Joseph Brean: I was a new reporter, assigned to fill in for Christie Blatchford. It was terrifying

All of Toronto knew this was her story, but for just one day, it was mine

Share Adjust Comment Print

It was thrillingly intimidating to become a news reporter in the era of Christie Blatchford.

I had never met her, back in 2002, when the National Post news desk assigned me, a callow intern, to go downtown to report on a murder trial, because the real reporter, Blatch, had another story to chase. The victim was one of the many children Christie never met in life, but for whose memory she fought on the printed page with an eloquent and loving fury. All of Toronto knew this was her story, but for just one day, it was mine.

All I knew about Blatchford was the newsroom gossip. It was terrifying. There was no tag-teaming on her murder trials. Her face was on the Saturday front page. People whispered she had a “no edit” clause in her contract. They joked, also in whispers, that there is no “I” in “team,” but there are two “I”s in “Christie.”

So there I was, a rookie subbing for a legend, doomed to mess it up somehow. All I hoped for was a quiet day of minor evidence before I could slip out unnoticed. But then the courtroom door opened and in came Blatch, not like she owned the place, just to quickly check in on her trial with a respectful nod to the bench and, once we met, a kind word of encouragement to me. Looking back, it feels like a blessing. Even in a murder trial, she put people at ease.

In time she would leave the Post for the Globe where she had started, completing her career circuit of all the big Toronto papers, so Post editors often needed someone to match her daily files from court. Lucky me. You could never match Blatch, of course. You could just write about the same thing at the same time.

I never realized until much later that this was mentorship, of a kind she offered with casual grace to multiple generations of Canadian reporters, some who emulated her passionate opinions, others her rigorous precision with facts and quotes, others her openly personal and confessional style.

We got to sit beside her in courtrooms, big and small, from the airless bunkers of the commercial list for some rinky-dink procedural matter, to the special multi-defendant courtroom for organized crime trials in London, Ont., or some random press conference about the latest news spectacle.


Press conferences really offered a sense of her clout. Few others could make sitting cross-legged on the floor into a power move. Gandhi maybe. Yet there was Blatch, always early, always at the front of the press pack, sitting down in the dust, not obstructing the photogs, simply taking her rightful position at the head of the class. You could see the respectful recognition in the eyes of whoever was at the podium.

“Yes, Christie,” they would say, and listen to her question.

We got to see that trademark note taking — quasi-stenographic scribbling on one side of the middle line, highlighter for the juicy bits, flip, flip, flip.

We got to write notes back and forth, like high school kids, respecting the silence of the courtroom gallery while also indulging in a dirty joke or a sly observation, the ribald marginalia of court reporting that you never see in court stories. We all benefited from her boldness in asking lawyers and judges to clarify, explain, spell names, share documents, even once let us hold a murder weapon.

We got to go to lunch, feel the story come together in the mind over casual conversation, as she picked up the tab for the latest underpaid newbie at some Dundas Street curry house or College Street Second Cup.

Postmedia and National Post columnist Christie Blatchford poses for a portrait in her Toronto home, Wednesday afternoon, June 1, 2011. Aaron Lynett/National Post

And then the next morning, we got to read. Few others could write a sentence as long as Christie without losing the thread, Conrad maybe (Joseph Conrad, the novelist famous for his long sentences, who did you think I meant?). Reading her was a pleasure that took effort. Clauses within clauses teased the reader with the sweet promise of an eventual period, but not before she squeezed in one last observation. It takes guts to write like that, to resist the fear that some people will snicker at pretension or metaphor. It reveals respect for a broad audience that takes pleasure in reading the well-written news. She could cover a trial daily for weeks, but if you started reading halfway through, her column would still bring you up to speed, often with a judiciously chosen line from Shakespeare.

She only teared up when the conversation turned to Terry Fox, Canada’s greatest runner

What a loss this is to news reporting, to coverage of the military, politics, justice, Olympic sports. What a loss to the company of journalists.

The last time we spoke was in the hospital, after a cancer surgery. We talked a little about grief and fear, but mostly we talked about walking and running, how it can draw life taut, even for just a few minutes, to make it seem like you are tracing one fine line across this slack and tragic world.

She had recently been to Scotland, up a mountain, met a few nice dogs. She talked about her plan to write something funny about being the centre of attention in the medical theatre. She only teared up when the conversation turned to Terry Fox, Canada’s greatest runner. She recalled being a young reporter and getting the call from an editor that Fox’s cancer had returned and the run had to stop, long before its rightful end. She and the late great photographer Boris Spremo rushed onto a private jet and up to Thunder Bay, back when journalism was all glory and expenses.

She loved Fox. You could see it. It broke her heart to lose a champion like that. It’s how I like to remember her, miles above and ahead of the pack, hustling to someone else’s story on behalf of a grieving Canada.

• Email: | Twitter: