How Toronto Star editor Michael Cooke brought the stodgy newspaper back to life

How Toronto Star editor Michael Cooke brought the stodgy newspaper back to life

Michael Cooke, the Toronto Star’s tabloid-minded editor, is on a mission to expose the corruption and crookedness of the city’s secretive establishment. Every week brings a new target: the premier’s office, Marineland, the College of Physicians, and always Ford, Ford, Ford

Michael Cooke: The Paper Warrior

It was early December of 2011, and Kevin Donovan was hellbent on publishing an exposé of Ornge, Ontario’s $150-million-a-year air ambulance service. Donovan, who runs the Toronto Star’s investigative team, had already spent two years sniffing around the company. Though he didn’t yet have the facts to back up his hunch, he was convinced something was amiss. He decided to take a chance and write a story about precisely what he didn’t know: how much Chris Mazza, the doctor who created and ran the publicly funded agency, and his vice-presidents were being paid. It was a Sunday, typically a slow news day, so Donovan figured the piece was a shoo-in for a front-page ­placement the next day.

Michael Cooke, the Star’s editor, wasn’t certain how the story would play, but his contempt for institutional secrecy emboldened him. He ran it, as Donovan had predicted, on A1, with the headline: “Executive Pay Kept Secret at Airlift Service.” By noon that day, Donovan received at least 1,000 emails and several phone calls from pilots, paramedics and other insiders, some offering tips, others encouraging the Star to dig deeper.

Cooke was breaking a few rules. “I can’t imagine the New York Times running a front-page investigative story full of holes in the hope that someone would phone them up,” he told me. “But when you print what you haven’t got, sometimes people actually give it to you.” A few weeks later, he was at a dinner with ­Dalton McGuinty and other government officials, and one of his dining companions quietly promised to divulge Mazza’s salary. Cooke published the figure—$1.4 million a year—on December 23, above the fold, in large type. It turned out Mazza was the highest-paid public official in Ontario, and as a result of the Star’s work, he would be fired, his agency investigated by the OPP and audited by the province, and the Liberal government pilloried.

This was exactly what Cooke, a swashbuckling Brit who had edited tabloids in New York and Chicago, had hoped would ­happen. Before he took over in 2009, the Star was stale and predictable. These days, it routinely takes on power, whether in a Mafioso’s condo or the mayor’s office. The Star has become a publication that delights in telling the public who the bad guys are, and even more in holding their feet to the fire.

Cooke is 60 years old and still has the build, though somewhat softened, of the rugby player he used to be. He favours dark suits and white shirts, no tie, the top buttons undone. His hair has thinned to a greying archipelago. He resembles what I imagine the actor Colin Farrell will look like as he nears senior citizenry—impish, with eyes that twinkle more mischievously than most. He is the last of a dying breed—the chest-thumping, street-savvy daily newspaper editor. Cooke grew up in an age when newspapers had widespread influence, and he’s never been shy about wielding that influence. Journalism, for him, is a blood sport. When he speaks of his role models, he might be describing himself: “They’re tough. They’ll punch you in the balls to win.” Raised in the tiny village of Nether Kellet, in Lancashire, he imagined he’d become a sailor in the navy, like his father. But he started writing for the local paper when he was 17 and became addicted to the thrill of the journalistic chase. (His first byline was attached to a story about a fox hunt; the metaphors write themselves.) Even then, he had a knack for getting a story. “I learned how to knock on a door where a kid has been killed in a car accident,” he says, “and how to work your way into a house and get people talking. People don’t talk in their living rooms, they talk in their kitchens, so you get into their kitchen and an hour later you leave with a photograph of the dead kid.” He headed to Fleet Street, where he jobbed at the Daily Mail and The Sun. In 1974, while on vacation in Toronto, he was recruited by the Star. “Canada was exotic at the time,” he says. “I felt free of England’s class system and racial prejudice.” He loved sitting in his high-rise apartment, watching summer storms roll in across Lake Ontario.

Colin MacKenzie, the Star’s former national editor, recalls that Cooke possessed an uncommon brashness. At the time, MacKenzie shared an apartment with John Honderich, whose legen­dary father, Beland, ran the paper’s parent company, Torstar, and who was then the Star’s Ottawa bureau chief. From his Toronto desk, Cooke called their place at 5 in the morning and demanded—his grasp of Canadian parliamentary procedure still a bit shaky—that Honderich ask Pierre Trudeau some question or other during Question Period. “He knew he was pulling the boss’s son’s beard,” MacKenzie says.

Over the next 20 years, Cooke moved across the country to various jobs at different papers—from the Star to the Montreal Gazette to the Edmonton Journal—and, with each promotion, further established his reputation as a provocateur. He describes his own politics as “fiscally centre-right, socially centre-left.” In 1995, when he was hired as editor-in-chief of the right-wing Vancouver Province, he was accused of making it even more conservative and of trying to bust the union.

