Tag Archives: Calgary Herald

J. Patrick O’Callaghan: Maverick publisher

J. Pat O'Callaghan 1925 – 1996

J. Pat O’Callaghan
1925 – 1996

I worked for seven publishers during my three decades in Canadian daily journalism. Pat O’Callaghan was my favourite. I liked him best because he supported independent reporting and refused to kowtow to politicians or business leaders. He even refused to be beholden to his own bosses. During his three decades in Canadian journalism, this Irish-born renegade ran chain papers in Red Deer, Windsor, Edmonton and Calgary, all the time “cheerfully overlooking that the newspapers were owned by others.”

We knew him by reputation long before he arrived in Calgary. In Red Deer and Windsor he had written editorials on the front page under his own byline, reminding readers that a member of their community – not an absentee landlord – was running the day-to-day operations of the paper. In Edmonton, he  transformed the Journal into an extension of his professional Irish persona, colouring the masthead shamrock green, promoting the paper on green-painted billboards, and selling it from green street boxes. What would he do in Calgary? We couldn’t wait to see.

He arrived in July 1982 to replace the retiring Frank Swanson, who had overseen the paper’s move from downtown Calgary to a $70 million plant on a hill overlooking the intersection of Deerfoot and Memorial. We would always refer to this red-brick structure as “the new building,” even after we’d been in there for 20 years. Today the building is up for sale and some of us are still calling it “the new building.” Old habits die hard.

O’Callaghan introduced a succession of changes at the Herald – some whimsical, some farsighted – aimed at making readers (and staff) sit up and take notice.

Among the whimsical was his decision to strike “The” from the masthead of this paper that had been known variously throughout its 100-year existence as The Calgary Herald, The Calgary Daily Herald or, simply, The Herald. O’Callaghan claimed to have a historical justification for his decision to rename it Calgary Herald, but no one could ever find the evidence. The illuminated sign on the west side of the red-brick building kept the design of the old masthead. O’Callaghan couldn’t convince his Southam bosses to spend the money on replacing it.

Among O’Callaghan’s farsighted decisions, applauded by Herald employees with preschool children, was to make the Herald the first paper in Canada with a day-care centre on the premises. O’Callaghan also added Sunday to the paper’s publication schedule (“because we live in a seven-day world”) and switched the Herald from afternoon to morning delivery so that “a minor daily paper in Calgary” would not have the breakfast market all to itself. Herald readers still had the option of saving the paper for afternoon reading, he said.

O’Callaghan banned black-and-white-pictures from the Herald’s front page at a time when the paper’s library of colour photos was much like Old Mother Hubbard’s cupboard. He emboldened his columnists to make their work reflect his philosophy that a newspaper should “never be bland, colourless or gutless.” He launched a Sunday magazine that came with the Herald for six years, and won a few national and regional awards along the way. And all the time, he worked to make the Herald the voice of Alberta. “Politically, we’ve never had a voice,” he said. “How can we when we only have 21 MPs who are swamped in Parliament, and a Senate that’s a joke at best? The only weapon we have is our voice.”

His independence made O’Callaghan a loner. He got no support from the Herald’s Toronto owners when he thundered in print against the National Energy Program. He alienated the Alberta politicians and business leaders who could have become his closest allies. “In this job, sooner or later, someone wants a favour or special treatment,” he said. “So I’ve avoided terribly close friendships.”

His eastern bosses eventually tired of his independence, especially when it started costing them money. They recalled him to Toronto at the end of 1988, when Calgary’s auto dealers started pulling their ads from the Herald to protest a series of stories, written by our great consumer reporter Brock Ketcham, listing suggested retail prices of new vehicles. “A typical swan song for a career that has been studded with a certain amount of controversy,” noted O’Callaghan with a certain pride.

He was then 63. Instead of settling into quiet retirement, he took his typewriter with him to Aurora, Ont. where over the next seven years he churned out a steady stream of freelance columns on Canadian unity, freedom of the press, and other subjects.

His last column appeared in the Globe and Mail on Canada Day, 1996, just one month before he succumbed to heart problems at age 70. The stated subject was Southam’s announced decision to establish its own national news service as an alternative to Canadian Press. The real subject, however, was something close to O’Callaghan’s independent heart.

Recalling that the Southam publishers of his time had always been free to back the political party of their choice, O’Callaghan expressed hope the proposed news service would not result in Southam newspapers singing the same political tune across the land:

“One would like to think than an element of such independence has survived the various crises Southam has passed through in recent years.”

I miss him to this day.

