Mourning the golden age of journalism and the magic of random encounters

Tribute: Ward Perrin

Before media outlets became boutiques for different brands of thought and billionaires seeking ego affirmation, newsrooms were a place where friendships were born from shared professional purpose, and a gut need to get the story. Katherine Monk looks back on a newsroom shift when the world changed overnight, and a friendship was born from the tatters of the Iron Curtain.

By Katherine Monk

It’s mourning. In America. Again. I’m not just referring to the most recent mass shootings that left shell casings and broken lives in Nevada, or the broad swath of destruction left by apocalyptic weather patterns in the Midwest. I speak of the profound sense of loss that seems to define the collective psyche right now — not just in America, but everywhere.

Take a moment to process the prevailing winds of popular culture. Listen to the lyrics seeking absolute escapism, emotional oblivion and spiritual retribution. Then look at the cankered face of global politics, and the increasing calls for state-sponsored hate campaigns.

We’re not just mourning a rosy belief in better days ahead. We seem stuck in a rut of deep betrayal, spinning our wheels on the muddy backroads of a broken media landscape, hoping to get back on some main road of common sense and majority rule.

You know. The way things used to be.

A desire to wrestle the hands of time backward feels like a social project doomed to fail, yet so many of us indulge in a private sense of nostalgia, longing for the reality we once knew.

For some, that craving for the “old ways” is a desire for a pre-epidemic world that fostered optimism, democratic commitment and progressive thought. For others, it seems, it’s a need to re-establish a white patriarchy, and the sexist, racist desire to control the lives of others.

For me, the trail of twenty-first century tears flows from the slow death of old-school journalism. Before media outlets became boutiques for different brands of thought. Before hedge funds bought newspapers for the real estate assets and liquidated employees. Before billionaires held the balance of power. Before the Internet catered to every manifestation of crazy. Before the boundaries of “normal” were blown apart by a pandemic. Before all that, there was a time when newsrooms were capable of being the social ballast that ensured stability through accountability.

Filled with idealistic dreamers and hard-nosed inquisitors, old school newsrooms were focused on getting facts, exposing corruption and informing the public about their elected officials from a place steeped in professional self-effacement. Sure, there was a cruelty to the effacement. Yet, I remember it all so fondly now that I’ve gotten myself stuck in my own rut of self-indulgent nostalgia. Indeed, I’ve been trapped in a golden moment of time, quietly eulogizing the past and all the beautiful souls who once populated the newsroom of my life.

Before media outlets became boutiques for different brands of thought. Before hedge funds bought newspapers for the real estate assets and liquidated employees. Before billionaires held the balance of power. Before the Internet catered to every manifestation of crazy. Before the boundaries of “normal” were blown apart by a pandemic. Before all that, there was a time when newsrooms were capable of being the social ballast that ensured stability through accountability.

Since The Ex-Press first started publishing in 2015, it’s become something of an obituary aggregator, remembering old hacks and chronicling the demise of one print outlet after another.  There’s a great new ghost to remember every day, but one spirit in particular has been haunting me — chasing me down silent corridors of the past, pushing me into first-person thoughts — for close to two years now.

I didn’t even know Ward Perrin that well. But the memory of Ward sits in the pit of my stomach, churning up old ambitions and an old-fashioned faith in the future. In fact, I’ve been trying to write about Ward for a long, long time. But I kept hitting a wall.

It was an apt metaphor, because the day I keep reliving was Sunday, August 18, 1991. I was a cub reporter working a graveyard shift at the broadsheet daily, a nameless nobody filling the news hole without a byline, when the entire world teetered toward a new reality.

Squawk, crackle, clackety-clack-clack: The newswire chattered, spitting out images of tanks in Moscow and photo captions with the word “revolution.” The Soviet Union was collapsing in real time.

The small clutch of night editors looked around the empty patch of upholstered cubicles. I was knee-deep in my nightly round of cop checks, weather updates and two-inch news briefs when they assigned me to localize the biggest news story of the decade.

Vancouver Sun Front Page

The Front Page of the Vancouver Sun from August 19, 1991, the morning after the Soviet Union fell.

But where to find real Russians in the middle of the night? A Soviet freighter was in port picking up tractor parts and grain, and within minutes, I was in a shabby company car with photographer Ward Perrin, giddy with adrenaline, heading for the Pavlodar.

Infused with a sense of journalistic purpose, we explained to the security guards at the port gates what was happening, and why the “journal of record” needed to secure some face-time with a bona fide Soviet citizen. They waved us on, pointed us in the right direction, and before long we were parked before a large rusting red hull.

A narrow gangplank was fixed to the shore. Ward and I looked at each other, grinning tacit permission, and boarded the aging ship with thumping hearts, loaded cameras and a cocked tape recorder.

Oleg Ugolnikov was standing on the deck, smoking, listening to a shortwave radio. The blond-haired sailor had just heard the news, and we were there, watching him process how much his world had changed in the blink of an instant.

“Big country, big problem,” were the first words to pass Ugolnikov’s full lips.

