Nonfiction Review by Lynne Van Luven

Mark Bulgutch, That’s Why I’m a Journalist: Top Canadian Reporters Tell Their Most Unforgettable Stories (Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, 2015). Hardcover, 328 pp., $32.95.

That's Why I'm a JournalistOn the very day I sat down to think about this review, news about print journalism sank to yet another level: Postmedia announced it was cutting ninety jobs, affecting newsrooms in Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary, and Ottawa. “Resource pooling” was the new strategy: reporters in former rival newsrooms, such as The Vancouver Sun and The Vancouver Province, would now be working for a “joint rewrite” desk, which would then “adjust” copy to serve the readers of each paper.

If you had told me, even a decade ago, that broadsheets such as The Edmonton Journal would be sharing stories and editors with the tabloid Edmonton Sun, I would have scoffed. “Never,” I would have shouted/shrieked. How wrong was I: the most recent cascade of events to undermine my “Never” began in the summer of 2010 when CanWest Global fell into the embrace of The National Post, morphed further in October 2014 when Postmedia bought 170 news outlets from Quebecor Media and plunged again in April 2015 when Postmedia purchased Sun Media’s English-language news holdings. With the January 2016 cuts, my worst fears had come to pass: corporate amalgamation had triumphed, and One Big Newsroom had arrived.

Of course, Mark Bulgutch could not have predicted the further truncation of the reporting world into which his new book would arrive. His collection of interviews perhaps springs from good intentions but its title is a bit deceiving: it should read That’s Why I’m a Broadcast Journalist; most of the contributors have gained renown as television or radio journalists—even if they might have begun as print reporters. And while citizens do need to see on-the-spot reports showing the destruction of Aleppo, surely they also need to gain context from long-form print journalism? Without questioning the professionalism of any of Bulgutch’s forty-four subjects, I did bridle a little about the broadcast triumphalism inherent in the lineup. Surely Geoffrey York or Stephanie Nolen also have inspiring coverage to contribute? And who says each reporter has only one “unforgettable” story?

In his disarming introduction, Bulgutch tells us that when he was five or six, he wanted to be a milkman, but “just a few years later I was even more certain that I wanted to be a journalist.” The Montreal Star his factory-worker father brought home each night delivered the “entire world…suddenly in my hands.” Bulgutch’s realization speaks to boomer readers, now the sole (and dwindling) consumers of most print media. Soon, of course, Bulgutch was delivering newspapers himself. (This is all boilerplate stuff when it comes to the old-style journalist’s usual mythology of induction into the trade as a nipper.) After journalism school at Carleton University, he went on to work in television with cbc News for forty years, mainly as an editor and producer. This is a book with a mission: Bulgutch hopes that his forty-four interviews (seventeen of his subjects are women) with prominent (predominantly cbc) reporters will demonstrate that on-the-ground first-person reporting is far superior to websites, blogs, compilation news, and social media, and that we should all repudiate “trivia disguised as news.” I agree, but I am not sure a book such as this is going to stem the tsunami of insignificant flotsam flooding people’s minds.

The book opens with David Common talking about covering the 2010 earthquake in Haiti and ends with Reg Sherren escorting a former prisoner of war as he returned to Nagasaki. In between, you can hear cbc Radio’s Anna Maria Tremonti talk about Sarajevo in 1992, Don Murray recall the collapse of the ussr, and Nahlah Ayed recount the revolution in Egypt that ended Hosni Mubarak’s regime. In the parlance of J-schools, these recollections are war stories in which seasoned pros are thought to inspire newbies. Everyone has memorable moments in their careers, and it’s wonderful to be reminded that national broadcasters were there. But I’m not sure for whom That’s Why I’m a Journalist is intended: it is more exhortative than educational, so I cannot see it as a training text in first-year journalism or media studies courses. Maybe it’s intended for the reserved reading list? Perhaps it’s meant to remind politicians, especially the new Liberal government, that cbc is a worthy beast that deserves better feeding?

Although his introduction is an impassioned essay, Bulgutch is hardly naïve: “Journalism is undergoing existential threats. Buying a newspaper and watching a TV newscast at a set time of the day both seem like prehistoric rituals.” Most teenagers would agree. And he still believes there is hope for the reporter of tomorrow: “I’ve taught journalism part-time for almost thirty years at Ryerson University. I’ve yet to meet a student who wants to be a journalist so that he or she can report on trivia.” I’m glad that was his experience, but, alas and alack, testimonials from Martin Seemungal or Susan Ormiston are mere beetles underfoot as the hard-nosed honchos of corporate journalism pursue profit at any cost.

—Lynne Van Luven

As in The Malahat Review, 194, Spring 2016, 105-106