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The Barbie fascination, the I-team obsession and the musician. If you haven’t yet picked up May issue of the Toronto Life, you’ll want to: Front cover: a sweaty Rob Ford; Inside profile: Toronto Star editor-in-chief Michael Cooke, definitely not sweaty. It’s definitely a juicy issue with lots of interesting tidbits for journalists.

By Tamara Baluja

If you haven’t yet picked up May issue of the Toronto Life, you’ll want to: Front cover: a sweaty Rob Ford; Inside profile: Toronto Star editor-in-chief Michael Cooke, definitely not sweaty. It’s definitely a juicy issue for journalists.

Here are 10 new things I learned about Cooke from Jason McBride's profile of the “The Paper Warrior.”

1/ What’s the Barbie?

At his first week at the Star, Cooke read a Wall Street Journal story about women who, as girls, had deliberating mutilated their Barbies. He wanted a similar story on the Star’s front page pegged to Barbie’s 50th anniversary. Soon after, “what’s the Barbie?” became a moniker for a quirky story below the fold on A1 that Cooke demanded from his editors every day.

2/ Like a hound on a fox

Cooke grew up in the Nether Kellet village of Lancashire, England, and his first byline was on a fox hunt.

3/ On his interviewing technique

 “People don’t talk in their living rooms, they talk in their kitchens, so you get into their kitchen and an hour later you leave with a photograph of the dead kid,” he told McBride.


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4/ STAR GETS ACTION

My eyes now tend to just glaze over that all-caps red badge, which peppers the pages of the Star almost every day. Its frequency and other similar ones – STAR EXCLUSIVE, STAR CAMPAIGN, etc – is “straining credulity,” as the RRJ put it. But it speaks a lot to the culture Cooke has fostered at the Star, and as one reporter told Toronto Life: “The Star likes to be part of the story.” And in case there’s any doubt, Cooke was the mastermind behind that badge, which first appeared Oct. 21, 2009.

5/ The man, the musician

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Cooke spent two weeks learning to play the saxophone just so he could join the Star’s amateur band at a Christmas party.

6/ The I-team

Follow the money and it’s clear what brand of journalism Cooke likes. Since Cooke joined the Star, its investigative team has doubled not only in size but also a budget that now sits at $1 million. Bert Bruser, the Star’s in-house legal counsel, has gone from working two days a week to full-time, just to keep up with the increased workload from publication bans and libel risk. Now Cooke wants to double the budget yet again and potentially develop investigations into its own section, like sports or business.

7/ Exposing Ottawa’s underbelly

Cooke wants to establish a permanent I-team in Ottawa, although it remains unclear where the newspaper will find the budget.  

8/ On breaking the rules

Normally reporters will spend months on investigations making sure stories have all the holes plugged in before revealing an expose. Not so at the Star under Cooke’s watch.

“I can’t imagine the New York Times running a front-page investigative story full of holes in the hope that someone would phone them up,” he told McBride. “But when you print what you haven’t got sometimes people actually gave it to you.”

The paper’s first Ornge story was basically riddled with gaps in information. “Executive Pay Kept Secret at Airlift Service” read the headline. By noon that day, reporter Kevin Donovan told Toronto Life he got at least a 1,000 emails and several phone calls with some offering tips.

Cooke’s gamble paid off, leading to Ornge eventually being investigated by the OPP and audited by the province, and the Liberal party’s name besmirched.

9/ On what he could do better an editor

Cooke told McBride he ought to tell better jokes and be less flippant.

10/ On transparency

McBride writes, “the two things Cooke hates most are boredom and secrecy” and yet “for all his talk of transparency, Cooke keeps a few things hidden himself.” Cooke refused to divulge his salary and only agreed to the interview if McBride agreed, in writing, to keep his personal life out of the profile. 

Tamara Baluja is an award-winning journalist with CBC Vancouver and the 2018 Michener-Deacon fellow for journalism education. She was the associate editor for J-Source from 2013-2014.