Position at the paper: Proofreader, page designer,
fill-in editor, news reporter
Years at the North Shore News: 1994-1999
Current position: London Bureau Chief, Newsweek
I was fresh out of journalism school and willing to do anything and everything.
Consequently, I ended up with the best education imaginable as I filled in for reporters, page designers and editors before, eventually, getting the job I wanted: news reporter.
For some reason I ended up with a desk just outside the door of NSN founder and then-publisher Peter Speck. An imposing and self-assured man, he made me nervous as hell.
He would periodically come out of his office, hoist a leg onto my desk and offer words of wisdom.
During one of these (one-way) chats, he looked off into the middle distance and pronounced: “Robert, there are no problems in this world, only opportunities.” After that, he would periodically drop by and land me with opportunities to wrestle with.
At one point, I was filling in for the features editor and responsible for, among other things, finding and editing stories for the massive quarterly Home and Garden section (ad sales were brisker in those days and these things would routinely run at 20-plus pages). Not long before it was due to go to press and my job mostly done but for some proofreading, a major advertiser pulled its ads. This left a gaping hole in the centre of the supplement. And I had nothing to put there so, thinking on my feet, I wrote a few hundred words on the plight of trees on city streets from the perspective of the trees, which to my mind had much to contend with. Even if they survived the pollution and life in the concrete jungle, there was always the chance they’d run into a chainsaw.
I completed this harrowing first-person tree tale with a graphic of Marine Drive with massive overgrown trees crowding out the car dealership signs in an apocalyptic image illustrating a world that played fair. This earned me an invitation to Mr. Speck’s office. He was concerned with my state of mind, making no secret of the fact he suspected that I was depressed – had to be to write that “plea for trees.”
But alas, this was no problem, and it was my opportunity that the paper had just secured a counselling service for staff. And I was going to be its first client under instructions to report back on the level of service and whether it was worth, I gather, the considerable price tag. It was fine. As was I.
During another fill-in stint, this time for the fashion editor, another late ad pull left me to contend with a hole. It should be noted I knew even less about fashion than homes and gardens. I was determined to avoid controversy lest any more opportunities come my way. I settled on a piece extolling the virtues of vertical stripes.
“If you have hips to hide...” it began. Looking back, I knew less still about stripes. And hips! ◆