AN ENIGMATIC MEDIA BARON DEFIES CRITICS AND EXTENDS HIS EMPIRE
Conrad Black’s enthusiasm for Napoleon emerged early: as a child, he entertained his affluent parents’ guests with his recall of Napoleonic trivia and, as a young man, he often spoke admiringly of Bonaparte’s battlefield strategies. Black’s well-publicized interest even led one enterprising Toronto artist to paint a portrait of the husky six-foot, two-inch financier dressed as the diminutive French emperor (Black declined to purchase the painting). But now, at 47, the Canadian press tycoon has become critical of his former hero. “He had some talents that I admire, perhaps,” Black told Maclean ’s during an extended interview recently. “But he had an insouciance about casualties which I find rather disturbing. And as a statesman, he had no policy except war.” Shifting uncomfortably on a small, lumpy settee in his antique-filled Toronto office, Black added: “One could, I suppose, draw the lesson from Napoleon that if you make war enough, you will eventually lose.”
The implied lesson for corporate imperialists is clear. Indeed, some of Black’s closest business associates, including bankrupt developers Robert Campeau and Paul Reichmann, are now paying the price of launching too many expansionist campaigns. Still, Black’s own appetite for conquest remains unabated. Flushed with the successful acquisition last December of Australia’s second-largest newspaper group, John Fairfax Group Pty. Ltd., Black is now negotiating to buy The New York Daily News, that city’s largest-selling tabloid. He is also eyeing the assets of London’s Mirror Group Newspapers PLC, after its last proprietor, the flamboyant publishing tycoon Robert Maxwell, died after he fell, jumped or was pushed from his yacht near the Canary Islands last November.
Sapped: The unrelenting pace of acquisitions will commit Black’s holding company, Toronto-based Hollinger Inc., even further to an industry whose best days may well be in the past. Newspapers in North America and elsewhere have yet to emerge from two years of recession-sapped advertising, and some media analysts predict an uncertain future for any product that depends principally on paper and ink (page 34). Black, however, insists that unlike Napoleon, he will know when to stop. Hollinger’s chairman (he controls just over 50 per cent of the company himself) told its annual shareholders’ meeting in Toronto last month: “The financial landscape is littered with companies that have overreached.” Black added: “We are determined never to be among them.”
But the apparent contradiction between Black’s prudent words and his acquisitive actions is typical of the man. Indeed, much of the fascination with the controversial businessman stems from the inexplicable contradictions that continually surround him. Although he can be scathing in questioning the intelligence of people he disagrees with,
Black himself did poorly at school, where he distinguished himself mainly as a self-described “discipline problem.” Indeed, Toronto’s WASPishly Establishment Upper Canada College expelled him for stealing and selling examination papers. Raised an Anglican, he converted to Roman Catholicism several years ago but declines to explain why, saying only that he is “not a particularly religious man.” Black has frequently expressed a distaste for reporters, calling them “a very degenerate group” with “a terrible incidence of alcoholism and drug abuse” who are often “ignorant, lazy, opinionated, 'intellectually dishonest and inadequately supervised.” Still, he provides jobs for hundreds of journalists and, last week, married another one, Maclean ’s columnist Barbara Amiel.
Black’s contradictions extend to his attitude towards his native Quebec. He lived in Montreal for several years during his 20s, speaks French fluently, wrote an exhaustive 700-page biography of former Quebec Premier Maurice Duplessis and has commented sympathetically on the province’s desire to protect its culture. But, paradoxically, he has also contributed money to the campaign fund of Preston Manning, leader of the Reform party, who steadfastly opposes political concessions to Quebec. Even close associates acknowledge that Black frequently baffles them. “I like him, but I don’t understand him,” said Peter Bronfman, who has known Black for more than a decade and who sits on Hollinger’s board of directors. “He is, as they
say, a mystery wrapped in an enigma.” Black’s timing in investing heavily in an industry that is at best mature, and at worst in a long-term decline, reflects his disdain for conventional wisdom. The strategy flies in the face of gloomy forecasts for the future of newspapers in an era of waning literacy. Two decades ago, one-half of Canadians said that they relied on papers for daily news; now, fewer than a third say the same thing. In the same period, a proliferation of other media have begun to compete for readers’ declining free time. Indeed, traditional readers themselves are in decline as a percentage of all consumers: a growing population of immigrants who cannot read English or French has pushed up Canadian illiteracy rates, which measure only people who read one of the country’s official languages. At the same time, many young people, raised on television and computers, may not read for pleasure in the way that previous generations did. As well, new patterns in advertising and technology confront the industry with additional challenges. “If newspapers don’t make some radical changes fairly soon, they face a very limited future,” said Peter Swain, president of Media Buying Services Ltd. of Toronto. “Unfortunately,” he added, “the newspaper industry has always been very slow and resistant to change.”
