggest Canadian journalism scandal of the year.
Stonehouse continues, saying the paper’s owners, the Irving family, take accuracy and journalistic integrity seriously. No one arches an eyebrow—strange, since the editorial integrity of Irving-owned newspapers has often been suspect. Media critics and three Senate reports on the state of Canadian media have criticized the Irvings’ iron grip in New Brunswick. And the most recent report, from 2006, made the Irving empire one of its main targets. It states: “[T]he media-industrial links within the Irving empire introduced an unhealthy bias into the news received by New Brunswickers.”
A few minutes later, Stonehouse concludes by suggesting we not get distracted, but keep our heads down and work—there’s still a paper with pages to fill.
“Does anyone have any questions?”
The room falls silent again. No one dares to ask for the juicy details because we know we won’t get answers.
Outside the window, fog still lingers.
Stonehouse dismisses us and we walk back to our desks, where lies that morning’s newspaper and its embarrassing below-the-fold, front-page apology to readers, titled “Telegraph-Journal Apologizes to Prime Minister.”
It read in part:
“There was no credible support for these statements of fact at the time this article was published, nor is theTelegraph-Journal aware of any credible support for these statements now. Our reporters Rob Linke and Adam Huras, who wrote the story reporting on the funeral, did not include these statements in the version of the story that they wrote. In the editing process, these statements were added without the knowledge of the reporters and without any credible support for them.
“The Telegraph-Journal sincerely apologizes to the Prime Minister for the harm that this inaccurate story has caused. We also apologize to reporters Rob Linke and Adam Huras and to our readers for our failure to meet our own standards of responsible journalism and accuracy in reporting.”
But instead of setting the record straight, the apology raised more questions: What induced such an editorial meltdown? What part did Jamie Irving and Shawna Richer play in it all? Now that Richer had been fired and Jamie suspended, who would be daft or brave enough to take charge of a paper that’s had six editors over the past 14 years? It’s the kind of situation that, over a year earlier, former Telegraph-Journal editor Mark Tunney (who led the paper from 2005 to 2006) described in “Cheap Power,” his master’s thesis for the University of Western Ontario’s journalism school:
“If this is a Kafkaesque nightmare, it is also a peculiarly New Brunswick one—informed by its own self-perpetuating, industrial logic; its own infuriating dynamic of blandness and boldness; the yin of paranoia and the yang of conspiracy theories. The Telegraph-Journal can seem absurdly modern and stubbornly anachronistic at the same time, like those old newsroom pneumatic tubes or the Irvings themselves.”
* * *
As for how the egregious error made it into the Telegraph-Journal, no one inside the newspaper’s inner circle will say—neither Richer nor Linke nor Huras would agree to an interview with the Ryerson Review of Journalism. Nor would Jamie Irving.
In fact, after the wafer apology was printed, no one spoke about it over a whisper in the newsroom. None of the Telegraph-Journal reporters would talk to me on the record for this story, and most respectfully declined to comment off the record, afraid of being reprimanded or of losing their jobs.
That doesn’t mean there’s been no speculation outside this circle. One popular rumour suggested that Jamie received the wafer tip from a trusted Liberal insider. The rumour also had it that Jamie gave the tip to Richer, who then added the information to the story.
This is Tunney’s theory, as well. “I would bet my house on that,” he says.
The identity of the supposed insider hasn’t been confirmed, and all of this is only conjecture by people who don’t know the whole story or are too afraid to tell it. It’s not even known for sure whether Richer and Jamie added the false information themselves or merely took the fall.
In fact, the details may never be known. Jamie wouldn’t comment (“I spoke to Jamie this morning,” said his executive assistant Nancy Estabrooks, “just to confirm whether or not he had second thoughts with regard to your request for a meeting. He has declined”). Neither would Richer (“Thanks for getting in touch, but I will have to decline. Good luck with school”).
Whatever the truth, Wafergate wasn’t the only scandal at the Telegraph-Journal last year. While the other debacles weren’t as contentious, their dynamics were just as murky.
