Profiles

Death of a Newsman? Peter Simpson’s memorial to a life in the newsroom

“Someone get me the headless pony!”

The words rang through the Ottawa Citizen newsroom some 12 years ago, yelled by an editor who needed the file about a pony left decapitated in a field. I remember thinking that “Someone Get Me the Headless Pony” would be a great title for a memoir about life at a newspaper. These days, the memoir might feel more like a memorial.

(Illustration: Michael George Haddad)

Newspapers are not dead, and they can survive if they adapt to life in the digital world. Some have already failed, while the rest scramble to evolve in time.

The Internet was already nipping at the flanks of print back in those headless-pony days of the early 2000s. So much has changed since then — the herds of chairs emptied by departing co-workers, the dwindling budgets, the eerie quietness of a newsroom once loud with bustle and vigour.

When I started at the Citizen in 1998, the parking lot overflowed. When I wrote my final “Big Beat” column and walked out for the last time this past February, there were so many open spaces that it reminded me of when I took night courses at University of Prince Edward Island in 1981 and the student lot was always vast and empty, so we’d spin a few doughnuts in the car on the ice. On my way out of the Citizen lot, I was tempted to slam the pedal down and yank the wheel around. “Look, everyone,” I’d holler as my staid Volvo spun me away into the distance, “I may be 54, but I can still be recklessly adolescent!”

My first day at a newspaper was in 1985 in Amherst, N.S. It was June, and my start was not august. I wrote about veterans, and my lede as it was printed in the paper — my first front-page story ever, mind you — read: “Veterans stood under grey skies yesterday to honour fellow soldiers who lost their wives in battle.”

“Wives?” the editor asked me, on the morning of my second day on the job. “I wrote lives,’’ I squeaked truthfully. I thought my journalism career was over (Could I break the lease I’d just signed for an apartment? I wondered), but somehow I escaped with my wife.

There’ve been many moments that seemed funnier after the fact. When I worked in New Glasgow, N.S., an elderly pastor called the newsroom and explained that his dictionary didn’t have a word he’d read in an article and could I look it up for him? “Sure,” I said, “can you spell it?” “F-e-l-l-a-t-i-o,” he said. I hemmed, then hawed, then put the pastor on hold and told the city editor there was a call for her.

Once, when I worked in Barrie, Ont., a young man — the sort who plays rugby on the weekend — stormed into the newsroom with a mind to punching me upside the head because I’d said something he didn’t like in a satirical column about his mother, the mayor. My co-workers told the seething son, with gleeful anticipation, that I’d be back in an hour. When he returned later, I managed to talk him down — to the newsroom’s general disappointment.

One day, when I worked for the New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal, a provincial MLA took such offence to a satirical column I had written that he complained to the speaker of the house. Some weeks later, the speaker ruled that my column was not in contempt because it had been funny or, precisely, an attempt to be funny. I’m quite proud of that: how many people can say that a legislature officially cited them for “trying to be funny”?

Then there was that day at the Citizen when my wife phoned to tell me that “Tim died,” and while she was talking about her father’s cat, Tim, I thought she meant my brother Tim. Ten agonizing minutes went by before I realized it was all about the damned cat.

But back to the point — the newspaper business has changed a lot. While older folks still want their news in print, the kids want exposure online, and they see a printed version of their story as a neat and rustic souvenir, like those faux-sepia photos where you dress up as cowboys. I dove headfirst into the digital pool almost a decade ago, when I launched the “Big Beat” arts blog. Now, though I could have stayed at the Citizen, I’ve decided to leave and focus elsewhere — to requisitely write a book, to try teaching, to freelance here and there, to see what comes.

It may seem like a crazy decision to take at my age, but for me, crazy is staying where you no longer want to be. It’s like just standing there while the mayor’s son punches you in the head. I will miss the headless ponies though.