Monday, December 14, 2020

Queen of the Tabloids by Brian Clark

An Ontario newspaper is on its last legs when a British gossip queen arrives to stir things up; by Brian Clark.

She was the Tabloid Queen, schooled in the ways of Britain's racy scandal sheets, and someone had the bright idea of hiring her to run our stodgy old Canadian daily. She certainly caused a stir. Picture a piranha pool at mealtime.

She was young, blond, thin and pretty - not to mention relentless. She had a high-voltage personality and liked to get her way. Picture a steamroller with perfect teeth.

I had been at the Journal for 28 years when Debbie McIvor first marched into the newsroom. I was known as a survivor, having been spared the boot over countless rounds of layoffs.

The Journal was a family-owned newspaper when I arrived in 1990 to work as a copy editor. It was a busy, bustling enterprise then, an aggressive but serious newspaper that regularly exposed corruption, uncovered scandals and unearthed government waste. We dug up dirt at city hall, police headquarters, the hospital, the hydro commission.

It was a glorious time at the Journal, but even then the writing was on the wall. Established in 1875, it was one of the last independent papers in Ontario, and the owners faced enormous pressure to sell to one of the chains.

And it was ripe for the picking, with a top-heavy management structure consisting of a bewildering array of executives with imprecisely defined responsibilities. The members of this bloated administrative body had two priorities: golf and happy hour.

Enter Annie, a squat, big-haired classified advertising clerk who managed to drain the Journal of $3 million over several years in a not-terribly-sophisticated fraud scheme that went undetected while the executives worked on their putting. By the time Annie's larceny was discovered, it was too late for the Journal. The damage had been done and the owners had to put the paper on the block.

The corporate buyer wasted no time slashing the workforce fat. And over the next several years, a succession of companies bought the paper and scythed their way through the worker ranks with relentless efficiency.

The newsroom was hit especially hard with layoffs, and, not surprisingly, the investigative pieces went out the window, replaced by hard-hitting coverage of dog shows, store openings, volunteer appreciation nights and parades of any kind.

The vast majority of the 125,000 people in the community responded to the decline in editorial quality by becoming staunch, even enthusiastic, non-subscribers.

That's when Debbie entered the picture. She had recently returned home to Canada after having worked for 10 years at various tabloids in England, arguably home to the sleaziest scandal rags in the world.

I was eventually able to piece together a portrait of her UK years, based on her own British blog (called The Tabloid Queen) and information gleaned from the Internet.

She learned the reporting craft at some mid-sized papers in northern England, then was hired at one of the national tabs in London. Debbie pawed through celebrities' trash, staked out hotels and crashed high-profile weddings - all in an effort to dig up dirt. She once feigned injury in front of Victoria Beckham's limo and was invited inside long enough to elicit sufficient information for a 600-word story.

But Debbie's specialty was making people cry. It didn't matter whether she was interviewing a fallen movie star, a disgraced politician or a crime victim, Debbie knew how to trigger the waterworks. Her colleagues called her the Tearjerker.

After suffering a genuine injury - she broke her ankle while pursuing Hugh Grant - Debbie was transferred to the copy desk, where she developed an affinity for tarting up limp stories and cranking out crazy headlines. She worked her way up to middle management in the newsroom.

Exactly why she left Britain and accepted a job as managing editor at a down-in-the-mouth Ontario daily, Debbie never said. She arrived at the Journal when circulation had fallen off a cliff. Fifteen journalists rattled around a cavernous newsroom that once held 50.

So when Debbie entered our drab little world, her first task was to defibrillate the whole languid lot of us. If nothing else, she did accomplish that - eventually. She zapped some life into us through the sheer force of her personality.

On her first day, she called the newsroom staff together in a meeting room and, after a few minutes of small talk, got down to business. "A little birdie tells me your mayor has been up to a little extra-curricular rumpy-pumpy," she said.

Silence fell over the room as we exchanged quizzical glances.

"Um, a little what?" someone finally asked.

"He's boinking someone at city hall," Debbie said, flashing a mischievous grin. "I hadn't been at my desk more than five minutes when I got a tip that the mayor is having an affair."

As news editor, I felt obliged to speak up. "OK, first of all, the mayor is 80 years old."

