Inside the ring of fire: Michael Cooke profiled

In the mind of Michael Cooke, the Star of the future looks a lot like the heyday of Fleet Street tabloids. But can past glories be reborn online? This week we feature Katherine Laidlaw’s story for the spring issue of The Ryerson Review of Journalism as part of an on-going series.

Ryerson Review of JournalismMichael Cooke stomps around the newsroom, asking anyone who will listen, “Are we pictured up?” The Toronto Star’s editor-in-chief will hold a front-page story if it has no art. He’ll barge around spouting his catchphrase, his doggedness bordering on absurdity. In April 2008, police charged Christine Bedford with assault after she threw coffee in a man’s face on a commuter train. A year later she pleads guilty and Cooke wants to play it big. Obsessed with finding the woman, he wants her photo, and he wants it now. Her story will represent the angry face of the recession in Toronto. Perfect.

So begins the summer of the photo desk’s discontent—the photographers have only a vague idea of what Bedford looks like, which will make picking her out of the downtown crowds nearly impossible. “Every day someone was assigned to the Coffee Lady,” says a veteran photographer. “It became a mission. But I don’t think you’ll find a photographer who would understand why we were still chasing Coffee Lady.” And the chase continues for weeks. Each day, a photojournalist and Dale Anne Freed (the only reporter who’d seen a police photo of Bedford) stake out her high-rise condo downtown. The story runs June 2, 2009 on A1 without Coffee Lady’s photo. But Cooke still wants that picture. So the stakeouts continue. At nearly every morning news meeting in June, Cooke asks, “Are we pictured up?” until someone finally nails Coffee Lady. But the shot never appears in the paper—the story is long forgotten. “For me,” one Star insider says, “the biggest question was really: What the fuck has Honderich done?”

Cooke is an unusual choice to lead the proudly liberal Star, Canada’s largest-circulation newspaper. Conrad Black says the 57-year-old Brit’s a jaded, second-tier tabloid editor, whose conservative political views are at odds with the Star’s social justice slant. (Ironic, since Hollinger employed him for much of his career.) The New York Post mocked him for his alleged women’s shoe fetish and nicknamed him the Cookie Monster (which prompted Gawker to paste his head on the Muppet character’s body). Driven by unbridled ambition and a fierce competitive streak honed through nearly 30 years of rugby, Cooke has spent the bulk of his career running major tabloid dailies such as the Chicago Sun-Times, the New York Daily News and Vancouver’s The Province. He packed them with short investigative features, splashy display and human-interest fare—and watched readership numbers rise. Now, he’s brought his tabloid journalism instinct to his own broadsheet.

In fall 2008, after the failures of back-to-back editorial regimes in the previous four years, chair of Torstar’s voting trust (and former longtime Star editor and publisher) John Honderich decided it was time to restore stability to his beloved newspaper. “We’ve been joking in the newsroom for a couple of years, the only constant is change,” says city editor Graham Parley. Honderich first tapped publisher John Cruickshank, who then convinced the most influential person at Torstar (the Star’s parent company) that Cooke, his longtime partner at the Sun-Times, was the one to reinvigorate the venerable institution.

Cooke expects to fight—and win—the protracted Toronto newspaper war for a slice of the shrinking circulation pie in the age of internet ascendance. When he arrived on March 2, 2009, staff were understandably skeptical about him. A polarizing presence in other newsrooms, he was aggressive, blunt and played hard, but also brought contagious energy. The Star became an exciting place to work again. Showing off his feistiness and flair for eye-catching presentation, he devoted half-pages to single photographs. Traditionally quirky Toronto stories got even quirkier, less local and arguably less relevant. But an expansion of the investigative unit paid off, with the paper regularly embarrassing governments into action. And then, on November 3, 2009, morale plummeted. Management announced that to save an estimated $4 million per year, the Star intended to shed nearly a third of the newsroom by eliminating some or all of its copy desk and outsourcing editing. The Star’s readership was on the upswing before the new team arrived: numbers perked up 2.6 percent in NADbank’s interim 2008-2009 report, not easily achieved in today’s newspaper market. It’s too soon to tell whether Cooke’s formula of mixing crusading journalism with lighter stories will keep readers hooked.

His friends and colleagues say he lives for a challenge but, really, he lives to win. Still, strife in the editorial department may make that difficult. After years of infighting and lagging in the race for online innovation, his hiring was a coup for a paper traditionally restricted by hierarchy and ego. Cooke is a showboating editor accustomed to attracting attention to himself and his newspapers, and the Star might well be his last championship run—provided his team stays standing behind him.

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