The Orillia Packet & Times: A Love Story

Newspaper Obituary: The Orillia Packet & Times

They’re closing the newspaper where I made my start, and where I learned about journalism. I guess I’m still learning.

By Jay Stone

(Ottawa, ON — Nov. 27, 2017) I’ve been in love with several newspapers in my life — journalism tends to be a promiscuous passion — but none more deeply than I was in my first affair with the Orillia Packet & Times. It was the place where I started in the business, and now they’re going to close it down, another victim of Google or smart phones or whatever it is that has driven the wayward press to the fringes of our attention.

I went there in 1968 from Toronto, where I was a 22-year-old university dropout driving a cab for a living while I plotted how to become a writer. My father, who brooked no such nonsense, sent me a note — I was living in a hippie house on St. Joseph Street, near Bloor and Yonge, with my longhaired hoodlum friends — saying that he had heard there was an opening at a daily newspaper a couple of hours north of Toronto. You want to be a writer, he told me. This is writing.

I got a haircut, put on a fetching brown suit that perfectly set off an orange shirt-and-orange tie combination that made me look like a dropout from the Mr. Citrus pageant, and hopped a bus to Orillia. I arrived at the Packet offices downtown and presented myself in the second-floor newsroom. I didn’t realize it then, but arriving on time, on the right day, with a suit and tie and relatively sober, had guaranteed me the job before I even started. This was in the days before journalism schools, back when standards were more reasonable.

The managing editor was a 40ish gentleman named Jack Marshall, a fine journalist who had given up dreams of a big-city job in favour of the rural life. One day several months later, when he knew me better and thought I might have some insight, he asked me to explain why in spring he would creep through the woods to look in delight at the birth of baby grouse or partridge, and then in the fall creep through the same woods with a shotgun in order to kill them. It wasn’t an idle question. Jack Marshall was a man trying to find himself.

I didn’t realize it then, but arriving on time, on the right day, with a suit and tie and relatively sober, had guaranteed me the job before I even started. This was in the days before journalism schools, back when standards were more reasonable.

“Do you drink?,” he asked me at the interview and I, knowing the reputation of reporters, assured him I didn’t. “Well,” he said, “you won’t get along here because we all drink.” Oh, I replied. Of course I drink. I just thought you meant, Do I drink? At the end of the interview, having established that I knew nothing about journalism but was willing to learn, he shaded his eyes with his hand and said that he was kind of ashamed to have to tell me this, but if I did get the job, I wouldn’t be able to wear that orange shirt. Orillia, he said, was kind of a conservative place.

I started a week later at $70 a week, which allowed me to rent a room at the Y (I later moved into a room in a private house). I was sent out the first day to introduce myself to the chief of police, a florid man named Jock, and check on “accidents or occurrences” overnight in town. Every day I wrote several stories about car crashes or burglaries, copying the style of other newspaper stories I had read back in Toronto. A month later, the city editor, a hilariously dour Scotsman named Bill MacPherson, told me he hadn’t actually read to the end of any of my stories before, but if I had been writing “There are no suspects” at the bottom of all of them, I should stop.

Eventually I learned how to write police stories, and also the other reporters’ skill of being able to read whatever was on the desk in front of you upside-down. I can still do this and if things go badly in retirement, I believe I could still make it as the world’s oldest cub reporter, as long as I don’t have to tweet anything.

My other workmates were an alcoholic sports editor who was soon to be fired for missing the bus when the local hockey team went off to the playoffs — every small paper I subsequently worked for had a similarly alcoholic sports editor — and the “wire editor,” who put Canadian Press stories into the paper around the local news. His name was Alex Smith and his main job was writing headlines. He would light a cigarette for each headline, even though he had one burning from the previous headline and, frequently, another from the one before that. They would be lined up in various stages of incineration on the edge of his desk, which had burn marks all along the edges, a design feature that was common in every newsroom until smoking was banned entirely.

My other workmates were an alcoholic sports editor who was soon to be fired for missing the bus when the local hockey team went off to the playoffs — every small paper I subsequently worked for had a similarly alcoholic sports editor…

There were several boxes of clothespins in the office because they were used to hold the rolled-up yellow tape that ran the linotype machines. It was Smith’s habit to put a clothespin on every finger to stave off the jitters of not lighting yet another cigarette. I took up the habit myself for a while — it’s addictive, like putting glue on your hands and peeling it off — until I noticed that all my fingers had deep indents from the pressure.