"Doesn't matter," Debbie said, twirling a blond curl. "At my last paper, we had an 86-year-old archbishop who couldn't keep his hands off his secretary. You know what our headline said? His Horniness."

"And second," I continued, "I'm pretty sure I know who your source is. It's Henry Busby, right? You know what his last tip was? That Chief Blake used to be a porn star. I mean, the guy's kinda crazy."

Debbie's face lit up. "What? Who's a porn star?"

I groaned, already regretting my words. "Nobody."

"Who's Chief Blake?" she asked.

"The fire chief, Scott Blake, and I told you -"

"This is great!" She sprang from her chair and started pacing. "The fire chief is a porn star! Brilliant!"

"Was a porn star," I said. "Except, like I told you -"

"Wait!" Debbie stopped in her tracks, eyes wide. She held her hands up, making a frame in front of her face like a movie director. "I can see it. A big front-page splash. We'll need a picture of the chief with flames behind him. And the headline will be ..."

She paused, looking around at the breathless newsroom staff.

"And the headline will be... Scott's Dirty Secret. No, wait. Scott's Burning Secret. No, wait. Hot Scott's Burning Secret."

She sat back down and smiled. "Yes! Now please tell me that the fire chief is a trim six-footer with a granite jaw and swept-back grey hair and a salt-and-pepper moustache. And that he still rides on the back of the fire trucks - sometimes."

"Not exactly," I said. "He's short, fat and bald. And he rides a desk - all the time."

Her shoulders sagged a little. "Oh well. Still a great story, though. Two great stories. I'm gonna like working here. Two sex scandals in one day!"

"Two alleged sex scandals," I said. "Two exceedingly unlikely sex scandals. Like I said, Henry Busby is crazy."

"Well, you know what?" Debbie said. "Even crazy people can be right sometimes. So let's check out both stories. OK? Back to work."

She jumped up and breezed out of the room, leaving the rest of us to stare at each other, silent and slack-jawed.



Debbie had the opportunity to show off her specialty during a meeting one day of the editorial board.

At large papers, the board is made up of the editorial page editor and editorial writers, and one of its functions is to interview politicians, businesspeople and other big shots who deign to visit the newsroom. For the Journal, "editorial board" was a grandiose term for a gathering of newsroom staffers who were too slow to duck under their desks when the managing editor came looking for "volunteers" to quiz a visiting VIP.

Provincial Health Minister William Joy was in town to meet with local Liberal faithful, and he agreed to stop by the Journal. Debbie had roped me into joining the meeting, along with a few reporters and a photographer. We all gathered around a big boardroom table.

The minister, at 37 the youngest member of the cabinet, opened with a somnolent speech about improvements to the health-care system. After about 10 minutes, Debbie began to squirm with boredom, like an eight-year-old at the opera.

Then Joy made a big funding announcement: $10 million to expand and update the maternity ward at St. Clement's Hospital. "I visited the ward earlier today to notify the staff about this great news," he said. "As you can imagine, they were thrilled. I must say, they have a lot of wonderful -"

He hesitated, the words caught in his throat, and pressed a hand to his chest.

"They have a lot of wonderful, caring people working down there," he continued, his voice thick with emotion.

As the room fell silent, Debbie perked up, like a resting lion scenting prey.

Joy looked around the room. "I do apologize for getting emotional. Um, you see, this was the first time I'd been in a maternity ward since..." He paused. "Well, never mind. It's not important."

Debbie jumped in. "No, please tell us."

Joy shifted uncomfortably in his seat. "Well, it was the first time I'd been in a maternity ward since my wife gave birth to our son three weeks ago. You see, my wife and I had trouble..." He paused again. "You know what, that's not what I'm here to talk about."

"Please, William, we'd like to hear," Debbie said. "What about you and your wife?"

Joy soldiered on for a while, deflecting Debbie's inquiries and trying to maintain his ministerial persona. But he had no idea the forces he was up against.

"I'm sure your readers would prefer to learn more about the great plans we have for the maternity ward," he said.

That's when Debbie, who was sitting directly across from Joy, leaned forward and focused her deep blue eyes on the minister. "What's your son's name?" she asked softly.

After that, Joy didn't stand a chance. He looked down, cleared his throat and said, "We call him Liam."