But, in fact, Black’s pattern of acquisition shows an underlying caution. He has bought several of his properties at fire-sale prices: Australia’s Fairfax, for one, was bankrupt when he purchased his 15-per-cent interest for $110 million late last year. He picked up the Daily Telegraph in 1986 for a modest initial investment of $68 million; it is now worth more than $800 million.The Daily News is also in the hands of receivers, as is the Mirror Group. Black has submitted a bid for the Daily News, but the paper’s fate is not expected to be decided until the end of August.
Premature: And Black plainly considers reports of the death of print to be premature. To the contrary, he declares, after years of taking a backseat to television, newspapers are set to recover their favor with advertisers. Television advertising, he argues, is losing its effectiveness as the increasing number of channels fragments mass audiences and viewers increasingly use their remote controls to avoid commercials. As well, Black, who is such an avid reader that his Toronto home has a 12,000-volume, three-storey library, predicts that consumers will continue to find reading both a pleasure and a convenience. “I may be a nostalgic sentimentalist,” he said, “but I have a feeling that some people will continue to want to be able to tuck a newspaper under their arms to read on the subway, or wherever, for a long time.”
Just the same, Black is prepared to hedge his bets, saying on several recent occasions that he would like to diversify Hollinger’s interests somewhat. To that end, Black earlier this year joined forces with New York-based TimeWamer Inc. to make a bid for Britain's fifth national TV channel. He has since dropped out of the project, explaining that the financial uncertainties of the deal became too overwhelming. And Black makes it clear that he values the newspapers he owns far more for the money they earn than for anything else— including their contribution to public debate in a democratic society. If the gloomiest predictions of print’s decline prove correct, he says that he would have no qualms about bailing out of the industry altogether. Declared Black: “I’m no sea captain, standing on the bridge, ready to go down with his ship.”
Fling: Black’s record confirms his readiness to unload assets that do not perform—no matter how venerable their name may be. After acquiring Toronto-based Argus Corp. in 1978 from the heirs of its founders, financiers E. P. Taylor and John A. (Bud) McDougald, Black and his older brother, Montegu, promptly sold most of the conglomerate’s unprofitable holdings. Among them were such widely respected Canadian corporate names as Dominion Stores, Domtar Inc. and Massey-Ferguson Ltd. The Black brothers then used the proceeds of the disposals to relaunch their fortune in a new direction—ultimately putting the Argus name itself to rest in 1985 and shifting their main assets to Hollinger. After a brief fling in the energy industry in the mid-1980s, Conrad Black’s focus returned to the only business in which he has direct working experience: publishing.
For most of his business life, Black has been an owner—never a manager. He and his brother were raised in privileged style: during their childhood in the 1950s, their father, George, earned the then-princely salary of $75,000 a year as a senior executive with Canadian Breweries. And when their paternal grandfather died in 1959, the brothers inherited
$200,000—which they set about increasing through shrewd stock investments. By the early 1970s, the two had turned their inheritances into a portfolio worth more than $1 million.
Black’s flirtation with hands-on publishing came during a break from his extended university studies. After enrolling in 1962 at Ottawa’s Carleton University, he later transferred to earn a law degree (from Quebec City’s Laval University in 1970) and a master’s degree in history (from McGill in 1973). But during the late 1960s, the future tycoon interrupted his academic career briefly to run an ad-sheet in Quebec called the Eastern Townships Advertiser. He sold advertising and wrote most of the copy himself. When Black unloaded the publication a few years later, he used a portion of the proceeds to pay for his share of a $20,000 investment to keep a presence in the industry: pooling his investment with those of two friends, he founded Sterling Newspapers Ltd., which now publishes nine daily newspapers, main| ly in British Columbia, as well I as 10 community newspau pers. And with the death of
SOUTHAM INC., TORONTO
1991: Lost $153 million on revenues of $1.2 billion.
Publications: Seventeen dailies, including The Vancouver Sun, The Ottawa Citizen and the Montreal Gazette, and 56 weekly and other community newspapers; also operates a news service with bureaus across Canada and in 11 other countries.
Share of national daily circulation: 29 per cent.
Southam chairman William Ardell, appointed last year, has launched a drive to cut costs by reducing staff and putting pressure on what he describes as the company’s “mediocre management” to, among other steps, raise newspaper cover prices. Noting that Canadians pay on average 33 cents for home delivery of a newspaper, Ardell said: “I don’t know what else you can get today for 33 cents a day.”
his father in 1976, Black inherited slightly less than $5 million from the estate.
