Striking journalistic gold, again and again
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 4 December 2004)

A little more than four decades ago, from 1958 to 1962, Pierre Berton wrote for the Toronto Star the best column in the history of Canadian newspapers -- and the best column I've ever read in a newspaper from anywhere. It was a superb performance on the high wire of daily journalism, 1,250 words every weekday, 300,000 words a year.

That's what I thought about when I heard of his death on Tuesday. In his life, that column mattered less than his books of Canadian history, but it was a dazzling accomplishment. For years, you couldn't go anywhere in Toronto without hearing him talked about. He captured the city's imagination and held it as long as he wanted to keep writing.

Berton had matured in the elite corps of journalists that Arthur Irwin put together in the 1940s at Maclean's. To the Star he brought magazine principles of pacing, variety and surprise combined with substantial research. In successive Star pieces, he might pronounce on current women's fashions, argue against religion in public schools, shut down a local politician's career by uncovering a payoff, expose a crooked used-car dealer and create panic among the police by revealing some appalling brutality. A week of Berton added up to a small magazine.

At The Star, he displayed in public, for the first time, his exceptional skills as a manager of his own career. More than any other Canadian columnist, before or since, he took control of his words. He disliked the typography of the Star, so he had a freelance art director design his column, making it the best-looking item in the paper. He hired a part-time research assistant with Better Business Bureau contacts; she helped make him a crusader against consumer fraud. He reshaped his surroundings too. It was his idea to convert Duncan Macpherson, an admired magazine illustrator, into a political cartoonist. Macpherson claimed he didn't understand politics but went into history as the most effective Canadian newspaper cartoonist ever.

Berton was an entrepreneur of journalism. A supporter of the New Democrats, he nevertheless brought to his working life the spirit of free enterprise in its purest and most energetic form. He was president and production department of a one-man corporation with high quality standards and a punishing work schedule. No classic capitalist of the 19th century showed more passion for output. It seems to have been a key to his emotional life; he was happiest when turning out product.

Like any good capitalist, he believed in the careful deployment and extensive use of assets. Having grown up near the Klondike gold rush, he decided this was his story to tell. Eventually, he sought out every survivor of the 1890s who could talk about it. In 1958, he wrote Klondike, his first widely admired book, which some readers consider his best.

But no one makes money from a book requiring so much work, even when it's published in several countries. So he reused his material in children's books, in his narration of the National Film Board's City of Gold (which won an Academy Award), in the script of a musical comedy on the gold rush for the Charlottetown Festival and in The Klondike Quest, A Photographic Essay 1896-1899. He sold the TV rights for Klondike to a Hollywood company that made a short-lived and incompetent TV series, giving Berton another story. And for the rest of his life he kept returning in print or on TV to the great Klondike figures, including the poet Robert Service. He probably made more from the Klondike than anyone who went there searching for gold.

The obituaries all said that Berton breathed life into the subject of Canadian history. True, but he had at least as significant an impact on journalism.

He took journalism seriously when many journalists didn't, insisting that it could do important things, and provide wonderful careers, if only journalists would dream ambitious dreams, treat storytelling as a craft to be carefully learned and work much harder than they were accustomed to working. Journalists who couldn't keep up (which at one time or another meant nearly everyone) resented his success and his confidence.

Still, almost everyone learned from him, even those who remained skeptical about his opinions. Last year, speaking of his early days in journalism, he said: "There were no standards then. The standards had to be your own." More than anyone else in his generation, he rose to that challenge. He devised his own standards and bequeathed them to a whole profession.

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