The newspaper industry chewed me up and spit me out
READER WARNING: The following is an overly detailed, self-indulgent biography. Ahh, the benefits of having a blog.
“There’s never been any doubt, James, that you’ll do awesomely at whatever gig you end up tackling. You’ve always had that in you.”
— Gail Sigurdson, my former editor at theWinnipeg Sun, upon hearing of my dismissal from Northern News Services.
So here I am.
Thirty-five years after I first toiled as a summer employee in the chemically fumed darkrooms of the Toronto Sun while at college, I’ve had a full career and am semi-retired in Yellowknife.
I parlayed that time as a darkroom tech into being a freelance photographer; chasing ambulances and stalking celebrities.
A stint in Brandon, Manitoba, as a full-time news photographer came next, where I taught myself how to be a reporter and decided I enjoyed writing about the entertainment scene. That moved me to the Winnipeg Sun, where I covered the bar scene — being paid to write a night clubs column, now that’s a job that can only lead to trouble — and later became a courts and cops reporter.
Here’s what I did after that:
- Winnipeg Sun: Photo department supervisor
- Government of Manitoba: Press secretary to cabinet
- Winnipeg Sun: Photo editor
- Private Eye Studios: My commercial photography sideline business
- Transcontinental Media: Managing editor of five Winnipeg community newspapers
- Brandon Sun: Managing editor
That last job lasted for 10 years. It was extremely difficult, as I was running a budget that was shrinking each year as the business was embroiled in the great, painful decline of newspapers in the digital age.
Combine that with my second divorce and the death of my father — not to mention battling some of my own decades-long demons — and I was emotionally done in 2014. I took a doctor sanctioned stress leave for a couple of months and was laid off soon after I returned from that.
“We’re going in a different direction,” the publisher told me, as human resources goons (“I prefer the hands-on touch you only get with hired goons,” Mr. Burns, The Simpsons … lol …) from head office sat nearby in his office, encouraging me to sign a settlement that contained a generous severance package.
It came at a time when junior and senior managers were being let go throughout the company. But I also figured they had lost faith in my ability to handle the stress.
Their assessment was accurate. I knew it.
I took the severance cash and ended my association with the Brandon Sun — after a combined service of 15 years — on a very professional and dignified note. I am not one for burning bridges. There is nothing to be gained from that.
I then wondered if I was done with journalism. I had seen plenty of people fall off the reporting wagon over the year due to the high stress and unending demands of the profession. I readied myself for that.
And accepted it. Sort of.
I decided I would freelance a bit for an upstart online news and information website. It was fun. I had more freedom to be even more outrageous, but I also didn’t have a bullshit filter of a publisher and the legal protection if a target of my vitriol decided to lawyer up and come after me. I also stated my own freelance writing and photography business, James O’Connor UNLIMITED.
I also had more time to devote to the Rotary Club of Brandon. I took over running the club’s website and volunteered at its many fundraising activities. I was elevated to vice-president of the club. I felt good for being able to give back to the community.
But to pay the bills — I kept the house after the divorce — I took a job selling cars. Nissans first, then Hondas. Once I had some training, I could see how good sales were made and how I needed to work with clients. It was kinda fun. But very, very competitive.
I also ran a failed campaign for city council. I read the political tea leaves poorly and ran in the wrong ward in the city. The reputation I had developed in my weekly columns in the newspaper branded me as a right-winger and not the right fit for the more politically “progressive” downtown area I chose to run in. One ward to the west wold have been a better pick. But I thought I had the best ideas to improve the city’s core and really wanted to help.
That loss was tough. I was handed a consolation prize from the city with a position on the Heritage Committee. Ironically, that involved working towards many of the same polices I had promoted in my campaign.
After a couple of years, I started yearning for a newsroom again. I also decided I needed to get out of Brandon. Or Barndon, as it is mockingly known. Being an agricultural service centre.
So I started looking for media jobs and was almost hired by a publisher who was opening a new community paper in the Peace River region in northeast B.C. However, as I was in Dawson Creek there looking for a place to live, he heard from his bank — no loan for the new paper.
But the allure of the rugged North sunk into me hard.
Shortly after, I saw an ad for Northern News Services in Yellowknife. Now that would be cool, I thought to myself. What a chill place to live — literally, as I write this, as it’s -33 C — and the chain of papers with an award-winning pedigree looked promising.
I was hired over the phone by a senior editor who was surprised someone with my resume would want to move to Yellowknife to work at a community paper.
“I bet I can’t pay you what you want,” said Bruce Valpy.
“Try me,” I said.
The pay at Northern News Services has always been quite well, umm … modest compared to similar operations in southern Canada. It’s especially hard on staff who move to Yellowknife only to find extremely expensive rent and overall pricey living conditions.
But I digress.
I wanted to move and I wanted the job. So I would make things work.
I packed my two cats in my Honda Fit ultra compact car and ventured out on a three-day mid-summer odyssey. I don’t recommend trying that. Cats are not good driving companions.
Pulling into in Yellowknife, I almost immediately sensed I would be spending the rest of my life here. And I still feel that way. This is such a wonderfully unique part of the country, it just made me feel good inside.
It was tough for me at NNSL at the start. I knew it would be, as I had never been a full-time ‘desker’ in my career, cranking out newspaper page after page in InDesign like a machine.
