Papers, Pickets and Profits

Fighting circulation wars, getting into trouble with organized labor, always expanding, the Southam chain makes more money than ever

PIERRE BERTON July 15 1950

Papers, Pickets and Profits

Fighting circulation wars, getting into trouble with organized labor, always expanding, the Southam chain makes more money than ever

PIERRE BERTON July 15 1950

Papers, Pickets and Profits


Fighting circulation wars, getting into trouble with organized labor, always expanding, the Southam chain makes more money than ever


ONE OF the longest strikes in Canadian labor history has been the four-year dispute between the International Typographical Union and five of the Southam Company’s seven daily newspapers. Although one paper, the Vancouver Province, recently settled with the union, pickets are still wearily patrolling the front doors of the Ottawa Citizen, Hamilton Spectator, Winnipeg Tribune and Edmonton Journal every day at press time.

The violent days of 1946 when thousands crowded Victory Square in Vancouver and watched trucks overturned and piles of newspapers burned, and

when pickets by the hundred massed in front of the Hamilton Spectator Building, are over. But the picket lines are not without incident. On one occasion the Southam family was embarrassed to find that 73-year-old Bill Southam, a former Spectator publisher, was marching with the pickets, helping to carry the banner.

Although the company’s profits have never been higher ($1,200,000 last year) the strike has certainly cost it money. The Daily Province, once B. C.’s leading paper, now finds itself 70,000 in circulation behind the Vancouver Sun. In the first six weeks of the strike when it failed to publish it lost $300,000 in revenue. Both newspaper and union were glad to come to terms in Vancouver where the publishers even waived a $10,000 court award in a damage action against union leaders.

The Province with 100,000 circulation is still the largest of the Southam papers. The others are the Hamilton Spectator (74,000), Winnipeg Tribune (59,000), Edmonton Journal (51,000), Ottawa Citizen (50,000), Calgary Herald (47,000) and Medicine Hat News (4,000).

One of the main points at issue in the strike was the company’s insistence that each of its papers negotiate separately with the union. It likes to boast that it is the only chain in the world where policies are matters of local decision. In 1945 the union’s bylaws were changed to include, among other things, provision for a five-day week for all its members. Four Southam papers signed contracts with the union on this basis, but a fifth, the Winnipeg Tribune, refused to accept the union’s insistence that its bylaws be nonarbitrable. (The Calgary Herald broke with the union a decade earlier and thus wasn’t affected, while the Medicine Hat News, which has an ITU shop today, hadn’t yet been acquired by the Southams.)

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This was the beginning of what the Southams call a “sympathy strike” and what the union insists is a “protective strike.” It has been a bitter and acrimonious struggle which saw a new paper, the Citizen, appear briefly in Winnipeg and may see a second daily start in Hamilton where the ITU now publishes a paper three times a week.

Strike or no strike all the Southam papers make money. The trend toward one-paper towns has left many of them in a monopoly or near-monopoly position. Save for the picket line the Southam group, individually and collectively, is placid enough today, perhaps because the newspaper business is becoming as cold and practical an operation as a sawmill. But in the days of freewheeling personal journalism each paper had its own particular problems.

William Southam, Sr.’s, Hamilton Spectator, the first of the group, fought two circulation battles and knocked two newspapers out of business to establish its monopoly. When the rival Hamilton Herald announced it had the largest circulation in town William rented a nearby basement and installed a counting machine to count the revolutions of the rival presses. The claim was right and Southam ordered that from then on the Spec would always contain more pages than its opponent, no matter what the cost.

$30,000 Worth of Dolls

By 1910 the two papers were locked in the most expensive circulation campaign ever waged in Canadian newspaper history. The Spectator held a popularity contest for girls and dangled free trips to Europe as prizes. New subscriptions were worth votes to the girls and the stunt was so successful that circulation men sat up all night and Sunday counting votes and money. William, returning from church one morning and seeing the lights on at his paper, broke in on the moneychangers

and angrily ordered them to stop breaking the Sabbath. His men meekly filed out but sneaked back half an hour later. The Spec circulation rocketed past the Herald’s and the Hamilton Times was so badly hit that it soon gave up the ghost.

