General Articles

VANCOUVER’S RISING SUN

B.C.’s boy publishers reward reporters for swiping photos and run a scrap-happy paper that even fights with itself

PIERRE BERTON July 1 1948
General Articles

VANCOUVER’S RISING SUN

B.C.’s boy publishers reward reporters for swiping photos and run a scrap-happy paper that even fights with itself

PIERRE BERTON July 1 1948

VANCOUVER’S RISING SUN

General Articles

B.C.’s boy publishers reward reporters for swiping photos and run a scrap-happy paper that even fights with itself

PIERRE BERTON

IN CANADIAN newspaper circles, there is a growing suspicion that Vancouver is the last outpost of the rough-and-ready, buccaneering brand of journalism that made Chicago famous in the ’20’s. A short time ago, a Vancouver Sun photographer was given a cash bonus because he hired a steam roller to block a road and delay a rival Province cameraman. It was a futile gesture because the final edition had gone to bed, but on the Sun it is the spirit that counts.

Some time ago a Sun reporter, following Sun routine, swiped a picture of a murdered man from the deceased’s home. Angry police demanded the Sun take action. The Sun did. The reporter got a raise. Another reporter, assigned to investigate juvenile delinquency, did his job only too well. After mingling intimately with his news sources, he found himself in jail charged with conspiring to steal a safe. He got a raise too. (The charge was dropped.)

When the late Gerry McGeer was stricken with appendicitis on the eve of his 1946 mayoralty campaign, he was too sick to see photographers. But the Sun thought nothing of pasting his picture >n top of the picture of a wounded and bedridden xdiceman and running the result on the front page.

Sun employees, some of them, are an unorthodox ;rew. Nobody was too surprised last wilder when ;wo Sun photographers, dressed as bearded -tussians, headlined the floor show for a week in a /ancouver night club. In the 31 years in which t he ate Robert J. Cromie and his sons have directed the lestiny of their newspaper, Vancouverites have ome to accept this sort of thing, just as they have ong since accepted the Sun brand of raucous, racy, iard-hitting, ruggedly independent and highly rreverent journalism.

This lack of inhibition has paid off for the Jromies. When young Bob Cromie, a former Vinnipeg bellhop, acquired the sickly, five-year-old fin in 1917 the circulation was 7,000. When he ied in 1936 it had reached 67,000. When young )on Cromie took over as president and publisher i 1942, at 26, the greying newspaper magnates of tie East dubbed him and his 24-year-old brother am, “the boy publishers.” The name didn’t stick, n those six years the Sun’s circulation has rocketed om 75,000 to 150,000. The Cromie boys have long nee proved that they are dry behind the ears. Youth has always been a Cromie stock in trade, ob Cromie died at 49; he w*as never old. Today, t 32, Don Cromie looks more like 25. Sam Cromie, ho is vice-president .and mechanical superintenmt of the Sun, is Vancouver’s youngest alderman, e topped the poll in 1946—nosing out men with Gee his years and experience.

The Cromies’ clothing is as bright and brash as leir newspaper and two years ago the Sun staff >ted Don Cromie the best-dressed man in the

building. He wears sad die-stitched, light-colored fedoras, tan corduroy suits, brilliant green-andscarlet-flowered ties, loud sweaters and socks. Nobody in the 17-floor Sun Tower calls him “Mr. Cromie.” He is boss but he is “Don.” Alderman S. P. Cromie, likewise, is “Sam” all over town. A younger brother has joined the firm as secretary of the Sun organization. He is “Pete” to everyone.

The Cromie family—mother, four sons and a daughter now own the fastest-growing paper in Canada. (Eldest son Bob is a Cariboo rancher, daughter Grace Ann is married to a Vancouver doctor.) The Sun has the fifth largest circulation of a daily paper in the Dominion (top four, in order: Toronto Star, Montreal La Presse, Toronto Globe and Mail, Toronto Telegram). For the first four months of this year the Sun edged out the Toronto Telegram in

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Vancouver's Rising Sun

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classified advertising linage, which put it on top in this field in Canada, ahead of all evening papers on the continent, and surpassed only by three U. S. morning papers. The Sun still had to throw away a page and a half of want ads three times a week. It left out 700.000 lines of display advertising in 1947, but still carried more than any paper on the Pacific coast from Mexico to Alaska.

Publisher Don Cromie differs from the norm in more than youth and dress. The freedom of expression he allows to the people who write for him is startling to the trade. Cromie lets his three popular local columnists, Elmore Philpott, Mamie Moloney and Jack Scott write as they please, even when they violently disagree with Sun policy—which is almost always.