In May, Richer fired summer intern Matt McCann over a story he wrote about Premier Shawn Graham receiving an honorary degree from the University of New Brunswick. The UNB communications manager said the story was too one-sided because it dwelt on professors’ unhappiness with the premier’s 2007 attempt to make changes to UNB and the Université de Moncton, which the professors believed would limit students’ access to university education.
McCann, who graduated this year with a journalism and philosophy degree from St. Thomas University in Fredericton, didn’t help his cause by misspelling a name and writing that the premier has an education degree when he actually has a physical education degree.
The same day his story was published, Richer told McCann she wasn’t entirely happy with it. The following day she fired him over the phone from Saint John (he was reporting in Fredericton). “She brought up the mistakes I made, and said something to the effect that my story was one-sided,” says McCann. “That the paper had worked hard to establish a good relationship with the university and that I had damaged that relationship. She said that I had damaged the reputation of the newspaper. She called my reporting reckless.”
A June 17, 2009, Toronto Star article described McCann’s piece about the professors: “It was a meaty, controversial political story that intersected with the province’s major power domains—the premier’s office, its largest university, and, as McCann would soon find out, his own newspaper owned by the billionaire Irving family.”
The Star story stated that Richer denied the university pressured her to fire McCann, but also revealed university officials had in fact complained to the Telegraph-Journal, though they “weren’t expecting McCann to be fired.” Richer told the Star,“It was a decision based strictly on performance issues. And speculation is just speculation.”
Then came the third Telegraph-Journal scandal: Just over 15 weeks after McCann was fired and seven weeks after the wafer apology, one of the paper’s contract writers was fired for plagiarizing an entire story (on economic spinoffs of the Acadian World Congress hosted in the province last August) from the French-language paper, L’Acadie Nouvelle. The incident triggered another apology, with the Telegraph-Journaladmitting that the writer translated her story from French, and informing readers she’d been dismissed.*
Put simply, it was a bad year for the Telegraph-Journal and the journalists who work there. “You want to be proud of where you work,” says former Telegraph-Journal business reporter and political columnist Lisa Hrabluk, “and that [wafer] story robbed those reporters of that.”
It’s been more than just one rocky year, though. Ever since legendary newspaper editor Neil Reynolds left his post as editor-in-chief in 1996, the provincial broadsheet has had six editors, five publishers and no consistent vision. And because it’s now both a provincial and city paper in one, the Telegraph-Journal has been in constant flux, pulled back and forth between editors and publishers who want its focus to be primarily provincial and those who want it to be mainly local.
The Telegraph-Journal, it seems, either wasn’t top priority in the Irving empire, or its owners couldn’t decide what the paper should be.
“The Telegraph-Journal has been swinging like a pendulum for the past 10 years. It’s never been at rest; it’s never been balanced with both,” says Hrabluk. “The staff are so punch drunk and probably a little nervous to stick their heads up and suggest being creative because their biggest concern is to figure out which way the wind blows. There’s no stability of vision, no stability of management practices, no strategy.”
* * *
From 1993 to 1996, Neil Reynolds brought to the newspaper the kind of journalistic drive, energy and ambition rarely seen at an Irving paper. He’d been hired because owner James K. Irving, Jamie’s grandfather and family patriarch, was looking for an editor who would, as then-general manager Valerie Millen put it, “stir the pot.” The paper’s content had been either too dull or controversial, and circulation had been dropping since 1989.
Reynolds seemed an ideal choice. He’d spent 14 years as editor of another small-market daily, TheKingston Whig-Standard, making it an attention-grabbing, National Newspaper Award-winning daily. (Though during that time, he took a one-year break from the paper to run as leader for the Libertarian Party of Canada.) Under him, the Whig published a weekly literary magazine and a slew of investigative pieces—what would become trademark Reynolds features.
Similarly, the hallmark of the Reynolds era at the Telegraph-Journal was an emphasis on investigative reporting and feature stories. He created a Saturday arts magazine called the New Brunswick Reader, beefed up editorial staff by hiring 20 writers and editors, and refocused editorial content away from wire copy and toward more original, local stories. And he spent a lot of money. For the first time in the paper’s history, it was stealing attention usually reserved for bigger papers and winning those National Newspaper Awards.