Debbie smiled. "Oh, I love that name. And I'll bet he's the apple of your eye."

Joy smiled back and nodded.

Debbie leaned in even farther. "Is Liam your first child, William?" Her voice was a soothing balm.

Joy pursed his lips tightly and nodded again. "You see, my wife Wendy and I tried for years -" He choked up. "We tried for years to have a baby. We saw so many specialists and tried so many things."

"That can be difficult for a marriage, can't it?"

Joy took a deep, stuttering breath. "Yes, Debbie. To be honest with you, I wasn't sure if our marriage was going to survive."

Debbie never took her eyes off him. She knew when to probe and when to retreat, when to smile and when to nod - and when just to stay quiet.

"Then we tried in vitro fertilization," Joy said. "We saw it as our last chance."

His face brightened. "And it worked. Thank God it worked," he said, his voice quavering.

Debbie gave him a warm smile. "Now tell us about the first time you held your son."

She reached out and touched his hand. That's when the last remnants of his stoic facade crumbled, like an imploding dam, and the tears flowed.

"It was the happiest moment of my life," he sobbed. "I never thought I could be so happy."

He buried his head in his hands and wept while the photographer took shot after shot. And at that moment, I swear Debbie moved to high-five a colleague before quickly altering course and smoothing the hair on the back of her head.

The headline for our front-page spread was obvious: Tears of Joy.



Debbie never did get her sexposés.

We discreetly checked out the tip about the mayor's alleged shenanigans, as absurd as the idea seemed. But the inquiry didn't get far. A few days after Debbie's debut, fate intervened in the form of a blocked coronary artery when His Worship Wilfred Grundy suffered a heart attack at his desk and did a face-plant into a steaming bowl of porridge. Even Debbie agreed it would be distasteful to continue with the sex probe at that point.

As for the fire chief, we took the direct approach, asking him straight out if he had ever been in pornographic movies. He laughed so hard he fell off his chair and popped open the stitches on his inguinal hernia.

But Debbie did manage to engineer a scoop almost as juicy as those two non-starters: an exclusive story about a flighty film starlet whose career, if not a complete train wreck, was certainly in imminent danger of derailing.

I arrived at work that day to find Debbie flitting around the newsroom like Tinker Bell on espresso.

"What's going on?" I asked.

Debbie smiled. "Do you know who Meagan Murphy is?"

Given my boss's story preferences, I had been keeping up with the kind of celebrity dross that I used to ignore. So I knew that Meagan Murphy was becoming a fixture of trashy supermarket tabloids, owing to her recreational drug use, crash-and-burn relationships and the inconvenient location of trees during her martini-soaked drives home.

"Ah, yeah, film star, scandalous behaviour," I said. "What about her?"

"Well, she's in town shooting a movie, some kind of romantic comedy, and she's going to be tomorrow's front-page splash," Debbie said.

"Really, they're granting us an interview?" I asked doubtfully.

"No. But that never stopped me before."

Debbie figured this was the perfect opportunity to take a young reporter under her wing and teach her the craft: excavating the dirt, tabloid-style. She chose Karen Burton, also blond and also pretty, but a few years younger than Debbie.

Step One of the mentorship would be a scouting mission to the film set to figure out how to ambush Murphy, since no interviews would be allowed.

I decided I'd better tag along - voice of reason and everything.

They had closed off one block of the main drag to film scenes from Random Chance. The plot, according to what we could glean off the Internet, was the usual rom-com dreck: working girl is paired with obnoxious colleague whom she loathes but eventually loves.

Wooden barricades had been erected across the street. Beyond the barriers were cameras, boom mikes, lights, cables running everywhere, trailers and lots of people in hurry-up-and-wait mode. Dozens of onlookers lined the barricades hoping to spy someone famous.

Debbie scanned the scene like Patton surveying a battlefield.

"Wait here," she said to me and Karen as she pushed her way to the front of the barriers and caught the eye of a burly security guard. I saw her flash the guy her 100-watt smile and the two began chatting. She leaned in, said something, pointed at someone on the set and touched the guard's arm.

He wandered off but came back a minute later and handed something to Debbie. She smiled again, touched his arm again and left. I saw her finger her BlackBerry and a second later Karen's phone beeped. "She wants us to meet her back at the newsroom," Karen said.

