Bill Doskoch: Media, BPS*, Film, Minutiae

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A look back at the 1930s ‘Toronto Star’ newsroom

David Halton, an acclaimed CBC journalist in his own right, has written a book about his father Matthew Halton’s career. It included a stint at the Toronto Star starting in 1931.

A hint from the subhead: “The Toronto Star newsroom of the early 1930s earned its legendary status as a rough, tough, sharp-elbowed den of careerists with a social conscience.”

From the Toronto Star:

Matt faced an unnerving set of personal challenges when he first entered the Toronto Daily Star’s newsroom at 80 King Street West. At that time the Star published seven or eight editions of the paper each day, putting the newsroom under almost constant deadline pressure from noon to six p.m. “It was bedlam,” said Gwyn “Jocko” Thomas, a copy boy who often handled Matt’s reports and later became a legendary Star police reporter.

Desk editors shouted at reporters, competing with reporters yelling “Boy!” to summon one of 20 or so copy boys to deliver the newest paragraphs of their stories to the desk. It all seemed like a parody of a Hollywood B-movie about the news business. Many reporters kept their fedoras on as they typed; almost everyone smoked cheap cigars, and some hid a mickey of rye in their jackets.

The paper’s owners were teetotalers and drinking on the premises was a firing offence. But even some desk editors kept bottles of whisky in their corridor lockers, and one was often seen taking a surreptitious swig from a metal cigar tube tucked into his inside pocket. Wilf Sanders, a fellow reporter of Matt’s, said he could not remember a period when there was so much heavy drinking. “We used to have to prop up some of the guys when they came in drunk for work. We’d sit on either side of the drunk reporter and prop him up so he wouldn’t fall forward and hit his face on the desk.” Women reporters, usually relegated to weddings and social events, worked in a separate room to protect them from blue language and other improprieties in the newsroom.

At first Matt seemed out of place. He never wore a fedora and was often dressed in a tweed suit that made him look like an Oxford undergrad. He was too reserved to shout “Boy!” to the copy handlers, preferring instead to carry his stories to the editors’ desk himself.

The new man aroused some suspicion among other reporters, few of whom had been to university, and some who had not even finished high school. Gordon Sinclair, already emerging as a star at the newspaper, recalled that Matt was a curiosity for a while. “He seemed to be a little effeminate, a little gentle. He wasn’t like the other guys at the time.”

Sinclair said he led the ribbing of Matt for being so proud of coming from a place called Pincher Creek. The newcomer was also quickly tagged as “parlour pink” — someone flirting with socialism. …

But he landed in the right place for his politics, as the Star was the most editorially left-leaning paper in Canada.  Eventually he got noticed for his writing, and moved out of the apprenticeship stage, picked up his first byline (not so easy in a paper that only promoted its stars), and 9-1/2 months after starting, was appointed the paper’s London correspondent.

Read the whole thing. It’s worth it for the descriptions of Joseph “Holy Joe” Atkinson, the paper’s publisher, and managing editor Harry C. Hindmarsh, two towering figures in the history of the Star and of Canadian journalism in general.

Fri, January 2 2015 » Main Page, Media