But I was ready to learn and eager for a challenge.
I was assigned running the territorial News/North. So I had to get up to speed on what was going on in all the communities outside of Yellowknife.
It was a fascinating learning experience. I even traveled to Inuvik and Hay River on my own dime to learn about the different regions in this vast territory. The vastness of NWT left me in awe.
I revived my column writing skills, but didn’t really know what to write about. A first for me. I also wondered what tone to take.
My bosses — Valpy and Mike Bryant — offered solid advice and let me know how not to sound like the average schmuck who comes up here and can’t stop comparing us with the south.
So I decided to play it safe and tone down the right-wing character I had assumed while at the Brandon Sun (a paper in a decidedly conservative region corner of Manitoba). I found I could still ruffle feathers by just taking a centre-right view on issues.
After my first year at News/North I was selected Columnist of the Year in 2017 in a Better Newspapers Competition by the Saskatchewan Weekly Newspapers Association (News/North is a member). So there’s that.
I eventually moved over to take the helm of the Yellowknifer. I was excited at the prospect of running the city’s storied newspaper.
However, it was just tough for me to cram three decades of some serious experience — including a decade running a daily paper, including the development and management of the newsroom budget — into the limited role of a junior manager.
I also found my traditionally gruff newsroom temperament — borne out of my years in rough and cranky tabloid papers — to be ill-suited to the new breed of ‘woke’ young j-school grads.
There were frequent arguments over content and conduct between myself and managing editor Bryant — a fellow who I respect deeply. (Sometimes I would turn the heat up just for fun, as Bryant can have a short fuse, and I enjoyed the adrenalin rush of a good debate.) Many of these loud encounters were easily heard by the staff through Bryant’s thin office walls.
I had threatened to quit a few times — I just wasn’t sure what I would do after I did — so it didn’t shock me too much when I was called into the boardroom the morning of Nov. 7.
(I actually had a premonition a few days before that I was indeed going to get canned. Weird, that.)
“James, I have to fire you,” said Bryant, who looked upset about what he was having to do.
After a few minutes, I felt a rush of relief wash over me.
We left on good terms. It just wasn’t a good fit. I knew it, NNSL knew it. We both gave it a good try.
I then went home, had a drink(s), and started making plans for the next chapter of my life. It was time for me to consider semi-retirement. Comfort, peace and acceptance. Finally.
Cabin Radio — the innovative local upstart community radio station that had been a thorn in my side as Yellowknifer editor — contacted me the same day I was canned to confirm my departure.
I thought a while about how to handle that request. I decided to simply tell the truth
Yellowknifer editor James O’Connor leaves NNSL
By Ollie Williams – November 7, 2018 at 12:38pm
James O’Connor says he has been fired as editor of the Yellowknifer newspaper.
O’Connor, employed by NNSL since 2016, took over as the newspaper’s editor a year ago.
NNSL managing editor Mike Bryant confirmed O’Connor’s departure to Cabin Radio but would not say on what terms O’Connor left his position, only adding the newspaper wished him well.
O’Connor, however, told Cabin Radio: “I was fired.”
The former Brandon Sun managing editor’s tenure as Yellowknifer editor began controversially, when he penned a column in which he described an “emerging white middle-aged male minority … losing our once strong grip on the tiller of society.”
The column also appeared to suggest politically incorrect voices were being suppressed.
Though O’Connor insisted much of the column had been light-hearted in tone, many readers reacted with surprise and dismay.
O’Connor, who openly advertised his right-wing politics in later columns, told Cabin Radio he had recently considered quitting.
“No animosity, I just wasn’t what they wanted,” he added.
On Twitter, he wrote: “My time with NNSL is over. After we both gave it our best try, it turned out we just weren’t the right fit. I wish the papers well in the future.”
His replacement has not been named.
(In my second blog post I discussed the “controversial” column referenced by Cabin Radio in detail.)
In the ensuing days, I decided to revive my business name, James O’Connor UNLIMITED.
I also decided to start offering my time to some community groups, starting by being a Kettle Drive volunteer for the Salvation Army. You might have seen me in my ugly Christmas Sweater at some of the kettle locations last month. It was a lot of fun. And I got to meet a lot of really nice people.
To keep connected to the community and to satiate my journalism addiction, I’m helping out that aforementioned Cabin Radio with some law courts coverage, other stories and photos of local events. As a volunteer.
I also received some of really nice notes from friends and fans:
- “Good luck in the future James, I’ll miss reading your articles in the paper, I always enjoyed them.”
- “You were a fair and ethical journalist with your northern coverage. Best of luck in your future.”
- “Just so you know, I received a call from someone who left Yk a few years ago but still follows the news and she was upset. Really enjoyed your writings. Wanted to know what happened. Take care and keep well.”
I am taking care. I have never felt better, although the years of stress and strain have taken their tole on me. I know that.
But I think I’m in a pretty good space. I’m going to volunteer freelance — some paying jobs would be nice — and spend my spare time enjoying all this city has to offer.
Please enjoy the photos I’ve curated from the tens of thousands of images I’ve taken in my career. I dug deep through old print portfolios and explored hundreds of DVDs with scanned film and digital photos I haven’t looked at in years.
I have a deep passion for my new home in Yellowknife.
I know I can be an asset to this community.