It is June 1975 and Sally Barnes is climbing the red-carpeted stairs to the press gallery at Queen’s Park, home of the Ontario Legislature, as she has done almost every day for the past five years. This day, however, isn’t like the others. Barnes has just made one of the most difficult decisions of her career and she’s apprehensive about telling her colleagues.
As she ascends, Barnes thinks about her 15-year journalism career. She has made her mark on the world at Queen’s Park, where she knows she is as hungry for a good story as every other reporter on the beat. Barnes has never been ashamed of her ambition, but today as she reaches the top of the staircase, she isn’t proud of herself. She takes a deep breath and readies to announce that she has just accepted an offer to become press secretary to Bill Davis, future Tory premier.
“At the time, the Tories had been in power for 35 years,” says Barnes today from her home in Kingston. “As a member of the press gallery, I prided myself as being part of the unofficial opposition. Now here I was joining the enemy.”
Born and raised in Napanee, Ontario, Barnes started reporting for The Kingston Whig-Standard as soon as she graduated from high school in 1961. After stints at The Ottawa Citizen and The Toronto Telegram, she was hired by The Toronto Star in 1967, becoming the paper’s Queen’s Park correspondent in 1970 and joining a press corps which was as legendary for its hard drinking as it was for its political reportage. Barnes recalls, for instance, how at the end of a long day, a press lounge steward would throw a bucket of beer into the gallery and she and her cronies-all men except for herself and two other women-would drink and play poker well into the night. Barnes thrived in the “old boys club” atmosphere of the press corps and, in 1972, she was elected by her peers to become the first female president of the press gallery. Admittedly, she was one of the guys, but she was also a feminist and, among her notable successes from that period, she became the first press gallery president to wear a miniskirt to the prestigious Speaker’s Dinner.
But that was all in the past as she prepared herself for her colleagues’ reactions to her announcement. Stunned silence was the initial response, then the gallery filled with good-natured boos and some jealous murmurs about “selling out.” Barnes admitted to them that yes, she was leaving because she had been offered an obscene amount of money, but she also thought it might be fun to see what it was like on the inside of the political spectrum for six months or so. In the end, six months turned into seven years.
Sally Barnes now runs her own public relations consulting firm and also writes a weekly column for The Toronto Sun. She was hardly the first journalist to be labelled a “sell-out,” nor will she be the last. But the fact remains that she and many others have jumped over the fence to public relations because the news business no longer measures up to their expectations. While they may admit to missing the rush of an early deadline or the camaraderie of a newsroom, the downsides of the business-burn-out, poor pay, little opportunity for advancement and job insecurity-outweigh most feelings of nostalgia and regret.
After they have written or broadcast a few hundred reports and chased one too many ambulances, many journalists find there aren’t too many stories that still spark their enthusiasm. Burn-out is a common problem in an industry where you are only as good as your last story. It lead Stephen Boissonneault to leave the CBC after 18 years. Initially, as an eager, ambitious graduate of the Ryerson Radio and Television Arts class of 1970, Boissonneault was willing to do anything in his new job for the CBC’s Ottawa bureau. For several years, he tried his hand at broadcast reporting, writing and producing. Then he became a parliamentary correspondent, covering the first election of the Parti Quebecois in 1976, and the 1980 Quebec referendum. After earning his stripes in the political arena, he became the senior reporter and host of the CBC Radio public affairs show The House. By most journalists’ standards, Boissonneault had served out a successful career for himself, but he was disturbed when he saw healthy journalistic skepticism often combined with cold indifference. “I spent a lot of time around politicians and in the end,” he says, “it made no difference to me what party they represented or what they said, no matter how stupid it was. They became like bricks to build a house-one brick was as good as another.”
Boissonneault is now director of public affairs for the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, a job he finds fulfilling and challenging because it involves both media relations and policy advice. Looking back, he feels journalism’s “unidimensional nature” left him intellectually hungry, and ultimately pushed him out of the news business. “It’s the only profession I know where you are given 15 minutes to become an expert on any issue.”
