Just after 9 a.m. on a cool autumn morning,
Margaret Wente is greeted by the familiar sounds of The
Globe and Mail newsroom. Reporters are checking phone
messages, placing early calls and scanning the news wire to see
what's happened overnight. Some are chatting and leaning against
a wall that displays seven clocks telling the time in Los
Angeles, London, New Delhi, Jerusalem, Moscow, Beijing and
Berlin. Wente surveys the sea of desks as she makes her way to
her office in the Report on Business section.
could have prepared her for this.
Some reporters are
wearing white buttons with "Weak and Hopeless" printed in big
black letters. They're reacting to one of Wente's memos-now known
as the Weak and Hopeless memo-which was mysteriously leaked to
the newsroom. A month earlier, William Thorsell, the
Globe's editor-in-chief, had asked Wente to
jot down what she thought was wrong with the paper's A-section,
to which she'd responded: "The Toronto-based national news team
is in exactly the same situation that ROB was in 1994. It is
starved for good reporters. Key beats are uncovered. Other key
beats are staffed with hopeless people.... No amount of clever
editing or packaging will fix that. The only fix is to hire some
top young reporters.... No amount of remedial training, rework,
or memo-writing will compensate for a basically weak staff."
A year and a half later, her reputation is still
suffering. Even before the memo made the rounds, many
Globe reporters felt that Wente was difficult
to work with. She's often described as blunt and distant. As
managing editor of the Globe, she's renowned
for her impenetrable vision of the paper. As an editor of other
people's work, she is highly skilled if not gentle. She expects
the same level of professionalism from her colleagues that she
demands of herself. She has no time for hand-holding or stroking
reporters' egos. This is a woman who believes in hard work, not
flattery. Colleagues who've known her for years say they still
can't read her thoughts or predict her next move. She will admit
to being painfully shy but says little else about
herself-especially to her staff. Which, of course, builds
suspicion and paranoia. In an industry that attracts more than
its share of suspicious and paranoid types, Wente's reticence can
cause problems. As shocked as she might have been that morning,
faced with a newsroom of "Weak and Hopeless" reporters, Wente
remained silent as her eyes fixed on the white buttons.
It's last October, and I'm visiting the
Globe while its newsroom is being renovated.
The ceiling has been removed, and wires dangle above reporters'
heads. The lighting is dim. A plastic tarp separates the staff
from construction. I'm waiting for Wente in her small office on
the edge of the newsroom. It's unassuming and sparsely
decorated-a map of Toronto on one wall and a bulletin board with
a Kim Campbell button on another. The only personal touch-a dream
catcher hanging on the back of her door-seems somehow
uncharacteristic. I'm sitting in one of two green upholstered
chairs when Wente walks in. We're ready to start the interview,
but the whirring of drills invades our conversation, and we
decide to move upstairs to the new Report on Business section.
The office we borrow has freshly painted walls, new
leather chairs and polished furniture. Everything smells as if
it's just been unwrapped from its plastic. We're discussing her
job as ME. I ask about her day-to-day experiences in an executive
position. There is a long pause-she's famous for them. She leans
back, bites into a bagel and looks to the side. Finally, she says
she doesn't consider herself an executive; she is a working
editor who sits near the reporters in the newsroom, not in a big
corner office upstairs. She says the kick in her work is the
creative part, it's putting the paper out. In fact, she feels
sorry for executives who are removed from the creative work. They
can't feel or taste or do anything. For them, work is simply
manipulating numbers, which, if she thinks about it, is quite the
opposite of what she does. She laughs at this thought.
The A-section is a direct reflection of her work. Her
daily goal is to make the front page dramatic and vibrant.
Working with a team of senior editors, she decides which stories
should be placed above the paper's fold-attracting readers to
newspaper boxes-and how these stories should be developed. She
also helps choose the Globe cover photo. "We
try to find something with good human values that's going to have
an impact on the page," she explains, adding that she thinks the
Globe's photos are more effective in colour.
Last Christmas she decided to run a cover photo of the National
Ballet's Sugarplum Fairies, who were practising for The
Nutcracker. "Some of the men said, 'It's not a news photo, it's
just a piece of eye candy.' And I said, 'It's a beautiful piece
of eye candy.'"
