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Bob Wakeham: Journalism — if it’s bland, you’re doing it wrong


Forty-five years ago this coming week, on a Monday morning, I stepped from the elevator on the third floor of The Evening Telegram Building on Duckworth Street and entered, literally and figuratively, the world of journalism, a profound and integral part of my existence ever since, one that has been  incredibly rewarding, often stressful and frustrating, but never, ever dull.

The newsroom, a classic newspaper office complete with a horseshoe-shaped desk (right out of a movie set) and occupied by a cluster of editors, reeked of cigarette smoke, and there was a cacophony of sound that prompted me to wonder during those first few intimidating minutes how in the name of God anyone could possibly think and interview and write in an atmosphere dominated by the ringing of phones, the banging of typewriters, the crackling of teletype machines and the constant barking of orders required during the daily push toward a deadline.

Obviously, I managed to survive that morning, and many mornings since, and it’s been a hell of a ride.

And I’ve been awfully fortunate to have found myself in an array of jobs over the years, an eclectic assortment of positions in print, radio and television that made a fascinating occupation even more so:  a newspaper reporter for nearly a decade, covering all of the major stories of the 1970s; five years or so at CBC Radio doing interviews and commentary for “On the Go” and “The Morning Show” (I even did movie reviews for a while, and did the Trivia Show on “Radio Noon” on occasion with its creator, the talented and gracious Art Rockwood; and 20 years or so at CBC-TV, where I was placed in charge of “Here and Now,” and a number of documentary programs, including “Land and Sea,”  “On Camera” and “Soundings.”

Along the way, I fought booze and cancer to a standstill, although the Big C did bring my active participation in daily journalism to a premature end.

Even in retirement, though, I’ve been able to peck away at the news business, making the odd documentary and writing this weekly column for The Telegram.

Yeah, I guess I’m guilty of braggadocio here, but what’s wrong with engaging in a bit of self-centred  reflective navel-gazing after 45 years in the journalistic trenches?

The point I’m trying to make is that a slice of talent, an eagerness to learn and being in the right place at the right time combined to allow me to explore numerous ways to tell stories, which is, in its essence, what journalism is all about.

I’ve had the chance to meet literally thousands of people during my career, including the most powerful, prime ministers and premiers, business and labour leaders, and the like.

But it was, it is, the ordinary Newfoundlander I’ve always enjoyed talking to the most, people like fisherman Jack Troake in Twillingate, Cecil Mouland (a survivor of the 1914 Sealing Disaster), and Iron McCarthy of Renews, 100 years old when he added an amazing original perspective to a documentary I was making on the Florizel catastrophe (he was an eyewitness).

And I’ll never forget meeting many of  the relatives of the Ocean Ranger disaster during a piece the local CBC produced for national airing on the 20th anniversary of that awful event, brave souls who invited us into their homes and spoke with candour and broken hearts about a nightmare from which they would never fully recover.

Or the trek I made with reporter Deanne Fleet across Canada, tracking down men who had survived the horror of Mount Cashel, or a similar haunting trip throughout the country and into the United States to interview women who had been abused at Belvedere Orphanage.

I also worked with many talented people over the years — reporters, producers, photographers, cameramen and editors.

Yes, there was the odd lazy good-for-nothing along the way I was forced to tolerate, the scattered cement head who treated journalism as just a job, nothing more, nothing less, but they were rare. Most of my colleagues were dedicated and loyal to their craft.

I also had some excellent bosses, and a few who were not so fine.   

There were also knock-down, drag-out arguments — some I won, some I lost.

I experienced the good side of organized labour, including a successful effort by a handful of us who took on formidable management types here and in Toronto and unionized The Evening Telegram newsroom, a campaign accentuated by a long and bitter strike in the late 1970s. But I also witnessed the dogmatic and restrictive implications of unionism at times, and was forced to circumvent ludicrous contracts just to get stories to air.

I made mistakes, minor and major, hard not to in 45 years. I wasn’t infallible.

But the bottom line is that it was never mundane, never bland.

A few years back, I had a chance to spend a few semesters sharing with MUN students a taste of the media expertise I had acquired, and I would always encourage them to get involved in journalism:  what other job, I would ask them rhetorically, would require you to seek out each and every day the most interesting story occurring in your community, your province, your country?

It’s what I’ve been doing for 45 years … and counting.

I’m still not ready for full-time residence in the journalistic pasture.

 

Bob Wakeham has spent 45 years as a journalist in Newfoundland and Labrador. He can be reached by email at bwakeham@nl.rogers.com.

             

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