Ian Thompson, after 33 years, returns to the Chronicle Herald.
By Dylan Matthias
As Ian Thompson opens the clear glass door into the highest offices at the Chronicle Herald, Sarah Dennis greets him with breaking news. Allnovascotia.com has a story before the Herald does. Has he seen it? She wants to know when they are going to get on it.
Thompson’s only been at the Herald since Sept. 6 and already he is in the middle of everything. At 8 a.m. this morning, he is attending story meetings and guiding editorial positions. Then he went out to Pier 21 to represent the Herald on a panel. Now he is back in the office. It does not seem like he has been here three weeks.
That is because Thompson has been here before, though never in an office quite this high up. He is no anonymous associate publisher. In 1988, he was credited with masterminding John Buchanan’s final majority election victory. That reputation, as well as 20 years in public relations, got him appointed the Agent General in Nova Scotia’s office in Ottawa. After that, he became the deputy minister of Economic and Rural Development and Tourism.
“Somebody who can’t hold a job,” is what Thompson tells people to call him. “I’ve done what seemed to make sense at the time.”
He has done a bit of everything. He is not exactly a suit—he wears a slightly un-tucked blue and white plaid shirt under his jacket. According to friends, it is common to see him in a grey suit and orange socks. He sounds like an academic who can talk to people.
You can see Dalhousie University from his office on the eighth floor of the Herald building on Joseph Howe Drive. Thompson graduated from Dalhousie University with a degree in sociology in 1970. He learned how people work. He read Saul Alinsky, the American author of Rules for Radicals, and liked him. He mentions Greenpeace as an example of media manipulation. Thompson knows his radicals.
He had no favourite professor. “I wasn’t probably one of their favourite students, either,” he says. “For me, university life was more an extension of high school than it was a unique university experience in a new community as it would have been for many.”
Thompson went to Queen Elizabeth High, where he was the president of his graduating class. He has spent his whole life in Halifax. He has spent time reporting on it, building it, promoting it, and now he is defining one of its larger institutions, the Chronicle Herald.
Thompson’s niece and president of the Herald, Sarah Dennis, hired him. “His experience in business, in government and in the province,” she said in a news release, “will be of great benefit to us as we work to strengthen the content side of our business.”
Thompson started at the Herald in 1970 as a copy boy. “Sounds like something straight out of Dickens,” he says.
“I don’t remember as a 20-year-old saying ‘in ten years time I’m going to be a freelance writer, or in 15 years’ time I’m going own my own PR firm’”.
“My career has not been particularly directed by myself,” he says.
Thompson slowly moved up the ladder at the Herald, covering city hall, the provincial government, the federal government, the 1972 Canada-Russia summit series—he happened to be on vacation in Russia at the time—and Rene Levesque’s 1976 election win in Quebec. He left the Herald in 1978 to freelance.
“It was an opportunity to broaden my journalistic career… but while I was doing that I realized that the core skill that I had as a reporter was more highly valued in a commercial sense, in a PR sense, than it was in the media world”.
“Dramatically” more highly valued, he says. “It’s tough being a freelance writer—it’s tough economically.
“I could spend two weeks doing a story for Maclean’s,” says Thompson, “and they’d ask me to rewrite a couple of times, then they’d lose my invoice and then X number of weeks later I’d get my 200 bucks. A [PR] company would be prepared to pay me something similar to write a news release, which I could do with my eyes closed.” Thompson started his own public relations practice, McArthur Thompson and Law, and ran it from 1984 until 2002. He became known in the cystic fibrosis community. Both his children died of the disease.
[pullquote]“I think I realized successively and continually that people in elected office are pretty average.”
– Ian Thompson, Chronicle Herald[/pullquote]
Now Thompson is back at the Herald, having been outside journalism for 31 years. “Newsrooms benefit from people who haven’t spent all their lives in newsrooms,” says Jim Meek, a friend of Thompson’s and former Herald editor now in public relations.
“I think what we need to do is stimulate dialogue and encourage dialogue,” says Thompson. “I don’t think we should go out of our way to stick it to anybody. But if a company is behaving badly… that’s fair game for us in the news business.”
There are challenges at the Herald. In 2009, it laid off a quarter of the reporters. The Herald is changing. Thompson does not shy away from that topic. “We need to make sure that we invest in the technology that makes us more efficient,” he says. “… That said, we haven’t fully exploited it.”
Part of his morning news routine is a Twitter check—and the Globe and Mail and New York Times. “I’m intrigued by how our society works and how decisions are made and what the influencers are,” he says. “I try to follow some tweets and see what comes of it.”
Local Coast reporter Tim Bousquet is blunt: nothing will change at the Herald. “That’s their bread and butter. They cater to the business class in this community, in different forms. They’ll never editorialize against the Chamber of Commerce, for example, it just won’t happen.”