Leaving Dublin: An inside look

You can read an excerpt from Leaving Dublin here on the Amazon website. What follows in this post is a summary, chapter by chapter, of what else you can find in my book of memoirs. If it whets your appetite for more, you can order your copy (paperback or e-book) here.

Piano Lessons. You can read some of this on the Amazon website. My mother tells my father it’s more important for us to have a piano than a family car. The lessons pay off. At age 14, I land a paying gig as a church organist.

Boys Will be Boys. It’s Dublin in the 1950s, long before the Celtic Tiger roars. Life for us as kids is a carousel of playing in the lane, going to the movies, and eating french fries. Our parents teach us that a good education is the key to everything good in life.

Coming of Age. I get my first summer job away from home and learn about girls. I join the civil service and become bored stiff. My friend Michael Murphy and I talk about moving to another country.

Coming to Canada. We immigrate to Canada. Vancouver is our chosen destination. We have no plan. We just want to see if the grass is really greener.

Journey into Show Business. I join forces with an Irish tenor named Shay Duffin. We call ourselves the Dublin Rogues. We make records and tour the clubs and concert halls of eastern Canada. My mother wonders when I’m going to get a real job.

Journey into Journalism. I go to journalism school for two months. That’s good enough to land me a reporting job at the weekly newspaper in Smithers, British Columbia. My mother is relieved. Zelda and I get married and Nicole is born.

Nights on Air. We move to Prince George. I read the news on CJCI Radio. I quit to play piano in a local pizza parlour. My mother gets anxious again.

Give My Regards to Old Prince George. I join the daily Citizen as a reporter. My mother is happy that I’ve finally gotten the music thing out of my system. I cover city hall and write pop music reviews.

Remember Me to Herald Square. We move to Calgary. I cover cops for the Herald and then start writing about theatre. What do I know about theatre? Not much but I’m a quick study.

The Tribute Column. After 13 years on the theatre beat, I’m ready for a change. I write features for the Herald’s Sunday magazine and then agree to write an obituary column for the daily paper. My colleagues think I’m one brick short of a full load.

Locked Out. We unionize the Herald newsroom and get locked out while bargaining for a first contract. After eight months on the picket line, some of us go back into the building. Most of us go on to other things. I write my first book.

In Search of a Literary Ancestor. I discover my maternal grandmother’s great-grandmother, Máire Bhuí Ní Laoire, was a renowned folk poet in West Cork. I write a book about her.

Moving to the Front of the Generational Train. Reflections on the lives and deaths of my parents. They wanted for nothing more than to give their children a good start in life. They surely succeeded.

No more Sunday papers

Postmedia Network has scrapped the Sunday editions of the Calgary Herald, Edmonton Journal and Ottawa Citizen, put the National Post’s Monday edition on hiatus for the second summer in a row, and announced plans to stop publishing print editions of the chain’s papers on national holidays. More newsroom jobs will be lost, local news coverage will continue to shrink, and the future of the business will continue to look bleak. Pat O’Callaghan must be turning in his grave.

It seems like only yesterday (it was actually in 1982) that O’Callaghan came to Calgary from Edmonton to become the Herald’s publisher. At the time, the upstart Calgary Sun had a Sunday edition, but not the Herald. “This minor daily paper should not have the Sunday market all to itself,” said O’Callaghan. He announced that the Herald would thenceforth publish its own Sunday edition because “we live in a seven-day world.” Three years later, he added a Sunday magazine to the paper. That supplement appeared for the next six years, and won a few national and regional awards for writing and photography. (Full disclosure: I was one of the magazine’s writers.)

Although the Sunday magazine had its own dedicated staff – two full-time writers, one full-time photographer, two full-time copy editors, and an editor-in-chief – the same did not hold true for the Sunday paper itself. That was a missed opportunity, to my mind. Instead of stretching six days of coverage over seven, Herald management should have put a full-time team of reporters, editors and photographers in place to produce an independent Sunday paper.

Management should also have taken some of those additional Sunday advertising dollars and used them to recruit a rotating roster of guest columnists (Aritha van Herk, Sharon Pollock, Fred Stenson, Sid Marty, Sam Selvon, etc.) to give the Sunday paper its own voice and identity. The resulting publication might not have had the same cachet as the Sunday New York Times, or even the Saturday Globe with its great standalone book review section, now much missed. But at least it would have stood out from the Monday to Saturday editions as a paper with a distinctive style and tone.

By the time Herald management finally got around to remaking the Sunday paper in accordance with reader surveys, it was too little too late. The paper was heavy on cosmetic changes and light on content reimagining. There was little in it for readers who had grown used to living without a local Sunday paper.