Jeff Ansell, an award-winning investigative reporter with Toronto’s CHUM radio and Citytv in the ’80s, also grew tired of insensitive journalism. At the beginning of his career, he felt his job offered an “opportunity to make the world a better place,” and he was always willing to go undercover, whether to expose Nazi war criminals, catch drug dealers or close negligent old-age homes. But over time, Ansell became disillusioned by the fact his fellow journalists were becoming increasingly indifferent to human tragedy.
“It was a very slow news day in August and all we had as a potential lead story was a stabbing victim,” Ansell says of his last day in a Toronto newsroom. “At about five o’clock, I learned that the victim had died and when the murder was announced over a loudspeaker, journalists in the newsroom erupted in a cheer because they now had a lead story for deadline.” After 17 years in an industry that had brought him great personal satisfaction and professional recognition, this event was enough to make him change his life. “I was disgusted,” says Ansell. “That day, I decided that it was time for me to get out of journalism.”
Ansell now runs his own PR company, a career that gives him a renewed sense of purpose. “Journalists can aim to serve the public good, but the news itself is entirely too subjective to be able serve it effectively,” says Ansell, whose clients have included former Ontario Liberal leader Lyn McLeod, “I realized the skills I developed in journalism were respected, recognized and rewarded in the public relations sector, and it is in this sector that I feel I am better able to serve the public good.”
Not every journalist leaves the industry for ethical reasons. Sometimes departures come down to dollars and cents. As one anonymous reporter remarked over the Internet, “As you get older, a big byline can seem less important than a big bank account.” Laura Fowley worked as a reporter for The Financial Post for five years before she left to do public relations for the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce. “If I was getting paid better, I never would have left journalism,” she says. “But I had a baby and if I was going to leave her at home and pay a babysitter, it really wasn’t worth it at the wages I was making at the Post. At CIBC, I was hired with a 40 percent pay increase.”
A raise in salary was certainly one of the reasons Laurie Stephens left journalism in October 1990. Bob Rae had offered her a 20 percent pay increase to become his press secretary, but after working nine years at The Canadian Press, it was her dissatisfaction with the slow pace of advancement that firmly closed the door on her journalism career. She had spent the majority of her years at CP on the night desk, covering sports, business and news. In 1988, she was assigned to Queen’s Park and discovered she loved the rush of political reporting. “I had twenty minutes to file, three or four times a day, on Rae’s election bus,” says Stephens. “But I was writing the best stuff I’d ever written because there was no time to think. It was just written.” Unfortunately for Stephens, once her two-year rotation at Queen’s Park was up, she couldn’t face returning to the tedium of desk work. “That’s the problem with CP,” says Stephens. “There is a scarcity of good reporting beats … and I wasn’t going anywhere by returning to a desk job.”
Stephens realized that the time was ripe for a career change and luckily for her, Bob Rae had noticed her work on the election bus. Stephens got the job on her first interview and suddenly discovered how difficult it was to be on the other side of the information business. “I had been as cynical and as critical a reporter as everyone else,” she says, “but when I was on the other side I was sensitive to criticism. Some of my friendships survived and some didn’t.” Professionally, Stephens flourished. “I learned more about politics in two months than I did in two years covering Queen’s Park.” After having her second child in 1992, Stephens left Rae to work in communications for the Ministry of Intergovernmental Affairs. She is now associate partner at Core Communications after leaving the civil service in the aftermath of Mike Harris’ election.
Like Stephens, Sam Bornstein had also been discontented with the direction of his journalism career. He’d been a reporter with Newsradio in Toronto for nine years before deciding to take a job writing speeches for the Ontario Ministry of Community and Social Services in 1985. “Public relations provided me with long-term career opportunities,” Bornstein says. “I really couldn’t see myself as a 40-year-old and still running around with a tape recorder on my shoulder.”