Southam boosted the free trips to Europe to a round dozen, sent 20 more girls to Bermuda and another boatload on a free junket up the Saguenay. He hired all the bands in town and led a procession from office to dock to wave the winners good-by. There was an orchestra on every boat and the paper paid the fares of the thousands who took the electric railway to the lakeside. Three additional boats were chartered for a moonlight cruise to serenade the departing winners.

Unfortunately a storm blew up and one boat lost its bearings, bringing its seasick passengers home at 6.45 a.m. to a crowd of 5,000 frantic relatives. But the Spectator was established in Hamilton.

In the 20s, the Spec settled the Herald’s hash with another circulation campaign in which they gave away $30,000 worth of mamma dolls. Soon after, the Southams quietly acquired their rival which they ran until 1936 when Hamilton became a one-paper

Today the Spec blankets the community, giving its readers more columns of news than the mighty Toronto Star. Its founder, William Southam, Sr., hated the flashy modern brand of journalism but believed in giving his readers their money’s worth. The paper sells for three cents but runs no local news on page one unless a local story is of world importance. Murders, unless they involve people like Evelyn Dick, go onto page seven where Hamiltonians have long since learned to find city

The Southams’ second paper was the Ottawa Citizen which William’s eldest son Wilson acquired with $4,000 capital and a secondhand typesetting machine in 1897. The Citizen’s problems have been of a different nature. Its editor, C. A. Bowman, followed the maverick tendencies of Wilson and his brother Harry and plumped hard for Christian Science, Social Credit and a host of unorthodox ideas until he retired in 1945.

A fiery editorialist, Bowman once goaded Sir Wilfrid Laurier into a threat to pull government ads out of the paper. In 1916 he caused another unholy roar by pointing out that the Ross rifle, standard issue to the Canadian Army, was jamming badly. The Hon. Robert Rogers threatened to jail the Citizen’s editors but the Ross was replaced.

Twenty-five years and one war later Bowman and his bosses again faced jail when he was haled before the courts for another editorial which seemed to suggest that the soldiers return to Canada with Bren guns loaded. Bowman insisted he meant the soldiers do their shooting with ballots, not bullets and the paper was found not guilty. Harry Southam, the publisher, was so angry at this threat to jail him that he sold his magnificent collection of French paintings which he had intended willing to the National Gallery.

Still a Strait-Laced Citizen

Like the Spectator the Citizen plays down crime news, but for a different reason. Harry Southam is a strong Christian Scientist and the paper looks a good deal like the Christian Science Monitor. At one time reporters received Christian Science literature with their pay cheques and, in hiring men, a Citizen questionnaire asked pointedly whether they drank or not. Preference went to teetotalers.

Managing editor Bob Southam. Harry’s big black-haired son, who is no fervent churchman, has modified this policy somewhat but the Citizen is still a fairly strait-laced paper. It once played down a sensational murder case so much that its editors grew apprehensive and sent reporters out to get statements from the clergy approving this reticence. Other Southam papers, which ordinarily have little in common, run a daily Bible text, supplied by Harry, which is the same as that selected for reading by the Christian Science Church.

In 1936, while the Citizen was staunchly espousing Social Credit, the Southams’ two Alberta papers were bitterly attacking it. Premier Aberhart approved Citizen editorials at one moment and shouted to his followers to cancel Calgary Herald subscriptions at another. (Twenty - four hundred followed this advice in one week.) In Edmonton the Social Credit Legislature tried to jail a Journal reporter for a slighting reference and the paper won the only Pulitzer award ever given outside the U. S. for standing up to the government.

“Most people will marvel at the long time it takes for the heads of the House of Southam to communicate their policies to the Alberta branches of their enterprise,” the Calgary Albertan commented in bewilderment. Actually, the Southams let the Alherta papers run their own show.

The Southams invaded the West in 1908 to buy the Calgary Herald, a paper which was as raw as the frontier. When its schoolmaster editor, T. B. Braden, wrote an editorial that rancher J. J. McHugh didn’t like, McHugh strode into the office and pasted him full in the face. Another editor, Hugh St. Q. Cayley, had been jailed for attacking the courts. He was taken to jail by a torchlight procession headed by a brass band which stopped at. each bar en route, allowing Cayley to make an impassioned speech on freedom of the Press from the wagon box. The Herald was the sort of paper which in the 1896 election campaign assigned a photographer to stalk the Hon. John Oliver in hopes of catching him drunk enough to run a damaging photo on page one.