What will the Herald lose when the Sunday edition is axed at the end of July? We have yet to hear what sections will move to Saturday and to other days of the week. But I think it’s fair to speculate that books coverage will not be one of them. Book reviews don’t attract advertising and now, more than ever, advertising support is the key to the Herald’s survival. Sad but true.

One section deserves to die. The paper should get rid of the Sunday spreads of photos from the local cocktail party scene that, to my mind, take up an unnecessary amount of valuable space. But Corporate Calgary has to be kept happy, I suppose, so these pretty pictures are undoubtedly here to stay. Atwood will become irrelevant but the Stampede Queen must reign forever.

O’Callaghan was handed a great gig when he became the Herald’s publisher. Not only did he have the freedom to launch a Sunday edition and magazine, but he also had the freedom to make the Herald reflect his philosophy that a newspaper should “never be bland, colourless or gutless.”

Today, there is plenty of bland, precious little colour, and hardly any gutsiness. That’s what happens when you’re owned by a bunch New York hedge funds that care only about profit.

I see no light at the end of this tunnel. The demise of the Sunday editions is just the beginning of the end for Postmedia as a publisher of printed newspapers. I can only echo the wise words of a first-year journalism student who said to me recently, “I feel like we’re being trained to work for a business that will no longer exist by the time we graduate.”



Calgary heritage endangered

As soon as I read in the paper yesterday morning that the old Calgary Herald building was slated for demolition to make way for a 50-storey office tower, I wanted to have my picture taken in front of the 7th Avenue landmark. A CBC Radio reporter, Mary-Catherine McIntosh, kindly obliged after first interviewing me for a story about the seven years, 1974-81, that I spent working in the building as a reporter and columnist.

I told Mary-Catherine I was saddened to hear about the pending demise of this former workplace of mine because it’s another part of Calgary’s history that’s being sacrificed at the altar of commercial progress. Granted it’s not the most architecturally striking building in the world – a functionalist 1967 makeover took away much of the aesthetic character of the original 1912 structure – but it’s still an important link with our city’s past.

A lot of good journalism was done in that building. A columnist for the competing  Albertan used to dub our paper “The Old Grey Lady of 7th Avenue,” which he intended as an insult but which we accepted as a compliment because of the obvious comparison with The New York Times. Like the Times, we saw ourselves as the trusted newspaper of record for our region, not as a purveyor of cheap thrills or sensationalism.

We earned that trust by dint of hard work and independent reporting. We didn’t pander to politicians and we didn’t pander to advertisers. Of course I can be accused of bias but I always felt we were standing on the shoulders of distinguished predecessors who  believed their fight to preserve the freedom of the press was a fight for democracy itself.

That’s me on the left circa 1980, with a lot more hair than I have now!

During my first week on the job there I was surprised and pleased to discover that back in 1938 the Herald, along with four other Alberta dailies led by Edmonton Journal publisher John Imrie, had been honoured with a special Pulitzer Prize – the first one given outside the United States – for its spirited crusade against the Social Credit government’s attempt to gag the press. I was proud to be part of a news organization that would take a government to the Supreme Court of Canada to establish its right to tell the truth.

The 7th Ave building was the Herald’s headquarters from 1932 to 1981. Located across the street from the Bay, it was connected to the downtown’s beating heart in a way that’s never possible when you live in the suburbs. City hall, the police station, the courts, the library, the school board and the corporate head offices were all within easy walking distance. We did most of our interviews in person, not over the phone. If a freight train had derailed near the Palliser Hotel, the Herald’s reporters and photographers would have gotten to the scene before the fire trucks.

I was disappointed when the Herald moved in 1981 to a new building northeast of downtown near the intersection of Deerfoot and Memorial. Our bosses told us there was a practical reason for this. We had purchased new printing presses that the paper’s 7th Avenue mechanical building was too small to accommodate. But did we have to move the paper’s editorial offices out there as well? I never thought so, but then I was just a reporter. I didn’t have any say in the executive decisions made by senior management.

We did maintain a Herald presence in the 7th Avenue building for a short time after moving out to the Deerfoot and Memorial location. If you wanted to buy a classified ad, you could still do so at the downtown office. But maintaining two separate offices proved impractical during the ensuing economic downturn, and the downtown office was quietly closed in 1982. Removed from the front window were the big clocks announcing the time in Tokyo, Berlin and Los Angeles, and the only remaining visible reminders of the building’s journalistic history were two small “Herald building” signs outside on the southeast corner.

