“I don’t feel a burning desire to write.”
That’s the last thing I scratched into my notebook when I sat down with Mike Boone at his home last fall. It’s funny because it’s coming from a newspaper columnist. I just did a search, and from 1985 (when the Gazette’s electronic database starts) to his goodbye column on Sept. 1, 2012, it counts 5,182 articles with “MIKE BOONE” in the byline. That works out to 192 a year, or 3.7 a week, on average, over that 27-year span, most of which he spent as the paper’s TV and radio columnist or city columnist.
In case you haven’t heard by now, Boone was one of many Gazette employees who took a buyout last fall. Sports writer Randy Phillips was another. Hockey columnist Red Fisher had taken his a bit earlier. Most of the rest of those who left were editors, photo technicians and other behind-the-scenes staff. People unrecognized by readers, but whose work all contributed to make The Gazette a quality newspaper, and whose departure caused it to suffer, despite valiant attempts by those left to compensate.
Unlike Fisher, whose retirement prompted news stories in The Gazette and in other media, Boone’s retirement (at a much busier time of the year for news) didn’t get much notice. He wrote a goodbye column, and quietly departed, striding off into the sunset toward that cul-de-sac in Pointe Claire.
Except he wasn’t entirely gone. He continues to blog Canadiens games for Hockey Inside/Out, and like he did when he was an employee, he’ll be at the Bell Centre for home games and in his basement for away games, providing live commentary with his classic funny flair.
As the Canadiens begin their playoff run today, attention toward the team, and traffic on the website, should go up.
Little Mikey becomes a journalist
When Boone graduated from McGill University with a BA in English literature in 1970, he wasn’t immediately given a full-time job at a newspaper, despite the impression our generation might have of journalism jobs from back then. His experience at the McGill Daily didn’t get him any plum opportunities, at least not at first.
“I did a million things,” he said, including working as a proofreader for a computerized typesetting company specializing in legal texts, a job he said is as dull as it sounds. This was during the transition from hot type to less manual forms of typesetting. Boone’s job was “preparing text that would come from the government pertaining to legal issues, proofreading it and passing it off to the sweatshop of typists who would enter it on perforated computer tape.”
Eventually he got a call from a man named Pat Hickey.
“Mike was covering the McGill Redmen for the Daily and I was covering the team for the Montreral Star and I liked his stuff,” Hickey, now the Canadiens beat writer for The Gazette, told me. “I liked that he was irreverent and had a nice, breezy style. As an aside, I’d been involved with recruiting young reporters and I used to collect university papers because they provide the best insight into whether someone can write and whether they understand what news is. The Daily in those days was regarded by the two papers as a hornet’s nest of far-left Marxists and very few of them were hired but did go on to Toronto and the CBC.”
“In 1974, I became the sports editor of The Star. I made semi-regular appearances on Wednesday nights at the Novo Rex Tavern on Mountain (later the O Blitz and now the Olde Orchard on Montagne). On any given night, the cast of characters included Nick Auf Der Maur, Elly Alboim, Josh Freed, Red Phillips, Brian McKenna, Terry Mosher, and Boone). I asked him what he was doing and I think he was a proofreader at a commercial printing operation. I told him I had an opening, asked him if he wanted a job and the rest is history.”
It wasn’t a columnist job. It wasn’t the Canadiens beat. No, Boone’s first job was much less glamorous than that, covering “high school kids playing soccer in the rain.”
A few years later, a strike at the Star sent everyone out of work for eight months. Boone collected unemployment (“pogey” he called it, betraying his age), did some freelancing for CBC, but otherwise didn’t do much.
In 1979, when The Star finally came back, Boone was moved to the Expos beat.
That job didn’t last long. On Sept. 25, Boone was in Pittsburgh covering a game when he got a phone call from editor Pat Curran saying he shouldn’t bother filing because the paper doesn’t exist anymore. He recounts the day in this story published in 2011 when he returned to the sports desk for the first time since then.
“I was absolutely crestfallen,” Boone told me. “The thing about travelling with the Expos all summer, I had no idea what was happening in Montreal. I was not seeing my colleagues at the paper, so I had no sense of circulation figures, of morale in the newsroom, so it was like a thunderbolt out of the blue.”
Move to The Gazette
Immediately, Boone tried to look for a job at The Gazette. He got “many encouraging words, but it didn’t amount to anything.” At least at first.
“I was among the first Star people hired (at The Gazette) but it took a while,” Boone said. It was actually a matter of months.
At The Gazette, he took up the dream job of … music critic. As a backup to Juan Rodriguez. In retrospect, he called it “the low point of my career.”
Boone could tell that he wasn’t doing a good job in the post. “I love music,” he said, “but my reaction to it is emotional and visceral and it’s hard to put it into words.”
I can relate.
Within a year, in 1980, he took over a new beat. He would cover television and radio, the electronic media that people love to passively consume and which had been undergoing various transformations.
He had been offered a job in sports, but turned it down. “A beat in sports is challenging for family life,” he said. With TV and radio, “I could make my own hours, be home for dinner.”
Boone spent 20 years on the beat, before becoming the Gazette’s city columnist in 2000. Even though I unofficially cover the (local) TV and radio scene today for the paper, I haven’t even dreamed of being able to read all the stuff he’s written on the subject (though the occasional search for historical reasons has often been helpful).
“I think I did my best writing (during that time), he said. “I was confident, I didn’t second-guess myself.”
It may be hard to believe, but Boone is strangely humble, down-to-earth, even a bit insecure, at least compared to the confident joking persona he presents as a columnist and commentator.
