Sunday, December 23, 2007

in memoriam

There’s a certain je n’est sais quoi to how I feel about the death of Tim Canavan last Monday ― not pleasure or relief, but not exactly grief either.

Tim Caravan was the editor in chief at WCN Newspapers, where I had the misfortune to work for nearly two-and-a-half years, from May 2002 until October 2004. It was in many respects the worst job I have ever had, a distinction due in some part to Tim and the way he treated his staff and ran the editorial department.

At the time I started, Tim was undergoing treatment for cancer. He already had lost his hair and much of his weight because of the chemotherapy, and was in the middle of a rather grueling battle against his own body that had just included brain surgery to remove a tumor that had metastasized there. In the months that would follow, Tim would get a clean bill of health at one bioscan, only for something new to show up six months later. Surgeons removed an adrenal gland and even part of his lung, but ultimately were unable to remove the cancer. He died last Monday, surrounded by his siblings and their families.

Reading the article that WCN Newspapers ran on its web site about his passing, you can read the sort of comments you hear whenever somebody dies: what a nice fellow he was, how dedicated to his profession he was, and how he worked tirelessly to make the world a better place. There were even a few anecdotes I imagine were supposed to be heartwarming, to show how decent he was.

Usually when I read this sort of story, if it’s about someone I know, my mind flashes with one burst of insight after another. So that’s why he was like that, I think. Aha! That’s the aunt he always talked about. That sort of thing. With Tim’s obituary, I might as well have been reading an account about a complete stranger.

The Tim I knew was none of those things. He was neither inspiring in his commitment to community journalism, nor a tireless crusader for justice. He was not, ultimately, either honest to a fault nor trustworthy, nor was he professional in the extreme, nor was he a genius about his job as some would have him.

The Tim I knew was far less inspiring an individual. He was, in many regards, a man who preferred sticking to something he was competent at but long ago had ceased to enjoy, over taking a risk, moving on to something new, and learning something new. What was worse, he discouraged others from moving on, had a low threshold for disagreement and at times engaged in overtly unethical or even illegal conduct.

Some of my dislike for Tim surely is personal. At one point, after I had expressed an interest in leaving my post as managing editor for something a bit more challenging and interesting, he promised me a post in another office, where I would be in charge of training the editorial staff there and shaking things up to improve the product ― and then broke his promise and gave the post to someone else who had less experience and lower salary expectations.

He ran the newspapers with a heavy hand, keeping editors understaffed, underpaid and overworked on antiquated equipment. Another editor and I once tracked our hours at averaging between 50 and 60 hours a week, including marathon duties on Monday and Tuesday, in a job where at $35,000 a year, I was one of the best-paid employees. Those lengthy hours were necessary because we lacked reporters; as an editor with two newspapers, I was required to write four to five stories, in addition to my editorial duties, which typically involved editing eight to ten stories by my reporter, writing four editorials, assigning news photographs, and copy editing the entire contents of the newspaper. Those who complained found that not only were their complaints ignored, they either were criticized themselves, or in some cases were strongly encouraged to leave. One reporter actually was fired while he was on disability.

The worst breach of ethics came after I had left to become a stay-at-home father. A member of the school board in one of our communities had been videotaped in a tryst in a public park, and a copy of that video had found its way into the hands of an editor, who was set to write a story about it. Tim axed the story ― a debatable decision, but in some ways respectable ― and then called the board member in question, explained about the videotape, and then promised not to run it if the board member were to resign.

Where I come from, that’s called blackmail. It’s not an admirable trait in anyone, least of all in a journalist.

I never found myself inspired by Tim, and I never felt particularly close to him. But when I heard that he had died, I considered going to his funeral just to pay him the last respects he was due as a human being.

It’s been a busy year for death in my circle. This year I’ve watched as friends buried an infant son, as my cousins buried their mother, and as my aunt buried her husband. One theme has run constant through all the funerals: We are all made of corruptible mortal flesh, and that makes us more alike than our differences separate us.

Tim Caravan was many things I wish I were not, and would hope that I could never be: scared to try something new, and resentful of those who aren’t; blind to what others endure to bring his vision of efficiency into existence, and in the end so sure of the rightness of his actions that he is blind to how obviously corrupt they are.

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