Bornstein is now the vice-president of media relations at National Public Relations. Sitting in his spacious sixth-floor office in downtown Toronto, he insists that there are endless similarities between his old and new profession: “Like a journalist, I must write to deadline, ask tough questions of my clients, and be able to quickly recognize what is an important issue and what is not.” Bornstein is not alone in using this comparison. In fact, many former journalists infer there are so many transferable skills that crossing the street is simply a natural progression-a progression which, incidentally, often includes more money, more opportunity for advancement and more job security. The switch may sound too good to resist, but if one listens carefully and gets underneath the jargon, many former journalists concede that they are never fully content with the work they do in public relations.
John Proctor couldn’t believe his good fortune when, in 1988, Canada Post offered him the choice of three PR positions at a $10,000 increase from his salary at CBC. After hosting Quebec A.M., on CBC Radio from Quebec City in the early’80s and moving on to anchor television news in Hong Kong, Proctor returned to Toronto in 1985 to work in radio and television at the CBC. Three years later, he reached a turning point. He and his wife had just had their first child, and the CBC would not offer him a permanent contract. If he stayed at the CBC, Proctor would continue to fill in for various hosts and face the uncertainty of renewal every 15 weeks.
“I loved journalism,” says Proctor. “The creative elements made me feel invigorated, but the insecurity pushed me over the edge …. I began to ask myself, ‘Where is my career going? Am I going to fill in for everyone and their brother or will I carve out a niche for mvself?'”
When Proctor accepted a position at Canada Post in Ottawa, his new employers paid for a six-week stay in a hotel while he looked for a house, covered the legal fees incurred in moving, and gave him $3,000 to decorate the new home. Despite the soft landing, Proctor soon experienced the harsh realities of his new profession. “Public relations gave me the security I needed to raise a family,” says Proctor. “But the price you pay for perks is a loss of freedom and sense of self. As a journalist, I had to come up with the idea, find the sources and write the story. But in the corporate world I am limited to what my boss and my boss’ boss want me to do. I am only a cog in the wheel.”
For many journalists like Proctor, public relations filled some gaping holes in their wallets, but also tore apart the basic fabric of their professional integrity. Yes, they gained money, opportunity and security, but they lost what was essential for creative fulfillment: control over their work and pride in what they did for a living. For some, the glaring lack of these values in public relations reopened their eyes to the virtues of journalism and led them back into the fold.
William Burrill worked in communications for the Ontario Ministry of the Environment for only 19 months before returning to writing columns and editing for The Toronto Star and acting as managing editor for eye, an alternative Toronto weekly magazine. As a government communications officer, Burrill had an office with a door for the first time in his life. Despite that perk, Burrill lost enthusiasm quickly as he learned how little the ministry respected journalists. “I was about to give information to a reporter,” says Burrill, “when the minister’s press secretary stopped me, saying, ‘Hey, I’m the one who gives out the candy to the clowns.”‘
As a journalist, Burrill had never realized to what extent the government PR machine controlled the media’s access to information. But as his written words started spilling out of the minister’s mouth, he soon saw the power of public relations in shaping news and public opinion. He was continually amazed at how easily PR people manipulated the press. “It was like pulling puppet strings to them,” says Burrill. “They had favourite reporters, to whom they would courier reports. But they would send the same reports third-class mail to the ones they didn’t like. These reporters then had to answer to their editors. The government got people replaced.”
Jennifer Lanthier was only 26 when she left her job as a labour reporter for The Financial Post to take a position as communications coordinator for former premier Rae. Perhaps her youth warded off Burrill-like cynicism, but her negative experience in government PR made her remember what she loved about journalism. Ironically, Lanthier was prompted by her journalistic curiosity when she went into public relations. “I had no mortgage and no kids,” remembers Lanthier. “Someone says to you, ‘This is the first socialist government in Ontario…’ you think to yourself, ‘I’m never going to get inside any story as much as this opportunity will grant me.”‘
Lanthier’s dream of an inside scoop quickly evaporated. She realized that working in public relations did not get her “in the know.” In fact, it left her outside of the proverbial loop. “The fact is you never really get inside because there are always smaller and smaller circles in government,” says Lanthier. “Public relations is the last stop on the way out the door. Decisions were made behind closed doors, and [we] were handed the policy as fait accompli and told to sell it.”
