This is called, in the trade, drinking your own bathwater. No one in the country cares if Conrad Black actually starts his national newspaper, as he advertises, in the fall—no one but other newspaper scribblers.
Mrs. Bloggs in Moose Jaw does not toss and turn on her pillow over Conrad’s cockamamie scheme, which will prove him a genius once again—or only the second failure in his life. Only those of us who are lowly employees are intrigued by his plan to bolster his image in his home country. While he spends most of his time in a fusty old nation across the pond.
Conrad is the only person in the world who has a larger vocabulary than William F. Buckley Jr. He is one of the few publishers extant who is actually a media junkie. He was a pal of Nick Auf der Maur, the fabulous Montreal boulevardier and columnist who died too young this month—because he did too much boulevarding to go along with his columning.
The best man at Conrad’s most recent marriage was Brian Stewart, the excellent CBC correspondent. Conrad and I used to have lunch, before I made a very bad career move by writing about his latest marriage. Life goes on. The essential rule of life, as Satchel Paige once said, is: “Don’t look back. Something might be gaining on you.” The puzzling factor about Conrad, who has never been accused of being stupid, is why he thinks Toronto needs five newspapers. New York, three times the size of Toronto, has recently retreated to just four—the high-class New York Times, two tabloids, the New York Post and the New York Daily News, as well as The Wall Street Journal, while Newsday has given up and withdrawn to its Long Island base.
Toronto has the Star, the biggest and richest paper in the land. Plus the Mop and Pail, advertising itself as “Canada’s National Newspaper”—a claim that Mrs. Bloggs in Moose Jaw might dispute. There is the cheeky tabloid Toronto Sun, with its page 3 Sunshine Girl who doesn’t quite have the courage to show the nipples that keep the Fleet Street tabs alive. And The Financial Post—Conrad’s real target.
Conrad has a problem, and he knows it. Two problems, actually. One actual, the other subliminal. He owns all the major newspapers, through his Southam chain, in every major Canadian city from Montreal to Vancouver, except Winnipeg. His dilemma is that he—so far—can’t break into Toronto. It’s like owning a paper in Birmingham when you haven’t got a sheet in London.
Thirty-seven per cent of the national advertising in Canada is based in Toronto. Which is more, on a per capita basis in the United States, than New York, Chicago and Los Angeles combined. He would like to buy The Financial Post (which he inspired
to its birth as a daily and helped finance), but has now rebuffed his entreaties. He would like the Mop and Pail, but the aging Ken Thomson so far has given in to his editors' pleas not to lie down in the street and accept the cheque.
The puzzlement is that the more in telligent readers of the Montreal Gazette, Ottawa Citizen, Regina Leader Post, Saskatoon StarPhoenix Calgary Herald, Edmonton Journal, Vancouver Sun and Vancouver Province probably also pick up the Mop and Pail or The Financial Post. Are they now going to read three papers a day? We think not.
The subliminal plot, as Dr. Freud could tell us—and all of us who know and secretly love Conrad know—is that he has an ego larger than the Titanic. When on his visits to lunch at the Toronto Club from across the waters, it matters little that he owns 5 the Ottawa Citizen or the Edmonton \ Journal that all the tycoons in their - six-piece pinstripe suits have never I read.
He has to have a Toronto rag—for bragging rights. He didn’t quite manage his London dream: to become the new Lord Beaverbrook. Had some small problems with the City of London boys.
He’s a delightful guy in person and so brilliant that those of us who actually admire Conrad wonder how he could get sloppy with the facts, as he did on one occasion. In his modest memoirs, entitled, modestly, A Life in Progress, he displayed some most puzzling descriptions of a certain event that this scribe was involved in. His imagination ran away with his memory, rather like all those toy soldiers he lines up for those Battle of Waterloo face-offs with his pal, Prince Hal Jackman.
We think Conrad is actually bluffing when he pretends that Toronto can support five newspapers when New York can support only four.
We think, before the autumn leaves fall, Conrad is going to march into the office of Ken Thomson (who may be out buying cut-rate sandwiches at The Bay) or Paul Godfrey at Sun Media and open his wallet and ask how much they want.
We do not think Conrad is really going to start a new national newspaper. And if he does? I’m always open for offers.
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