From looking at the kid, you’d never know his story.
He’s a contradiction in a stiff blue suit. A khaki tote is sitting in a heap to his right, and the buckles clang as his leg twitches up and down faster than the words escaping his mouth.
Sipping coffee, black, from a paper take-out cup, he pauses. What separates this professional from all the others in the crowded coffee house are his eyes. Like brand new marbles, his brown eyes twinkle with rare insight.
“I think the best attitude is to fuck the big story,” the Chronicle Herald’s Ottawa bureau chief, Paul McLeod, says. His voice is low, like it’s a secret.
He’s the youngest Ottawa bureau chief Parliament Hill has seen in decades. Many young journalists hit the Hill, pen in hand, happy to have the title of reporter. At the tender age of twenty-six, McLeod is some sort of journalistic prodigy.
For McLeod, students coming out of journalism schools nationwide have the wrong attitudes. They want to cover the big stories, be high profile and have sweet dreams of becoming editor of the Globe and Mail, or for the real over-achievers, the New York Times.
It’s all about ego. You want to cover a big story? Create your own.
“It takes more work and it’s more of a pain in the ass, but you have to go out and find something no one else has.”
McLeod’s story begins on the Dartmouth side of Halifax Harbour. During his days at Dartmouth High, he got his first thrill “sticking it to the man.”
The Zine introduced McLeod to the world of alternative writing. It was started with two pals, Keegan Lam and Mike Landry. The three shared this mentality: “News is boring, journalism is shit, and we can do it better.”
Often the boys found themselves up all night, scrambling to finish an issue before the morning school bell. Waiting at the door was principal Phil Legere. As the school administrator he aimed to minimize the “rowdy” effects of The Zine on his students, often resulting in tension between the trifecta and himself.
Despite this tussle, Legere always regarded McLeod as gifted. “It’s that old word potential,” says Legere.
McLeod and his friends brought the edgy magazine with them to the University of King’s College. McLeod never intended to go to journalism school; he attended King’s for the Foundation Year Programme. A year later, he found himself sitting in Reporting Techniques.
His first love was philosophy, scientific philosophy like C.P. Snow. Until he noticed it was all bogus. He wanted to talk about things that were real, and had real effects on people. That’s what drove him to journalism. “It’s calling people on their bullshit. It’s fact checking.”
McLeod’s parents, Brian and Cathy, still live on the harbourfront street where he spent his boyhood.
When Cathy speaks about her son, her eyes dart across the room. She’s following her memories of Paul skedaddling from room to room, carrying the notebook that rarely left his side. Or playing Risk with his brother and sister, where he never accepted anything less than victory.
McLeod might just be the most strong-willed man Cathy knows. “He always has an opinion. He was probably really annoying in school,” Cathy laughs.
Rubbing his chin, Brian thoughtfully ties his son to one descriptive word: driven. “You know, I will talk the talk, we all do. But he, he will do it. He will arrange it and go.”
If their son wanted something, he would make it happen.
It was known at Dartmouth High that in senior year band members would take a trip to Cuba. And McLeod wanted to go to Cuba. Never in his life had he taken an interest in playing the saxophone. Still, he signed up. He attended practice and played in concerts… for three long years.
Then he went to Cuba. And never touched a saxophone again.
Growing up on the comedic satire of Jon Stewart, McLeod jokes he was a fan of The Daily Show before it was cool. There’s a quality of editorial humour McLeod has captured from Stewart.
Never one to write what is expected, he masks his acerbic perspective with poetic political correctness. Articles where he has hundreds of words to play with are one thing, but when you can do it in 140 characters or less on Twitter, that’s talent.
On October 6, 2011: “This Oct. 31 I’m going to go as Tony Clement by being mute. Who wants to go as John Baird and speak for me all day?”
The skill isn’t limited to politics. On Oct. 16, 2011: “If anyone’s interested in seeing total and widespread human error meltdown I suggest flipping to the Milwaukee Brewers game.”
Replacing seasoned reporter Stephen Maher would be daunting to most twenty-six-year-olds not five years out of journalism school. But McLeod doesn’t concern himself with that “whole sort of thing.” He doesn’t believe in stress.
Maher was McLeod’s ticket into the newsroom at the Chronicle Herald. At the time, McLeod had been working for AllNovaScotia.com. When he wrote a story on Maher’s departure, Maher persuaded him to apply for the position.
Returning from a walk on a beach on Corkum’s Island in Lunenberg County, McLeod noticed a missed call. One new voice mail. An editor at the Herald, Frank De Palma, left an abrupt message. McLeod called back.
“‘Oh, Paul, I’m sorry,’ he says, and I’m thinking he’s sorry he’s not going to take me. And he said, ‘I’m sorry to bug you on your vacation but I’ve got some good news. I’m offering you the job’.”