The Chamber of Commerce, though, says the Herald is not pro-business enough. “Business is on the back pages of the sports page,” says Valerie Payn, the current president who has known Thompson about eight years. Payn is not looking for what Bousquet calls “local business boosterism,” though.
Positivity, Payn says, does not mean not true. It just means balanced. “We can stand the tough. There is a difference between toughness and negativity. Negativity is always looking for that slant of ‘Yeah, but.’”
More worrying for Thompson might be Payn’s reading habits. She reads the Herald‘s electronic version each morning. At work, all her updates come from Allnovascotia.com.
There are expensive cars parked outside the Halifax Chamber of Commerce. They are a local business advocacy group, but there are no upcoming events on their sign. Thompson was recruited to the Chamber by Valerie Payn, the current president, while he was still a partner in McArthur Thompson and Law.
The Chamber’s mission is to “tell our story loudly (or at least more loudly),” declares a sign in Payn’s office that she points out upon arrival. Thompson immediately helped tell stories, founding Business Voice, the Chamber’s magazine. Valerie Payn, the current president of the Chamber who also helped create Business Voice, says Thompson gave them “critical thought,” and was involved in “all the pieces associated with creating a magazine.” He worked on layout and content, not so different from his job at the Herald now.
“If you have Ian do that, you’ve got top-drawer leadership helping you create that,” says Payn. Thompson is a “friend” and a “supporter.” They don’t go out to dinner. It is more of a respect thing. Thompson would go on to volunteer on the board, the executive committee and as chair of the board. “Because I’ve got business experience is an asset, not a liability in this case,” says Thompson.
It is “absolutely necessary,” Meek says, “that voices outside the journalistic sphere have voices in the public debate.” Too often, he says, journalists interview each other. “Sometimes you want someone with inside knowledge.”
“I can handle it,” Thompson says. He is remarkably calm about the feedback he gets from business. “Sure I hear those things, and I’m delighted when I hear them. If you can stimulate the dialogue and cause people to think about it and engage and discuss, that’s good.
“I am who I am. I’ll have critics and I’ll have supporters and it ebbs and flows and life goes on.”
When he sold his firm in 2002, he worked briefly at Emera, which owns Nova Scotia Power, as a vice president of external operations. When the lights went out and did not come back on quickly enough after a storm, Thompson’s name was in the Herald’s pages again.
The provincial government needed a representative in Ottawa, so Thompson changed once more. Premier John Hamm and Bob Fowler appointed him to the post. “I don’t know if I was the fourth or fifth or tenth person they called, but anyway, it worked for me.” He says he had almost no direction in the job. There are only three staff in the Ottawa job: the head man, a researcher and an office manager.
Stephen Maher is a columnist in the National Post and the Montreal Gazette who worked for the Herald in Ottawa as a Parliament Hill reporter. He describes Thompson as “a friend, a very interesting man, very smart. Worldly.”
The job Thompson had “would depend on who has the job and what the government wants them to do,” Maher says. The intensity? That is up to the “capacity and desire of the people involved.”
Bill Casey is a former MP and now holds Thompson’s position. “I’m not good at it, but I’m doing it,” he says. He coordinates a lot of foreign visits and meetings. “It had been kind of a tumultuous period for me. This was a change and it was a good change.” The job was “not unmanageable,” he says.
“Nobody wakes up in Ottawa and asks,’what am I going to do for Nova Scotia?’” says Thompson. The job was “nowhere near” as intense as the deputy minister’s job.
Thompson’s been well-compensated for his efforts: big names do not come cheap. As deputy minister from 2009 to 2011, Thompson was paid $166,849.80 in salary each year, plus $23,887 in travel for the 2009-10 fiscal year. As deputy minister, Thompson was on the boards of numerous partner agencies, including Nova Scotia Business Inc., Trade Centre Limited and InNOVAcorp. Four of the eight highest grant recipients from the Department of Economic and Rural Development and Tourism in the 2009-10 fiscal year either had Thompson on their boards or were partners of the department.
Despite the salary, Thompson views semi-public life as an experiment he will not repeat. “I wouldn’t do it again. If I’d never done it I’d do it, but I won’t do it again,” he says. “I think I realized successively and continually that people in elected office are pretty average.”
Thompson’s career is nearing an end. His return to the Herald is “a little bit” of a chance to relive it. But it is different this time. His brother-in-law is no longer his boss. Now it is his niece. They meet and talk most days, sometimes for two minutes, other times for two hours.
“She’s always been mature, even as a child,” Thompson says. “She’s precocious, self-assured, confident, but not so self-assured that she doesn’t know when to ask questions and learn something new.”
With some help from Sarah Dennis, Thompson is coming up with story ideas for editorials. When his experience “can be helpful, I make it available,” Thompson says. He has not written any copy yet, but he is quick to point out that he has done that before. He has done a lot before, and now he is back to the beginning.