Rivalry was fierce when the Southams took over. When the Her-

ald’s pet dog went missing the opposition News offered to run a free classified ad to help find it. Herald men were touched by this generosity until the News announced in bold headlines that its ad had found the creature (which had been bound and gagged in the paper’s back room all the time).

The paper was purchased on behalf of the Southams by Hon. Lt.-Col. James Hossack “Bertie” Woods, C.M.G., a stubby bristling man with a white waxed mustache and a perennial rose in his buttonhole, who became a Boy Scout leader, Canadian Chamber of Commerce president, and liked his gin with water.

In 1912 Woods acquired the Edmonton Journal as the fourth Southam


Under the Southams the Journal fought an uphill struggle„against Frank Oliver’s Bulletin, which was the big paper. But in the end the Journal won. (One method was to create an impression of opulence by copying ads out of the Bulletin and running them free.) In the early 20s the Bulletin stopped publication for six months and since then has never regained position.

In 1925 the Bulletin’s new publisher, Charles E. Campbell, unable to get a Canadian Press franchise, bitterly attacked the Southams as a “huge printing octopus” exploiting the West with “insidious propaganda.” Bertie Woods was at the time president of CP. Six months later in a front page editorial Campbell apologized to the Southams and not long after his paper was granted a franchise.

Today neither the Journal nor the Herald finds it necessary to bestir itself unduly to maintain its comfortable lead position. There are more Heralds sold in Calgary than there are homes and publisher John Southam (Wilson’s son) has plenty of time for hunting, fishing and skiing.

Nothing much has happened on the Herald since its Cherokee city hall reporter, Chief Buffalo Child Long Lance, dropped a fake bomb into a council meeting, causing one city father to leap out of the window.

Nothing much has happened on the Journal since its former managing editor, Cliff Wallace, turned it into a carbon copy of the Toronto Star. In one hit-and-run accident he ran 32 photographs of surviving relatives, including two maiden aunts in Medicine Hat.

The Trib is Nice to Eaton’s

Things are more hectic in Winnipeg where the Tribune operates as the only paper in the group that has always had to play second fiddle. The gaunt shaggy ghost of John W. Dafoe, the late editor of the Winnipeg Free Press, still haunts the town. Tribune reporters covering Canadian Club luncheons often wince as guest speakers preface their remarks with a short eulogy to Dafoe.

A Free Press taunt in 1890 caused swarthy R. L. Richardson to launch the fledgling Trib. The Free Press, having gobbled up its two competitors, stood alone in a town that had seen 25 newspapers die in 30 years. Richardson’s first editorial referred to a “sinister and powerful enemy” attempting to muzzle the Press (the Free Press had boasted exclusive wire service news). Richardson hired correspondents in Minneapolis to scalp the papers and wire the news to him.

In the ensuing 60 years the Trib has vainly tried to wrest circulation from its rival. Trib circulation has continued to go up, but Free Press circulation has always gone higher.

M. E. Nichols, a former Winnipeg newsman, took over the Tribune as managing director when the Southams bought the paper in 1920. In his first six months Nichols lost the company $50,000 and headed for Ottawa to hand in his resignation. Wilson Southam waved him back and from then on the paper made money.

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Under Nichols the Liberal-Agrarian Tribune became Conservative, but in local politics Nichols pragmatically supported labor. In 1922 he launched an attack on the privately owned Winnipeg Electric Co. The issue became so hot that merchants pulled their ads out of the paper and people meeting Nichols on the street refused to talk to

The paper gained prestige but lost circulation. It was down to 14,000 when the Free Press quarreled with Eaton’s over ad rates. When the department store pulled its ads from the Free Press for six weeks housewives rushed to buy the Trib and circulation soared to 57,000 at one point. Tribune men haven’t forgotten this and still give department stores easy treatment.

Tribune men were forced to work hard and perhaps because of this the paper has become a spawning centre for the rest of the group. The editors of the Calgary Herald and Ottawa Citizen, the publisher of the Vancouver Province, and the heads of the Southams’ Ottawa, Washington and London bureaus all started on the Tribune.