Those kinds of choices have become more
crucial with new competition on the market. Wente admits the
Globe has made some changes since the
National Post's launch. Using skyboxes under
the masthead to promote the contents of each issue is an example,
something the staid Globe never would have
considered a few years ago.
What does she think of the
Post so far? Too much feature material for
readers who "don't have time in the morning to wallow around in
the long stuff." And too much ink on inconsequential stories. But
"they're going after women hot and heavy.... I think it's smart
of them. The Globe and Mail's front section
has never been known for its female friendliness." The
competition has encouraged the Globe to
diversify its news coverage "without detracting from our
essential seriousness and purpose." If the
Post excels in one area of coverage, the
Globe tries to leap ahead in other areas. "In
that respect," she says, "it's a good old-fashioned newspaper
war. And it's certainly true that life will never be the same for
us. But I'm not losing sleep...yet!"
Since the threat
of the new daily, the Globe has been
tightening expense control. A September memo issued by Earle
Gill, the Globe's executive editor, informed
staff that the new design and transition to colour printing were
more costly than originally anticipated. According to the memo,
"All spending on meals and entertainment is frozen unless
authorized in advance by a department head. All staff travel must
be kept to an absolute minimum.... All overtime must be approved
in advance.... Taxis are to be used only for work-related
purposes when required and...the Globe must be
reimbursed for personal calls made or received on company cell
The cost-cutting has deflated working
relationships and heightened fear of the
Globe's uncertain future. The
Post "has money for cakes and parties and a
whole bunch of other bullshit," complains one senior reporter. "A
thrashing machine has gone through this newsroom." Wente's
managerial style does little to alleviate reporters' anxieties.
Chicago, 1953. Three-year-old Peggy Wente has taught
herself to read. A year later, she and her baby brother, James,
get a new sister, Sally. When Sally's old enough, Peggy reads to
her at night. "My youngest child cannot even remember me reading
her a bedtime story," says Wente's mother, Barbara McNeill, a
retired pharmaceutical executive. She is telling me how, in some
ways, her eldest daughter hasn't changed much since she was a
little girl. She's always been reflective and responsible. By the
age of five, she says, Peggy was reading many of the children's
classics, including The Enchanted Garden, the
Little House on the Prairie series and
The Little Princess, which was her favourite.
Learning, she discovered, was as limitless as her imagination.
When Peggy skipped Grade 2, the principal at her school warned
McNeill that it could be traumatic, that Peggy would probably
have trouble catching up to the older students. "I was all
prepared for tears and disappointment," McNeill recalls. "It took
about a month and then she was top of the class again and we
never looked back."
Emotionally, she blended in well
with the older girls. But physically, she stopped growing at 10.
"She was exactly the same size [5 feet 4 inches] and shape she is
now," her mother says. "That makes one feel socially rather
inept. She was very self-conscious about it."
parents separated, she moved with her mother and siblings to
Toronto, leaving her father in Chicago. She is still close to her
dad, seeing him when she can. At 14, being the new kid at school,
Wente struggled with where she belonged. For one year, she
attended Victoria Park Secondary School. "Peggy was never doing
any homework, but bringing home high 80s," her mother remembers,
"and I thought this is for the birds. So we sent her to Bishop
After grades 11 and 12 at the private girls'
school, she left to study English at the University of Michigan.
"It was the late '60s, a lot of fun," Wente says. "People were
marching, demonstrating, occupying the admin building." When
asked where she fit into this age of social protest, she laughs:
"I was a voyeur demonstrator."
She returned to Toronto
to do her MA in English at the University of Toronto and took a
course with Robertson Davies. There was only a handful of
students, and they would sit in Davies's study, listening to his
sentimental Victorian tales. For a break, the "maid" would serve
them tea from an ornate silver service.
ignited in Wente a passion for literature. But her taste of grad
school persuaded her that she didn't have a strong enough calling
to survive the long, dreary road of the doctorate student. "I had
absolutely no idea what I wanted to do. I didn't think of
journalism. I thought I was way too timid to be a reporter." As a
compromise between the academic and commercial world, she tried
book publishing. "I thought it might be quite genteel and I'd be
able to work with words." But as a publicist for Doubleday, she
encountered authors who were nothing like what she'd imagined. "I
mostly remember meeting them and going, Uh! Those are authors?"