Cross Fire

Scott is probably the only columnist in history to produce a column with a built-in editorial denial. Cromie allowed one of Scott’s attacks on high profits to run as written, but wrote a short piece himself challenging Scott’s facts. Cromie’s essay ran beside the Scott column of type, clinging to it, in Scott’s words, “like a fungus growth.”

Although the paper itself is anything but leftist, all three columnists are left-wingers. Philpott and the editorial writers often snipe at each otherfrom journalistic foxholes on opposite sides of the page. Sun readers have become used to picking up the paper to find an editorial attacking Scott, a feature story refuting Philpott, a Philpott column refuting a previous editorial attack and half a dozen letters to the editor violently denouncing or praising one and all.

To all this Cromie shrugs, “If democracy is going to work, it’s got to be democratic.” Like his father, who splashed Technocracy and Social Credit all over his front page in the ’30’s (but didn’t believe in either), Cromie believes a newspaper should be a forum for ideas. When he leaves town he finds he has to issue a stern warning: don’t yank the columnists. He did kill Philpott’s column once (the man was too gloomy on the eve of a holiday) and Scott’s column twice. Scott now agrees the columns were better killed, but doesn’t tell Cromie.

As a human being, Don Cromie is well-liked by his fellow publishers. However, his acceptance of the Newspaper Guild (a CCL union); his profitsharing plan and the dozen or so other concessions he makes to his employees have set some of his competitors to wondering what the newspaper business is coming to.

He has done his best to shatter the illusion that a newspaper office is a dingy, paper-strewn cell. Sun employees work 373^ hours a week in offices of pastel pinks and greens, sniff air chemically purified by ultra-violet rays, bang typewriters to the strains of soft music which is piped into the building 24 hours a day. (At deadline time martial music is supposed to make reporters hurry with their copy.)

Cromie shells out $3,000 every year for a banquet for his staff, loses as much again each year on a cafeteria at which employees can eat at cheaper-thancity prices. (“My God,” he said on opening day, watching reporters lolling over midmorning coffee, “I’ve installed a §25,000 slowdown.”) During a recent bull session over a bottle of rye with columnist Scott and managing editor Koshevoy, he was almost persuaded to install a cocktail bar in the building.

Koshevoy talked him out of it the next day, after two reporters had come in late, with hang-overs. Recently Cromie has turned his offices into art galleries by borrowing the work ©f B. C. artists for the walls.

Sun employees are protected by a pension plan, life-insurance policies, hospital and surgery insurance and Local No. 1 of the American Newspaper Guild. Cromie rather likes the Guild. (The Sun was the first paper to sign a contract in Canada, in 1941). “The Guild is my conscience,” he says. There has never been a strike at the Sun.

Cromie, who has remarked that he’d rather turn out a good paper than make money, has fixed it so he won’t make too much: all net profits over $150,000 he has decided to split with the staff. Last year, strangled by newsprint shortages, the paper made only $90,000. Cromie, anticipating bigger profits, gave his staff some in advance anyway —about two days’ pay each. He didn’t ask for it back. Now, paradoxically, staff members view with alarm the present Sun spending spree (the company has just built a $450,000 job printing plant, is spending close to a million refurbishing the present building and buying a new press). The profit-sharers are inclined to wonder suspiciously if the music and other new frills are worth the money.

The story of how the Sun became Cromie property has almost been lost in the tangled skein of folk legend which is rapidly enmeshing the memory of the late Robert James Cromie.

Bellhop to Publisher

Bob Cromie started his career as a bellhop in Winnipeg’s famed old Mariaggi Hotel. He did so well pressing the pants and mixing the Tom Collins’ of the late General John William (Jack) Stewart, railway builder, that he became Stewart’s private secretary in the rich construction firm of Foley, Welch and Stewart.

In 1916-17 the construction firm was doing its best to buy off its contract with the B. C. Government to build the Pacific Great Eastern Railway, which it was unable to finish. It was pouring funds into both political parties and into the Sun, which it considered an important asset.

The Sun had been started in 1912 as a Liberal morning paper but had lost money and gone into receivership. For the money it put into the paper the construction firm thus acquired a heavy interest in the Sun, but this amounted to an interest in a lot of debts. When the B. C. Government finally took over the railway, the firm of Foley, Welch and Stewart had no further interest in the bankrupt newspaper. What happened next is an unrecorded portion of the Cromie legend.

One version has Cromie and the directors going through the old stock, which was practically worthless. “You have always wanted a paper, Cromie,” Pat Welch is supposed to have said. “Here’s your chance.” Cromie took it seriously. He knew absolutely nothing about the newspaper business, but he was to learn fast.

Whatever the truth of the matter, Cromie got the paper—for no cash.