There, Debbie showed us the souvenir supplied by the security guard: a baseball cap featuring the film's title that most of the crew members were wearing.

"OK, here's the plan," Debbie said. "There's only one security guard at those barriers. And he's bored and easily distracted. So, Karen, you'll head back there in about an hour. I can't be doing the distracting part again because the guy knows me. So Tina will do that."

Tina Gerard was one of our photographers, and she had the looks to be almost as distracting as Debbie.

"So, Karen, once Tina gets this guy's attention, I want you to jump the barrier, slap on the hat, pull out your phone and look busy. Everyone will think you're just another crew member."

"Isn't that trespassing?" I asked.

"It's a public street. How is that trespassing?" Debbie replied.

I had no answer.

"After that, Karen, it's just a matter of finding Murphy's trailer and talking her into an interview," Debbie said.

Amazingly, the plan actually worked (well, most of it).

Here's how it went down, according to Karen's breathless description of events:

Tina did divert the guard's attention, and Karen did leap the barrier, don the cap and blend in with the crew. She found Murphy's trailer, knocked on the door and entered.

"What the hell's the deal with the fruit juice?" Murphy snapped before Karen could introduce herself.

"Pardon?"

"I said, what's with the fruit juice, Einstein? Everyone knows I only drink iceberg water. I have no use for this sugary junk."

"Excuse me, I don't actually work here," Karen said. "My name is Karen Burton and I'm a reporter with the Journal. I was hoping I could talk to you for a few minutes."

At that point, Murphy found a use for the bottle of fruit juice. She picked it up and flung it at Karen, striking her on the shoulder. "Ned!" she screamed. "How did this reporter get in here?"

Karen was more shocked than hurt, but she still had the presence of mind to pull her smart phone out of her purse. She got a great shot of Murphy launching a second bottle, which hit a wall.

Karen was quickly ushered off the set. Total time of the mission: about seven minutes.

Debbie was over the moon. "Forget the interview, this is way better. Karen, write it up in first person: how I was attacked by Meagan Murphy. Eight-hundred words. Awesome!"

Karen's picture of a snarling, bottle-flinging Murphy ran six columns. The headline: Spoiled Brat.



Debbie McIvor's stay at the Journal was not a long one. After about 14 months, she was hired to run a big-city tabloid. We all gathered at the Robin Hood Pub to say our goodbyes. It came as no surprise to anyone that Debbie was a formidable drinker and a happy drunk.

I'd been to many such sendoffs, but until this one had never felt compelled to make a speech. This time I wanted to.

"You know, Debbie, we're sad to see you go, although clearly you will now be less of a square peg in a round hole. I mean, you and the Sun were made for each other. And God knows you and I have had our disagreements. But there's one thing I want you to know: you made this job fun again. You brought enthusiasm and passion and joy and zeal and flare to the newsroom. Every day was an adventure. This job should be fun. I mean, it all has to be tempered by responsibility, but I think that's where I came in."

I paused. "Before you came here, we were a rather glum lot, and you could see it in the paper. It was glum. Well, not now. And the readers have noticed. They don't all like it, judging by some of the calls I've received, but they can see the energy, the vitality. The circulation has even started to rebound. And for that, I want to thank you."

I raised my glass, looked her in the eye and gave her the most warmhearted smile I could manage. "We're really going to miss you," I said softly.

And guess what? I made Debbie McIvor cry.

So who's the Tearjerker now?

6 comments:

  1. I liked the amusing similes and the whole of the story but a stronger finish would have helped. Still good though and rings true, alas.

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  2. Great character sketch and amusing insight into the underside of newspapers.
    Could have used a stronger plot line, but an entertaining read.

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  3. Nice character description. It was a fun read.

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  4. Agree with the previous comments. Trying to decide whether the MC's speech at the end was fully sincere or slightly tongue-in-cheek...

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  5. I once had a boss who was a lot like Debbie (in a way, who hasn't?) I really enjoyed this, it was a fun story. Would like to read more from this author.

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  6. I thought the writing was smooth and clever, and the conclusion appropriately open-ended. (I am compelled to stick up for this piece...)

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