Michael Cooke: The Paper Warrior
The mayor, irritated by the Star’s coverage, has refused to talk to the paper’s reporters (Image: Star cover courtesy of The Star; Other by GetStock)

Conrad Black took notice. While still at the Province, Cooke was tapped to help shepherd Black’s new project, the National Post. He spent several months commuting from Vancouver to Toronto, where he joined the Post’s founding editor, Ken Whyte, and others in developing a prototype. It was a heady, exhilarating time. Alison Uncles, who now serves as the Star’s associate features editor, first met Cooke then and was enchanted: “In the early days, the Post was ridiculously stupid and fun,” she says. “He loved that, he fit right in, and everyone trusted him right away. He’s good at being a grown-up and a kindergartner at the same time.”

In 2000, Cooke and the genteel Canadian editor-publisher John Cruickshank were recruited simultaneously by Hollinger executive David Radler to coedit the Chicago Sun-Times. It was an unorthodox arrangement—Radler felt, perhaps, that he needed Cruickshank’s superego to temper Cooke’s id—and over time, Cooke became editor-in-chief and Cruickshank publisher. Cooke focused on the daily paper while Cruickshank pulled the business and strategy levers. But Hollinger was in disarray, and it was a tough period for both men—the company had no money, layoffs were frequent, and Radler was, to put it extraordinarily mildly, editorially meddlesome.

Cooke’s ambition, however, was unwavering, and his next position, as editor of the New York Daily News, placed him in the middle of a high-stakes tabloid war. Gawker referred to him as the Cookie Monster—a play on his last name, of course, but also a nod to his reputation as a cutthroat competitor. While at the Daily News Cooke starred in a short-lived reality TV show, Tabloid Wars, in which he said of his paper’s despised rival, the New York Post, “We put our foot on their throat every day and press down till their eyes bulge and leak blood, but still they won’t die.” It was a toxic, tribal newsroom for an outsider, and Cooke never really fit in. The paper’s reporters resented how he second-guessed and micromanaged them. Cooke resigned within a year.

He returned to Chicago as vice-president of editorial at the Sun-Times News Group (the corporation’s name had changed amid Radler and Black’s legal troubles). Newspapers were being hit hard, though, and American papers especially. The Sun-Times was dramatically downsized (the company filed for bankruptcy in 2009), and Cruickshank fled to Toronto, where he worked briefly at the CBC before John Honderich, now chair of the Torstar board, hired him as publisher and, for a few months, editor of the Star. Cruickshank knew the job was too big for one person, and in 2009 he asked Cooke to cross the border.

Before Cooke arrived at the Star, he didn’t bother to read it. He wasn’t alone. The paper’s blue flame had guttered. The Star wasn’t, as they say, part of the conversation. He began making changes right away. On his first day, news meetings were summarily moved from the grim, windowless bunker he compared to Abu Ghraib to a sunnier room. More controversially, he shut down the paper’s foreign bureaus and, with no warning or consultation, transferred 24 reporters—including veteran movie and book critic Geoff Pevere and sports writer Paul Hunter—to new beats, often ones in which they had no experience. Some staff saw the move as proof of Cooke’s indifference to the soft news sections of the paper.

In his first week at the Star, Cooke read something in the Wall Street Journal about women who, as girls, had deliberately disfigured their Barbie dolls. He insisted that the Star do a similar story pegged to Barbie’s 50th anniversary, and he wanted it the next day and on the front page. “Barbie” became shorthand for a quirky, offbeat story below the fold, and in almost every news meeting afterward, Cooke would ask his editors, “What’s the Barbie?” A month after that story, he continued to indulge his impudent, even goofy side. In a test of the city’s honesty, he sent a reporter out to drop 20 cash-filled wallets all over town. (The resulting article noted that the one left in the lobby of the Globe and Mail was returned with the money missing.) He banished so-called podium stories—articles based on official press conferences. Even reports about the federal budget would not automatically make the front page. Lurid crime stories, like the murder of Tori Stafford, however, would live there for several days in a row.

Michael Cooke: The Paper Warrior
Reacting to a Star story alleging he has a binge drinking problem, Ford called the paper’s coverage an “outright lie” (Image: Star cover courtesy of The Star; Other by GetStock)

Cooke prizes simplicity, clarity and urgency. Every front page story must have an original photograph, no matter how difficult to obtain. Obsessed with getting a picture of Sarah Coyne, Pierre Trudeau’s daughter with Deborah Coyne, he dispatched a reluctant young reporter to an American college campus to stake her out for a week. “He can be really, really pushy,” Uncles says. “Always wanting things now, now, now.” At a news meeting, when he asked a sports editor what stories he had for the next day, the editor meekly mentioned a couple of things, including a non-story about the Leafs uniform. Cooke glowered. “Well, then, double your efforts,” he said acidly. “Or at least make an effort.”