There was also another reporter, George Czerny, who was an excellent photographer (you had to take, develop and print your own pictures at the Packet) and eventually became an executive at the paper. He had an endless store of tales of how, while working weekends in the otherwise deserted building, he would be entertaining some young lady or another in the darkroom when a fire or police siren would go by the street outside. In Orillia we were expected to follow such sirens — the paper had a Volkswagen station wagon with a red light on the roof that would flash when you flicked a switch on the dashboard — and in George’s reminiscences, he was forever stumbling downstairs, pulling on his pants, to race to the news event while his female guest was left to adjust her garments in the darkroom and make her own way home.

In Orillia we were expected to follow such sirens — the paper had a Volkswagen station wagon with a red light on the roof that would flash when you flicked a switch on the dashboard…

We were presided over by an elegant gentleman named James Lamb, the publisher. He was an unfailingly polite ex-Navy man with military posture and deep learning. He wrote a column under the name of Sagittarius that commented on world news. A few years earlier, Maclean’s magazine had written a story saying there was no such thing as a Canadian and Lamb wrote a beautiful ringing response entitled I Am A Canadian, that become something of a legend. It was so popular that the paper reprinted it and handed it out in the lobby and someone told me it had been read that year at the opening of Parliament in Ottawa. I have forgotten most of it now, but I remember the slowly accruing pace of Canadian sites and accomplishments, interrupted by the single- sentence paragraphs “I love Canada” and “I am a Canadian.” It was beautifully done, both stirring and quietly outraged in the best Canadian way. Orillia was becoming more interesting.

These weren’t people my hippie friends would have liked, or understood, but I found myself falling into the pace of the town. I wasn’t like these people, but I grasped their confusion about what was happening in the world. There were still people who resented Stephen Leacock for mocking the populace in his Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town and Gordon Lightfoot for leaving with his guitar and trying to make a living as a folksinger in Toronto. Who did he think he was?

There were still people who resented Stephen Leacock for mocking the populace in his Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town and Gordon Lightfoot for leaving with his guitar and trying to make a living as a folksinger in Toronto. Who did he think he was?

I covered everything in Orillia, not just police stories and court cases but the local service club luncheons, which were considered a prize because you got a free lunch of rubbery ham before the speech. On the minus side of the ledger, you had to join the festivities, and I remember being fined 10 cents for not singing along to My Grandfather’s Clock at a Lions’ Club luncheon. The speeches at these things were typically by local businessmen just back from Europe or Africa with news of how things were in Poland or Congo, which I would report with the hollow expertise that only a young journalist can bring to such a project.

I covered the Simcoe County Board of Education meetings in nearby Barrie and learned how to write about “in-camera sessions” and “committees of the whole,” and other arcana that every journalist needs if he is to have any hope at all of putting his readers to sleep.

I did the weekly man-in-the-street interviews, entitled If You Ask Me?, in which I would hang around the post office and ask various idlers — typically old men with nothing better to do — to comment on what they thought of the new bilingualism proposals or the crisis in Egypt. I would take their photographs and put their comments beneath them. MacPherson eventually asked me if I couldn’t find someone younger, preferably a woman, to jazz up the presentation.

In the first week they sent me out to cover a convention of coin-collectors. By chance, I myself had been a coin collector so I threw in lots of numismatic jargon and trivia. They were impressed and I discovered that everything you learn in life will probably come in handy somewhere, although having said that, I still haven’t found a use for trigonometry, unless this counts.

They let me write a column, entitled The Flip Side, in which I reviewed records — some of them, to the displeasure of locals, were practically rock and roll — and got free albums from record companies, another valuable lesson in professional journalism. I would write the annual features on a variety of topics, annual features being the lifeblood of the small-town press. I would trudge out on frozen Lake Simcoe to do the story on ice fishing, knocking on the doors of wooden huts and interrupting grizzled men who were drinking from bottles of rye whiskey and sitting around a hole in the ice. I interviewed the Kentucky professor who ran the Leacock home at Brewery Bay. I went with the new sports editor — another gentleman who enjoyed the occasional whiskey — to interview Bobby Orr at his nearby hockey school.

I would trudge out on frozen Lake Simcoe to do the story on ice fishing, knocking on the doors of wooden huts and interrupting grizzled men who were drinking from bottles of rye whiskey and sitting around a hole in the ice.

My greatest coup came in my first month when they asked me to go to the local collegiate on the last day of school and take the picture of students running out of the door, throwing their books and pencils in the air. “That’ll be our Page One picture tomorrow,” Bill MacPherson told me because it was always the Page One picture in June.

I hopped in the Volkswagen and got lost. By the time I got to the school, it was deserted and I felt the first warm flush of failure that is another of the characteristics of the profession. It began to seem as if there would be no Page One picture tomorrow, unless it was of me being tarred and feathered.