Reynolds once sent former Telegraph-Journal reporter and editor Philip Lee to Quebec, Iceland, Scotland and throughout New Brunswick to cover declining salmon stocks. The stories were published as a massive multi-week series (and later a book, Home Pool: The Fight to Save the Atlantic Salmon,for which Reynolds wrote the foreword). “It was probably the best job I ever had in the news business,” says Lee, now an associate professor at St. Thomas University’s journalism school in Fredericton. “It’s certainly one of the highlights of my career as a journalist. Neil gave us a tremendous amount of freedom.”
During his time at the paper, Reynolds was also a mentor to a young Jamie Irving, an intern there during the summer of 1995. Jamie later attended the master of journalism program at Carleton University, but never received a degree. He finally graduated from Columbia University’s journalism school in 2001. “Neil didn’t treat him like the rich owner’s son dabbling,” says Hrabluk. “Jamie hates to get treated that way.”
Jamie was only a few years out of school when he became Telegraph-Journal publisher, and, it would seem, nowhere near ready to successfully balance the conflicting interests of the family business with quality journalism.
* * *
An arts lover and political junkie, Jamie grew up surrounded by industrial tycoons such as his father, Jim, president of J.D. Irving Ltd.—the company that owns the family’s newspaper division, Brunswick News Inc., in addition to forestry, shipbuilding, construction and trucking companies.
“Irving business culture has been bred in them since they were really young men, and it’s part of their DNA,” says journalist Harvey Sawler, author of the Irving family biography, Twenty-First Century Irvings. “If you grow up in a household that has a military culture, you’re going to carry that with you, it’s going to find a way into your genes. And if you grow up in an Irving corporate kind of culture, then obviously it’s going to have its talons into you as well.”
But Jamie was a bit different. He was expected to take after his father and grandfather by working for, and probably eventually managing, JDI, but decided to pursue journalism instead. As the only son, says Tunney, “his father would have preferred he had stayed on the woodlands with the JDI side.”
It wasn’t the woodlands, but Jamie’s Irving paper career trajectory was mainly on the business side—as publisher. After putting in time as publisher of the Kings County Record, an Irving-owned weekly, and then as general manager of Brunswick News’s Community Newspapers division, Jamie was named publisher of the family’s flagship newspaper in December 2004, and kicked off the promotion by hiring Tunney, a former CBC reporter (now an instructor at St. Thomas University’s journalism school), as his new editor, and later by giving the paper a modern redesign.
One of Jamie’s professors at Carleton, Bob Rupert, says the young Irving had a real passion for journalism, but wasn’t an outstanding student. “We talked endlessly about journalism, and in most ways I think we had similar ideas: that the newspaper has a social responsibility; that it isn’t just a cash cow; that the level of journalism being practised in New Brunswick wasn’t high enough. Where we differed a little bit: he held that the owner of the paper should have a little more say about coverage than I would have liked.”
And Jamie was an enthusiastic publisher. Hrabluk says he got people excited about journalism with ambitious visions of what the papercould be. He wanted something with bite and a front section dedicated to politics and business for elites, or the Starbucks crowd, as he called them, and a city section for the Tim Hortons people. Rupert points out that Jamie also put an emphasis on local coverage. And the paper got a makeover, including a baby blue banner, font- and headline-style change and lots of clean lines.
Some hoped Jamie would be the Gorbachev of New Brunswick media and revolutionize the paper from inside. While he thought it was early for Jamie to take the top job, Rupert says, “I really believed Jamie would use the family clout to improve the paper. And I think to some extent he did. But I think now I was amazingly naive for a guy with my experience.”
Tunney suggests in “Cheap Power” that Jamie’s appointment represented a sea change in the way the family operated the paper. “The Telegraph-Journal has increasingly become an agenda-driven newspaper and that agenda is much more closely identified with the corporate interests of JDI and the Irving family business interests.” Before Jamie’s promotion, the Irvings tended to stay physically out of the newsroom (almost to a fault, it seems, letting the paper settle into mediocrity). But soon after one of their own stepped in, things changed.
