Daniel Francis

Reading the National Narrative

My Career in Journalism

Nov 30, 2016

As a new-hire at the Ottawa Journal in the autumn of 1971 I was assigned to the early shift in the newsroom. Behind my desk by 6 a.m., I was responsible for whatever news was breaking cityside that morning, writing it up and getting it to the editor before deadline at eleven. Much to my own surprise I turned out to possess a facility with the idiom. Snowstorms blanketed the city. Traffic accidents snarled the morning commute. Dog bites man. That sort of thing.

It was a winter of extreme weather events. One morning the snow was so deep that it was futile to attempt digging out the car. Assuming this was par for the course in the frozen East – we’d only just moved to the city from the West Coast – my wife and I enveloped ourselves in wool, donned our brand new cross-country equipment and skied through the dark streets to our respective jobs, only to discover we were the only ones who’d bothered to come to work. The locals had had the sense, and the experience, to turn over and go back to sleep. On the plus side, so much bad weather meant that I received many more front-page bylines than a cub reporter would normally expect.

Once the excitement of deadline had passed I spent my day pursuing whatever stories came to hand. Soon enough I discovered that I suffered from a fatal disability for a news reporter: I disliked, even feared, talking to strangers on the telephone. I know now that this is a recognized condition, telephonophobia. Not debilitating enough to justify a misery memoir, perhaps, but it was an inconvenience – possibly a job-threatening one -- and the cause of much anxiety.

Telephonophobia apparently stems from a fear of making a fool of oneself and this sounds about right. You’ve heard of the intrepid reporter? I was the trepid kind. I dreaded having to call someone for information about a story. I was afraid my questions would seem idiotic and the person I was calling would simply hang up. I could not accept that I had any right to be disturbing them with my insistent curiosity. Each phone call was an ordeal. Why should I be asking these questions, just because I was a reporter? I never came up with a rationale that made it any easier to do my work.

Since calling people on the telephone is pretty much the job description for a reporter, it became clear that I was going to have to devise an exit strategy. I decided to enrol at university to do a graduate degree. Initially I told myself that I would return to the newsroom a more educated journalist but I suppose I was actually looking for another line of work. Which I found. The first history course I took I realized that here was a subject I could write about. Exciting events, interesting intellectual challenges and best of all, no need to use the telephone. So I was able to abandon my chair as the resident weather watcher for new challenges.

As the recent Nobel Prize winner wrote, you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.