Stephen Maher is the new Ottawa columnist for Postmedia News
By: Samantha Chown
Stephen Maher had said no before. He had a good job, a great job. He was the Ottawa bureau chief for the Chronicle Herald. The paper gave him the freedom to write what he wanted, even if his stories didn’t always focus exclusively on issues affecting his readers in Atlantic Canada. Despite the Herald’s relatively small circulation and resources, Maher earned a national reputation for breaking big stories that were fair and well researched.
Unsurprisingly, he’d received offers to join other, bigger news organizations. But “I wasn’t in a terrible hurry to leave the Chronicle Herald,” he says.
In the summer of 2011, two different media outlets approached him. One of the offers—from Postmedia, Canada’s largest newspaper chain—was intriguing. He would be a national columnist published three times a week in papers including the National Post and the Ottawa Citizen.
Ottawa was changing. Stephen Harper had just won his parliamentary majority. The NDP had become the official opposition with an inexperienced, Quebec-dominated caucus. The Liberals were leaderless and in disarray. There would be lots of interesting national stories over the next decade—and Stephen Maher would be at the centre of it all.
Still, “I had to think about it—whether I’d be happy or not. These things are a process, right?” he says. “There’s back and forth.” So for a few weeks it was back and forth. Which news organization would be the best fit?
Finally, he decided. He quit the Herald, where he’d worked for 13 years, joined Postmedia and instantly became one of the most important political journalists in the country.
For a guy who couldn’t get into journalism school, who spent much of his career as an anonymous editor on newspaper night desks, whose journalistic reputation prior to Ottawa was primarily as a restaurant critic, Stephen Maher has come a long way.
Maher always wanted to be a journalist but, because he was “a bad student” in high school, the University of King’s College Journalism School rejected his application in 1984. He still went to King’s, but majored in International Development Studies.
[pullquote] “He has the X Factor… The ability to recognize a tree inside the forest. That is, to see a news story and then go off and execute it… and Steve’s really got that in droves.”
– Glen McGregor, Ottawa Citizen reporter [/pullquote]
Chisholm Pothier, a close friend from those days, says Maher was always a “smart guy who could write and who could think.”
The two met the first night of King’s frosh week. They were in the Wardroom, the campus bar, when Pothier spotted Maher. Pothier had come from Ottawa and didn’t know anyone at King’s so he walked over to Maher to say hello. The two instantly bonded over a mutual interest in music.
Pothier, who is now press secretary to Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, says that, even then, Maher had defining qualities that would make him a great journalist. Maher is always curious, always interested.
While living together on Quinpool Road with three other roommates, Pothier remembers being “lucky” if he read an entire issue of Rolling Stone in a week. Maher, on the other hand, was always picking up books on “pretentious” subjects and would bore Pothier by regurgitating everything he had read.
One day, Tuck, a singer/songwriter, got a phone call from a mutual friend, Barry Moores, another former King’s student who’d become editor of the Lewisporte Pilot, a small newspaper in Newfoundland. The recession in the late 80s made journalism jobs elusive. So, after graduating in 1988, the closest Maher could come to working for a newspaper was selling them at the Blowers Street Paper Chase Newsstand and Café, where he worked with his King’s roommate, Al Tuck.
Moores asked Tuck if he wanted a job as a reporter for the Advertiser in Grand Falls, a town just shy of 15,000 residents. But, “I was more interested in starting a band,” Tuck says, so he passed the opportunity to Maher.
Maher had his first job in journalism.
Maher spent close to three years in Newfoundland working at various papers around the province. At the Advertiser he did everything from layout to selling occasional ads. And when the company was desperate for an editor for the Labradorian, a weekly in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, Maher took the job saying it would be an adventure. , “I was quite keen to do it.”
In 1990, he landed a job at the Sunday Express, where he says he got his first taste of investigative journalism. He then took a post as editor of the Gander Beacon. In Newfoundland, he says, he “learned all about journalism in a short amount of time.”
In 1991 Maher was fired from the Beacon. He doesn’t elaborate, but says editing the Beacon was never his life’s ambition. So he returned to Nova Scotia and landed a job at the now-defunct Halifax Daily News. He worked the night desk, “getting the sort of jobs that no one else wanted to do; laying out the stocks pages, that kind of thing, doing listings, a lot of fiddly sort of stuff.” They were tedious jobs but he learned what makes a good newspaper story, how copy should read and how not to bury the lead.
