By Joyce Wayne
When Mary Deanne Shears joined The Toronto Star in 1968, there were only a few women in the expansive, bustling newsroom. She was hired along with 13 other summer intern students. 36 years later, when she left The Star, she had become the newspaper’s first female City Editor and The Star’s first ever female Managing Editor. Originally from St. John’s, Newfoundland, Shear’s first job in journalism was at the age of 17 in 1961. She was hired as a freelancer for the teen’s page at the city’s daily newspaper, The Telegram. “It took me a long time to get good,” Shears recalls. Nevertheless, she persevered, eventually becoming the women’s page editor for the evening edition of The Telegram in the 1960s – a time when sections devoted to women’s issues covered family, fashion, and cooking.
The Toronto Star quickly recognized Shears’ potential and hired her full-time as a general assignment reporter a year after she joined as a summer intern. She says, “I learned fast and became a journalist at The Star. The male-centric newsroom didn’t inhibit me. In those days, women worked on the women’s pages, the life department and general assignment.” The storied editor, Martin Goodman, was Shear’s boss back then. Newsrooms were a bit like military headquarters, with the senior editors acting as generals and the journalists as recruits.
She started her climb to the organization’s top echelon by being a wonderfully quick typist. Back then, there were four daily deadlines and five editions of the newspaper. The Ottawa parliamentary bureau called in their stories to her desk in Toronto, where she typed and prepared them for publication. “I was taking the copy from the best journalists in the business,” Shears says. At the re-write desk, a role she eventually ran, she became the assignment editor, the first woman to tackle this substantial responsibility. Shears was handling breaking news, which is the beating heart of news organizations.
In 1979, she achieved another milestone by becoming The Star’s City Editor, the first woman to do that job. Shears remarks that women wouldn’t dare wear a pantsuit to work in those days. Over time, she took charge of personnel, supervised the night operation and became the last one to leave the building, “the one who turned out the lights.” During that time, people noticed that she could make decisions quickly, a skill absolutely necessary in the media.
Despite most reporters being men, a few resisted the idea of a woman running the show. One reporter even refused to speak to Shears, but as she says, “I could give as good as I got.” When John Honderich, the late publisher of the former Star media empire, Torstar, took over, he recognized Shears’ significant contributions. In 1997, Honderich made Shears the Star’s Managing Editor, a position she held for seven years. “John was great to work with,” Shears recalls. “He had very high goals. John’s whole life became The Star. He was a wonderful boss.” Shears and Honderich championed big stories, such as racism and domestic violence.
During her seven years in the top position, Shears hired more female reporters, describing them as transformative for the newsroom’s energy. Shears adds, “Honderich wished to put his stamp on the political landscape of the city and the province. “Shears and Honderich did just that, imbuing an open-minded, diverse, and liberal-minded sheen to the paper.
“Professionally, I’m very competitive,” Shears advises. During that time, she’d arrive at the paper at 8 a.m. and leave at 7:30 p.m. Most nights, she was out at dinner, and if a big story came in, it was faxed to the restaurant where she was dining. “It was seven days a week for me, from the moment I turned on the CBC news in the morning to when I turned out the lights.” However, Shears thrived on the atmosphere in the newsroom. “I felt as comfortable in the newsroom as in my own living room,” she says “If you worked hard, you felt you were making a difference.”
Shears believes that the position of women in the media today is more complex than when she was the Managing Editor at The Star. “There are more opportunities for women in the media,” she observes. “For years, we struggled with newsrooms that didn’t look anything like our communities, but the obstacles are different and often more challenging.” Shears managed a staff of 400 in The Star’s newsroom (although not all reported directly to her). Today, there are 110 people working in the paper’s newsroom, even though The Star stays on top of major news stories such as the recent Greenbelt imbroglio. Additionally, “the misogyny directed at women in the media must be debilitating,” she remarks.
With smaller newsrooms, the rapid pace of the news, and the constant barrage of fake news, Shears is amazed that today’s news is as good as it is. But she questions if AI (artificial intelligence) will change the profession as much or more than the internet did. If she and I were to talk again in 5 years, it’s possible that I’d be a robot, and she’d type her answers onto a screen. If that happens, it won’t matter much if the robot is a man or a woman.