Winnipeg Free Press - ONLINE EDITION

Bus went the wrong way, I chose the right path

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It was 30 years ago today that the daily news bug bit me.

The sun was shining brightly in Toronto on April 25, 1983, when I got on a TTC bus to head downtown to a summer job at The Globe and Mail.

Unfortunately, the bus was going in the wrong direction. After ending up in the far reaches of Scarborough, I turned around and, an hour later, scurried up Front Street to arrive at the newspaper's headquarters shortly after 9 a.m.

Great, I thought. Late on my first day.

I ran up to the second-floor newsroom and was greeted by empty desks. This was lesson No. 1: reporters are not early risers. They were never seen before 10 a.m., given that they worked to 6 p.m. or 7 p.m. every day.

I finally located a lone person going through the contents of a file folder - the assignment editor, I later learned. He gave me a notebook and pen, all the equipment a reporter needed in those days.

A few minutes later he stood up and looked around the newsroom, no doubt hoping to spot someone other than a student on his first day at a daily newspaper. Seeing no one else, he came over with two taxi chits.

"You know anything about covering courts?" he asked. "Sure," I lied.

"There's a case going on at Osgoode Hall that sounds interesting," he said. "Get down there." He gave me a couple of more details then added, offhandedly, "You'd better hurry. It started 20 minutes ago."

I scurried down the escalator and out onto the sidewalk. I raised my arm and a moment later a cab pulled up. I jumped in. I have not looked back since.

In that moment I was hooked. I knew I had started the most exciting adventure I could imagine, racing off to find out things and then tell other people what I had discovered.

Of course, I was green, green, green. I knew next to nothing despite four years in journalism school and a year as editor of the student newspaper at Carleton University.

My writing was earnest and wordy. I watched in amazement as veteran copy editors took 20 words out of 40-word sentences and never dropped an important fact or changed the meaning. This was lesson No. 2: never use two words when one will do.

I made mistakes. One day I interviewed a very proper German fellow and asked his name. "Buch Binder," he replied. "How do you spell that?" I asked. "B-U-C-H," he said. "B-I-N-D-E-R." So I wrote a story quoting Buch Binder, referred to as Mr. Binder later in the story. The next day I learned his first name was Hans, as in Hans Buchbinder. This was lesson No. 3: always ask people for their full names.

Another day I mixed up two groups of doctors, confusing the Ontario Medical Association's section of independent physicians with something called the Association of Independent Physicians. This was an important distinction at a time when a pitched battle was going on over whether doctors could bill extra for services, beyond what they were paid under public medicare. This was lesson No. 4: check facts once, twice, three times and more because small errors make big differences.

There were many more lessons that summer and many more since.

Daily journalism has taken me to four different newspapers and three offices of the national wire service, in six different cities.

It's not for everyone. Only about half a dozen of the 120 people in my journalism class of '83 are still in the business. Many never worked a day as journalists. Some stayed for a while and then went on to other careers.

Today's young journalists require a lot more and different skills. I wrote my first stories on a typewriter and carried quarters in my pocket. The only way to reach the newsroom was if I could find a pay phone.

It's also a tougher world for young journalists. The job of newspaper reporter was recently ranked as the least desirable of all jobs out of 200 occupations looked at by website CareerCast based on such factors as income, work environment, hiring outlook and stress. Dishwashers and jail guards ranked higher.

The top job is actuary, the folks who interpret statistics to determine probabilities of accidents, sickness, death, etc. A lot of them work for insurance companies.

I'm fairly good with numbers and even briefly studied accounting and statistics at university. I suppose I could have become an actuary.

But, all in all, I'm glad I chose daily journalism.

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About Bob Cox

Bob Cox was named publisher of the Winnipeg Free Press in November 2007. He joined the newspaper as editor in May 2005.

"Rejoined" is a better word for it, because Bob first worked at the newspaper as a reporter in January 1984. He covered crime and courts for three years before getting restless and moving on to other journalism jobs.

Since then, his career has spanned four provinces and five cities. Highlights include working in Ottawa for the Canadian Press covering Prime Minister Jean Chrétien during his first term in office, and five years at the Globe and Mail in Toronto, first as national editor and later as night editor.

Bob grew up on a farm in southwestern Ontario, but has spent most of his adult life in Western Canada in Winnipeg, Regina and Edmonton.

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