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Writer’s Block: Hell to pay in the newspaper industry

The Free Press Columnist, Bill Phillips, on the colourful happenings in media
Stacked The Free Press newspapers. (Black Press Media file photo)

By Bill Phillips

The Free Press Columnist

In the newspaper business, there is always hell to pay.

I often joked that if, in order to get that 2,000-word expose on the local politician absconding with public funds and a fellow councillor’s spouse, I pulled the crossword puzzle, there’d be hell to pay … for the puzzle-pull, naturally.

There was hell to pay when a simple editing error resulted in a story about nurses at the hospital getting laid off reading “nurses at the hospital get laid.”

There was hell to pay when we told everyone to turn their clocks back a week early.

There was hell to pay when the Compugrahic (a computer system that pre-dates Steve Jobs by a long shot) crashed and we had to fly in a technician to fix it. The hell to pay wasn’t that the technician, production manager, and yours truly worked to 3 a.m. to get things going and get the paper out, it was that the press guys were on time-and-a-half at 9 p.m. and double-time at midnight.

There was hell to pay when I acquiesced to a request from two company vice-presidents to introduce two 40-pounders of rum to a wine-and-cheese reception that was supposed to wind up at 9 p.m. and which instead went to the wee hours ending with a broken door and window at a local hotel and some fisticuffs (not by me, but I know who).

There was hell to pay when the mayor burst into my office one morning telling me that he came in person because he wanted me to see his face to see how mad he was. His ire? I had raked one of his councillors over the coals editorially for brandishing a broadsword at a council meeting and promising, albeit jokingly, that he would smite those opposed to his latest proposal. It looked like the mayor was going to take a swing at me and I have to admit, for a moment I thought “should I egg him on? It’ll make for a great story.” The photographer was across the room and, being an absolute professional, she would have snapped a few pics before going for help. But then the fight scene from Bridget Jones’ Diary flashed through my head and I realized that two middle-aged men trying to fight is more comedic than dramatic.

There was hell to pay when a brick came through our window with a note attached saying next time it would be a bomb. Three weeks later, the armed standoff at Gustafson Lake erupted. I don’t know if the two were connected but I do know there was something in the air that summer. Everyone knew something was going to explode.

There was hell to pay when the paper ran the headline “’Mean drunk gets jail time,’” over a mug shot of the ‘mean drunk’s’ lawyer.

There was hell to pay when a local ‘businessman’ sued us for calling him a gangster. The case never did get to court as said ‘businessman’ died in a hail of bullets in Surrey before anything got to court.

There was hell to pay when the paper ran the headline “Virus serves up vomit at buffet,” (I didn’t write the headline but I know who did). At the time it was third largest libel ruling in Canada at $650,000. We won on appeal so while there was still hell to pay, there were no dollars to pay.

There was hell to pay when three priests, count ‘em … three, showed up in my office telling me that the mother of a young boy who had been killed by a semi-truck was suicidal and that if she killed herself it would be on me because I ran a picture of the accident scene. Basically, they told me I was going to hell.

At least I’ll be paid up.

-Bill Phillips is a 30-year veteran of journalism. He grew up in Fernie, and began his career at The Free Press in the 80s.