Born and raised in England, Cooke is married to Barbara Cooke, with whom he shares three children.
On January 18, 2000 he gave a lecture at the University of British Columbia entitled "Where To Get Story Ideas Your Boss Will Love".
In 2001, he chaired a 500-seat dinner to honor Martin Luther King. The following year, he was thanked in Steve Neal's preface to his compilation Eleanor and Harry: The Correspondence of Eleanor Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman. In 2003 he was among those thanked by author Jim DeRogatis in the preface to his own book, Milk It: Collected Musings on the Alternative Music Explosion of the 90s, as he had worked under Cooke as a music critic. In 2005, he was again thanked in the opening to Knocking Down Barriers and The Immortal Bobby. In 2008, he was affectionately referred to as "Cookie", and thanked in Mike Houlihan's Hooliganism, in addition to Hollywood Urban Legends by Richard Roeper, who had also worked under him in Chicago.
He is described as flamboyant and gregarious.
In April 2009, he joined the International Newspaper Marketing Association.
Cooke was first employed "in a small English coastal town", before making the move to Fleet Street. He then secured work in Canada as a copy editor for the Star from 1974-77 where he finished as Assistant City Editor, before moving on to take a position as a joint managing editor for the Montreal Gazette, and serving 2—3 years as editor-in-chief of the Edmonton Journal starting in 1992.
In 1995 he transferred to assume the role of editor at the Vancouver Province, and the following year gave an interview in which he explained his belief that "celebrities were too important to risk neglect" and he would not consider having his entertainment writers cover other beats in addition to their current repertoire. He courted controversy, including from within his own newsroom, when he ordered a professor's comments be removed from a story because they were "left-wing". Under his leadership, the team surpassed the Vancouver Sun in readership and became the largest newspaper in British Columbia.
He became involved as a founding editor of the 1998 creation of the National Post newspaper, and worked as the Editor-in-Chief of the Financial Post over the summer months as it prepared for the merger with the new publication.
He still maintained his position with the Province for the next two years, before leaving to take a position as Editor of the Chicago Sun-Times in 2000, replacing outgoing editor Nigel Wade to whom he had been favourably compared, at the invitation of David Radler. In 2003, he was called to justify overseeing the publication of the identity and personal details of Chicago Cubs fan Steve Bartman after a foul-up at a playoffs game lost the baseball team its chance at a championship win. Under his direction, the paper "leaned increasingly on traditional tabloid newspaper staples: aggressive city reporting, heavy doses of sports and celebrities, and lots of pictures of scantily clad women", while still publishing its "important exposes".
He quit his job with the Sun-Times, and joined the New York Daily News in February 2005 to fill the vacancy left by Ed Kosner who had retired more than a year earlier. His new position was blamed for several staff members' resignations and editorial gaffes including the re-printing of a story he had written in Chicago.
He described the paper's on-going rivalry with the New York Post stating "We put our foot on their throat every day and press down till their eyes bulge and leak blood, but still they won't die. We just have to keep at it till they do die". This came after the Post had referred to him as "the Cookie Monster for the News" However, after ten months he began to clash with Editorial Director Martin Dunn whom he described as "controlling", and moved back to the Sun-Times where he was promoted to oversee approximately a hundred subsidiary papers.
He remained with the Sun-Times through 2009, and explained his belief in tabloid pagination stating that a front page requires two of the following: Power of presentation; humor; emotion; and attitude.
He predicted in February 2009 that Conrad Black's pillaging of parent corporation Hollinger International would leave the newspaper with no choice but to file for bankruptcy protection. He left Sun-Media, to return to the Star where he took over as editor, while Don Hayner replaced him in Chicago.
The move was applauded by rival Chicago Daily Observer, which published an editorial claiming his departure was "good news for the struggling Chicago tabloid". MacLeans' columnist Paul Well wrote in his defence that Cooke "was obsessed with declining readership, declining market penetration, the increasing reluctance of younger generations to take up the newspaper-reading habit", and noted that the Star stood a better chance of success with Cooke at its helm.