She rolls her eyes. "My God! They're so scruffy and
In 1974 she left Doubleday to become
associate editor of the Royal Ontario Museum's magazine,
Rotunda. Within two years she was editor.
After a couple of years there, she decided to move into
mainstream magazines, and copy edited at the now-defunct
journalism was thriving in the late '70s, so Wente simply went
where the jobs were: Canadian Business, as an
associate editor, and then editor; CBC-TV's
Venture, her first and last foray into
broadcasting; Report on Business Magazine as
editor; and, finally, the Globe's ROB section,
where she stayed until the winter of '97, when she was appointed
The managing editor of the paper, John
Cruickshank, had recently resigned to become editor of
The Vancouver Sun. Although deputy editor
Colin MacKenzie was in line for the job, Globe
management held a nine-month search for a new ME. Many reporters
were outraged; they signed a petition supporting MacKenzie. He
was ultimately appointed, but Thorsell was attempting to redesign
the A-section at the time, and he felt it was changing too slowly
under MacKenzie's direction. He asked Wente what she'd do to
liven things up. Her response: the Weak and Hopeless memo.
Thorsell liked her thinking.
By January of 1998,
MacKenzie was gone and Wente was promoted to ME. The staff may
have agreed with some of the suggestions in her now-infamous
memo, though they were probably too insulted to admit it. Many
also believed that MacKenzie wasn't improving the A-section
quickly enough. But he was respected and well liked in the
newsroom, and his supporters felt he was squeezed out. In other
words, it wasn't an easy position for Wente to inherit. After a
year and a half in her new job, Wente's relationship with many of
her co-workers is as it's always been: cool and impersonal.
On another October afternoon-still no sign of winter-I
return to the Globe to talk with Sarah
Murdoch, associate editor in charge of the paper's opinion pieces
and a friend and colleague of Wente's for the past 15 years. She
greets me in the lobby, and we make our way to her slick new
office in the ROB section. Each decorated cubicle I pass tells
something about its occupant: an "I am Canadian" poster, a
Clinton rubber doll with lipstick on its cheek, a life preserver.
Murdoch tells me she thinks Wente is succeeding with
the redesign of the A-section. The hard-news stories are shorter
and livelier. But in the A-section, the pendulum between news and
gossip swings back and forth. "I think when she first became
managing editor she maybe went too far in one direction to be
popular," Murdoch says, "putting Leonardo DiCaprio on the front
page or being a little bit too showbizzy." Since then, though,
she feels Wente has found the right balance. At least one
Globe veteran reporter doesn't agree. "She's
turned on by Clinton on a day when APEC is breaking in Canada,"
he told me. During the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky saga, Wente
would continually scan the wire for the latest details.
When I mention this to Murdoch, she points out that the APEC
story is complex-the protest happened a year before the media got
involved. While the Clinton scandal was on everybody's minds, no
one was certain where the APEC story was going. She says the talk
in the newsroom reminds her of the trouble Tina Brown faced when
she became editor of The New Yorker. "There
were people who liked the old New Yorker and
thought Tina was destroying it. And people who thought, Yes, it's
a bit glitzier than it's ever been, but it's much more
interesting." Trying to mix serious and respectable with sexy and
fun is a challenge, she says-it doesn't happen overnight.
But even the people who acknowledge Wente is doing a
good job keep coming back to her distant character. Martin
Mittelstaedt, the vice-chair of the Globe's
union, the Communications, Energy and Paper Workers Union of
Canada, has worked at the paper for 18 years and is currently
covering environmental news. He says people are frustrated with
an unapproachable managing editor. "There's a general feeling
that she is aloof. There is a feeling that she is a good editor
and is knowledgeable about stylistic issues, but is very
difficult to deal with on a personal basis." As a representative
of the paper's editorial, circulation, maintenance and
advertising staff, Mittelstaedt acts as his colleagues' sounding
Personally, he's had only one run-in with Wente.