In 1997, Conrad Black bought the paper and offered newsroom buyouts to cut costs. Maher asked his editor if he would be laid off if he didn’t take a buyout. “He didn’t offer much comfort on that score,” Maher recalls. He took the buyout.
“I felt I wasn’t able to get the kind of opportunity that I wanted to do more interesting work so I thought if they’re willing to pay me to leave, I should likely take a chance and get out.”
Since he didn’t have another job lined up, it was a risky decision.
But the next year Maher landed a job with the Chronicle Herald. He was on the night desk again, coming into the office in afternoon and staying till at least 9 p.m., sometimes later, depending on the day, “which was kind of a grueling, challenging job.” He did it anyway, “because that was a job I could get and I was quite anxious to be getting a paycheque again.”
Eventually he began editing the front page and freelanced as a restaurant critic for the Sunday Herald.
In 2003 the paper’s Ottawa bureau chief position opened up. Maher had always wanted to get into political journalism. He had been influenced by the Watergate era, “…by that sort of journalist as hero idea—that crusading investigative journalist as personified by (Bob) Woodward and (Carl) Bernstein. I think for a generation of journalists that was the model that influenced us.”
Maher hadn’t written any political stories since his days in Newfoundland 12 years earlier. But he had confidence in his writing ability—and a healthy dose of hubris. Having spent years editing other writers’ work and writing restaurant reviews, he had a sense of how his writing compared to others.
Maher was the only Herald staffer to apply for the position. He got the job.
If a more experienced reporter had applied, Maher speculates, the job would have gone to them—but none wanted to leave Nova Scotia. “Halifax is a nice place and good journalism jobs are scarce there… I know some of the other reporters thought about it but they had families or houses.”
Sending him to Ottawa to cover politics was an “unorthodox decision,” he admits. In the beginning it was also a nerve-racking experience. He was a one-man bureau in the highly competitive Parliamentary press gallery, competing against 350 others.
At first, he says, nobody knows who you are, and they don’t have much interest in what you’re writing about. “I tried to dig up stories and get scoops and it began to get easier as time went on,” says Maher.
He has the X factor, says Glen McGregor, a reporter with the Ottawa Citizen who worked with Maher on a Canadian Association of Journalists’ award-winning story showing how Conservative ridings were receiving more stimulus money than any other ridings. McGregor says Maher has “the ability to recognize a tree inside the forest. That is, to see a news story and then go off and execute it… and Steve’s really got that in droves.”
In 2009, Maher finally earned national attention. Jasmine MacDonnell, director of communications to Natural Resources Minister Lisa Raitt, left a tape recorder in a bathroom in the House of Commons. The recorder ended up in Maher’s possession. He contacted MacDonnell but when she didn’t claim it, Maher listened to the recordings. On one, Raitt called a major story about a shortage of medical isotopes a “sexy” issue and made unflattering comments about her colleague, Health Minister Leona Algukkaq. Maher broke the story—but only after a court hearing in which MacDonnell’s lawyers attempted to prevent its publication.
Maher doesn’t call it his big break and it’s not the story he’s most proud of, but the story had a big impact—personally as well as professionally.
He’s hesitant to talk about the backlash the story caused, and he became a victim of the gossip mill. “It’s an insidious way of damaging someone to spread false rumours about them,” he says, “but there’s not much you can do except focus on your work and hope that over time your work will prevail over some kind of whisper campaign against you.”
Maher survived—and thrived. He’d had offers to join other news organizations but had said no until Postmedia came calling this summer. With 11 newspapers in every major city across Canada, it not only gave Maher more readers but also more clout.
“I find it very satisfying to cover Canadian politics. And the idea of being able to do so at a higher level and to reach more readers is appealing to me,” he says.
Overnight Maher went from reaching just 110,000 readers per day, almost exclusively in Nova Scotia, to nearly five million Canadians each week.
Maher likes to take his boat, Black & Blew, out from the Hull Marina and sail around the Ottawa River with a group of six or so. He says, “It’s a good way to get to know people on a more personal basis.” In Ottawa, Maher is known for more than just his coverage of the Hill. McGregor calls him a “social genius… I lived in Ottawa most of my life and he knows 10 times more (people) in Ottawa.” Maher has the ability to make anyone feel important, McGregor says, and he’s not just friends with journalists but also those working in government.
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