On October 21, 2009, he introduced a provocative new badge on the Star’s front page. Above a story about proposed provincial legislation to protect exploited nannies was a three-word sentence in all-caps: “STAR GETS ACTION.” The investigative reporter Dale Brazao had spent a year probing abuse in the federal Live-in Caregiver Program, discovering that recruiters had charged nannies exorbitant sums for phantom jobs, forced them to surrender their passports and housed them in overcrowded basement apartments. The horn-tooting badge bluntly told readers two things: that the Star’s investigation was finally bearing fruit, and that in an era when the very idea of a daily newspaper can seem as modern as a Model-T, this particular paper still made a difference. “We must make more noise,” Cooke says, “and the best kind of noise. We have to be seen as a citizen of the city that you need to have around. Ten years ago the stuff we’re doing now would have been seen as unseemly boasting. Today, it’s marketing.” Forget the Globe or the Sun, screw the Huffington Post—the Star was where the action was.

There are many days now when A1 looks almost spattered with blood, every single story adorned with a red banner—not just “Star Gets Action,” but also “Star Exclusive,” “Star Investigation,” “Star Campaign.” As these badges became the norm, the reporters realized that Cooke’s favourite articles mentioned the Star’s role in a policy change, or even a simple acknowledgement that it was reporting some exclusive fact. “The Star likes to be part of the story,” one reporter told me. After Daniel Dale, one of the paper’s city hall reporters, was accosted by Rob Ford near his home, the paper covered its own scandal for days. With characteristic swagger, Cooke himself went on CP24 to defend Dale.

The mayor might be a gift to all local newspapers, but the Star more than any of the other dailies relishes unwrapping it. During the 2010 mayoral race, the paper ran a story about Ford in which some sources alleged that he had been asked to stop coaching high school football in North York after a physical altercation with a player. Ford was quoted denying the ­allegations.

When I asked Cooke how he’d changed the tone of the paper so quickly, he put it in combative terms. “The answer was to let reporters report,” he said. “It was like going to ancient Rome and letting the gladiators out.”

Colin and Justin, the celebrity interior designers and HGTV hosts, who also have a column in the Star, chose the colours of Cooke’s office—dove grey and chocolate brown—and selected framed, archival photographs of Barack Obama, Conrad Black and Pierre Trudeau for his walls. Cooke’s only contribution is a smaller colour shot of a newsie holding the four editions of the Sun-Times printed the day George W. Bush was elected. (It was the first American election he’d covered.) Three clocks hang on another wall, all inexplicably set to the same time—“Hamilton, Toronto, Kingston,” Cooke jokes.

Michael Cooke: The Paper Warrior
A series of stories about the alleged mistreatment of animals at Marineland prompted protests and a public backlash against the theme park (Image: Star cover courtesy of The Star; Other by GetStock)

Cooke loves to have fun almost as much as he loves a snappy headline. At the beginning of the office Christmas party in his first year, a year when few legacy media companies were celeb­rating anything, he raised himself above the crowd and yelled, “The bar is open!” Before a similar party this past December, he spent two weeks learning how to play the saxophone so that he could join the newsroom’s amateur band in a Christmas song. When I asked him what he could be doing better as an editor, he said, “I could tell better jokes.” He paused. “Also, I could be less flippant.” At a meeting about the recent website redesign, when he and a handful of other staffers waited for Cruickshank to appear, he told a joke to pass the time: “Velcro, what a rip-off.”

The two things Cooke hates most are boredom and secrecy. At a news organization, investigative journalism can potentially dispel both. Cooke doubled the size of the so-called I-team—there are now seven reporters, including a data analyst and editor-reporter Kevin Donovan, who has run the team since 1989—and likewise doubled the department’s budget to around $1 million. He doesn’t balk at exorbitant freedom of information request fees, even if, as in one particular case involving police data, that fee is $12,000. Burt Bruser, the Star’s in-house counsel, considered one of the finest media lawyers in the country, suddenly had a lot more to do, dealing with publication bans and libel risk; he went from working two days a week to full-time. “Michael believes if you have a big story, you play it big,” Donovan says. “You get so much more reaction from the public and from political leaders.” The tragic death of Ashley Smith, for instance, and the flawed drug safety laws, and out-of-control repair costs at the TDSB. Any Star investigation has to meet certain criteria: someone must be getting hurt; something bad must have happened that the paper is trying to fix by exposing it; and usually public dollars or regulatory systems are involved.

