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Wednesday, September 3, 2014

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Elena Cherney takes the leap from reporter to editor

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Elena Cherney

Having been appointed managing editor of the Globe and Mail only recently, Elena Cherney is still on a steep learning curve.

“It’s like any new job,” said Cherney, who assumed her position in the third week of August. “There is a lot to learn.”

Previously the editor of the Report on Business, a separate section in the Globe and Mail, she is now in the throes of mastering what she described as “the nuts and bolts” of Canada’s self-styled national daily.

Cherney seems equal to the task of producing a quality newspaper – a complex challenge, even though she has spent the bulk of her career in journalism as a reporter.

Now 40, she had her first taste of editing in 2007, when she was the assistant editor of the Globe’s Life section. There, she said in an interview in her windowless office on the second floor, she learned the difference between being a reporter and being an editor.

“As an editor, you’re bringing together groups of people and figuring out the elements of a story,” she explained. “As a reporter, you’re much more focused on the story.”

To Cherney, a great editor is, above all, a team player working in an intensely collaborative milieu.

She talks regularly with the editor-in-chief, John Stackhouse, who hired her. She consults with section heads at meetings twice a day. And she is in constant contact with reporters, whom she calls “the drivers of the newsroom.”

Put plainly, Cherney is a link in a chain rather than an island unto herself.

As she tells it, she was taken aback by Stackhouse’s decision to offer her one of the plum positions on staff.

“It was a great surprise,” said Cherney, who looks younger than she is. “I was ill-prepared to come to work one day and find myself in a new job.”

In the days before the Globe released a press release announcing she was its next managing editor, Stackhouse called her into his office and asked whether she would be interested in playing an “enhanced” role.

 For Cherney, it was a no-brainer. “I thought it would be a great opportunity.”

In an official statement to the newsroom, Stackhouse said he had hired her because she is “a natural leader, an enthusiastic supporter of our journalists with an unbending sense of right and wrong, a believer in people, and an irrepressible champion of Globe journalism.”

Born in Victoria, B.C., she was raised in Montreal’s Notre-Dame-de-Grâce district, the daughter of Brian (a composer and professor of music and composition at McGill University) and Terri Cherney.

Her brother, David, is a physician at Toronto General Hospital.

A graduate of Montreal’s Bialik High School, she later graduated from Yale University, majoring in English and history.

On campus, she wrote for a student publication, the Yale Daily News. “It was a lot of fun and I enjoyed it,” she recalled. “I didn’t find anything else to do in terms of extra-curricular activities.”

Her stint as a reporter whetted her appetite for journalism, but her lifelong interest in current affairs had an impact on her career choice, too.

Cherney’s first foray into journalism after university was as a reporter for the Peterborough Examiner, which from 1942 to 1955 was edited by Robertson Davies, who became one of Canada’s most preeminent novelists.

As a general assignment reporter in Peterborough – her father’s family hometown – Cherney had to be versatile. “I did everything. I covered county affairs and took photographs.”

After Peterborough, she returned to Montreal as a business and education reporter for the Montreal Gazette. One of the biggest the stories she covered was the Quebec referendum.

With four years of experience under her belt, Cherney joined the National Post, Conrad Black’s then newly established daily based in Toronto, as a general assignment reporter. She has remarkably little to say about this period.

Her big break occurred when the Wall Street Journal, one of America’s greatest dailies, came calling. From 2000 to 2006, she was its Toronto-based correspondent, travelling around Canada to cover companies, banks, the media and general news.

She considers this phase quite important.

“I learned to look for stories that encapsulated change and represented a departure from the norm. I also learned to find the significance of a story and capture its details.”

Like all its reporters, Cherney adapted to the Journal’s gruelling editorial standards, thereby becoming a better reporter in the process. Much to her satisfaction, some of her stories landed on page one, a memory she still appears to savour.

Three years after leaving the Wall Street Journal, Cherney began editing the Report on Business, which she thinks prepared her for the demands imposed on the managing editor of a major metropolitan daily. “I learned to be a better editor,” she said.

But Cherney’s six-year stint on the Wall Street Journal may yet prove most influential in terms of her news judgment at the Globe.

“I tend to see news through the lens of its importance to the economy and how Canada will be affected by economic change,” she said.

But, as Cherney hastened to add, she realizes that other forces are at work in shaping Canada.

Asked what she envisions her duties at the Globe to be now that she is sitting in the managing editor’s chair, she projected quiet self-confidence. 

“I try to make sure we’re turning out great and original journalism, and I encourage reporters to tell compelling stories that our readers cannot find anywhere else.”

The mother of two pre-adolescent children, Cherney makes a point of accompanying Jacob, 10, and Sophie, 7, to school each morning before she arrives at the Globe around 9 a.m.

But long before she sits down at her desk, she has been searching the Internet to get a sense of what is happening in Canada and the world on that day.

At 10 a.m., she reviews unfolding stories with editors, and at 5 p.m., they take stock. “We decide what’s coming home to roost, what’s working and not working, and what holes in the paper need to be filled.”

She added, “I could easily be here until 8 p.m., but I try to leave earlier.”

She paused, glancing at her computer. “In the age of BlackBerry, you never really leave your office.”

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