Bryan Cantley knew the National Newspaper Awards were always one big mistake from not happening, and spent countless hours worrying about what could go wrong before each year’s ceremony.
The logistics are daunting. Hundreds of editors send in thousands of mislabelled entries to be considered for Canada’s greatest journalistic prize. Not only are entries mislabelled, many arrive well past the contest’s deadline. And after the awards are finally handed out, editors and publishers spend the rest of the night complaining about how their papers were overlooked and vowing never to return.
But they always did return, largely because Mr. Cantley spent a great deal of time wondering about how to keep everyone happy. That meant worrying about the big things, such as the regional distribution of judges, but it also extended to minor details such as whether the envelopes containing the winners’ names should be sealed or not (they most certainly should not).
“He was the guy who knew how to keep it all together,” said journalist Paul Woods. “He knew all the potential problems and understood how to get things done … One year we sealed the envelopes, and when he realized he looked absolutely stricken. He worried it would slow things down for the presenters and of course he was right. So we had to find letter openers.”
Mr. Cantley died in Oakville, Ont., on June 25 of pancreatic cancer at 67. He leaves his wife, Eleanor. His parents, Alex and Gert, still live in Red Rock, Ont., where Mr. Cantley grew up.
His unofficial family stretched deep into the ranks of Canadian journalism, where he worked behind the scenes to produce educational workshops and manage the country’s premier journalism awards from his office at Newspapers Canada, an industry association. The behind-the-scenes role suited Mr. Cantley, who enjoyed mixing with everyone from powerful executives to industry newcomers.
For a decade, Mr. Cantley served on the front lines of journalism as a reporter and editor at the Thunder Bay Chronicle-Journal and Etobicoke Guardian. But he found his true calling in 1981, when he turned away from the day-to-day grind of the newsroom and took over as the director of editorial services at the Canadian Daily Newspaper Association.
The new position afforded him a level of access to executives well beyond the dreams of any beat reporter, and gave him a front-row seat to some of the biggest changes the industry has ever undergone, from the newspaper wars of the late 1990s to the digitization of news in the 2000s to the post-recession crash in print advertising.
Mr. Cantley spent the better part of his career providing educational services and advocating for those working in the Canadian newspaper industry, including staff in editorial, circulation and advertising. By the time he retired from the association in 2007 as vice-president of member services, it had expanded to include weekly and community papers under the new name Newspapers Canada.
He was also the executive secretary of the newspaper awards, a title he didn’t relinquish upon retirement (he also held on to his role as executive director of the Commonwealth Journalists Association and remained active with the International Press Institute).
“I think he really got a kick out of being able to be with not only the reporters and editors but also the John Honderichs of the world,” said long-time friend Don Gibb, referring to the Torstar chairman and former publisher of the Toronto Star. “He really enjoyed the fact that he knew them, and that they respected and liked him. He just really liked to please people, even though he was really curmud-geonly about it.”
Running the newspaper awards was a full-time job in itself. Every year, the soft-spoken Mr. Cantley would somehow manage to pull hundreds of newspaper people together to celebrate their achievements and give winners bragging rights. Dozens of unaffiliated judges were persuaded to give up their time for very little payback. Venues were booked, meals selected for hundreds of travelling guests and certificates signed for the winners.
The annual event lasted only a few hours, but the preparations took months. And without fail, a frustrated editor or publisher would ruin Mr. Cantley’s night by complaining their paper hadn’t won enough awards or the rules were tilted or the contest was prejudiced against certain publications.
“He worked tirelessly with the board to come up with ways to make the rules fairer, so he’d take that pretty hard,” says Scott White, editor-in-chief of The Canadian Press and chairman of the National Newspaper Awards. “We’d always tell him that in a week, everybody would forget. We all did our best to try to shield him from that kind of thing.”
When it did get to him, the self-doubt and anger didn’t last long. After an initial eruption, he could often be found quietly sipping a beer in a corner and considering how to present the complaints to other members of the board so they could consider whether they were justified.
Indeed, a pint of beer was Mr. Cantley’s preferred method of relaxation. A workaholic, he rarely took holidays that didn’t include work, and placed a great deal of value in meeting friends for a pint when the opportunity presented itself.
And it often did, given that he was a sports fan who loved the Toronto Blue Jays, travelling across North America to watch them play in a different ball park each year (his love of sports and organization came together perfectly at Ryerson University, where he spent several seasons coaching the women’s hockey team). He also spent a lot of time on the road with other educators such as Mr. Gibb presenting workshops in newsrooms across the country.
“Every newsroom he’d walk into anywhere in the country he’d know the publisher and the editor and a few of the reporters,” said Mr. Gibb, a professor emeritus at Ryerson and writing coach who graduated from the school in 1968, a year ahead of Mr. Cantley, who also studied journalism.
Many of those reporters were likely recipients of the Hon. Edward Goff Penny Memorial Prize for Young Canadian Journalists, handed out by the National Newspaper Awards every year since 1991 to the top two young journalists in the country working at daily newspapers. Mr. Cantley kept in contact with many of the winners and acted as a quiet mentor to several.
“[One winner] told me that when she won the award, Bryan was extraordinarily kind to both her and her family,” Mr. Woods said in his eulogy. “They stayed in touch since then, and Bryan continued to be a mentor. Not long ago, he saw she was active on Twitter, and he asked her to help him figure out this new form of social media. That was Bryan – always trying to learn and stay current.”
There were signs recently that he was finally ready to slow down. His dream was to build a Canadian version of the Newseum, the Washington-based museum dedicated to the history of newspapers in the United States. He’d get angry whenever another piece of newspaper memorabilia slipped through his fingers – the destruction of an old linotype machine was almost too much for him to bear.
And he had decided that next year’s National Newspaper Awards ceremony, which will be held in Charlottetown, would be his last as he handed the organization off to a new generation of leaders who could continue its transformation in a digital age.
He knew he would be going out on top – in June he was awarded the Michener-Baxter Special Award for “commitment and outstanding service to Canadian journalism and the newspaper industry.” The award was presented by Governor-General David Johnston in Ottawa.
“He was just the classic workaholic, a true organizer,” Mr. Gibb said. “You couldn’t convince him to actually retire, because he’d just keep working. It actually made me stop and think about what type of retirement I’d like for myself. But you know, he had finally decided he was ready for his swan song.”