Last fall she was planning to release a memo in violation of the
Globe's contract with the union. Management is
supposed to post job openings before hiring new staff. Instead of
going through the proper channels, the senior staff were planning
to simply announce that they had selected people for the jobs.
Mittelstaedt wouldn't allow it. So there was a competition that
he says was largely a sham. In the end, the people who were named
to the positions were the ones who had already been chosen. "Look
at my situation," says Mittelstaedt. "She was going to put out a
letter that shows she didn't give a damn about the agreement the
company signed with the union, which basically means the deal
they signed with the staff. That suggests to me somebody with a
personal touch that is wanting."
Kimberley Noble, a
national business correspondent for Maclean's,
worked with Wente for a decade at both Report on
Business Magazine and the ROB section. She says Wente
hasn't discovered that different people need to be dealt with in
different ways. Yes, there are some who respond positively to
harsh criticism, but there are others who need reassurance, an
occasional pat on the back. In 1994, according to Noble, the ROB
section was badly understaffed and several editors were venting
their frustration at the reporters. Noble remembers arguing with
one editor "to the point where I was jumping up and down yelling
'Fuck off! Fuck off!' Peggy hauled me into her office the next
day and essentially told me to get stress counselling." By the
end of the year these editors were squeezed out, but Wente never
discussed it with Noble. "It's not like I would have expected an
apology, but it was never acknowledged that the working
conditions were just terrible. She told me I was too hard on my
Despite their difficulties, Noble stresses
that Wente is a superb editor. She feels she produced some of her
best stories while working under her. But to this day, Noble
remains affected by her former boss: "Peggy earned my respect; I
guess the most painful thing is that I thought I had earned hers
also." Wente, she says, has always reminded her of Holly Hunter's
character in Broadcast News. In one scene,
Hunter, a senior producer for a television news program,
disagrees with a decision made by the network's president.
They're at a work party, and she asks to speak with him in the
backyard, away from the other guests. She tells him that it's her
responsibility to offer her view on the situation. He listens and
nods, saying, "Okay. That's your opinion."
"It's not an
opinion," she replies, her eyes fastened to his.
"You're just absolutely right, and I'm absolutely wrong?" he
asks. She nods.
"It must be nice to always believe you
know better, to always think you're the smartest person in the
"No," she says. "It's awful."
the professional, Wente doesn't want to be viewed as the gentle
female editor who is absorbed in her colleagues' personal
problems. She doesn't want to appear emotionally affected by her
work. She spent much of her editorial career catering to the
business needs of men and still presents the news to a
predominantly male readership. Maybe her stubbornness is a
reaction to being one of the few female senior newspaper editors
in the country. Although she feels her gender is rarely an
obstacle today, every so often she'll attend a managerial meeting
where she is the only woman. "It feels terrible," she says. "You
look around, and you say, Oh my God, the world hasn't changed
Born in 1950, she was among the second
generation of working women and feels she benefited from what the
first wave had already accomplished. Women, she acknowledges, are
still, in the main, absent from the top echelons of the big
companies, but it's often their choice. To climb the corporate
ladder you need to be single-minded, dedicated, highly
ambitious-characteristics that usually favour the male lifestyle.
"The trade-offs for women doing that are much greater than the
trade-offs for men. A lot of women start to climb up there-I've
seen this over and over again-and at some point they say, Hey,
this is no fun. I'm just taking a lot of shit. I've given up my
whole life for it and it's very unpleasant. It's not worth it.
And they bail. Good for them."
At a meeting five years
ago, a group of Globe editors decided they
needed more women's voices in the paper. Wente said they should
look for a columnist who wasn't an ideological feminist but who
could turn a steady gaze on the world. Someone suggested her, and
she wrote the column for the next four years. She offered an
honest, compelling commentary on issues ranging from anorexia to
In a 1997 column entitled "Why I'll Never
Be CEO," Wente paralleled the male CEO of Coca-Cola with the
woman responsible for Pepsi's North American beverage business.
Both Douglas Ivester and Brenda Barnes had lives marked by
constant travel and separation from their families. But Ivester
enjoys his work, and Barnes, after 22 years, finally quit. "Human
males are aggressive, hierarchical and territorial," Wente wrote.
