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Don Young: I miss meetings. With big groups, board tables and bad coffee.
Specifically, I miss newsroom story meetings — even if I liked to hide at the back.
By: Don Young
Here’s something I never thought I’d write: I miss meetings.
Actual meetings. With colleagues. And an agenda. I don't just mean the kind of meeting where you bump into an acquaintance on the street. And I certainly don't mean one of these awful online versions of a proper sit-down meeting, where I'm constantly yelled at for being on mute, again, or where I have to fret over the secrets our bookcase backdrop reveals about our inner lives. (Note to self: move that 1972 edition of The Joy of Sex to a more secure location.) I know many of you won't believe this, and if the work-from-home transition turns into something more permanent, future generations may never even really know what I'm talking about. But I'm putting it on the record: I miss good old-fashioned meetings with 15 people sitting around a table in a boardroom.
In particular, I miss story meetings. For those who’ve never sat through a newsroom story meeting or are unfamiliar with the industry jargon, a story meeting at a news outlet is when editorial staff gather and discuss the various stories they are working on, or propose new stories to begin working on. Some of the meeting’s agenda will cover the simple logistics of every story's production: what stage is it at? When will it be complete? What extra resources will be needed? Can the story be accelerated? If so, what will that take? Another purpose is the more big-picture stuff: is the tone right? Are there angles that need covering? How should the competing resource demands of two (or more!) stories be reconciled?
But logistics and strategizing aside, story meetings are where the ideas for new stories are generated. What should be covered? The big stories are always obvious — we cover the news of the day. But there’s always opportunities to pursue stories that would otherwise not get attention.
And these meetings are, I have to admit, also a weird and wonderful form of performance art.
Imagine: junior producers pumped up on nervous energy jockeying for chairs where they can make eye contact with the executive producer (exec) — or, in my case, looking for a place to the rear of the exec where I could lurk in the shadows anxiously hoping not to be noticed. Senior producers word-fencing — "Good show last night, eh? Did you see it?" — while circling each another like a pack of ageing wolves wondering who the next one out the door would be for any of the usual reasons ... too old ... too expensive ... too bad at keeping up with the demands of the ever-changing job.
The precise language or the dynamics would differ slightly, depending on the medium. Newspaper meetings would be different from TV, which are different from radio. There would be, or would have been, before COVID, versions at the newer digital shops, too. But in the big picture, they're all the same. I’ve sat through hundreds of story meetings and despite carrying scars from a few of the more nasty ones, I do indeed miss them.
I was 26 when I joined the CBC's TV news program The Journal; a regional hire from CBC Calgary. I knew a handful of the staff, friends from my radio days. But the rest of my new colleagues I knew by reputation only. This included, of course, the show's host, Barbara Frum, then Canada’s most respected (and powerful) journalist. Let me tell you, pitching a story idea to that crowd was intense.
I remember it to this day. Day One. Story Meeting One. I had to pitch something, right? But what? Unfortunately an “idea” dawned on me. The Alberta government had recently invested $11 million in an ostrich farm in yet another attempt to diversify from oil and gas. So, I said to myself, I should pitch this, as a double-ender interview with the relevant cabinet minister, from the ostrich farm.
With my heart rate pushing the limits of human tolerance, I launched into the pitch. When it was over it was met with, as they say, a deafening silence. For the longest four or five seconds of my life the room was frozen in time as my idea hung in the air and the ghost of my once-promising career headed for the exit. Whether it was mercy or collegiality or simply because she was an incredibly kind person, Barbara broke the ice, saying, “Don, what a great idea … let’s do it.” I was saved. But more importantly, I was in.
So, yeah … I miss story meetings. I miss the bad coffee, the half-baked ideas, the hard-eyed competitors, the scrambling BS as you strain to remember details of the Meech Lake Accord or what Walid Jumblat actually said to the Druze. But most of all I miss the integrity and rigour of the journalistic process. The back-and-forth discussions between curious colleagues that occasionally reveal a nugget of editorial gold planted by little more than an instinct.
And, of course, as the years passed, we accumulated a few war stories we could regale colleagues (and bored friends) with, like the time a homeless guy wandered into The Journal's 10:30 meeting, grabbed a coffee, and pitched an idea. It was about feral cats … and I liked it.
So yeah. I miss those meetings. Most of the time. And I hope the next generation of journalists gets to enjoy them, bad coffee and all.
Don Young was the executive producer of the Vancouver 2010 and London 2012 Olympic Games and also an executive producer at CBC Television News. He is a poor banjo player, a worse poet and the dad of an MLA.
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