For years afterward, they would be the words Ward and I used to greet each other. It was our little inside wink, a gesture of reportorial fraternity at having shared such an important moment together, and living up to the professional obligation it imposed.

Our work landed on the front page, and we shared the unique exhilaration of “getting the story.”

Journalism used to afford such darkly magical moments of personal and professional bonding, where simply bearing witness brought people together. It’s why I felt close to Ward Perrin ever since, even though our paths wouldn’t connect again professionally for another 20 years.

When The Vancouver Sun celebrated its 100th birthday, I was invited to be a part of the festivities by joining a cruise full of avid readers on a cruise to Alaska. Ward Perrin was booked as the official photographer, and for the next seven days, we privately chorused “big country, big problem” every time we saw each other in the brassy glare of marine-themed decor and unsettled, Dramamine-prompting seas.

The connection between us was born from the outside world, an historic news story that we experienced together in what felt like the front row. I didn’t know the nooks and crannies of his personal life, and outside of him snapping a photo of me and my ex sailing under the Lions Gate bridge, he didn’t know much about mine.

Yet when I heard Ward Perrin was found dead in his apartment October 15, 2019, it threw me. It disorients me still.

Am I mourning him? Or am I mourning journalism, and just using his memory to process my own dislocated grief?

Given how many of my former colleagues have kicked the bucket over the past few years, Ward’s passing wasn’t a one-off. If anything, it felt like a continuation of a long reaping that I might not know anything about were it not for the beautiful tributes from Rod Mickleburgh and John Mackie (whose obit originally informed me of Ward’s death).

Keeping up with the ghosts of dead colleagues shouldn’t be controversial. Yet, it seems people often take ownership of a death — claiming a stake over the grave and the departed soul. I’ve written about dead friends, and been scolded for the “appropriation” of suffering. I’ve written about dead strangers, and been accused of exploiting the opportunity for my own aggrandizement.

Maybe it’s why I’ve waited so long to write about Ward. Am I mourning him? Or am I mourning journalism, and just using his memory to process my own dislocated grief?

As I write this, I realize the two are inextricable. For me, Ward was a symbol of old-school excellence and professionalism. He really cared about getting good pictures. He also cared about the words. Tragically, but perhaps thematically appropriately, Ward left this world without them. Stripped of language as the result of a stroke that left him with aphasia, Ward lost the ability to express himself verbally.

Then, he lost the desire to continue.

It’s easy to get stuck in the nostalgic wax and hot lead of old media because it was always too much fun. An adrenaline-drenched adventure dedicated to truth, justice and the democratic ideal, old school journalism held open the door to hope.

Even when it was ugly, painful, sexist and all-too stressful, writing for a daily broadsheet was affirming in a way no other job could be — because it gave the Everyman a big voice in the cacophony of profit-driven marketing campaigns and high-priced corporate lobbyists.

Even when it was ugly, painful, sexist and all-too stressful, writing for a daily broadsheet was affirming in a way no other job could be….

I grieve for Ward because to me, he was the embodiment of the beautiful, random, and deeply meaningful encounters that not only make for good journalism and great storytelling. They also remind us how human the entire endeavour really is — or at least, should be.

“Big country. Big Problem,” is now something I say to myself, sometimes out loud, to break the silence. I imagine Ward’s toothy grin and goofy giggle, and a quiet sense of joy and sadness ripples through my being. I remember that moment at Port Metro Vancouver when Ward and I looked into each other’s eyes and felt the same giddy rush of hope for a better world.

Once upon a time, way back in the 1990s, it seemed possible. The Wall had fallen. The Iron Curtain was no more. We were looking at a future that affirmed democratic ideals and bid adieu to Cold War demagogues. We were confident we had the right words to move forward as a species.

Right now, however, I can only find words for Ward. And to be honest, these have been very hard words to muster. I have written and re-written this (whatever this is) several times over and I remain entirely dissatisfied.

It’s like I’ve lost something. I want it back, but I know — like every press library and once-vibrant newsroom filled with idealistic progressives — it’s gone. So I mourn. And in the same ragged breath, I dig up the will to keep going, to find more words, and to recommit to the endeavour that gave Ward and I so much joy.

Indeed, as the world slides into a mute acceptance of autocracy, I conjure the friendly face of Ward Perrin sitting next to me in a litter-laden compact car, contemplating a better world and the brotherhood of man. I mourn that faith in tomorrow. I mourn Ward, and every other colleague who believed in the cause of truth. I mourn the day before popularity defined content, and “Best Pizza” reader polls propelled reader engagement. I miss the days when political satire could be funny instead of darkly portentous. I miss my youth, my flexibility, my compassion, my old self, my confidence, my faith in my fellow human beings. Yep. I, too, miss things the way they used to be. But I don’t feel a raging desire to repossess the past, or even resurrect old friends. I crave the feeling Ward and I shared in the car, of moving forward. For Ward, forever forward.

@katherinemonk

Main photo: Ward Perrin and his canine companions, courtesy of Lorne Green.
THE EX-PRESS, December 7, 2023

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