This year, the Ottawa Citizen — the capital’s oldest continuously operated business — marked its 175th anniversary. The COVID-19 pandemic put our plans to celebrate this remarkable milestone on hold, but we couldn’t let the year end without showing why this institution has been an important voice in our community for so long. This article is part of a series of stories celebrating the newspaper’s past and looking forward to the future.
To celebrate the Ottawa Citizen’s 175th anniversary this year, we got back in touch with our former editors-in-chief — those who have led the paper through periods of great upheaval, success and uncertainty — to have them reflect on their time at the Citizen.
They were asked two questions: what are you most proud of in your time at the paper? And what is your greatest disappointment?
Here are their answers.
Russ Mills (1976 to 1984)
My best and worst days as editor of the Ottawa Citizen were the same day, Aug. 27, 1980. That was the day the Ottawa Journal went out of business. The Journal had been the Citizen’s main competitor since it started publishing in 1885. Beating the Journal on news coverage was the main reason why editors of the Citizen went to work in the morning.
On the surface, it was a good day because we all knew two daily newspapers as similar as the Citizen and Journal could not survive in Ottawa over the long term. The politics and circulations of the two papers were somewhat different, but both covered the same news and in many ways were interchangeable. There was not enough revenue in the city for both. One would have to fold.
When we learned that the Citizen would be the survivor of this 95-year struggle, it was cause for celebration. But there was also sadness that hundreds of journalists and other newspaper workers would be out of jobs. How would we keep score when there was no Journal to beat?
Some of the Journal’s most popular writers, including sports editor Eddie McCabe and city columnist Dave Brown, had already moved to the Citizen as the Journal struggled in its final years. Many others would join the Citizen as the paper expanded its circulation and staff to adapt to being the only English-language newspaper in town. But many others were left behind.
The loss of a daily newspaper and its voice is never a good time for any community. Our celebrations on that day were rather hollow.
Gord Fisher (1989 to 1991)
The assignment seemed simple enough. Draft a few words on the highs and lows of being an editor-in-chief at The Citizen.
But simple isn’t always easy. So many highs, and more than a few lows. How to boil it down?
Yes, of course. The story. It was all about the story, every day, every hour, every minute. Nothing else really mattered. Find the story. Tell the story. Put it to bed and start again the very next day.
That regret is made even more worrisome today as Citizen reporters and editors struggle to cover perhaps the biggest story of our lifetime, as a killer virus stalks our land. Now watching from the sidelines, it is at times like these that one recognizes how much we need the resolute work of journalists, and what a tragedy it is that there isn’t room for more of them.
Gerry Nott (2010-2014)
My time at the Citizen was marked by the blunt and disruptive impact of the migration of major advertisers from mainstream print publications to digital platforms — predominantly Google and Facebook.
First as editor in chief, then publisher of the Citizen, I was required to meet those challenges with deep cost savings strategies, including severe staff reductions and cancelling the Sunday Citizen.
Those were stressful and, for many of us, sad times. Friends lost their jobs or were unable to keep up with the pace of change, and left the business.
Proudly though, I watched as our newsroom and advertising staffs rapidly transformed themselves into multi-platform editors, reporters, photographers and sales people. This dedicated group had to, out of necessity, reinvent itself, learn new skills, adapt to rapid change on the fly.
To see them meet that challenge while producing compelling local journalism and award-winning national calibre content is something of which we all should be very proud.
During that period, the Citizen dominated the local news landscape and challenged the national media in setting the bar high for political reporting in Canada.
The Citizen of 2020 has done a remarkable job of transforming itself and setting the path for the next 175 years.
Andrew Potter (2013-2016)
What are you most proud of during your time as EIC at the Citizen?
A few things. Getting to work on the robocalls story with Glen McGregor and Stephen Maher was a privilege (and exhilarating), and watching them win the National Newspaper Award and the Michener for it made me very happy. They worked very hard for a long time and they deserved all the accolades they got.
It was incredible to see how everyone would come together when things really went crazy — the first OC Transpo bus crash, Michael Zehaf Bibeau’s attack on the war memorial and Parliament, and the killing of three women by Basil Borutski. All of these were enormously tragic events, and the professionalism of the entire newsroom made me proud to be a part of it.
