Articles

40 for 40: Harvey Schachter

The legacy of a great editor and mentor

by Harvey Schachter

After Southam Newspapers bought The Kingston Whig-Standard in 1990, it seemed there was an attempt to teach us how to become a real, professional newspaper. The truth was that our procedures were sloppy in some ways but the fact we were a somewhat loose organization had in fact led to many of our newsroom successes.

Southam invested in professional development and so inevitably our editor, Neil Reynolds, was the first in the newsroom to be told he had to take part in a leadership development program. He probably would have been more enthusiastic if told he had a date with the gallows. A few days beforehand, not having done any of the preparatory reading, he announced he was taking two days off to study.

Something came up the next day, however, and I felt I should call for his opinion. “What you doing?” I asked.

“Reading about Rene Levesque.”

“Levesque?”

“It’s about charismatic leadership.”

“Neil, there’s nothing Levesque or Southam can teach you about charismatic leadership,” I blurted out.

It was uncharacteristic because I wasn’t inclined to compliment him. Disagree and fight strenuously, yes (something he allowed). But not compliment.

However, I remember the incident not only because it was true – this quiet, undemonstrative, highly private man could inspire with his journalistic vision and bold decisions (and his quoting of Matthew Arnold poetry at staff meetings) – but also because as we ponder the past 40 years of journalism and look ahead, he is a model, the greatest editor of that era in Canada, a man who took four newspapers to greater heights, in some cases with reasonable and in others with scant resources.

He believed readers read.

Over the past 40 years, that idea has been essentially lost. We fight about how short to make our stories because we don’t believe readers will take the time to read. Sure they are hard-pressed, busier than when Neil hired me to work for him in 1974 at The Toronto Star and four years later to come join him at The Whig. But even back then, most of us wavered. We were uncertain. The Toronto Sun spooked us with its short, zesty stories. USA Today was hailed as the future. The London Free Press drew attention, catching the wave with a front page of flimsy.

Neil Reynolds never wavered. At an editors’ retreat, he asked us what an ideal newspaper was and then after we all pontificated, offering vastly different views, he pulled a Wall Street Journal out of his attaché case, threw it on the boardroom table, and said “That’s a great newspaper.” Gray and boring. The antithesis of USA Today.

He believed readers would read – short or long, often endlessly long, as long as it was interesting. Probably not accidentally, every fall, we seemed to present an investigation in our tabloid magazine – one story, 30 to 50 pages, a book that he viewed as our gift to readers.

In the wake of the 1985 Ontario PC leadership convention, I started to write a diary of the Saturday of decision, tapping away on one of our new portable computers. I started Saturday evening and continued Sunday during the van ride back from Toronto to Kingston and then again in the office. I wavered. Was I indulging myself? It seemed interesting and different, looking at the day from many angles, but it was beyond long. I suggested we could use it on the following weekend, in the magazine, rather than Monday’s paper which was the immediate focus. Everyone agreed. But not Neil.

He pointed out people would have already heard on TV everything else our team was writing for that day so why not give them something different? It ran, four full pages to greet busy Monday readers, with small pictures to accommodate the words, another Neil trademark back then. The day after it appeared, one of the more irritated internal critic of Neil’s decision reported how she was having lunch and two people beside her at the restaurant were discussing something I mentioned in the last leg of that story. Neil believed readers read.

He believed in getting the story. Nothing stood in his way. The federal government couldn’t speak to Russian deserters in Afghanistan who wanted to come to Canada. He sent three staffers in to talk to them, perhaps his most famous and daring decision. Who would even have thought to do that?

In 1979, when we were pursuing the issue of fluoride pollution on Cornwall Island, we found out there were some signs of high fluoride in David Crombie’s riding (he was federal environment minister) and Ontario Premier Bill Davis’s riding. So Neil decided to go there, which was at that time so ambitious for our small town newsroom that we picked a terrific reporter mostly because she could stay with a friend since we lacked the funds to pay for a hotel in Toronto. She stopped to use a pay phone to call the friend and got a hefty parking ticket. It crushed us – we couldn’t afford it. Six years later, Afghanistan.

