Michelle Lang was the agriculture reporter when I started at the Leader-Post in 2001. My job was mainly to sort the mail, archive each day's edition, and tame the wild fax machine. It was the closest thing to an adult job I've ever had. I held on to it far longer than I should have because I was afraid that that was as good as I was going to get in this world. And also because they let me write CD reviews and interview Bruce McCulloch and Bob Newhart and Charley Pride.
By the time I started at the L-P, I'd been writing consistently for about four years for the student press, alt-weeklies, and the odd not-quite-glossy music mag. Among the amateurs and the activists, I thought I was pretty hot stuff. I was quickly humbled at my leftover desk on the edge of a real newsroom, watching real journalists do real journalism every day. I spent the next five years wallowing in a wounded sense of inadequacy that mostly manifested itself in self-sabotage.
Early days, before I resigned myself to a lifetime of fax wrangling, it felt like my lowly position might be a springboard to better things. During that first year or so, some reporters would ask me to help search the archives (before the archives went digital). One day Michelle stopped by my desk and said she'd heard I had the best French in the newsroom.
"That's not saying much," I said. I'd helped translate some French documents once.
Well, Michelle explained, of course I'd heard that such-and-such federal agriculture program was falling apart and the provincial Ag Dept. was publicly considering pulling out or going ahead anyway or something. She knew that Manitoba had already bailed and had heard that Quebec might be too. Trouble was, her French wasn't good enough that she could call up the Quebec Agriculture Ministry to confirm. Would I, could I?
So, with my horribly out of practice French and extremely limited knowledge of agricultural issues, I dialled up the Quebec Ministry of Agriculture. "Etes-vous...?"
I made a transcript and translated it and left it on Michelle's desk. The Quebec Ministry was weighing their options and promised to act in the best interest of their producers. When Michelle got back to the newsroom, she thanked me for my help. It felt great to be challenged and to come through on it. Good work is its own reward, I figured.
The following morning, I immediately opened the paper to the Ag section to see how much ink my little adventure had generated. The Quebec Ministry of Agriculture featured in one tangential sentence in the article, which was mainly about how Saskatchewan farmers were dealing with the mess. At the bottom of the the article, in italics, read: with files from Emmet Matheson.
Damn. I doubt Michelle realized how much that acknowledgement meant to me. For her, the whole thing was routine: you follow through on stories and you give proper credit. That's just good journalism, that's just being a decent human being.
I think everyone who worked at the Leader-Post back then would agree that working there became a little less fun and interesting after Michelle left for the Calgary Herald.
Michelle Lang, along with four Canadian Forces soldiers, died yesterday in Afghanistan when the vehicle they were traveling in hit an improvised explosive device.
mp3: "All the Money I Had is Gone" by the Deep Dark Woods