I’m proud of having hired and helped mentor a number of kids who have gone on to be outstanding journalists. I’m especially happy about the ones who are still at the paper.
I was also proud of how the newsroom handled the constant disruption, the downsizing, the changes in strategy, and most especially the development and launch of the four-platform strategy, a.k.a. “Product 2.0” in 2014. I never stopped being impressed at the ability of journalists to turn on a dime and accept and even embrace the new. It’s a habit of mind that is widespread in the profession, and I admire it a great deal.
What are you most disappointed about?
More things than I’d like to remember. I cringe to recall all the bad decisions I made — some of them continue to eat me up in the middle of the night. I still worry about the stories that were overplayed and the stories that were underplayed; the lapses in judgment and inability to be more generous. I wish I’d found a way to be more transparent with readers, to be more willing to correct errors and acknowledge mistakes. I also wish I’d found more time to connect with the community in Ottawa, but there never seemed to be enough hours in the day. I could go on.
But ultimately I’m most disappointed that there wasn’t more of it. I wish I’d started sooner in the business, and stayed longer. Journalism is the best job in the world, and at the Citizen I found a home among an amazing group of people. I miss them, and the business, every day.
Michelle Richardson (2016-2019)
My time at the Citizen was marked by so many moments I am proud of; it is hard to single one out.
When I arrived early in 2016, the newsroom had been through a profoundly disruptive transformation after merging with the Ottawa Sun.
What stands out the most to me is the incredible resilience and dedication of the members of the newsroom. Through all of the destabilizing changes, the newsroom never took its foot off the gas, continuing to tell the stories — big and small — that make up the fabric of Ottawa, holding powerful people to account while relentlessly seeking answers to tough questions, and championing transparency.
At no time was this more obvious than during some of the city’s darkest hours.
When a series of tornadoes ripped through the National Capital Region in September 2018, reporters, photographers and editors fanned out across the area, came in on days off, cancelled vacations, and worked around the clock for days in a blackout-darkened newsroom. They did this to make sure readers had the information they needed to safely navigate the unprecedented situation, and that the most vulnerable people in our city were not forgotten in the chaos.
When disaster struck again a few months later when an OC Transpo bus crashed into Westboro Station, killing three people on a cold, brilliantly sunny January afternoon, that same dedication was on display. Faced with an official wall of silence, the newsroom worked relentlessly to get answers for the families of the victims, commuters and the people of Ottawa. This work was not done in a matter of days. It is work that was sustained over months and I am sure continues to this day.
My biggest regrets will always be wrapped up in the decisions about what we stopped doing, what we stopped covering in the face of shrinking resources. Every choice was necessary but difficult. But I will always have tremendous pride in the fact that even though the newsroom might have been smaller when I left, it was also scrappy and still giving a voice to the voiceless, sometimes against tremendous odds.
The Ottawa Citizen 175th anniversary series
So how do you do that in Ottawa, at The Citizen? Not easily. This is a city where local news can mean anything from a bank robbery to the high heat of national politics. Drama emerges everywhere. The Senators, the Senate, city hall, the police station. Your neighbourhood, even.
It was a time when print reporters and photographers were rockstars.
It was never the same, any one day, the years of my mandate. One day it would be weather, the next something silly (the National Gallery Voice of Fire controversy) or sad and tragic, such as the Ecole Polytechnique massacre. There were big, important political stories. Gorbachev visits Ottawa, Harper introduces the GST, the ill fated Meech Lake accord, the Oka crisis, Bob Rae winning Ontario, Fergie Jenkins, first Canadian player to be elected to Baseball’s hall of fame.
The photography genius, fixed forever in history. That of a Mohawk warrior and an army private, face to face, or Elijah Harper waving an eagle feather in the Manitoba legislature, forever dooming Meech Lake.
Singling out a highlight, as asked, is impossible, but perhaps the National Newspaper Award given to our reporters and photographers in 1990 for their work on Meech Lake. It said so much about a newsroom bristling with talent.
The biggest regret, however, is easy. It was our failure as newspaper stewards to recognize and deal with the stormclouds of Google and Facebook. The destruction of our business should have been foreseen, and perhaps forestalled. We were late, way too late.