Star turn

Toronto Star hires Michael Cooke as editor.

Chicago Sun-Times (today’s weather: REALITY CHECK) scoops Star.

Chicago Tribune scoops Sun-Times.

Twenty years ago this May I was an intern fresh out of university at The Gazette in Montreal. It was Mike Cooke who decided to keep me on, and I was assigned to write features — UFOs, a history of poutine, rats in the city’s sewers — for the new Sunday edition, which was designed to deny Pierre Péladeau’s tabloid Montreal Daily News (if you blinked, you missed that one) a Sunday monopoly. Cooke’s Sunday Gazette — and it was entirely his baby, with a substantially separate staff, the way they do Sunday papers in the UK — was feather-light, full of human-interest stories, viewed with derision by my Serious Young Colleagues. I had fun, but I had my Serious Young moments too, so after nine months I asked to be re-assigned to general assignment so I could cover fires and city council meetings. Even then he looked out for me a bit. When I came to work furious at the way a desk editor had mangled a piece of writing I liked, he took me aside and said, “If you ever write something else you like, mate, let me know and I’ll keep the desk off it.” I actually never took him up on that offer, but when you’re 24 years old, that kind of word from a senior editor can be tremendously encouraging.

Later Michael became one of two managing editors in an unusual arrangement that paired him with a less flamboyant colleague in a setup we immediately dubbed “Fluffy and Stuffy.” Michael was Fluffy. My Serious Young Colleagues haaaated him. I used to warn them that if he ever left, they’d miss his energy and imagination. He did, and I suspect they did.

Michael went on to the Edmonton Journal, Vancouver Province, and Chicago Sun-Times. He edited the New York Daily News briefly, which is the way everyone edits the New York Daily News, then back to Chicago. At each paper he picked promising young reporters and gave them opportunities — sometimes for quick advancement, usually just to write as well as they could — that they wouldn’t have had at that age from most editors.

I forget whether he was still in Vancouver or already in Chicago when he was seconded for months of secret meetings in Hamilton, along with Kirk Lapointe, Brian Kappler and Ken Whyte, to brainstorm a new national paper for Conrad Black. He was on deck for a few weeks when the National Post launched and then went back to Vancouver-or-Chicago. I used to run into him at Southam and Hollinger functions, and he’d grumble a bit that he wasn’t sure Black and Radler had a clear idea what kind of paper they wanted the Sun-Times to be. Later, that would be the least of his problems, and theirs.

Michael always did like human-interest features, but if an investigative reporter was on the track of a good meaty story he could count on Cooke to back him too. He just liked energy and he found the rote, mailed-in work of too many journalists toxic, which it is. In 1990 and 1991, when the complacency in my business was so thick you could cut it with a knife, Cookie was obsessed with declining readership, declining market penetration, the increasing reluctance of younger generations to take up the newspaper-reading habit. Those problems have multiplied exponentially since then. If imagination, energy, and trust in the brains and heart of the reporting staff still count for anything against the historic upheaval now shaking the newspaper industry, then the Star‘s chances are better today than yesterday.

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