My Last Column

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The first bad moment came Friday afternoon, when the three o’clock news reported that “former journalist” Parker Donham would be the new spokesperson for the Sydney Tar Ponds Cleanup Agency.

Former journalist. Ouch.

At age nine, I crammed enough onion skin and carbon paper into my mother’s Royal typewriter to create ten copies of the Pines Lane Neighborhood Knocker. It sold for ten cents and lasted four issues.

Over the next forty-five years, I never considered any other career.

I was blessed to write for the upstart Daily News, where editors Doug MacKay and Bill Turpin sent young keeners into the street to duke it out with the Chronicle-Herald.

Halifax was probably the only city of its size in North America with such fierce newspaper competition, and the struggle made both papers better.

I got to broadcast half a dozen leadership conventions and election nights with Jim Nunn, who does politics on live TV better than anyone,at any level. It is, as Nunn told me Wednesday night, in a kind-hearted attempt to dissuade me from crossing over, “the most fun you can have with your clothes on.”

I witnessed the integrity of community newspaper editors and publishers like Rick Cluett of the Port Hawkesbury Reporter and the three MacDonalds of the Inverness Oran — Rankin, Frank and Eleanor.

Whatever their own views, they withstood the heat from readers and advertisers over mine, because they know freedom of the press needs regular exercise.

I got paid to stick up for the underdog. I got to spar with the sharpest old curmudgeon in the province. And I did it all as a freelancer, choosing my own topics and taking afternoon naps whenever I pleased.

As the editor tells Sally Fields in the film Absence of Malice, “Tuesdays are different from Mondays, and once in a while, you nail the bad guys.”

Suddenly I find myself a former journalist, having, as CBC’s Canada Now put it, “retired” from journalism to take a government Public Relations job. This is known in the trade as “crossing over to the dark side,” or more bluntly, “selling out.”

“Why did you do it?” asked David Redwood, the Daily News reporter assigned to write my professional obituary. Redwood is unfailingly polite, but the question carried a hint of reproach.

Here is my answer.

It hasn’t been much fun since the CBC turned its back on local and regional programming, and the Daily News fell into the clutches of Canada’s all-pervasive media monopoly.

The Atlantic provinces have dropped off the national media radar, except as exemplars of what’s wrong with the welfare state.

Freelance rates are often lower now than they were ten or fifteen years ago.

The $240,000 libel judgment against lawyers Anne Derrick and Burnley Jones for speaking an obvious truth deepened my discouragement, as did the complacent response of the legal and media communities.

It would take me ten years’ worth of columns to earn $240,000, and I voice obvious truths at least as flagrantly as Derrick and Jones.

Over the last year, I helped an old friend move a call centre from San Francisco to North Sydney.

The people on the project were well-motivated, smart and fun. They valued my work — an increasingly rare experience for journalists.

Today, fifty people are working at jobs they enjoy in a mall property that had stood vacant for nine years. From day one, they have outperformed their San Francisco counterparts. It’s a nice feeling to have helped.

Six months ago, I began asking friends for advice on how to change careers.

With two neighbours, a community organizer and an environmental engineer, I formed a partnership called the Kempt Head Institute. We began to do consulting while musing that our skills made us perfect for the Tar Ponds cleanup project.

Two weeks ago, a friend let me know Phonse Jessome was leaving his job as lead communicator for the Tar Ponds project for personal reasons.

Jessome is as smart and energetic a reporter as you’ll find.It’s symptomatic that he can’t find a steady home in journalism.

Jessome threw himself into the Tar Ponds assignment.

Suddenly, amidst all the anger, frustration and mistrust, there began to emerge a sense the province wants to get on with this job.

I grilled friends who worked on the file for hours on end. I met with Bob Fowler, the career civil servant in charge of the Tar Ponds Agency, and took an instant liking to him.

Jessome gave me a tour of the extensive work already underway — the capping of the old Sydney dump and the diversion of streams that once carried pollutants off the site.

I’ve written about the coke ovens and the tar ponds since the early 1980s. I passionately want them cleaned up. Cape Breton has a no more urgent or important task. The tar ponds are a 700,000-tonne anchor, dragging the island down.

One of the hardest parts of getting the job done will be persuading people who have grown cynical and mistrustful. After 1,500 columns and900 political panels, why wouldn’t I want to help?

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