The Notorious Peggy Wente

The Globe and Mail's managing editor is a woman of mystery. Her friends say she's warm and funny. Her critics, particularly those who quit the paper on bad terms, say she's downright nasty

Karen Moffat
June , 1999 | Comments (0) - Report an Error

 

 

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.

Nothing 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 phones."

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."

When her 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 Strachan."

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.

Davies's class 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 ill-mannered!"

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 Canadian magazine.

Business 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 news director.

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 board.

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 managers."

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 room."

"No," she says. "It's awful."

Always 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 very much."

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 pay equity.

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 personality flaws."

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."

Whether 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.

Last 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 letters.

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