Later he shifted operations to the evening field and launched a circulation war with the Province. When the smoke of battle cleared the Sun’s circulation settled down to a hard core of 56,000; the Province emerged with 70,000. Cromie continued to battle the Province until he died.

It was the freight-rates crusade of the early 20’s that established the Sun as a fighting newspaper. Cromie

fought for equalized grain rates for five years. In 1925 he won. The rates had been doubled on grain moving west. Now they were brought in line with eastern rates. It was the start of Vancouver as a great grain port and it gave the Sun enormous prestige.

Bob Cromie was a food faddist. He went into partnership with Dr. Frank McCoy, a former Bernarr McFadden instructor, and syndicated him in 117 papers, the first of the health columnists. Cromie followed his advice to the letter, went on lengthy fasts, shipped cases of Vita-Wheat biscuits to Mackenzie King. He used to hold conferences with his men by hiking them out to his home, five miles away, for a slug of carrot juice.

He campaigned vigorously against vaccination (he called it “pus injections’’) and was a strong antivivisectionist. Reporters got vaccinated in secret during a smallpox scare.

Cromie sometimes ran a book review as the main story on the front page under flare headlines. He circled the globe twice and brought back men to work for him from foreign countries. One Turkish tourist guide, whom Cromie brought back, still works at the Sun in the circulation department.

Vancouver, Glorious Vancouver

The young Cromies were brought up in the company of Lincoln Steffens, Will Durant, Howard Scott and dozens of other celebrities who were guests at the Cromie home. Cromie was on intimate terms with Luther Burbank, George Arliss, Charlie Chaplin and Lord Beaverbrook.

He threatened, cajoled, flattered and insulted in bushels of telegrams which he sent daily to everyone from Canadian cabinet ministers and U. S. senators to Lord Beaverbrook. Their constant theme: Why aren’t you

boosting Vancouver? Why didn’t you visit Vancouver on your last trip? Why hasn’t Vancouver got cabinet representation? Why isn’t the new CNR vice-president a Vancouver man?

Cromie fed the Vancouver ego as a circus trainer feeds a growing hippopotamus. Sun editorials attacked three bogeys: Eastern Domination,

St. James Street and Ottawa. Cromie cut right across party lines to do this. He sent Mackenzie King roses one year, told him in an editorial he was finished the next.

He could be ruthless if crossed. When one big industrialist refused to go along with a Cromie campaign, Cromie ran a series of “Business Successes” in his paper— just a picture with a few lines underneath telling how they did it. When the industrialist’s turn came Cromie simply ran the picture with the words: “He married the daughter

of(a multimillionaire).” In one

summer Cromie had 14 libel suits against him. He lost one—it cost him $1.

When Bob Cromie died in 1936 (of a heart attack in a Vancouver Island hotel) he had the largest funeral in the city’s history. He willed half the Sun to his wife, the remainder equally to his five children.

Twelve years after his death, the ghost of Bob Cromie still haunts the Sun, but the paper itself has become a subtler, solider and stronger force. Cromie, Sr., used to have a sign in his office: “The profession of journalism is the profession of protest.” Cromie, Jr., needs no sign to tell him this. The Sun still protests loud and long when it feels the East is putting something over on Vancouver. When the federal government dared step in under its wartime powers to chlorinate the city’s simon-pure water supply, the Sun howled and howled. The water stayed chlorinated for the duration despite

all the Sun’s protests—but Sun circular tion went up. The old freight-rate quarrel is still a burning issue with tL Sun which is now trying to remove tb hated mountain differential which mos Vancouverites regard as straight Eas tern discrimination. During the wat with Japan, the Sun considered that Vancouver and the West Coast hac been abandoned by the East. It goj fined in court for revealing that Wes; (’oast defenses were negligible. (De fenses were quickly strengthened. It also was a loud voice in urging the hasty, scrambling exodus of Japanese Canadians from the coastal area.

As ever, the Sun is trenchantly pro Vancouver, pro - B.C., pro - Western Canada, in that order. St. James Stree; is still a swear word in Sun editorials The paper calls itself “Independent Liberal,” which means, in effect Liberal at election time, Independen; the rest of the time. It still has the rugged individualism of Bob Gromit Sr. Often enough it finds itself in bee with the CCF, which it dislikes, on| certain pet issues (freight rates, aboli tion of hanging, hot lunches for schooi children).

Second son Don is reckoned mos; like his father. He is tall, willow-thin, probe-nosed, sandy-haired, nervous. He likes to bounce a ball, spin a yo-yo or toss a half dollar at director’s meeting? or weekly conferences. He once banged, a hatchet down on the desk of O. LeigW Spencer, former Province publisher, during a get-together on ad rates, after he’d been told that Spencer carried a gun in his vest pocket. It was a gag that took Spencer aback.