Tunney and Hrabluk say that from the beginning, Jamie was very into branding, imagining the paper a New Brunswick Wall Street Journal, complete with a beefy op-ed section. “With that strategy,” writes Tunney, “he could capture the billionaire market, but most of them already had free subscriptions.” By most of them, Tunney of course meant the Irvings themselves—economic anomalies in a province where the median household income is $54,000, one of the country’s lowest.
It became obvious just how important the editorial page was to Jamie in January 2006. Provincially owned NB Power was looking to increase rates for industrial and residential users. While the Telegraph-Journal had supported the power company’s decisions before, it wouldn’t this time. It would back the Irving family’s corporate interests instead. “Jamie Irving made it clear to the editorial board…there would be no room for argument on this one,” Tunney writes in “Cheap Power.”
One editorial against the rate increase even made it to the front page, but like others slamming the increase, it didn’t disclose that the paper’s owner, JDI, was also one of the province’s major industrial users of electricity, and any increase in power rates would hurt the bottom line.
Tunney acknowledges the Irvings’ right to put their own voice in the editorial pages, but says, “If you go overboard, you lose your authority. You have to make sure you argue it well, not just saying ‘because we want it.’ ‘What’s good for the Irvings is good for the province’—to me that’s not a good argument.”
By March 2006, Jamie appeared even more confident. When Tunney returned from a spring vacation, he remembers Jamie telling him how much he liked being the only one in charge. “I could tell that he wasn’t listening anymore. I told him I thought it was a mistake and he said, ‘No, the editorial writer wrote exactly what I told them to, and I liked it,’” explains Tunney. “There was a real moment where I thought, okay, you’ve gotten a taste of power.” Four months later, Tunney was fired—he believes because he disagreed with Jamie on the paper’s direction. “To me the branding became far too strict,” says Tunney. He recognized that politics and business were the focus of the paper, but “I never thought that it was realistic to make a paper that was strictly selling to the business and political elite, because it wouldn’t survive.”
Hrabluk had a similar encounter with Jamie’s bullish side. After being invited to sit in on editorial meetings, she suggested that since JDI was such a strong presence in New Brunswick’s forestry industry, Jamie should “recognize that the paper’s ownership would influence how readers read the editorial.”
“Jamie ignored the advice,” she says, “and a few days later Mark [Tunney] told me I was no longer invited to meetings.”
* * *
While Jamie Irving was figuring out his role at the Telegraph-Journal, the family empire hummed along as usual.
As Harvey Sawler described them in Twenty-First Century Irvings, “With unparalleled dominance in forestry, energy, transportation, and countless other enterprises, the Irvings are the undisputed monarchs of entrepreneurship in Atlantic Canada and one of the richest families in the world.”
Canadian Business estimated the family’s worth in 2009 was $7.28 billion. And their influence permeates every part of the region. You can’t drive down a Maritime highway without seeing an Irving-owned Midland transport truck or an Irving gas station, its familiar red-and-blue diamond logo rising above the off-ramps.
Their presence in the news industry is just as pervasive. The family’s media history stretches back over 60 years, to 1944, when Jamie’s great grandfather, K.C. Irving, started buying up newspapers. He first purchased the New Brunswick Publishing Co., which owned the Telegraph-Journal and the Evening Times-Globe. He added the Moncton Daily Times and The Transcript (predecessors of Moncton’s current Times & Transcript) a few years later, and Fredericton’s Daily Gleaner in 1968. They now own the province’s three dailies and over half of all weeklies.
It may seem a strange collection for a notoriously private family, but the papers have brought the Irvings influence across the region. A Senate report on Canadian media, released in June 2006, scrutinized Brunswick News and claimed, “The Irving media have been and will be brutal competition to anyone who goes after the same ad dollars.”
Former CTV journalist and native New Brunswicker Senator Jim Munson was a member of the committee. “I’ve had issues when ownership crosses a line,” he says from his Ottawa office. “What we’ve seen is that any group or individual that tries to start a small newspaper is crushed.”
