Prairie Messenger Header

From regular mail to email: the evolution of a paper, and an editor


By Marian Noll, OSU


Marian Noll, OSU, and Art Babych, make the final adjustments to the latest issue, circa 1990.

Shortly after we Ursulines of Bruno closed our Ursuline Academy at the end of June 1982, two Benedictine monks, Fathers Andrew Britz and Peter Novecosky, visited me. Andrew was editor of the Prairie Messenger, and Peter was the press manager.

They had one request: since I was no longer teaching, would I consider working at the Prairie Messenger? My plan was to take some months off to regain some energy and enthusiasm for ministry, so I told them yes, I would come, when I was ready.

Before I was a “regular” at the office, I became a regular contributor to the Liturgy and Life column on the Sunday liturgy. In May 1983 my employment on PM staff began. I thought I was simply to proofread the pages to approve them for printing, but soon learned other tasks had to be done before there were any pages to proofread. The stories for each page had to be selected and edited.

There was a steep learning curve. When you think you know, you learn quickly that you don’t.

As an English teacher I thought I knew about spelling and punctuation, but then I made the acquaintance of a new “bible,” the Canadian Press Stylebook and accompanying “Caps and Spelling.” No more American spelling. No more “meter,” but “metre.” And did you know that Scotch whisky doesn’t have that “e” between the k and the y like the American whiskey does? I didn’t either, and soon learned many more spelling peculiarities.

On my first day I received the tools of the trade: a red ink pen for editing, an apron with pockets to hold the turquoise-blue proofreading pen, and an Exacto knife, useful in the proofreading business at that time. A steel-edge ruler completed the tool kit. I even had my own desk. Ready for the world of journalism!

The early 1980s was the pre-computer age. Stories were typeset onto photographic paper and then printed in long columns. A layout artist cut the columns apart and waxed them to be affixed to grids on a board with the dimensions of an actual page. Sometimes a minor mistake could be cut out rather than having the page or the paragraph typed over.

Story headlines were prepared by whoever edited the story. Unfortunately, that machine did not show what was typed — heads were typed blind. We didn’t know whether the spelling was correct or not, until the head was developed in a tiny darkroom. Sometimes a variety of expletives emanated from that room, as mistakes came to light.

In my early days 8 1/2 x 11 packages of photographs from Catholic News Service out of Washington would arrive (with luck) by mail on Monday morning. We never knew what was coming until we opened the envelope, hoping for good news photos to accompany whatever stories we’d chosen. If the photos weren’t suitable, we’d have to resort to our large files of photos saved over the years and hope we could devise a suitable caption.

The advent of computers with stories arriving via email made the work much easier. Now there were more choices. Catholic News Service and Religion News Service in Washington were our sources for international news. That was easy. Diocesan and national Roman Catholic news, however, was hard to come by, except from the local diocesan editors.

Father Andrew worked hard to remedy the situation. He set up an organization called Canadian Catholic News, based in Ottawa and with rights to work in the Parliamentary Press Gallery (see related story by Eric Durocher).

Art Babych, co-editor with Andrew Britz until 1989, was selected by CCN to head the office in Ottawa. While we missed him in the PM office, it was a joy to those of us who edited the Canadian news pages to receive Canadian stories from across the country.

Already for years before the PM entered my life, I had been conscious of the lack of gender-inclusive language in most print material, especially church material. It wasn’t long before the other associate editor and I discovered a book, The Nonsexist Word Finder, with suggestions for getting around non-inclusive language. Father Andrew wasn’t impressed when we substituted “they” for “him,” but we made it work. That was the power of the proofreader!

Proofreading was a challenge. Some readers took unseemly delight in finding a spelling or grammar mistake somewhere in the 12 or 16 weekly pages. And sometimes the dear editor put a mistake in intentionally to see whether the proofreader would find it.

I’ll never forget the time Andrew submitted an article containing the phrase, “and the devil she made me do it,” then waited with bated breath for some response from the proofreader. How pleased he was when an indignant roar, “The devil SHE? No way; it’s the devil HE!!” broke the office silence.

One of the more difficult elements of working at the PM was dealing with letters to the editor. I generally opened and distributed the mail each morning, and so was the first to read the letters, some of which had to be called hate mail.

The contents of a newspaper never please everyone, and naturally some stories or an editorial aroused some readers’ intense anger. That vitriol was unleashed in letters or sometimes in phone calls. During one call Andrew took he was mostly silent. Eventually he emerged from his office as pale as a ghost.

Father Damian Yaskowich, OSB, was an artist, photographer and did layout at the PM. His series of photo meditations called “Behold” featured his photographs matched with appropriate quotations. When Damian was killed in a car accident, something had to replace his meditations. Since we once in awhile received poems in the mail for possible publication, the editorial staff decided to follow this option: each week we’d select a poem that had been submitted, and pair it with a photo from the files.

That task fell to me. It wasn’t always easy to find an appropriate photo, so the files were regularly searched. What photo would fit with a poem about gossip? Surely not one of people, but a flock of birds sitting on telephone lines worked.

One choice raised a lot of controversy. The poem, “Did the Woman Say . . . ,” asked whether Mary said of Jesus when she held him, first in the stable, and finally on Golgotha, “This is my body; this is my blood.” The poem ended with the words, “Well that she said it for him then. / For dry old men, / Brocaded robes belying barrenness, / Ordain that she not say it for him now.” The picture I selected, for better or for worse, showed rows of bishops at a session at the Vatican, all dressed in robes and mitres.

The reactions were swift and fierce! After several weeks of heightening debate in the letters section, I ended it by inserting a note on the letters page, saying that this item had been discussed sufficiently, and thank you for your contributions.

I worked at the Prairie Messenger as associate editor for almost 15 years, and left only because I had been elected to leadership in my religious community. I found it hard to leave, having come to love and value the work and deeply appreciate the staff. As a tribute to my years there, my very worn and dirty apron was elevated to the rafters in one of the press rooms. What an honour — just like Jean Béliveau’s sweater in the Montreal Forum!

I’m sorry, but not surprised, that the PM is following the path of so many other Catholic newspapers that have ceased publication. The print medium today has in many ways been replaced by online social media, and excellent church information is available to anyone who uses a computer. But while we mourn the loss of this prairie voice, we must find other ways to educate ourselves in the areas covered so well by the journalism of the Benedictine monks for the past 114 years.

Marian Noll was associate editor of the Prairie Messenger from 1983 - 1998. An Ursuline of Bruno, she now lives in Saskatoon.