Disbelief, excitement and a bit of heartache; he was sorry to leave AllNovaScotia.com. “I was ready to work there for the rest of my life, I loved it. Until this came up. (This) seemed like an opportunity to do whatever I wanted to pursue.”
Seven days later McLeod was crashing at an old friend’s in Bytown. Immediately tossed into the chaos, the banter and scandal that the nation calls Parliament Hill.
“Is the Chronicle Herald not serious anymore?” Cathy imagines what other journalists must have thought on McLeod’s arrival. “We were just so surprised. It all happened so fast and because he’s so young we didn’t expect him to get the job.”
Do reporters’ ages and experience validate the credibility of a news outlet? Maybe to some. But, according to the Sun Media National Bureau Chief David Akin, hiring young is a new trend. “Being a Bureau Chief at the tender age of twenty-six in this day and age, it’s par for the course. Younger employees are the cheaper employees,” Akin says.
The people who hired McLeod were unwilling to comment on their decision to scoop him up. Akin’s theory, though, suggests McLeod was the perfect candidate. He’s young. And young pups are cheap help.
Akin believes age is the number one prerequisite for hiring these days. So where does skill factor in?
Norma Greenaway is an adjunct journalism professor at Carleton University. She was a working journalist for 30 years, and on the Hill for half of those.
She says the argument lies in McLeod’s training. The fact is reporters today are asked to do a lot more than ever before, including tasks that older journalists are not even slightly familiar with.
“They come out of journalism school knowing how to do web stories, how to run a video camera. They’re asked to do audio, video, write a story and do blogs,” says Greenaway. “The young people coming out of school know how to do those things.”
Also needed to take into consideration is the possibility McLeod is just great at what he does.
Sure there were many other factors that went into the selection of McLeod. One being that he grew up in Nova Scotia, and knows what news is important for the Herald’s audience. His experience at AllNovaScotia.com may have also been a green light.
Having graduated from the University of King’s College journalism program less than five years ago, Paul McLeod has only held a few permanent writing jobs.
While still at King’s McLeod applied for an internship at the Daily News. He was asked to stay on, and continued working there until the paper was closed.
McLeod freelanced for smaller papers such as the Coast.
Halifax’s version of Metro was McLeod’s first long-term place of employment. Check out some of McLeod’s work for Metro in the archives Urban Compass.
Website news outlet AllNovaScotia.com then sought out McLeod. He left there in the fall of 2011 to move to the Chronicle Herald.
McLeod’s parents believe their son’s experiences and knowledge of the region both contributed to his big promotion. But they also attribute it to his “knack for interests”. Sports, philosophy and everything in between: if it piques McLeod’s interest he will devour himself in it.
Everyone talking about McLeod tries to explain an intangible quality he possesses. It’s on the tips of their tongues: that one thing that makes him tick.
It’s this: he’s good, he’s very good. Read anything, from his blog posts, to his published Chronicle Herald articles. It’s the way his stories are structured and the words he uses on the page.
“He just thinks a little bit outside the box,” his dad Brian says. “I think he comes at things in a different direction. He goes a different way but he’s always had the capacity to see a bigger picture.”
Hear McLeod’s idea of the right attitude to have coming out of journalism school [audio:http://kjr.kingsjournalism.com/audio/KI-Paul-McLeod-INVU.mp3]
Coming out of journalism school, McLeod says he lost his way. He had the typical mindset of covering the big buzz of the day while working at Metro. He realized later, there’s enough of that.
“There’s always going to be people covering the big story, whereas what I should be doing was the stuff that wasn’t being covered.”
McLeod believes in the law of averages. You scratch at the surface to find interesting stories, which inevitably become big stories. Eventually you will come across something that “resonates to a wider degree”.
There are only two English-speaking, out-of-town media outlets who have an Ottawa bureau chief, the Chronicle Herald and the Winnipeg Free Press. Mia Rabson, 34, has been the Free Press bureau chief for four years. From one young bureau chief to another, her advice for McLeod is don’t be intimidated by age, so long as you’re working hard.
“You have to be pretty forceful because nobody’s taking your hand when you arrive,” says Rabson.
McLeod’s doing it all on his own. His approach is different. He doesn’t care if everyone is heading down to the main foyer for a scrum. If everyone else is covering the same story, you’ll find him in the library digging for something new.
“The best way to do it is enjoy the frantic rush. I think there’s a journalism high. It’s awesome. It’s an addiction.”
Perhaps surprisingly, he is not a fan of social media. Not when it comes at the expense of “old fashioned journalism”.
“There is so much focus put on this connecting with people, getting your message out there, Twitter vs. Facebook. There’s not enough focus out there on actually digging and getting unique interesting stories.”
For now McLeod is happy. This is a dream job. A plan for his future isn’t even in his thoughts. Every development in his career has been unforeseen.
He may look like a kid in a stiff blue suit, but he’s kind of a big deal. Just a big question mark that can’t be punctuated.