In Chicago, Cooke was cozy with many political leaders—his anecdotes from the period often pivot around Obama or the troubled Jesse Jackson Jr. As editor of the Sun-Times, he had access to such strata and the added benefit of stronger freedom of information laws. If his journalists wanted to get into the Cook County Jail, it was a matter of a phone call or two. In Toronto, it’s a ­different story. According to Canadian Journalists for Free Expression, Canada now ranks 55th out of 93 countries in terms of access to information. Cooke quickly learned that even the country’s largest, most powerful newspaper had difficulty obtaining routine public information. He sees pervasive, insidious, institutional crookedness and mendacity at all levels of government. “Here, it’s not blatant mob-run political corruption,” Cooke says. “Here it’s a corrupt system. It’s secrecy done by a self-perpetuating, self-appointed political elite. And Canadians are far too ­accepting.” (For all of his talk of transparency, however, Cooke keeps a few things hidden himself. When I asked him how much he gets paid, he refused to tell me. And he agreed to participate in this story only if I agreed, in writing, not to discuss his personal life.)

Cooke gives his reporters the time and freedom to work on stories while also occasionally goading them. “At 4:30, Michael will walk by my desk and start teasing me about getting a story,” Donovan says. “He’s a good, though unusual, cheerleader.” Kenyon Wallace, one of the I-team’s newest recruits, spent two months investigating the colleges regulating the province’s physicians, surgeons and dentists, and exposed how they aren’t required by law to inform the public about members accused of ­inappropriate behaviour. To get the story, Wallace combed through appeal files, chased down alleged victims and staked out a doctor’s house to get a photo of him. (In the end, it was Brazao, a specialist in covert photography, who got the shot.)

It’s the kind of story that gets Cooke in a froth. In his heart, he’s a crusader. “It’s stupid, unnecessary, arrogant secrecy,” he says, his voice rising. “For me, it’s not only about shining a spotlight on pompous and disgraceful behaviour, this is information you need to know to live in this city.”

When Cooke first went to Cruickshank to increase the funds for investigations, it was an easy sell: “It was an obvious thing to do. As Don Cherry says, it’s not rocket surgery.” Now Cooke wants to double the investigations budget again and give investigations its own section, as big as business or sports. He wants to set up a permanent I-team bureau in Ottawa, arguably the darkest den of deceit. He’s not sure where he’ll find the money: the Star is still a city paper, and, for all its renewed vigour, it’s not immune to the financial pressures all newspapers face. It’s the best-read paper in the city, with an average weekday readership that hovers just over a million (twice that of the Globe or Sun, triple the Post and up about three per cent since Cooke’s arrival), but there’s no hard evidence that investigations are driving those numbers. For the moment, it might be enough that investigations give the paper a unique place in the market.

Michael Cooke: The Paper Warrior
Chris Mazza, the president of the province’s air ambulance service, was fired as a result of a two-year Star investigation (Image: Star cover courtesy of The Star; Other by GetStock)

The first time I visited Cooke in his office, it was a month or so before he needed to submit a budget. Toward the end of our conversation, the phone rang—it was Torstar’s VP of finance. Speaking loudly for my benefit, Cooke glibly suggested the company divert millions from other divisions so that his newsroom wouldn’t need to be reduced. When we met again in January, that advice had not been heeded. Cooke had to cut something. “It will take an act of genius to keep the paper and the website looking and feeling and reading exactly like it does,” he said. “I don’t know if we can pull it off. But even with this trim, we’ll still be the biggest paper in Canada, with more resources than anybody else.” One week later, four freelance columnists from the Homes section were dumped. And a few weeks after that, following disappointing quarterly results, it was announced that copy editing would be outsourced, and several editors and sales reps, 55 in total, laid off. Cooke did manage to protect his I-team, however, and not a single reporter was let go.

He doesn’t like to publicly brood on the entropic state of the industry. He ignores the anxious squeaks from the mouse holes, or at least tries to drown them out. “There’s lots of life left in print,” Cooke likes to say. While other newspaper editors are consumed with frantically figuring out new business models or appeasing corporate owners, Cooke, thanks to Cruickshank, is largely insulated from such concerns. He can’t completely ignore the technological turmoil around him, of course—the Star will soon institute a pay wall for its website in a possibly quixotic effort to offset declining ad revenue—but he chooses instead to spend most of his time on the durable things an old-school print man can still control: story selection, presentation, the way a headline or photograph can torque how an article plays. ­Sometimes the things that work aren’t sexy and new; sometimes they’re tried-and-true. Paradigms shift, but not always cleanly, logically or directly—it’s no coincidence that John Ferri, a ­long-time Star staffer and now the digital editor, returned to the paper after a stint at OpenFile, a noble experiment in community-based journalism that folded last year when it ran out of money.

What newspapers can still do well, even in their diminished, cash-crunched state, and what Cooke’s Star has done better than most, is tell people about things they can’t easily find out themselves. And when those things are criminal or corrupt, the paper can keep telling people until somebody does something about it. “The Star has righted wrongs for a century,” Cooke says. “And if anything has happened in the last three years, I think we’ve righted more wrongs.”


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