"That so many of them channel their energies into selling Coke
instead of bashing each other over the head with clubs is a
remarkable testimony to the progress of civilization. Human
females have other strengths. They know, for example, that Coke
isn't it. They know that channelling all your life's energies
into selling sweetened fizzy water is, on some level, ludicrous."
It's a long way from Wente's single-gal-in-the-'80s
column for The Toronto Star. A 1984 piece
called "Toothbrush Says a Mouthful About Amorous Intentions"
examines a dating predicament: is it presumptuous to carry your
toothbrush in your purse? "What if he overhears you the next
morning merrily brushing away in there?" Wente wrote. "Will he
think you're an easy sweep? Or will he suspect you're using his
toothbrush without asking? Whatever you decide to do, my advice
is to run the water very, very loud so he can't hear you." In
another column, "A Brief Note to Santa Claus on Real Women's
Underwear," Wente attempted to enlighten her male readers: "On
Christmas day, an alarming number of women are going to get a
surprise. A cute black garter-belt, say with little pink
rosebuds. I have news for those men, before it's too late. Real
women don't wear garter-belts."
Wente was writing this
column when she and Don Obe first became friends. Obe, a former
magazine editor and now a journalism instructor at Ryerson
Polytechnic University, describes her as "totally generous,
utterly warm and uncritical in the sense of accepting you for
what you are, which is so different from her image as a
perfectionist and tough boss." Last year Wente finally married
her long-time partner, Ian McLeod, executive producer of CTV's
W5. For years the two kept their separate
houses, living together in each house for a year at a time.
Penny Williams has been good friends with Wente since
the early '80s, rooming with her in 1984 when Williams moved from
Calgary to Toronto to edit Your Money
magazine. The Star column, she feels, still
reflects the Peggy that she knows. "People underestimate her
sense of humour," she says. "We seem to think that in order to be
serious, we must be solemn."
But it's not easy
interacting with someone who doesn't let on what she's thinking.
During our interviews there are several long, unnerving pauses.
At one point I ask if it's difficult for a shy personality to
become managing editor of a national newspaper. Twenty seconds
pass. Then her eyes widen as if she's going to speak. But still
no words. Just as I am about to rephrase my question, she utters
with perfect enunciation: "A lot of managers are introverts. So
there's hope for the introverts of the world." She chuckles. "You
learn how to operate. I'm very surprised to have wound up here.
You go where the challenges are. And you work around your
This, I think, is why Wente is
considered such a mystery. No matter how straightforward your
question might be, that yawning gap of silence ensues. During
those seconds of quiet contemplation, you have no idea what she
is going to say next, and no hint as to what she thinks of you.
Some colleagues aren't willing to work through Wente's silences.
To them, Penny Williams says, "Everybody, get over it! It's just
who she is. It's not a plot. She's not Bill Gates plotting on the
world. She's just a more reticent, more thoughtful person who
takes longer to answer. Deal with it!"
Even on the job,
a kinder, gentler Peggy Wente occasionally surfaces. On a Sunday
afternoon in the spring of 1994, Kimberley Noble visited the
newsroom with her five-year-old daughter, Lucy, to check some
facts for the next day's story. She greeted Wente, who decided
that she wanted to run Noble's piece as Monday's top story.
Converting her brief into a B1 article would take some time, and
Noble wondered how long her daughter would last. Taking Lucy by
the hand, Wente told Noble not to worry and led the little girl
into her office. For the next two hours, Lucy played Barbies with
the editor of the Report on Business section. "And not in a kind
of patronizing way, either," says Noble. "In a way that Lucy just
had a great time. She was completely involved."
or not they get a taste of that side of Wente, supporters and
detractors alike seem to have respect for her tenacity. They see
her as smart, self-assured and ambitious. She is never accused of
slacking; she is never described as the victim.
fall, a few minutes before I met with her, I had scanned her
office, jumping from one thing to the next in search of a
defining object. Then I saw it: beside the Kim Campbell pin on
the bulletin board above her crowded desk there was another
button: "Weak and Hopeless," printed in big black