Ken Langdon’s now-defunct Carleton FreePress was one such paper. Before starting the independent Woodstock, New Brunswick-based weekly, Langdon was publisher of the Irving-owned Bugle-Observer. In September 2007, he e-mailed Brunswick News a letter of resignation, informing management of his plans to start a new paper in the community. Eight days later, Brunswick News, which alleged Langdon had taken company information, had auditors searching his office. Brunswick News never replied to an interview request about the incident.
Langdon declined to comment for this piece, but his former editor, Bob Rupert (Jamie’s former Carleton professor), claims Brunswick News undercut the FreePress by lowering subscription and advertising rates. The paper folded just over a year after it started. “I was devastated. I thought it was an unprecedented attempt to create a really good community newspaper in a province that really needs one,” says Rupert. “I thought we were going to make it, but I don’t think you can cope with that kind of financial clout.”
If nothing else, the FreePress kerfuffle proved the Irvings are aggressive, protective of their territory and always anticipating the next move. Considering this, it’s baffling why the family let their flagship paper swing back and forth for so long.
“They pride themselves on that [long-term corporate culture], but that hasn’t been the story of the Telegraph-Journal over the past 10 years,” says Hrabluk. She adds, “When Reynolds left the paper, a vacuum opened up in the newsroom.”
* * *
Almost 15 years after his first term, I’m sitting with Neil Reynolds in his sparsely decorated office in theTelegraph-Journal building (the same room where we had the Wafergate meetings last summer). The veteran editor sits at a small table with a phone and his laptop.
It seems the Irvings found no one better than Reynolds himself to fill a Reynolds-sized hole. On September 9, 2009, an announcement in the Telegraph-Journal declared Reynolds’ return. He was enticed back to foggy Saint John to be editor-at-large of Brunswick News’s three dailies and to focus on “the development andoversight of the editorial policies, standards and journalistic practices of the newspapers.” The same announcement revealed that just over a month after Jamie was suspended and the wafer apology published, the former publisher would also be coming back to work, this time as vice president of Brunswick News.
With hair combed into a grandfatherly part, Reynolds seems discerning but genial. Journalists across the province are wondering what he has planned for New Brunswick’s floundering paper, and here he sits in front of me, answering my questions through meandering tangents.
But when I ask why he decided to start spending half his time flying between his home in Ottawa and Saint John, he answers straight. “The Telegraph-Journal was one of the highlights of my own career. So it’s tapping back; it’s a little bit of nostalgia,” he says. “We really did remarkable things in that period.”
Reynolds leaves out that his first term at the Telegraph-Journal took a sharp turn in August 1994, just over a year after he was hired, when he was abruptly fired. Six weeks later, during an interview with Review writer Mark Leger—who would go on to be a CBC reporter—Reynolds admitted he was “preparing a possible lawsuit on the grounds of breach of contract and defamation of character.” But instead of going to court, Reynolds was rehired that same year as both editor-in-chief and publisher of the Telegraph-Journal. Details surrounding the hiring and firing are, like a lot of things in Saint John, still hazy.
At first glance it’s hard to imagine Reynolds as a tenacious journalist. He speaks slowly, in a voice you have to almost strain to hear. And he moves calmly, compelling you with quiet eyes. But over the course of his career, Reynolds has earned a reputation as a demanding, inspiring, controversial editor.
“There’s almost a polarization in attitude under him,” says Carl Neustaedter, Ottawa Citizen deputy managing editor for features and design. “If you like him, you like him a lot, to paraphrase the Keith’s commercial.”
In the fall of 1996, Conrad Black hand-picked Reynolds to be editor of the Ottawa Citizen, then Hollinger’s flagship Canadian newspaper. Under Black’s direction, Reynolds oversaw a complete redesign (done by Neustaedter) and overhauled the editorial/comment section, hiring more conservative writers.
Even journalists unhappy with Reynolds’ changes found it hard not to appreciate the new editor, who (déjà vu) created a weekly arts and culture magazine called The Citizen’s Weekly, encouraged investigative journalism and opened up space for readers’ commentary.
And Reynolds was dedicated. Neustaedter remembers being at an awards ceremony with Reynolds as he went over printouts of stories for the next day’s paper.