The City of Calgary considers the Herald building to be of significant historical value and has included it in its heritage inventory. It seems baffling to me, therefore, that a developer can simply send out eviction notices to 60 existing tenants and announce this pending demolition without any word of protest from city council or the city’s heritage planning department. This is supposed to be Calgary’s big year for commemorating its cultural heritage, with centennial celebrations planned by the Calgary Public Library, the Stampede, the Grand Theatre (just across the road from the old Herald) and the Pumphouse. Let’s not spoil it by destroying one 100-year-old landmark while remembering the others.

Postscript: The Herald building, unfortunately, has now been demolished. Photographer Paul Saulnier has documented the demolition with an excellent photo essay that you can view by clicking here.

Reflections of a former theatre critic

Herald theatre critic Brian Brennan, TV critic Bill Musselwhite and arts columnist Patrick Tivy were advertised on Calgary billboards and buses during the 1980s

I was appointed chief theatre critic of the Calgary Herald in 1975, when I was 31. I did the job for 13 years and then moved on to other journalistic endeavours. At that point, I knew it was time to try something different. The landscape of arts coverage had changed and so had I. During the 1970s, a flowering of the arts in Canada had brought with it a flowering of arts journalism in Canadian newspapers. By 1988, the primary newspaper focus was on “fun reads.” Instead of exploring and chronicling, arts writers were encouraged to dispense the light, the bright and the trite. One of the Herald’s regular front-page features was a throwaway piece of fluff called the “Daily Dazzler.” Style trumped content at almost every turn.

The theatre beat had been a great gig while it lasted. The Herald portrayed Calgary as a sophisticated modern city with all the cultural trappings. To reinforce this image, the paper had a theatre critic whose job included travelling to such centres of theatrical activity as Vancouver, Montreal, Toronto, Winnipeg,  Stratford, New York and London to write about shows that might one day be produced in Calgary. When you consider the size of the Calgary market in 1975 – with only three professional theatres: Theatre Calgary, ATP and Lunchbox – this was pretty amazing. My travel budget was the envy of critics across the country. Aside from documenting the achievements on the local stage, I got to go to these other places and report back. What did I see? Was there anything valuable, useful or important on offer? The local theatres included many of my top picks in their longlists for the upcoming seasons.

There was no Hollywood gossip in the paper back then. Coverage of the pop music scene was minuscule. When Elvis died in 1977, it was front-page news across the country except in Calgary. However, Rick McNair’s appointment as Theatre Calgary’s artistic director did make the front page. The Herald thought of itself as a newspaper for adults, not a comic paper for teenyboppers. Never mind the fact that fewer people were going to the theatre than were cramming into the Corral for the rock concerts. Theatre, opera and symphony concerts reigned supreme in the Herald’s live entertainment coverage.

Another difference between then and now was that the Herald saw itself as a leader not as a panderer. The newspaper bosses didn’t conduct customer surveys or assemble focus groups to find out what readers wanted to see in the paper. They didn’t take their cues from the other media. The editors and the writers gave the readers what they considered important. They did so in much the same way that some literary juries today give prizes to books they think people ought to read. Patronizing? Perhaps. But to paraphrase a later quote from Steve Jobs, we didn’t think readers would know what they wanted until we gave it to them.

Things started to change in the mid-1980s when the Herald allowed itself to become a second-rate player of television’s game. It stopped leading and began copying. Instead of continuing to do what it did best, providing thoughtful, analytical, detailed coverage of the arts, the paper turned into the print equivalent of Entertainment Tonight. The columns became shorter and the graphics became larger. The Herald could never compete with the excitement, the urgency or the energy of television, but it tried. And failed.

There were still some very good things about the arts and entertainment section of the paper. Its coverage of books and the visual arts were still second to none in Canada, though largely confined to one day a week. So too, despite truncated travel budgets and constricted space, were its coverage of theatre, dance and popular music. But classical music coverage virtually disappeared from the paper and opera coverage became essentially promotional. In their stead came celebrity tittle-tattle and an emphasis on pop culture.

Could it be that I had become old guard and failed to move with the times? Perhaps. But as I said in a 1988 article for the Canadian Theatre Review, if moving with the times meant becoming light, bright and trite, then I would remain rooted resolutely in the past. I preferred to think of moving with the times as being aware of what Peter Brook, Peter Sellars and Philip Glass were doing, not developing the kind of glibness that it takes to be booked as a guest on the Letterman Show.

You can read more about that vibrant period in Canadian theatre history as I viewed it from 1975 onwards in my newly published book of memoirs, Leaving Dublin: Writing my Way from Ireland to Canada. If you have an iPad, iPhone or iPod Touch, you can download a free sample from the book via iTunes.