Lanthier returned to The Financial Post in October of 1995 because she wanted to feel that she had accomplished something at the end of each day. “At least as a journalist, you can say ‘For better or worse, words and all, it’s mine,'” says Lanthier. “In PR, what’s really important is when something really contentious dies. So, at the end of the year, you say ‘Wow, look at all these problems I made go away.’ That’s not a great way to live.”
Charles Davies has worked in journalism for two decades. He recently spent four years doing communications for the CIBC, before returning to The Financial Post as assistant managing editor of features in October 1995. Like Lanthier, he resented being left outside the decisionmaking process. “As a communications person, you are a little vestigial to the organization,” says Davies. “You are always a bit on the fringe … and your ability to control things is absolutely minimal. You can find yourself being caught between competing forces in an organization whose agendas you may be completely unaware of.
“When you work for a bank, somehow you are like an itinerant witch doctor,” he adds. “On one level, they respect what you do and think it’s great that you’re around. But on the other hand a rather large number of them seem to feel they can do your work for you…They don’t understand the difference between professional writing and the stuff they crank out on their desktop.”
Burrill, Lanthier and Davies are exceptions in an industry which does not typically permit a revolving door between itself and public relations. Stevie Cameron, author of On the Take and contributing editor at Maclean’s, claims return performances are rare. “Once a journalist takes that step, it’s almost impossible to go back,” she says. “Once in a while people do, but they are never totally trusted. The media is a mean and unforgiving master.”
Lanthier had been advised that she might have trouble getting back into the field, but experiencing blatant discrimination still came as a shock. In one instance, the editor of a prominent Canadian newspaper (Lanthier would not divulge the name) told her: “Anybody who worked for Bob Rae will never work for this newspaper.” Not every editor shares these prejudices. Maryanne McNellis, editorial director of The Financial Post, rehired Lanthier easily. “I think a short stint in PR, and I want to emphasize short, is sometimes beneficial just because journalists see how the other half lives,” says McNellis. “It can be a broadening and eye-opening experience to step up to that side of the fence.”
Paul McLaughlin offers the view of someone who straddles that fence. McLaughlin, a 20-year veteran of journalism, has worked as a researcher and producer for CBC radio, has written four books, including How to Interview, freelanced for magazines and, for the past decade, has taught journalism at Ryerson Polytechnic University. But since 1990, McLaughlin has also acted as a communications consultant for forensic accountants Lindquist Avey Macdonald and Baskerville. He ridicules the notion of the two industries as polar opposites: “It’s as if somehow journalism is pure and holy, and then you have this other tainted world called public relations. Journalists say ‘selling out’ like they are working for a cottage industry. Actually, journalism is a terribly paid, cut-throat, huge corporation.”
What’s more, McLaughlin believes a dangerous imbalance is created between journalism and public relations when only one side-PR-trains its people in the fine art of communication. “If you look at the resources that the PR people in the business and political communities put into trying to understand cornmunication compared to the resources that the journalism community puts in …you realize that journalism is falling behind. And anytime you fall behind in research ard training … it’s dangerous.
“I’ve taught at three J-schools and none of them see pure communication skills-the study of human behaviour, body language and how people interact with one another-as a necessary course. Journalists see it as airy-fairy bullshit [because] there’s this old-fashioned attitude that you just go out there, grab your quotes and don’t stop to think …. But how can you be a good journalist and not study how to talk to people?”
