Former reporter Chuck Howitt recalls being pretty skeptical when he was first offered the business beat at the Kitchener-Waterloo Record. “I said, ‘Really? You want me to cover business?’”
Howitt, BA’76 (Political Science), MAJ’79, came to the daily newspaper as a summer student after graduating from Western, staying on for the next 32 years. He covered municipal, police and court news before rising up to assistant city editor, but hardly felt qualified to report on business and innovation.
However, he was eager to write again, and with the business desk the paper’s only vacant option, he agreed to take the post. Learning and writing about Waterloo’s burgeoning business and tech sector kept him busy throughout his final eight years at the paper, and, with the release of his first book, Blackberry Town, the first five years of his retirement, too.
Howitt’s time as the Record’s business reporter aligned well with the explosive rise and fall of Research in Motion (RIM), providing him with the foundation and front-row perspective to cast the company as the backbone of a book exploring the ongoing success of high-tech industry in the community of Kitchener-Waterloo.
“I came in when RIM was at the top. They were the No. 1 smart phone maker on the planet, the toast of the international community. Everything looked rosy. I was fascinated by how well they had done and the whole culture around the company. There was kind of this aura of celebrity.”
Howitt was also there when Blackberry lost its foothold in the market to digital juggernauts Apple, Samsung and Huawei, with shareholders losing billions and thousands of employees losing their jobs.
Rather than focus solely on the company’s downfall, Howitt’s book also looks at the company’s legacy, recognizing founders Mike Lazaridis and Jim Balsillie for generously investing in the community, and former employees for capitalizing on an ecosystem that has kept the Kitchener-Waterloo region a thriving digital and tech hub.
“People talk about the ‘PayPal Mafia’ (a group of former PayPal employees who went on to found companies including Tesla Motors, LinkedIn and YouTube). There’s kind of a ‘BlackBerry Mafia’ that went out there and created about 12-15 startups in our area when BlackBerry started to get rid of a lot of employees around 2011 and 2012,” Howitt said.
Howitt said readers can easily pick up and put down Blackberry Town, with its topical chapters covering different aspects of RIM’s influence in the K-W marketplace. Chapter 10, Muzzling the Media, for example, chronicles RIM’s rocky relationship with the press and one Record reporter in particular, Matt Walcoff.
A young and tenacious reporter, Walcoff took heat from RIM’s top brass for aggressively covering the company’s role in a costly patent battle and in back-dating stock-option grants. While the Record saw Walcoff’s work as fair and accurate, RIM, knowing many of the paper’s readers were its employees, saw it as both an external and internal public relations nightmare.
Walcoff also angered Basillie by publicly seeking a comment on his then undisclosed, and ultimately unsuccessful, plans to purchase the Pittsburg Penguins. This prompted an embarrassed and dishonest response from Basillie, and an escalation of RIM’s dislike of Walcoff.
The company demanded him banished from the Blackberry beat. When the paper didn’t back down, RIM took matters into their own hands, forbidding all staff from speaking to Walcoff. The counter plan involved Howitt, acting as type of middle man, emailing executives questions fed to him by Walcoff.
Howitt dedicated the book to Walcoff, who passed away in 2012, crediting him for the inspiration to see the book through to publication, when he was ready to pack it in.
“At times I felt like, ‘What’s the point of finishing this?’ Writing a book is a long haul. It’s a lot of work and it’s a real up-and-down experience, but it was Matt’s memory that kept me going.”