I went inside the deserted school and saw only a janitor running a polishing machine on the empty terrazzo. Suddenly — just like in the movies — I heard a noise at the end of the hall and a light coming through an open door. I followed the noise, and came to the teachers’ lounge, where half a dozen staff members were drinking wine and smoking cigarettes, lingering before heading home for the summer.

I explained my problem and the teachers, feeling the warm glow of human kindness mixed with Chardonnay, co-operated by running out of the school and throwing their books into the air. I took the picture and drove the film back to the office where MacPherson himself took it into the darkroom, the Page One picture being too important to be left to the new guy to develop. He came out a few minutes later with a grin.

By the time I got to the school, it was deserted and I felt the first warm flush of failure that is another of the characteristics of the profession. It began to seem as if there would be no Page One picture tomorrow, unless it was of me being tarred and feathered…

“That’s the best end-of-school picture we’ve ever had,” he said. “How did you think of it?” I learned then that failure is the mother of invention; it is when you are lost, or stuck, or have no idea what you’re going to write, that you come up with your most creative work. Writers’ block is God’s way of telling you to peek around the corner.

By then I loved the newspaper world. At night I would go into the empty office, lit by a few lamps in the back shop, to look at the clattering of the wire machines and stare out the window at the streets below: there are 20,000 stories in the big city, I reminded myself, and eventually I would take all of their photographs outside the post office. I had recently read the melodramatic but undeniably page-turning novel Youngblood Hawke, by Herman Wouk, about a young writer (modeled on Thomas Wolfe) who goes to New York and sells his novel. He holds his first royalty cheque and marvels that he has just been paid for writing English prose. I stood in the dimly lit offices of the Packet & Times — locally known as the Racket & Crimes — and said the same thing. I was a writer, just like my father wanted.

But there was no chance I would make a life there. I was a big-city boy and I wasn’t really equipped to live alone. For one thing I ate every meal in a restaurant, which taxed my modest salary. I used to write poetry in those days, and this one survives. I called it, simply, Orillia:

 

After 13 months

of Gentleman Jim’s

number 4 special

for supper, you start

to feel like a

hamburger, French fries

and a Coke yourself

 

The tone, which I fancied as a unique blend of Damon Runyon and J.D. Salinger, was typical of my style in those days. After a year or so, I felt I was beginning to find a voice.

But while home for Christmas holidays I had met a woman — indeed, the woman I would marry — and we began a long-distance relationship between Toronto and Orillia.

I started applying for jobs back in the city and about 18 months after I started, I quit the Packet to become the assistant editor of Office Administration magazine, office administration being perhaps the only area in which I knew less than I did about police stories and school board meetings. It was published by Southam Business Publications, located at Don Mills and York Mills roads in north Toronto, a building that later became the first headquarters of the new National Post newspaper. Later, the Post would move to rented offices downtown and the building would be sold and the company would begin laying off staff and closing newspapers around the country.

There are no suspects.

Photo above: A good 20,000 stories awaited a young reporter in the streets of Downtown Orillia.

Jay Stone is co-founder of The Ex-Press. He still has no Twitter account. 

The Orillia Packet & Times was just one of the casualties in a recent swap between Postmedia and The Toronto Star. Thirty-six community newspapers and two commuter dailies are slated to close in the New Year, representing more than 250 jobs across the country.

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5 Replies to "The Orillia Packet & Times: A Love Story"

  • carlie o December 12, 2017 (10:58 pm)

    Great story and brings back fond memories, as all firsts do. I must have arrived at the Packet just after you left or maybe I replaced you in 1969. I had a university degree so I was older and I had always wanted to write. Working at a small paper owned by Lord Thomson was a great training ground and there was something about the machine gun clacking of typewriters, especially under the two fingered attack of Jack, that was exciting. I think the city editor was Bill Macfarland at least when I was there, but I could be mistaken. I think it is unfortunate that small communities cannot have some sort of publication that can support and focus on itself. But that doesn’t fit into the scale and focus of a entity such as Torstar which, in spite of its protestations to the contrary is more interested in corporate wealth than community well being and seems to be blindly racing towards oblivion.

  • Catherine A Allman December 12, 2017 (10:46 am)

    Thanks for this Jay. I landed there – in an orange skirt – a decade later as a high school student who couldn’t type. I did indeed learn to develop my own photos.

  • Joan Ransberry December 5, 2017 (2:39 pm)

    This story is real and raw and, once again, reminds us—there’s no such thing as a bad newspaper.

  • Charley Gordon November 29, 2017 (7:15 am)

    Such a great story. The Brandon Sun in 1964 was the same. Big-time journalism can never quite match it.

  • David Chesney November 29, 2017 (4:01 am)

    What a beautiful eulogy to a friend who has passed on.

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