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For a period over the winter of 1968/69 I rejoiced in the title of Publisher and Proprietor of the Yukon Daily News. The rejoicing period however lasted only about a week, and then it was just plain hell of a kind I have never know before or since. It was a time in my life when I did not acquit myself well, and I behaved badly in many respects; and although I have had more than a few failures in my life littered among my few successes, my time at the Yukon Daily News must surely rank as my lowest ebb.
Even how I got into the thing is in retrospect something of a mystery. At the age of twenty-four I had no experience of newspapers, no great desire to be a press baron, no mechanical skills of any kind, and was blessed with a political naivety that makes me now blush when I think of it. It was one of those situations that I have too often had to put down to the notion that ‘it seemed like a good idea at the time’.
Ken Shortt was the Proprietor when I bought the newspaper with the financial assistance of two partners, Jim Murdoch and Jim Horwood. Ken was a good and decent man and a character of fair proportions and with printer’s ink in his veins. He had been trying to run dailies, weeklies, magazines and goodness knows all what under some Yukon News title or other in an attempt to find the magic formula of what the people of the Yukon wanted combined with that all-important ingredient – profitability. It was obvious to anyone who wasn’t hell-bent on acquiring the business that the profitability just wasn’t there, as I had seen Ken on many occasions going through the mountain of mail that every newspaper seems to receive; and with a deftness that was amazing to watch, he would place the huge pile of mail on the layout desk and without opening anything, pitch the envelopes containing cheques and advertising copy to the right onto the table and everything else straight into the huge waste paper chest to the left. When I asked him ‘what about the bills’ he said ‘oh, they phone when they’re desperate’. I was there too when desperate creditors did indeed ‘phone up demanding payment only to be met with Ken’s standard line – ‘look, any more threats like that and you wont even get in the draw!’ He would then momentarily go into a paroxysm of despair then bounce back, grin, and get on with things.
I was not a worthy successor to Ken. For one thing, I was no journalist, and for another the daily scramble to keep the paper afloat financially brought out the worst in me. We started by employing a sour-faced professional editor who turned out to be interested only in his colossal pay cheque and precious little else, so it soon befell Jim Murdoch to get into the editor’s chair. He had the energy and the humour to make a go of it and was easy to work with. There were however no demarcation lines, and everyone involved just had to dive into whatever needed doing. Most of the time I seemed to be nursing recalcitrant equipment back into life; be it collator, camera, Vari-Typer or printing press; and I have forgotten the number of times I was in tears late at night trying to nurse something back into life when all I really wanted to do was to kick the living shit out of it and throw it in the Yukon River! Fun it was not.
For the main journalistic content we relied on the daily flight arriving from Vancouver on time.
Let me explain….. The ‘plane contained the daily deliveries to the Territory of the Vancouver Sun and The Province and they in turn contained the blessed articles and stories that would shortly be cut out and pasted and photographed for the off-set printing plates. It was plagiarism which hit 12 on the Richter Scale; but so long as we remembered to cut out the sources such as Reuters or AP or whatever then we were as pure as the driven snow. This may be a good time to thank those various press agencies for never suing us on those numerous occasions when in the mad panic to get the paper out we forgot to use the scissors; but maybe it just wasn’t in their hearts to crucify the only daily newspaper north of the sixtieth parallel with a circulation of under three thousand. Another who deserves thanks is Chris Van Overon of the old ‘202 Club’ who was always at the airport and brought the Sun and the Province to the News building if we were running late. (He was after all a KLM pilot before his sight let him down and started the greatest little steak-house in The North). While on the subject of saying ‘thank you’, special mention has to be made to those young boys and girls who often had to wait for far too long in the dark in 30° or 40° or 50° below, (and in real money – none o’ yer metricated Celsius nonsense) to receive their little bundle of papers for their rounds. How they put up with it I’ll never know. Bless their souls.
Others were not so understanding though, as one time Jim used the word ‘thermos’ just as I have written now, and the repercussions were frightening. Within days we received a letter from some high-powered lawyer in Ottawa threatening us with everything short of a hundred lashes and ten years in The Tower for not using a capital ‘T’ and for not having the registered name symbol thereafter. Thermos® (There, you legal lot – happy now?)
Everything comes to an end – sometimes slowly and benignly, sometimes in a frenzy. For me, the end of my stint owning the The Yukon Daily News couldn’t come fast enough as I had already lost two stones in weight and was more grey-faced and gaunt looking than I have ever been. I got out of that hell a lot poorer, but a little wiser, and headed for Alaska……and another story.
(Last February I visited the Yukon News of today, and a splendid and profitable set-up they have. I was made most welcome by the ladies in the office, and Steve Robertson, the owner today, showed me round his new press building at the bottom of Two Mile Hill. They all remembered hearing the story of me……the daft Scotsman!)
By Alastair Findlay.