All this striving sometimes produced comic results. When city editor Fred O’Malley, in a burst of enthusiasm, decided to have a crack at personally capturing The Strangler, a homicidal sex maniac who was terrifying the town, the police very nearly shot him in the belief that he was the strangler.

On one occasion the Trib set up a comprehensive Readers’ Service to all Winnipegers who could, by phoning the city desk, get any question answered. Trib reporters used to harass their friends on night desk by keeping up a running fire of obscure questions. One night a woman phoned the desk and asked: “What shall I do with my sick squirrel?”

The night man, beside himself from his bouts with the World Almanac and the Encyclopaedia Britannica, told her exactly what to do with it.

That ended the Readers’ Service.

In the middle 30s Nichols moved to the Vancouver Province as publisher. Some of his frustration in beating his head against the brick wall of John Dafoe’s mighty paper may be read into a remark in his book on the Canadian Press. In all his years in Winnipeg, he said, Dafoe never mentioned the Tribune once by name. Today Tribune editors still attack their rival. The Free Press has yet to reply.

The Southams got most of their newspapers cheaply in the days before they became big business. But it cost $1,500,000 to buy the Vancouver Daily Province in 1923, a sum that must have delighted its owner, Walter Nichol (no relation to M. E.). A former editor on William Southam’s Hamilton Spectator, Nichol had departed after being told he’d never be any good as a newspaperman. He ended up as Lieut.Governor of B. C. with the Province making him $1,000 clear profit a day.


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Before the Southams moved into Vancouver the seeds of an intense rivalry that has made the city a lively newspaper town had already been planted. From the first the Province announced it would grind no axe and it stayed on the fence about everything except the rival World whose publisher, L. D. Taylor, later a perennial Vancouver mayor, had once been fired by Walter Nichol.

When the Province announced it had twice the World’s circulation the World sued it for libel. When the Province stole the World’s exclusive U.P. copy by hiring fast rewrite men to revamp it Taylor wrote a phony story about a tidal wave and planted a fake paper with a Province office boy. The Province smeared the spurious tale all over the front page to its own subsequent embarrassment.

Competition was so strong that the World couldn’t wait for Rudyard Kipling to die but announced his demise in a late edition. Kipling discomfited the World by living for another two dozen years. When the World was finally sold it was the Province that scooped it on its own story.

Accident In Medicine Hat

The Province has had some notable scoops. In 1918 its editor, Roy Brown, got a tip from a CPR telegrapher that a code message to Montreal had included the symbol for “lost with all on board.” This could only refer to the Princess Sofia, just reported safely stranded on a rock off the Alaska Coast. In an agony of indecision Brown finally splashed the story on page one, knowing he’d have to leave town if the ship wasn’t sunk. An hour after the paper appeared the CPR was still refusing comment, but Brown was right and the paper had the biggest scoop of the decade.

Years later reporter Charles Woodsworth, now editor of the Ottawa Citizen, scooped the breeches off his rivals by donning climbing boots and scaling treacherous Mount Cheam to reach a crashed CPA plane which had been lost for months. Just last year Province reporter Don McClean and photographer Ray Munro, disguised as Stanley Park lovers, captured a sex criminal and saw him sentenced to a year in jail.

While other papers came and went the Province held a healthy lead over its rivals. Then the strike reversed positions in Vancouver and, like the Tribune, the Province finds itself second paper. It has upped its promotion budget to $150,000 a year and hired time on four radio stations, but competition is tough and the paper is a good 20,000 behind its pre-strike circulation.

Setbacks of this nature notwithstanding, the Southam company is continuing to expand. In 1948 it purchased the Medicine Hat News. The Southams, who at one time or another have also been in the crushed stone, real estate and department store businesses, like to say that they got into the newspaper business more or less by accident. They acquired the News in this manner. They followed their practice of never openly going out and seeking a paper to buy. A group of Medicine Hat businessmen came to them and asked them to take the paper

A few more accidents of this nature and the Southam papers will blanket Canada as effectively as William Southam’s original paper, the Spectator, blankets Hamilton, if

(This is the last of three articles on the Southam family and its newspapers.)