Tales of a rookie reporter in B.C.s Wild West

Never Shoot a Stampede Queen: A Rookie Reporter in the Cariboo
Mark Leiren-Young
Heritage House Publishing, 2008; pb $19.95

Shannon Rupp

Never Shoot a Stampede Queen could serve as the one-book answer to everything would-be journos ever ask – or need to know – about what it’s like to be a real reporter. (Short answer: hilarious when it’s not astounding, frustrating, or terrifying.)

Not that Mark Leiren-Young, a journalist turned comedian, playwright, TV-scriptwriter, and author intended the “memoir” of his first reporting gig in a community daily to turn into a textbook. It’s much too funny a page-turner to be ignored on required-reading lists.

He wrote the collection of short stories — tied loosely into a novel — shortly after they happened in 1986, when he was 22 and working at the Williams Lake Tribune, in B.C.’s cowboy country, the Cariboo. This is no eye-glazing recollection of a middle-aged man’s glory days. The tales retain the authentically naïve voice of a newly minted grad, albeit one with talent.

By the time he graduated from the University of Victoria, with a B.F.A. in creative writing and theatre, the Vancouver native had a resume that included an internship at Vancouver’s Province (then a broadsheet), a stack of freelance clips from magazines and newspapers, and years in the students papers, including the University of B.C.’s Ubyssey, which at the time had a well-earned reputation for turning out great reporters.

But nothing prepared him for his first full-time gig as a reporter in a community daily, and the tales of his gaffes provide a wealth of warnings for novices.

Aging scribes will recognize that kid-in-over-his-head with empathy. Sometimes an old hack can even anticipate the punchline because, it turns out,  there’s either a culture of community papers or someone is issuing publishers with a handbook on how to exploit rookies. Do they all try the “everyone here works a six-day week” routine?  

Never Shoot a Stampede QueenNever Shoot a Stampede Queen also reveals one of the great secrets of journalism – some of the best stories are found in community reporting. The night he drove into town Leiren-Young stumbled across the tail end of robbery at a convenience store. Certain that he had big news in a small town, the city boy was surprised when the clerk enlightened him: it was the store’s second robbery that month, and no big deal in Williams Lake, which was B.C.’s crime capital (and still ranks in the top three, most years). At the time it also outdid the rest of the province in suicides and accidental deaths.

In other words: a reporter’s Mecca.

In less than a year there, Leiren-Young covered a trio of trials featuring shocking sexual abuse cases, a defendant who went into court with a homemade bomb strapped to his chest, a murder in which a madman slaughtered a young couple in their cabin, a derailed train carrying noxious chemicals, a slumlord renting hazardous housing and the mysterious disappearance of a pilot of a small plane that crashed near town. With such a goldmine of disasters he was also stringing for the major dailies.

Then there was the Stampede Queen incident, from which the book gets its title. The author was held responsible for some unflattering photos of the local beauty queens (and is still trying to explain what really happened). That’s when he learned that Canada’s gun-controlled status is something of a myth outside of cities and that reporters should be especially careful when covering the people who know where they live.

As a native of the tree-hugging West Coast, Leiren-Young was the sort of fish-out-water character who stars in a TV series like Northern Exposure, and this book screams series in the rough. But it could also be called a professional-coming-of-age story. In the course of the year, Leiren-Young goes from being the precocious naif to a man who knows how to deal with some ugly realities. That includes standing up to some union-busting thugs that were management’s answer to the five-member editorial staff’s attempt to organize.

After the Trib,  Leiren-Young was done with community papers. He went to Toronto to work as a magazine writer and eventually divided his time between there and Vancouver, running parallel writing careers in journalism, scriptwriting, theatre and as one half of the comedy duo, Local Anxiety, which is releasing a collection of satirical songs this month.

Today journalism is less a career than a bad habit for Leiren-Young. He still contributes to Vancouver’s alternative weekly The Georgia Straight and is a columnist at Vancouver’s The Tyee, obviously out of a passion for newspapering

Perhaps that’s the real reason this book ought to be standard issue for J-students? The young Leiren-Young’s love of chasing a story is palpable and it illustrates something you can’t teach in a classroom: there’s no point in becoming a reporter unless you get a buzz off  the work itself. There are better ways to make money, and less stressful ways to live.  But for junkies, nothing beats those mornings when an enthusiastic editor greets you with, “There’s been a murder!”

Shannon Rupp also began reporting in community newspapers. She went onto to a freelance career working for a host of magazines and newspapers including the Ottawa Citizen and The Globe and Mail.  She first met Mark Leiren-Young when they both worked at the Georgia Straight, and their paths still cross at The Tyee, in Vancouver, where she’s based.