COLUMN: Decades and changes roll quickly

Gazette editor Don Descoteau reflects on 25 years with Black Press

In the newspaper business, we don’t seem to do a lot of looking backward. Once one edition gets put to bed, it’s time to start working on the next one.

That said, I had occasion recently to stop and think about the highlights and memorable moments from the past 25 years of doing journalism with Black Press.

I recall vividly this city kid from Victoria driving north on Highway 97 on Nov. 22, 1991 – a date I can quickly recall as it coincided with JFK’s assassination. As I approached the arched Welcome to Williams Lake sign, I noticed a cluster of signs indicating which service clubs were operating in the area. I made a mental note and continued on toward my appointment with the editor, an extroverted man with flaming, curly red hair and moustache who climbed out of his old Chevy pickup and thrust out his hand in greeting.

Ken Alexander wasn’t afraid to let you know how he felt about any topic, especially those destined for the pages of the Williams Lake Tribune, whose editorial department he presided over. As a fledgling full-time reporter who joined the trade relatively late at age 29, I was cut some slack by my fiery editor for shaky sentence structure or bad photos in the sports section, over which I presided. He knew how to seize upon teachable moments, however, like barking at me to “get closer” to my photo subjects, or advising me how to deal with cranky hockey parents the way he did when he was a sports reporter.

The technology of newspapering has changed dramatically since those days. I often joke with my younger colleagues at the Gazette about using manual tools like line gauges to measure column widths, proportional wheels to size photos – we shot film in those days – and black linotape to create borders around pictures.

Sometimes I feel grateful for experiencing those now-archaic techniques, as by comparison today’s systems seem so much simpler and more streamlined. Then again, it was years before monitoring email and later, social media, became a part of my daily routine, so I suppose it’s all relative.

Williams Lake was where I learned to cross-country ski, ride a snowmobile and play men’s soccer. It was also where I learned to pay attention while covering hockey.

While stationed with my camera in the penalty box at a Mustangs Jr. A game, I happened to look down to check my settings for an instant, just as the home team’s top scorer ripped a head-level pass from the opposite side boards. Good thing I had my head down, as the puck hit me in the top of my noggin. I imagine I still have the scar there somewhere.

Getting a “transfer” to the  Campbell River Mirror in 1995 was a move closer to home, even if it was, at the time, nearly four hours up Island. I knew people in town and it was about three times the size of “Bill’s Pond,” so it felt like I was moving up.

Writing sports there was closer to the big time, with more athletes moving on to college ranks and school teams competing in and hosting provincial championships. It was six years more of learning, with different mentors and different situations.

In retrospect, writing about sports and other recreational pursuits was a gift, as it allowed me to connect with people in their best moments. It taught me the craft of storytelling and was an education that translated well when I moved back home to cover City Hall and police for the Victoria News in 2001. While I never dreamed of writing hard news early on, doing so broadened my sense of perspective and understanding of life in and around B.C.’s capital.

The last 10 years or so have zipped by, with stints as editor of the Vic News, Oak Bay News and for the past two and a half years the Gazette. The faces and personalities, both inside the newsrooms I’ve been a part of, and outside, are what stands out for me.

While some journalists may believe they’re in the storytelling or word-smithing business, I’ve always felt we are in the people business. Without people to make and live the stories, there’d be no need for newspapers.

Don Descoteau is the editor of the Goldstream News Gazette.