But two other incidents come to mind. Back at The Star, I was sent to cover the winner of $500,000 in the second Olympic lottery. It was a nothing story since the red line atop the day’s Star already had the scoop – who he was and the fact from interviewing him he hadn’t been able to pay his phone bill and had been cut off by Bell. I watched as the lottery folks reinstated his phone, got him a new credit card allocation, and arranged his flight to Montreal to pick up his winnings. He was nervous, out of his depth, and when he learned I hailed from Montreal asked if I was going to be there – it would be nice to have somebody he knew.

I returned to The Star to suggest I travel with him. But by then the paper had learned the winner of the $1 million prize, the largest winner ever, was in an asylum. The managing editor, Ted Bowell, told me I couldn’t go. That night, I got a call from the city desk’s assignment editor: Go. Has Bowell changed his mind? No – just go. Neil would pursue stories, even behind his boss’s back. It turned out to be a rich, fascinating behind the scenes story, including the winner’s terror he would blow it all and how the lottery folks gingerly talked him into locking up most of the money for five years. The paper never got much on the big winner. But Neil got his story.

Years later, at The Whig, we learned there was a Rumanian in a safe house in Washington willing to talk to us about the Candu reactor sell to Romania. Neil asked the assembled editors whether we should go after it. A lot of heads nodded. I argued no: “It’s December, we’re way over budget, the publisher is concerned, and this would be highly provocative for a far from essential story.” Neil reached into his back pocket and pulled out his wallet, lifting out a credit card. “This is my American Express card. If we use it for the story, I’ll get billed in January. How many people agree we should do the story?” We all put up our hands.

In Ottawa, a stellar investigative reporter had a contract from the paper when Neil was editor that stated he was not to come into the office. That’s right: Not. It fit the reporter’s life, since he lived about 90 minutes from the newspaper. But it fit Neil’s needs: He didn’t want his editors continually pulling that reporter from investigative stories for mundane but urgent newsroom stuff. So he subverted them by keeping the writer out of the office. In Kingston, before the 1985 municipal election, as city editor I was preparing all hand-on-deck coverage for election night, a staple for the newspaper. I handed my list of assignments to Neil and he struck off two names, reporters working on an investigation not likely to hit the paper for at least two months. I fought vigorously – “it’s only one night, Neil, a big one” -- but he was unwavering. Investigations, to him, were supreme.

Neil had a love of knowledge. He read widely, a polymath who could always surprise you with what he knew. He felt newspapers should be intelligent, bursting with ideas. We were educators, offering a daily feast of news and ideas. He loved books and felt newspapers didn’t pay enough attention – authors worked hard to bring ideas together in books and reporters were oblivious, or just grasped at one simple, usually simplistic, idea. The Whig, a small newspaper in a small city, had a glorious set of book pages, better than all in Canada but The Globe and Mail, thanks to his vision and the people he recruited.

He went through a period when if you walked in to the newsroom looking for a job and had credentials – but no journalism experience – you were almost assured of a job. He believed journalism schools and journalism taught reporters to apply a jaded formula draining the life out of the fascinating information and stories they encountered. And he felt academic knowledge had a place in newspapers. A bachelor’s from Harvard? You’re hired – we’ll teach you journalism. A PhD in history? How soon can you start! A man of enthusiasms, he later switched and we noticed our newsroom filling with children of prominent journalists, whatever their education, Neil figuring they had learned something from their parents. It was our blood lines era.

He was a libertarian, politically but also in practice. He gave people their head. Newspapers can be very defensive, since our work ends up in the public so editors need to be wary. He was too – a tough editor, pushing people for more, unreasonably at times. But he combined that with a surprising willingness to allow people to do what they wanted to do, feeling everyone would gain. That applied, at The Whig, to the editorial pages, where the clash of ideas was constant. After he left The Whig, I would notice journalists who jumped into the limelight, doing remarkable work under his libertarian style.

This remembrance reflects my own time with him, but that was only for about half the years he spent at the helm of newspapers. Others have equivalent memories of how he touched them, their paper, and the readers. Each paper bloomed under his touch. He could be exasperating and not all who worked with him cherished him, which is inevitable for an editor. But for over two decades he made his newspapers better for journalists and readers, and what drove him should continue to drive us.

Harvey Schachter, a former co-president of CAJ, is a freelance writer. He served in a variety of editorial positions at The Kingston Whig-Standard under Neil Reynolds and succeeded him as editor.