Black held on to Sterling even while selling almost all of his other assets during his and Montegu’s purge of Argus. And in the mid1980s, it became the cornerstone of a decision to emulate another fabled Canadian fortune: the highly profitable Toronto-based newspaper empire belonging to Kenneth Thomson. Hollinger began buying small » newspapers as they became available: in 1986, it formed Illinois-based American Publishing Co., which has gradually acquired a collection of 210 daily and weekly newspapers in small cities across the United States, and in 1987 it acquired UniMédia Inc., a Quebec publishing company that owns Le Soleil in Quebec City and Ottawa’s Le Droit.
Coup: But Black’s greatest coup has been his 1986 acquisition of The Daily Telegraph. By steadily improving the newspaper’s editorial content and dramatically cutting costs, mostly by laying off production staff, Black reversed years of declining profits at Britain’s largest-
circulation quality daily. However, the Telegraph’s success failed to sustain initial public enthusiasm for its stock issue. Last month, Black sold 19.4 per cent of the paper’s shares for $8 each, raising $190 million in cash. But by the end of July, the share price had dropped to $6.30 in trading on the London Stock Exchange.
With 1991 revenues of $780 million, Hoi-
linger is still dwarfed by longer-established chains. Thomson Corp. remains North America’s biggest, with revenues of $5.6 billion in 1991 from more than 140 dailies as well as dozens of less-frequently published community papers. The two largest U.S. chains are Gannett Co. Inc. of Arlington, Va., which had revenues of $3.4 billion in 1991, and Knight-Ridder Inc. of Miami, with 1991 sales of $2.2 billion.
Scathing: But it is difficult to imagine an industry better suited to Black’s temperament than newspapers. Because he holds strong opinions about most of the great political and economic issues of the time, his views frequently appear in print, either in the form of a guest column for a newspaper (for which he often insists on being paid the going freelance rate) or in scathing letters to z the editors of those papers y that he does not yet own. He I is even quicker to respond to I publications .that he feels Ï have impugned his character.
E He has launched at least a D dozen libel suits, winning several grovelling apologies from fellow publishers.
Black’s record on permitting his own publishers a free editorial hand is mixed. Despite right-wing views so extreme that former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher once remarked that she found herself to his political left, Black has permitted the Telegraph, formerly a loyal reflection of Tory orthodoxy, to move towards the centre. But since purchasing The Jerusalem Post in 1989, he has firmly nudged its editorial policy from well left of centre to the radical right wing.
Black has also shown a willingness to use Hollinger to make political points. The most recent instance involved Ontario’s New Democratic Party Premier Bob Rae. The financier has feuded with the politician since 1986, when Black withdrew a $38-million surplus from a pension fund for unionized employees of Dominion Stores—an action that he argued he had a legal right to take. He also remarked irreverently that some employees were stealing as much as $30 million worth of merchandise from the company each year. In a burst of
THE THOMSON CORP., TORONTO
1991: Profit of $335 million on revenues of 6.4 billion.
Publications: One of the largest publishing and information groups in the world, with 345 newspapers and 125 magazines, including the Toronto Globe and Mail and the Victoria Times-Colonist. The company also has extensive travel industry holdings. Share of national daily newspaper circulation: 21 per cent.
Chairman Kenneth Thomson apologized to shareholders for the company’s $55.9-million loss in the first quarter of the year. He attributed it, in part, to a costly program that the company has launched to rejuvenate its newspapers. Said Thomson: “We’re putting an awful lot of money and effort into improving quality and producing new products to cover every niche in the market we possibly can.”
rhetorical fury, Rae labelled Black “bloated capitalism at its worst.” The Ontario Supreme Court eventually ordered Hollinger to return the money to the fund with interest, and in 1990 Black repaid $44 million. Later that year, shortly after Rae’s party swept into power in Ontario, Black moved Hollinger’s official head office to Vancouver. And he plainly took delight when, at Hollinger’s annual meeting last month, he announced that he now has almost no assets in Ontario. “There can be no return to prosperity,” Black told an appreciative audience,
“while the government of Ontario believes that taking money from people who have earned it and giving it away to people who haven’t, in exchange for their votes and regardless of merit, is the essence of fairness and statesmanship.”
Realistic: Despite his evident interest in politics, Black insists that he is ill-suited for electoral office. “In Canada,” he said, “elections are essentially a contest for who can be the more caring and compassionate.” In his case, he deadpanned, “I regard myself as caring and compassionate, but I am realistic enough to realize that I would not tue able to convince the Canadian public of that.” Indeed, Black is known for many things, but compassion has not been one of them. To the contrary, his public political pronouncements often leave the impression that he believes charity begins and ends at home. Black is angered at that characterization, and states that “I give hundreds of thousands of dollars here in Canada and in Britain each year.” However, his close friend, fellow financier and Ontario’s current lieutenantgovernor, Henry (Hal) Jackman, told Maclean’s: “Conrad doesn’t have a great social conscience. But he’s still young. It might develop as he gets older.”