His hobby is boating and the Sun owns two yachts—Tempest I and Tempest II, which are run by Don and Sam respectively. However, Sam is more mechanically minded than Don.

He is mad about cars and a little reckless. He is the only alderman in the city’s history to be penalized with a blue driver’s license, awarded to B. C. drivers who have been tagged for speeding. At home he sometimes fiddles with an elaborate electric train. Both Cromies have three children each.

Don and Sam learned the business from the ground up. After three years at University of Washington and a trip to Europe (including Russia i Don worked as cub reporter on the Sun, then on the news desk of the Toronto Star. Sam didn’t go to university but blackened himself in the oil of the Sun’s pressroom. He later became a junior member of the sports department where his duties at first were twofold: He cleaned out the cage of Hawkins the canary and brewed coffee on a hotplate purchased through the sale to other staff members of free sports passes at 10 cents each.

Don and Sam took over control of the Sun in a sort of coup d'état in 1942. Since Bob Cromie’s death, P. J. Salter, his right-hand man, had run the paper with Bob, Jr., as vicepresident, and, after 1941, Don as managing editor.

In 1942 Salter decided to sell the Sun to the Sifton chain (Winnipeg Free Press, Saskatoon Star-Phoenix) for $750,000. The young Cromies, goaded by Sports Editor Hal Straight, rebelled.

The coup d'état came when Sam was in the Air Force, sick in an Edmonton hospital. Don had just returned from a director’s meeting which had overruled him and voted to sell the paper. He disconsolately walked into the sports office where he and Straight opened a bottle of rye. Out of this, the two evolved a plan.

Straight phoned Sam in Edmonton,

urged him to phone his mother and plead with her to hold on to the paper. (She controlled a heavy percentage of the votes.) Don hustled out to his mother’s home to be on hand when the call came. When he returned he liad power of attorney. The deal with Sifton was canceled. Salter quit. Bob Cromie, who didn't like the newspaper business anyway, became a rancher. Don made himself publisher, offered Straight the job of city editor.

Straight said he hadn’t enough experience to be city editor but said he could handle the managing editor’s job. “How?” asked Don. “Easy,” said Straight. “I’ll hire a good city editor.” He did—by purchasing Himie Koshevoy away from the Province. Straight is now editor and publisher of the Edmonton Bulletin and Koshevoy has moved up.

Hal Straight helped give the paper back its personality and made the Sun the stunt paper it is today. The paper sent Vancouver blue babies to the Mayo brothers’ clinic in Rochester, Minn., for the delicate operation required to restore them to normal; sent a boy with an enlarged heart (“Little Mr. Big-Heart,” the Sun dubbed him) to California for treatment; and sent a girl who swallowed a sardine-can key to Boston. When it had exhausted the supply of more serious disabilities the Sun contented itself with sending a tired housewife to Hollywood.

The basic technique in all this is local news, local stunts, local crusades. Vancouverites gobble it up but after a few days in town startled newcomers are inclined to develop uneasy suspicions that the world beyond Vancouver has dropped completely off the map, and feel they are living in a strange and highly charged vacuum.

The Sun flourished under Straight’s prescription. It reached 100,000 circulation in 1946 and was closing the breach between itself and the Province at the rate of 1,000 a year. Still, everyone knew it would take an act of God to pass the rival paper. When the act of God struck that summer, in the form of a dispute between the 1 nternat ional Typographical Union and the Southam chain which owns the Province, the Sun was ready. During a long and bitter strike (still nominally in force), the Province dropped from

125.000 to about 60,000, then climbed again to 100,000, where it stands today. But the strike-free Sun zoomed to 150,000. The strike also gave the Sun its chance to make big gains in the classified-advertising department. Nowadays young publisher Don Cromie doesn’t even bother to refer purchase offers of less than a million and a half to his mother. It will take much more than that to buy the Sun.

Despite its healthy circulation lead, the Sun still acts like a fighting second paper. Don Cromie’s promotion department still spends $80,000 a year, still teaches 5,000 Vancouver children to swim for free every summer, still brings 2,000 fishermen out for the famous Sun salmon derby, still sponsors

11.000 adolescents in 100 Teen Towns throughout the province. Sun billboards blanket the city and there is a giant replica of the front page with movable headlines that change with each edition, overlooking Granville street. And down in the East End of the city, on the fringe of the laboring district that gave Bob Cromie, Sr., his first circulation, the 17-story Sun Tower— completely outlined in red and white neon with a giant electric sun shining atop it— points skyward like a mammoth illuminated fist, to tell the city that the Sun never sets on Vancouver, if