The Globe and Mail newspaper has been called many things in its long history: Canada’s national newspaper (certainly by the paper’s marketing department); The Grey Lady of Front Street, alluding to its then serious type-dense style and location since 1974 on Toronto’s Front Street; and, by rival journalists, the Grope and Wail.
It traces its roots back to George Brown and the 1840s’ Globe, a Reform/Grit publication at a time when all Canadian newspapers had strong political allegiances. In 1936, the paper, with 78,000 circulation, merged with the larger 118,000 circulation the Mail and Empire, which itself was a product of an 1895 merger of two conservative newspapers, the Toronto Mail and Toronto Empire.
The Globe and Mail moved over the decades from focusing on Toronto to expanding to a national scope, a position it held unchallenged until the 1998 launch of the National Post, built on the foundation of the Financial Post business newspaper with lots of glitz, graphics, and glam added and funded by then-publisher Conrad Black.
I first encountered the Globe as a child when I would occasionally see a copy of it at my father’s store office; at home, we got the afternoon Kitchener-Waterloo Record and the weekly small-town Signet. I became a cover-to-cover Globe reader in journalism school because a) many fine writers worked there and I was learning how they did what they did; also b) you could get the Globe anywhere in Canada, including in Halifax, where I was at school.
It was a unique undertaking then in Canada to print the same newspaper from coast to coast. It took satellite technology to beam the finished page designs to six printing plants across Canada, where they’d be converted into plates, mounted on those presses, and printed out. The Eastern Canada version was finished first, then the Ontario edition and the larger Toronto edition, with local Toronto news included, and then the later version that went west: it had the benefit of getting the most complete sports scores from games that finished late in the continent’s central time zones.
Back then, the Globe hired 20 or more recent graduates to work each summer at the paper, at regular starting salary, to keep the newsroom staffed while the full-time reporters and editors took their summer vacations. One year, I was one of them: We were called the summer staffers; by some, the “summer slaves”.
The Globe was also considered a writer’s paper, whereas a few blocks away at the Toronto Star — then and now still the larger-circulation newspaper including its big Sunday edition — editors ruled the roost. As a summer staffer I worked on the “rim”, which was the name used to describe the copy editors who edited stories, wrote headlines, wrote cutlines (picture captions), and trimmed stories to fit layouts. The name, as with much in newspaper lore, was a holdover from an earlier time: before computers, copy editors sat around a large U-shaped table that became known as “the rim”. And at the Globe, you had to get a writer’s assent to change anything of substance in his or her story: in return, writers were expected to be near a phone (no mobile phones, then) until their story had been edited.
I also got a chance to do some writing for the paper and found a crack needing filling: the paper’s regular religion reporter was taking a short leave, so I covered some of the stories he normally would have done. Once, I wrote a feature about some churches changing the lyrics to hymns to get rid of language that makes it sound as if God cares only for creatures with an XY chromosome. I started with a quote from my beloved Robertson Davies from The Rebel Angels and expected it to run in the Saturday paper in the boondocks of the church pages. But the front-page editor, who reviewed stories for their potential, liked it and decided to run it on the front page. It was a thrill, not going to lie, knowing that I could call friends in Halifax and Vancouver and say, hey, buy the paper tomorrow. I’m on the front page.
And Lord bless my experienced copy editing colleague who came up with the great headline: “Women are shaking the hims from churches’ sexist hymns.” The turn headline (the headline on the part of the story on another page) was clever, too: “Not just Good Christian Men rejoicing now.”
Those months at the Globe set me up for my career in journalism and I would go back to the newsroom, many years later, in my role as a publicist, noting that the carpet seams still sported duct tape and cafeteria seemed be serving the same lunch specials. The newsroom moved recently from that rather worn Front Street location, where there used to be a printing press on site, to a shiny new location, occupying the top five floors of a 17-storey downtown office tower.
Newspapering is a tough game, these days. We want our news for free. Print readership is tanking and stories — written by trained journalists or untrained wannabes — can zap around social media in a flash. All papers are trying to find a business model that will let them keep covering the news. Staff numbers decline. Some papers are folding, entirely. I appreciate that I had the chance to sharpen my young writing chops among the country’s best and hope the “Grey Lady”, now wearing a sparkling new dress, finds a way to keep covering and sharing the country’s news from coast to coast to coast.
Main photo of the Globe and Mail’s new headquarters in Toronto: Kelley Teahen