While some Telegraph-Journal reporters have been inspired by Reynolds’ fervour, others were grabbed by his initial openness with staff. On September 9, his first day in the newsroom, the editor gave what he calls a “let’s-get-on-with-the-job chat” to the staff. He wanted to inject enthusiasm into the place and tightened rules around anonymous sources. The speech was refreshingly honest, says one reporter (who, ironically, wishes to remain anonymous). Before then, communication between management and staff was poor. People had learned of Reynolds’ return only via rumours, CBC coverage and the paper’s announcements that morning. The speech left the newsroom with a feeling of hope.
But in our interview, Reynolds is vague about his intentions for the paper. He wants to distinguish it from New Brunswick’s other two dailies by focusing on politics, business and culture—which it already does. It needs a strategic plan, but he won’t get into details about what that plan entails, saying, “It can choose what it wants to be, but it has to be different.”
Whatever that means.
* * *
The Telegraph-Journal that Reynolds has come back to, says Tunney, is at times “a really good newspaper, and at times it’s not so good.”
I understand what he means. The daily arts section, Magazine, for instance, publishes few local stories and relies heavily on wire copy. And the website is static. Stories from the newspaper are posted, then nothing. There is no web editor to put up stories at any other point of the day, and the site is indistinguishable from those of other Brunswick News publications since it shares a website, canadaeast.com, with them.
While the paper’s raison d’être has always been provincial politics, with business now coming in a close second, Tunney says, the quality of its Saint John city section has at times eclipsed the political A section.
And the business section often lacks depth, publishing too many promotional business stories. “I don’t see people questioning what’s going on in business very much,” Tunney says, adding that when a company like McCain starts outsourcing jobs, as it did in 2008, newspapers should be asking why: “I just don’t think it has much of a critical eye to what is going on.”
Nor does it have an especially critical eye on the Irvings’ own business interests. The Telegraph-Journal does cover unflattering stories involving both JDI and Irving Oil. In January it published a story about accusations that the owners of Saint John natural gas terminal Canaport LNG—Irving Oil and Repsol—hadn’t paid some contractors that built the terminal.
But it also runs a lot of puff. On November 14, 2009, the paper published a piece headlined, “Shipbuilder Looks Forward to New Year.” It was a booster story, outlining how great 2010 was to be for Irving Shipbuilding. Another example: “Irving Tissue Welcomes Power Plan” was a December 16, 2009, story describing how the Irving-owned company backed the New Brunswick government’s contentious decision to sell NB Power to Hydro-Québec. (A deal later amended following public opposition lowered the power rates of industrial users.) JDI owns the tissue company and the newspaper, but nowhere did the story reveal the ownership of the latter.
My own B1 story from July 15 last year hailed the founder of a New Brunswick anti-poverty initiative made up of prominent businesses. JDI was one of the group’s first members.
“Simply because the paper is owned by Irving, the public is left to wonder whether they’re getting straight news coverage or not,” says CBC reporter Robert Jones. “You just can’t get around it in a province this small, when a company is that big in relation to the economy.”
So much for emulating The Wall Street Journal.
* * *
Creating a compelling and relevant Telegraph-Journal might be more difficult for Reynolds this time around. First off, the Telegraph-Journal merged with its sister paper, the Saint John Times Globe, in 2001. For a few years, there were separate city and provincial papers, but the former was cut in 2005. Now Telegraph-Journalstaff has to balance often opposing local and provincial perspectives in one paper.
Reynolds also says the Telegraph-Journal must be politically neutral, especially because the Irvings own every daily paper in the province. This seems a major shift for an editor known to bolster outspokenly conservative opinion sections. When I mention that the Telegraph-Journal has endorsed political parties and run front-page editorials in the past, Reynolds says it won’t happen any more.
“Just given the nature of the ownership of these papers, it’s really important that the newspapers play it straight in terms of politics,” he says. “The metaphor is that these papers are moderators in the debate. They’re not participants.”
Another big difference this time around is that Reynolds didn’t return to the paper as editor-in-chief. He’s back as more of a temporary editorial consultant. Still, seven months into his clean-up project, changes are visible. He’s created a code of ethics called “The Ten Commandments” for all three New Brunswick dailies, and hired a new arts and culture editor. Reynolds and senior editor Stonehouse also orchestrated an in-depth series on the NB Power deal—one of the biggest provincial stories of 2009.
