COVER

Winds of Change

Black orders a shakeup at The Ottawa Citizen

JENNIFER WELLS November 11 1996
COVER

Winds of Change

Black orders a shakeup at The Ottawa Citizen

JENNIFER WELLS November 11 1996

Winds of Change

COVER

Black orders a shakeup at The Ottawa Citizen

Where ignorant armies clash by night.

Reynolds is quoting Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach.” A framed copy hangs in his Long Reach home, his country post outside Saint John, N.B. The poem was a farewell gift from the staff of the Kingston Whig-Standard, where Reynolds worked from 1976 to 1992, ultimately as its editor. Last week Reynolds bid farewell to Long Reach, from where, over the past three years, he has transformed the Telegraph Journal, owned by the industrialist Irvings, into a lively, intellectually aggressive newspaper. This week, he takes up his post at The Ottawa Citizen, owned by newsmonger Conrad Black, who is praying for a similar conversion.

Perhaps it would have been more fitting if Reynolds had backed up his “Dover Beach” recitation by a line to read:

“Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight.”

For that was certainly the early tenor of the Citizen after Black’s Hollinger took over the paper as part of its acquisition of Southam last May. Last month,

after weeks of discussions, the paper’s editor, Jim Travers, was out the door. But he was not fired. There were, says Travers, offers of other positions, which he will not specify. Reynolds had already been picked to succeed Travers. Of Travers, Black says:

“We didn’t throw him off the roof of the building.” Of the paper itself, he says that on a number of fronts—specifically national political reporting—the Citizen is a rather dreadful publication. Travers says Black’s assessment was akin to “the CEO of General Motors standing up and saying We have a terrible workforce that produces pretty terrible cars.’ ” Black is not one for soft verbal touches. “Someone,” he says, “had to go.”

Yet Black also says that when a paper does perform dismally, the buck stops with the publisher. So why, in this case, did the buck not stop with Citizen publisher Russ Mills? “The thought has occurred to me and has been discussed with him,” says Black, who blows a metaphorically chill wind through his corporate chambers when he says this. Mills, he continues, “satisfied [Southam president] Don Babick and myself that he was not entirely responsible for the shortcomings of the Citizen, and that he had undergone what, in ecclesiastical matters, is called grace of conversion, sincerely dedicated and strongly motivated to do what we all agreed needed to be done.”

But what does that mean editorially? Travers’s take is that having the Hollinger hand on the Citizen means no longer weighing all the evidence before striking an editorial stance. The Citizen's endorsements under his leadership, he says, ran across the political spectrum. Now, he says, the right-of-centre position will be firmly taken “and they will see everything through this prism.” In support of this, many have pointed to Reynolds’s Libertarian politics—he ran under that banner in a 1982 federal byelection. But Douglas Fetherling, who worked for Reynolds at the Whig and who recounted the life of that storied paper in his 1993 book A Little Bit of Thunder, said that “Reynolds had a policy of putting leftists and rightists in the same box, and then rattling it from time to time.” He says he never felt the weight of his boss’s own politics, and adds that Reynold’s arrival at the Citizen is “the most hopeful thing that’s happened in the dreary world of Canadian newspapers for quite some time.”

Still, there is reason for apprehension in the newsroom. “The Citizen and Southam News between them have a parliamentary bureau of 15 journalists,” says Black, who talks about getting “a proper return on the bodies that are there. They’re not paid just to read Hansard.”

Reynolds will not comment on how he intends to improve the Citizen, nor will he discuss the rumor that he had earlier agreed to become managing editor of The Globe and Mail, only to change his mind. What is known is that under Reynolds, reporters at the Whig did some of their best work, including exposing a pédophilie choirmaster at St. George’s Cathedral in Kingston and reporting from such international hot spots as Afghanistan. The Whig then had a circulation of just 40,000.

Southam bought the paper in October, 1990. It was all downhill from there, as the company fell into the recessionary pit and costs had to be cut—and cut again. Circulation fell. Under Southam, wrote Fetherling, “there were endless retreats and workshops in which managers, middle managers and sometimes just plain people on the make wore team T-shirts and learned such skills as strategizing and visioning." Reynolds quit, said Fetherling, “powerless to change the downward revision of the paper’s IQ.”

Reynolds will have to be very smart to stand against Black. There are rumblings at the Citizen that the Hollinger hand is already showing. Editors have been upbraided for running copy from Britain’s left-of-centre Guardian instead of material from Hollinger’s Telegraph. And a letters battle between Black and retired Southam columnist Chris Young—in which Black called Young a “failed and trivial partisan”—only confirmed for some people Black’s presumed dispiteous nature. That the Citizen did not run Young’s reply was seen in the newsroom as a damning indictment of the new regime. The question is, would Neil Reynolds have run it?

JENNIFER WELLS