After 61 years in the news business, 41 of them associated with The Sault Star, first as editor and then as a freelance columnist upon retirement, I find myself on the sidelines.
It is not exactly the way I intended to bow out, with the last column I wrote for the paper being one it wouldn’t print, but it is what it is.
The column at issue outlined and was critical of the plea bargain the Crown and defence intended to present to Superior Court Justice Ian McMillan on July 28 that would see Eric Mearow, Ron Mitchell and Dylan Jocko, the three people accused of murdering and dismembering Wesley Hallam at a house party in January 2011, having their charges reduced from first-degree murder to manslaughter.
This reduction in the charges would see the three become eligible to return to the streets of this city in about two years as they also were to be given credit for time served. A reduction to second-degree murder would have seen them serve a minimum 10 years, more if the judge were so inclined.
The story of the plea bargain was broken by Steffanie Petroni of Northern Hoot. I informed The Star about the story and, verifying for myself that the deal was indeed in place, began working on a column critical of it.
When Sault Star editor Frank Rupnik received my column, which was scheduled to appear the next day, July 23, he informed me it had to be lawyered as there was a ban on publication of evidence from the preliminary hearing. McMillan’s decision on whether there was enough evidence to commit the three to trial was not scheduled to come until September.
The word Rupnik got from legal counsel was that by publishing the column the paper would risk being held in contempt of court because, if there was a change of mind and the case got before a jury, publication possibly could taint the jury pool. Rupnik was told the fact that the story had already appeared on Northern Hoot “was not a strong defence” against a contempt charge.
My 61 years in this business told me that no defence would be needed since the column was not about evidence from the preliminary hearing, but instead was about the Crown caving in and making a mockery of the justice system by agreeing to the plea bargain. As well, the Crown itself had provided the information to those outside the system, namely Sandra Hallam, the mother of the victim, and witnesses.
As far as I was concerned, word of the plea bargain was news that the community had a right to know and none of the major outlets in the city were touching it.
So, when the supposedly big game in town declined to publish my commentary, I passed it on to Northern Hoot. It produced it on its website without any blowback or legal repercussions. The column also was shared on social media. No blowback from that either.
It was pretty hard to take, to see a small operation like Northern Hoot have the courage to print the column when the paper I had nourished as editor for 18 years, from 1975 to 1993, didn’t, especially when legal advice said something (contempt of court) could happen, not that it would happen.
And make no mistake, it was the paper’s decision not to publish the column. Legal counsel offers advice; it remains the paper’s decision as to whether to print or not.
Anyway, as a result of what I see as The Sault Star placing caution and its own interests above that of the community’s, I find it is just not in me to write for it any more.
So I am writing this column, which Petroni of Northern Hoot has agreed to publish, to say goodbye and express my appreciation to the paper for the voice it gave me and to the readers who have followed me over the past 40 years.
I will miss you both.
From the day I began writing sports for the local weekly in my hometown of Dryden in 1953 as a high school student I began a love affair with journalism that has never left me. I have always considered myself one of the luckiest people alive to have had a job that I loved to go to every day.
However, thinking back on my days as editor of The Sault Star, I must admit I really didn’t have a very hard job. I had such a wonderful staff, newsroom managers who took the load off me and a reporting crew that covered the city like a blanket, that there was really little I had to do.
I probably worked harder in retirement than I did while I was in the editor’s chair.
John Halucha, who followed me as editor, used to graciously allow me to take over all of Page 5 when a subject required far more space than that I was regularly allotted on the editorial page.
On one such occasion, where council had turned the PUC into a corporation with instructions to make its way in the market place yet staff was recommending that it not be allowed to take over our treatment plants, I produced not only my regular column but four others as well as a full Page 5 where I attempted to nail down how councillors were going to vote on the issue when it came before them.
From the comments I thought it was going to be 10-3 in favour. Two didn’t vote the way their words indicated so it came out 8-5.
Harking back as I write this, I’m thinking Halucha should have been gracious. After all, he only had to pay for my regular column. The rest were freebies. I wrote them because I wanted to get the message across about how unfair it would be to ask the PUC to attempt to handle the water of other municipalities if we were not prepared to let it handle ours.
However, in light of the problem with our water in recent years, I admit I would have a hard time mounting a defence if someone asked, “And how is that working for you now, Doug.”
When I retired as editor in 1993 the paper asked me if I would agree to carry on with the column I had been writing since January 1976. We struck a three-year deal for the period left on the lease of my company car and then an open-ended deal which I thought would run for two or three years max before I ran out of steam.
Now, 20 years later, I am writing the letter that my career is finally finis.
Actually, over the years there have been times when I considered dropping the column but then something always seemed to come along that got the juices flowing again.
One such incident occurred last year. I was thinking it might be time to take a rest and then the controversy engulfing Algoma Public Health broke into the open and I was away again, writing a dozen either full or partial columns that were as much about providing news as they were about comment, the regular news media seemingly leaving the field to me.
Then there was what I refer to as the greatest column I never wrote.
A young woman suffering from multiple sclerosis who had had her home modified to suit her needs was going to be forced out of it because the company that held her mortgage, which was now due, was increasing the mortgage rate, which was already higher than the norm because it was considered high risk, substantially beyond her ability to pay.
She told me she had contacted the mayor, her MPP, her MP and lawyers to no avail.
“You’re my last resort,” she said.
Armed with that endorsement I set about looking into her case and eventually a deal was reached that both she and the mortgage company were prepared to live with.
There was only one requirement remaining to get the deal done. The mortgage company demanded that I not write a line about the matter.
I began my daily newspaper career in 1955 as sports editor of The Trail Daily Times. After a year I began to realize it might be wise to broaden my horizons so I asked for some general assignments.
Being able to go two ways eventually worked out well as I worked as a general reporter for The Calgary Albertan, a sports reporter for The Regina Leader-Post and in both departments during my 13-year stint at The Edmonton Journal.
It was from The Journal that I arrived at The Sault Star, accepting a transfer here as editor, just the third the paper had known, after the Southam Company bought it from the Curran family.
It was a move I have never regretted.
I quickly came to love the paper and the city and its people.
I will miss serving you all. However, I may not be totally off the scene. Petroni says she is prepared to print anything I send her way so there probably will be some items from me from time to time.
Even though I am no longer writing a column on a regular basis, it seems the ideas won’t stop popping into my head so I know there will be times that they will demand an outlet.
So when they do I hope I will see you on Northern Hoot.