One of the things he liked about the TV and radio beat is that he “didn’t have to talk to too many people.”
Not that he didn’t have some conversations. Being a journalist covering media means you quickly develop relationships with people who run that media and will try their best to influence coverage to be in their favour.
“People (in the TV industry) over a drink would give me shit for criticizing,” he said. They would say you can’t compare the big-budget TV programming in the U.S. to what you get in Canada.
As sympathetic as that argument is, Boone couldn’t pull his punches. We might not think it’s fair to compare the two, he said, “but that’s what the schmuck at home is doing.” And that schmuck was who he was writing for.
I asked him what he thinks of TV nowadays, considering his experience, and he said he doesn’t watch enough of it to judge. “I can’t watch network TV,” he said of the quality of shows being produced today, making an exception for Modern Family. Instead, the true value is on premium cable channels.
Man of the city
Despite his confidence fuelled by experience in the TV and radio beat, after 20 years it became less interesting. He’d gone around the block enough times, been lied to by enough radio program directors about their ratings and after drastic cuts to local programming on TV, just about every important decision was being made in Toronto. In 2000, he became a city columnist, covering general news.
This is where I knew Boone best, having joined the paper in 2005 (and having not read it much before that, I have to admit). What impressed me most about his work wasn’t that he was getting crazy scoops or grilling politicians or any of the other stuff good journalists do. It was that he had a unique ability to take the most boring story and make it interesting. You would often read a story about some grandmother who’s doing a bake sale for charity, the kind of stuff assignment editors yawn at and would normally only be found in community weeklies, and he would find a way to make it interesting and funny, to give it a personality, to draw people to it and make them care.
There are plenty of people in the writing business who think they’re funny. But Boone was the one who made me laugh. Boone was the one whose one-liners would be discussed on the desk between editors impressed by his wordplay.
Back to sports, and then home
In 2011, as the newspaper industry’s decline accelerated, he moved over to sports. It wasn’t entirely his decision, he said. He was asked to go over, and despite some uncertainty about it, he made the move that fall, and began writing about the Canadiens and whatever other sports the city has. (Joking aside, Boone says he actually enjoys the Impact. Though the Alouettes are another story — the CFL doesn’t hold a candle to the NFL in his view.)
The move back to sports was the logical extension of his work at Hockey Inside/Out, born as Habs Inside/Out in 2006. The Canadiens blog was a runaway hit with its narrow focus, its strive for absolutely complete coverage of its topic, and live blogging during games.
But as much as Boone enjoyed the live blogging, the sports column didn’t really seem to fit. “Within a short time in sports I realized I liked (the city column). I didn’t feel I was hitting too many home runs,” he said. In the summer of 2012, as The Gazette was hit with a serious push to shed staff, Boone decided it was time to move on and take a buyout.
Since then, he’s been taking it easy.
“I took my dog for a walk, futzed around on the Internet,” he said of his daily activities now. “I’ve never been an active person who had a lot of hobbies. I managed to fill time. The Internet is great for that.”
“I love it. Somewhere on my shoulder is a Calvinist who’s not related to me telling me I should feel guilty.”
His favourite story
I asked Boone about his favourite stories, his most memorable features he wrote during his career. He didn’t think long about his answer. It wasn’t about the Expos, or the Canadiens, or TV or radio or people in the city. It was about a Montreal Symphony Orchestra trip to Europe.
It was 1984, and the MSO was headed for a trip across the pond. Gazette editor Garry Steckles wanted to send a writer to cover it, but didn’t want the same kind of coverage of classical music that the paper saw on a daily basis. He wanted something more interesting.
“Eric McLean had been the music critic for 300 years,” Boone said, exaggerating slightly. “How do I put it diplomatically? Oh fuck it he’s dead. He wrote for classical music aficionados.”
Considering the expense of sending someone overseas, “you don’t want to write copy that 500 Montrealers are interested in,” Boone said. “My mandate was to do featurish stuff and cover it like a sports team.”
Boone said it was one of the most fun things he’d done as a journalist. “You’re applying your curiosity to something you know nothing about,” he said. Through the series, examples of which you can read here and here and here and here, he learned that the MSO musicians are “amazingly cultured and funny people,” far from the boring antisocial artists you might imagine them to be.
It was so successful that the experiment was repeated the next year, when the MSO did an Asian tour. But it was “not as fun because my wife wasn’t with me,” Boone said.
A comeback? Don’t bet on it
I was curious whether such a prolific writer could go cold turkey like that, just stop writing. Has he felt the need to write since he left? Yes and no.
“I will miss the opportunity to vent,” he told me last fall, saying he was thinking of starting up a blog where he could write about non-Canadiens matters and maintain “some sort of profile.”
But “do I wake up with a burning urge to tell people what’s on my mind? Absolutely not.”
“I’m totally uninspired, I don’t know why,” he told me this week when asked about it. “I’ve been a columnist for so long if I could do real shoe-leather journalism I’ve long forgotten how. I’m sick of my own opinion.”
“Never say never, maybe I’ll come roaring out of retirement, but for the moment I’m quite content. I enjoy reading more than I enjoy writing.”
Boone said he took initial steps toward setting up a blog during the hockey lockout, but put that project on the back burner when the Canadiens started playing again.
“I want to be remembered like Chuckles the Clown,” Boone said when asked how people should remember him. “A little seltzer down your pants.”
“I hope it entertained people, and I hope it enlightened them once in a while.”
Looking back, Boone’s memories are on the positive side. “I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve been unhappy in journalism,” he said. Good or bad, “nobody ever told me I wrote something that wasn’t being read.”
“I’m proud of what I did.”