Bob Reguly would disagree with McLaughlin. In Reguly’s eyes, the problem with journalism isn’t a need for human interaction, but the lack of hardhitting questions in a business dominated by “arrogant female television reporters who are all teeth, hair and stupidity.” Clearly Reguly has never attended a lecture on sensitive communication, but he could definitely give a few about investigative reporting. Reguly, after all, is the reporter who discovered both notorious labour leader Hal Banks in New York and call-girl to cabinet ministers Gerda Munsinger in Bavaria. Reguly is a three-time National Newspaper Award winner who, after 15 years at The Toronto Star, joined CTV in 1973. But, perhaps unjustly, it was his short stint at The Toronto Sun five years later that made him famous in J-school classrooms as a textbook ethics case for “what not to do.” Reguly became the scapegoat when an insider trading investigation ended in a libel suit between the Sun and Liberal cabinet minister John Munro. Reguly was pushed to resign from the Sun and was soon offered the position of acting director of communications for the Ministry of the Environment, joining what Bill Burrill describes as “a foreign legion of disgraced journalists.”
Reguly’s “take no prisoners” type of journalism may be a thing of the past, but his long experience gives him a perspective from which to question the cautious journalism that has evolved, he feels, partly from his own mistakes. In his days with the ministry, Reguly saw journalists becoming “unpaid members of the civil service,” by printing press releases verbatim, albeit with a new lead. In his opinion, “it’s child’s play to delude the press,” because many of today’s journalists are afraid of poking holes in government policy by asking hard questions.
Reguly has a theory about why some journalists shy away from tough stories. Although he admits he made the biggest mistake of his career while at the Sun, he also sees his experience as a valuable lesson. “The Sun withdrew from my defense and left me high and dry,” remembers Reguly. “It was the first time in Canadian history that a newspaper would not support its reporter. That tells young journalists, ‘Why take risks?’ It’s safer to take it easy. Now you have stenographers calling themselves journalists.”
The lack of in-depth, investigative journalism which fully explores and explains an issue was a concern echoed from almost every journalist interviewed for this article. Many are concerned that journalists are “dumbing down the news” by attempting to satisfy the public demand for entertainment. Most television journalism covers only the black and white details of sensational conflict between good guys and bad guys, without leaving time to discuss the complexities of any given issue. In print, it also seems to be harder to portray the subtleties of a story in today’s economically strapped and space-starved publications. When Laurie Stephens started at CP in 1981, she was allotted 1,200 words for a feature article. Bv the time she left in 1990, features were down to 600 words. Many journalists find no professional satisfaction in a day’s work which ends in a 15-second clip or two inches of print.
Sally Barnes blames the dismal economy for many of the problems in journalism today. Primarily, Barnes fears what she sees as a narrowing journalistic vision in Canada. “I worry about the diminution of the number of journalists telling larger numbers of people what’s important and what’s right and wrong,” says Barnes. “I pick up my paper in Kingston, and it’s the same columnist as in six or seven newspapers across the province. No one can afford a different voice.”
The problems of fewer voices, shrinking space and diminishing investigative journalism are ever present in today’s industry. Journalism will continue to lose talented people to public relations when journalists are constantly asked to do more with less. Unless the industry miraculously turns around, salaries probably won’t rise, job security will lessen and opportunities will evaporate as magazines fold and newsrooms downsize. The question remains: what will keep gifted journalists from jumping ship?
For Stevie Cameron, there is no question. “I could never go into public relations,” she says. “It would break my heart. Journalism is my craft. This is what I do. This is what I am.”
But for others who have faced the question, there may not be such a definitive answer. Charles Davies recognizes the faults in a journalism career, but he has an indefatigable faith in the tenacity of his colleagues and the fundamental draw of his craft. “A lot of journalists love what they’re doing,” says Davies. “And once you have sampled what the other side is like, it tends to reinforce your desire to stay in journalism. We had a difficult time in the recession, and things haven’t bounced back the way we would like. These are the harsh realities, but there are still opportunities out there. I guess I’m living proof of that.”