As he did at the Ottawa Citizen (and later, between 2000 and 2003, as editor of The Vancouver Sun), he’s been sending writers out of province to cover stories. Two business reporters travelled to an energy conference in Boston to interview Quebec Premier Jean Charest and New England politicians with vested interests in New Brunswick energy. One later went to Labrador to attend a conference led by Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Danny Williams, a staunch critic of the NB Power deal. Another was sent to Washington to cover a meeting between American governors and Canadian premiers.
Even though initial changes were subtle, New Brunswick media observers noticed. “Until July, whenever I read the paper I was reading for an agenda,” says Leger. “The trust is back again. I think I’m reading a fairly straight-ahead story about an important public policy issue. Is it Neil’s hand in the backrooms? Or is it just that the paper smartened up after a rough patch? That’s all difficult to know.”
Tunney thinks Reynolds is still holding back. “I don’t get the feeling that Neil has yet put his stamp on the paper,” he says. “My sense is that he’s watching and maybe looking for people, and at some point he’s going to put more of an impression on it and we will really see a difference.”
But on February 20, it finally became obvious that Reynolds was back. In the Telegraph-Journal’s Saturday edition, he kicked off an investigative series on the NB Power debate, written by his old reporter, Philip Lee. Reynolds wrote in his announcement: “Lee tells a series of unique and original tales, delving here into historical narrative, venturing there into futuristic speculation, returning again to the complex manipulation of electrons that enlightens the world.” Lee’s stories were almost literary, focusing as much on detail (of water flash frozen at an NB Power dam, or of the Montreal streetscape near Hydro-Québec’s headquarters) as news.
But regardless of these changes, whatever editorial quality and credibility Reynolds rebuilds will hinge on young Jamie, the soon-to-be (again) publisher. Reynolds won’t comment on anything that happened at theTelegraph-Journal before he arrived, but he’s got an original take on his protege. While Rupert believes Jamie has the potential to be a good publisher, but his family’s restrictions will never allow him to be great, Reynolds says Jamie will make an ideal publisher—after his probationary period. “What makes Jamie interesting is that he has a passion for the newspaper industry,” he says. “It’s that passion that’s going to drive the development of these papers for the rest of his career.”
But some aren’t sure that’s enough to build a great newspaper. “We hold respect for those who have carried a notebook,” says Hrabluk. “I maintain my hope that Jamie can get better by doing, but he needs to be guided. The advantage that Neil has on the rest of us is he truly was a mentor to Jamie.”
Reynolds is working with Jamie to prepare him for a return as publisher. But given Reynolds’ past, it would be out of character for him to be less than audacious in renewing the Telegraph-Journal—or to tolerate Jamie’s big-foot leadership style. It’s a strange but necessary marriage. Still, so much of Reynolds’ plan hinges on the young Irving, since it will only work if Jamie supports it after Reynolds leaves in a year or two.
By March, Jamie still hadn’t resumed his position as Telegraph-Journal publisher, and no date is set for his return. Reynolds is hiring new editors and reporters, and the paper is finishing its eighth month without an editor-in-chief.
Hrabluk once said, “Wafer was a horrible story, but that isn’t the reason the Telegraph-Journal wasn’t a good newspaper. It stopped telling the story of Saint John and New Brunswick.” Instead it published too many stories based on press conferences, press releases and city hall. (The city section, Hrabluk adds, “was always about city hall. It wasn’t about the city.”)
The Telegraph-Journal was hijacked by Jamie’s conflicting ideals. He wanted it to be an example of great journalism. He wanted to keep his family happy. Amid this push and pull, he and the paper lost their way.
When a paper anywhere publishes two major apologies in three months, readers lose trust. When it refuses to explain how exactly those big mistakes were made, that paper implies it doesn’t care.
To rebuild its credibility and once-strong reputation, the Telegraph-Journal has to finally reveal its secrets.
* The contract writer’s name, included in the original story, has been deleted for compassionate reasons (April 2012).