Black also disputed what he called the public misconception about his domestic affairs. Last year, he separated from his wife of 13 years,
Joanna, and she returned to live in Toronto with their three children. Earlier this year, reports that Black was dating Amiel, chief political columnist with The Times of London, created headlines on both sides of the Atlantic. But Black contested media speculation that his affair with Amiel, 51, contributed to the breakup of his marriage. “For months after my wife left me, I lived like a Benedictine monk, trying to decide what to do,
whether to try to save my marriage,” he declared. “Now, for it to be suggested that I abandoned my wife and that Ms. Amiel played the role of some kind of Jezebel luring me away, it’s just outrageous.” Last month, while in
TORONTO SUN PUBLISHING CORP.
1991: Profit of $593,000 on revenues of $322.5 million.
Publications: Nine daily newspapers, including The Toronto Sun, The Financial Post and The Edmonton Sun.
Share of national daily circulation: 11 per cent.
“The newspaper industry’s major challenge,” said company president Paul Godfrey, “is to lure the young person into becoming a newspaper reader.” Godfrey added that the chain’s flagship Toronto Sun finds its highest readership among 18to 34-year-olds. “Compared to our tabloids, the traditional newspapers are going to have a much greater problem,” he said, predicting: “Our newspapers are better suited to the lifestyles of the 21st century.”
Canada for Hollinger’s annual meeting, Black filed for divorce—and escorted Amiel to the glitzy dinner he throws each year for a select group of Canada’s upper crust. Last week, they were married in a civil ceremony in the fashionable London district of Chelsea, after which they and a small group of friends celebrated in the posh restaurant Annabel’s.
With his personal life taking on a new direction, Black apparently contemplates no immi-
TORSTAR CORP., TORONTO
1991: Lost $3.4 million on revenues of $895.5 million.
Publications: Canada’s largest daily newspaper, The Toronto Star, and 27 community newspapers in southern Ontario. Also publishes a number of other products, including romance books, under its Harlequin Enterprises Ltd. subsidiary.
Share of national daily circulation: 10 percent.
“My great concern,” said publisher David Jolley, “is what the role of the daily newspaper will be now that there is so much competition from other types of media.” The Star has responded with such innovations as Starphone, a service in which readers can choose to hear information ranging from horse racing results to stock-market quotes and soap opera updates by entering different numbers on their Touch-Tone phones. Added Jolley: “We see ourselves not just as an operator of a daily newspaper but as an information provider.”
nent change of course in business. In a speech at York University a year ago, he concluded by quoting Thomson Corp. founder Roy Thomson. When asked why he wanted to buy more newspapers, Thomson replied, “To make more money to buy more newspapers.” Speaking to Maclean’s, Black said that the comment
was a joke. Still, there is clearly more to his feelings for publishing than merely profits. He said that he hopes to improve the newspapers he owns. “I’m trying to inform and enlighten our readers at the same time as I enrich our shareholders,” he declared, adding with a hint of asperity: “I am making a modest contribution to the integrity of the industry, and let me assure you, that is a continuous uphill struggle.”
Notables: Friends say that Black, already one of Canada’s richest men, also takes deep satisfaction from extending his rarefied network of influential connections on both sides of the Atlantic. Hollinger’s so-called international advisory board includes ^ such notables as Thatcher, 5 Henry Kissinger, former lt; British defence minister and ä? past secretary general of § NATO Lord Carrington, finani cier Lord Rothschild, columnist George Will, former chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve Paul Volker, industrialist Sir James Goldsmith and National Review editor William F. Buckley Jr. Remarked Jackman: “I collect toy soldiers, he collects those people.”
Black denied, however, that his interest in powerful company extends to a desire to acquire a title, as two earlier Canadian press barons did. He is already a member of the Queen’s Privy Council, having received that honor from Prime Minister Brian Mulroney earlier this year. But he notes that he would have to give up his Canadian citizenship if he were to follow in the steps of Canadian-born press lords Beaverbrook (formerly Max Aitken) and Thomson. “I have no need for any name other than my own,” he declared. “I cannot say absolutely that I would not accept [a title] if one were offered because the quality of the debates in the House of Lords is very high and I would enjoy participating.” As for the most common method of acquiring a title, buying one, Black is disdainful. “No title you can buy is worth having,” he said. But if nothing else, Black’s fondness for surrounding himself with influential world figures indicates that he has not entirely outgrown his youthful enthusiasms. Napoleon also enjoyed peopling the Imperial French court with the brightest lights of his day.