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(CP) Montreal Reunion

Wire-service journalists
gather to swap memories

(More photos here)

Most Canadians identify those initials in the headline with Canadian Pacific or Canada Packers or Communist Party. But to a small group of journalists who gathered in a Montreal bar on May 14, those letters will forever spell "Canadian Press."

CP is Canada's 88-year-old national newsgathering co-operative. Its bureaus produce a vast quantity of news stories, photos and audio each day for 98 newspapers and 500 radio and TV newsrooms. CP does all this in two languages, and it is virtually unknown in Canada.

To the journalists at that Montreal bar, CP is also where they got their first news jobs, made their first mistakes, learned about the second "i" in the word "liaison," and forged enduring friendships in a dingy newsroom that smelled of stale cigarettes and greasy fries.

Janice Hamilton with husband Harold Rosenberg
at May 14 reunion. Couple met at CP.

Many at the reunion started with CP in the mid-1970s or earlier, when it was possible to get a journalism job with little actual journalism experience. Remember, this was before Bernstein and Woodward brought down a president and made journalism a fashionable career choice.

But CP wasn't a place for taking your time to craft stories. Much of the work consisted of "rewrites," which involved condensing articles from local newspapers, explaining or deleting the local references, and sending them out on leased telecommunication wires called, rather unimaginatively, the wires. In return for supplying its stories to CP, a newspaper in, say, Montreal, could count on reams of stories gathered in similar fashion from other newspapers across the country.

CP bureaus generated a prodigious amount of news 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Staffers learned to produce thousands of words of copy in a single eight-hour shift. Naturally, this demanding pace wasn't for everyone. Some CPers jumped at newspaper offers of less work and more money. Others simply quit the news business altogether. This churn created those endless opportunities for new blood to try their hand at rewrites. Those who could take it became the best, able to write volumes of accurate, readable copy on tight deadlines.

Chris Haney (l), co-founder of Trivial Pursuit,
and Kevin Dougherty, now with The Gazette.

After decades of this kind of frenetic activity, CP Montreal developed a culture of eccentricity, one unmatched by the other, more sedate bureaus in the rest of the country. There was the news editor who each morning would leave for "eggs" at the local tavern and return smelling of beer. Or the senior manager who came into work on Saturdays, when there were few people about and little for him to do, in order to enjoy a few snorts of something strong in his coffee without disturbing his wife. Subsequent generations substituted weed for booze. If a staffer took good pictures, or edited copy well, or wrote elegantly, what did it matter that he or she had some personal, er, foibles?

The place seduced countless young people raised on movies such as Citizen Kane, Deadline USA and Teacher's Pet. This Runyonesque world of deadlines and hard drinking and romantic idealism was irresistible.

There were a lot of investment opportunities at CP, too. Take the story of photo editor Chris Haney and his chain letter. Chris would in today's parlance be called a "newsroom leader." He was a charming rogue, amiable and well-spoken, the son of a Stratford actress. He convinced much of the bureau to invest in a chain letter he said would yield thousands of dollars. Chris, as an early investor, reportedly did well. Others saw modest returns, too. Then a newspaper story told of a Montreal police investigation into an illegal pyramid scheme running out of a Montreal newsroom. The chain letter dried up at once.

Little surprise, then, that when Chris teamed up with editor Scott Abbot to offer a new get-rich-quick scheme, much of the bureau demurred. Something about buying shares in a new board game the duo had invented. They convinced a handful of co-workers to pony up $1,000 each -- this was the late 1970s, remember -- and these few shared in the millions earned by Trivial Pursuit. The rest of us are still kicking ourselves.

Other alumni have gone on to write in Hollywood (and testify at the O.J. Simpson trial), join the Canadian diplomatic corps, run newspaper and TV newsrooms, host radio and TV programs, write books, and in at least one case, become an architect. Countless others work as freelancers.

Many of them came to the May 14 reunion. Some had traveled from London, San Francisco, Vancouver, Toronto and Ottawa. Many were greyer and paunchier, some had lost lots of hair, all had become a lot wiser -- and for one wonderful evening, we were all young CP staffers again.

Email to joel@joelruimy.com

Copyright 2005 Joel Ruimy

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