THE announcement last Sept. 2 that Roy Herbert Thomson, a fifty-nine-year-old Toronto multi-millionaire, had bought the Scotsman, one of the most important newspapers in the world, and that he was going to run it himself fell like a bombshell among newspapermen, publishers and politicians on both sides of the Atlantic. The general public at home took the news more calmly—it was just another of the mounting proofs that there’s no telling how far a hardworking Canadian boy can go.
Ten years ago Thomson owned one minor Canadian daily, the Timmins Press, and three Ontario radio stations—in North Bay, Timmins and Kirkland Lake. Today he controls twenty-three papers in three countries. His Canadian chain stretches from the Quebec Chronicle-Telegraph, to the Moose Jaw Times-Herald, to the Vancouver News-Herald, with the heaviest concentration in the smaller centres of Ontario. With the Scotsman he acquired its sister Edinburgh papers, the Evening Dispatch and the Weekly Scotsman. In the United States he owns the Independent in St. Petersburg, Fla. He holds a forty-nine percent interest in two other Canadian radio stations at Kingston and Peterborough, Ont.—Ben. Rupert Davies is the major shareholder—and he and Davies plan to enter the television field soon.
Thomson’s Scottish purchase was more than just another milestone in his astonishing career: in one stroke this son of a Toronto barber who still has to be reminded to buy a new suit once in a while became an international figure of power and portent. The Scotsman is considered an extremely influential paper and is often referred to as “The Times of the North.”
When Lord Beaverbrook told Sir Winston Churchill that Thomson had just bought the Scotsman, Churchill’s first remark was, “What are his politics?” Beaverbrook was able to reassure Churchill because less than a month earlier Thomson had come close to winning York Centre, a suburban Toronto riding, for the Progressive Conservatives in the Canadian federal election.
For himself, Beaverbrook said, “Roy, I was the Canadian boy who came over here and became the biggest publisher now you’ve eclipsed me.” Thomson accepted the flattery but no one knows better than he does that one of Beaverbrook’s papers, the Daily Express, which has a Scottish edition, has nearly ten times the circulation of all the Thomson papers combined.
The shock of the Thomson invasion prompted editorials in papers all over the English-speaking world. The British trade journal, World’s Press News, said the acquiring of so venerable and important a newspaper by a Canadian sounded to many British journalists “like the lifting of the Stone of Scone in reverse.” To the intellectual and professional people who form the core of the Scotsman’s fifty-five thousand circulation—mainly men who carry the paper to their offices in the morning along with their furled umbrellas Press News warned: “It is confidently expected Thomson will have further shocks . . . among the first no doubt will be news on the front page.” It added that Fleet Street would be watching anxiously to see if Thomson expanded in Britain on his Canadian pattern. He already owned Canada Review, a weekly published in London, and had earlier been reported to be “negotiating for a southern England daily.”
Back in Canada, the news revived the controversy concerning the dangers of chain publishing that has fitfully flared and smoldered over the past decade since Thomson began to pick up newspapers by the armful. Nearly fifty percent of Canadian circulation is now controlled by chains, of which Thomson’s is numerically by far the largest.
All the eighteen Thomson papers in Canada, naturally enough, greeted the event with joyful trumpeting; some of those outside his chain took a more critical and inquisitive line.
Arthur Ford, editor of the staid London Free Press, has several times expressed disquiet over the growth of Canadian chains. In 1951, when commenting on a Thomson purchase, he wrote, “. . . the growth of chain newspapers is not sound for the newspaper business or desirable for the public of Canada, placing as it does so much power over public opinion in the hands of a few.” Ford was stirred to further comment last September: “Thomson’s ambition seems limitless ... Is he planning to be a new Lord Beaverbrook? . . . Will he wind up as the Duke of Toronto?” Ford added: “It is not likely he will interfere with the daily operation of the Scotsman or its editorial policy as long as it makes money . . .” Thomson has many times cheerfully admitted that he likes to make money; once he added: “With state socialism practically upon us, that’s a sin.”
The Owen Sound Sun-Times asked: “Is Roy Thomson heading for the House of Lords?” Flash, a sensational Toronto tabloid, began its story, “The octopus spreads another tentacle . . .”
The Toronto Telegram, whose publisher John Bassett Jr. is an unabashed admirer of Thomson, took a kinder view. Thomson, it said, was “rather a benign sort of publisher who allows his several newspapers to preserve and develop an indigenous character.”
M. J. Coldwell, national CCF leader, had two years earlier in the House of Commons named the Thomson group specifically when he said, “. . . One of the menaces to freedom of speech and freedom of news is in the concentration of control over news services and facilities.”
Thomson’s own rider on the announcement—that he was going to live in Edinburgh and run the Scotsman himself—seemed incredible to many old acquaintances who still can’t see how he can bear to be parted from the Thomson Company, the intricate and highly successful machine that he built from a single small radio station. And it has given rise to wild rumors that the Thomson papers in North America are for sale. Thomson says that his only son, Kenneth, a thirty-year-old bachelor as retiring and restrained as his father is garrulous and unpredictable, will assume the presidency of the Canadian and American interests in “a year or so.”
The Scotsman deal revived all the widely spread criticisms that have stuck to Thomson like burrs since he first attracted attention in northern Ontario twenty years ago; that he pays starvation wages, that he is a power-behind-the-throne in the Progressive Conservative Party, that he represents a threat to the freedom of the Press, that he doesn’t care what his papers say as long as they make money for him, that he is anti-labor and that he is a shadowy man of mystery.
Most of these aspersions are patently untrue, others are debatable, but it is the last-mentioned that is strangest of all. Far from being mysterious, Thomson is often surprisingly frank about his past, present and future. He says, for instance, that he turned his first paper, the Timmins Press, into a daily on the basis of “a dollar down and chase me for the balance.” He admits he keeps such a sharp eye on costs in his enterprises that he even knows the price of toilet paper. He says also that he can buy any paper in Lord Kemsley’s chain “but Kemsley wants too much money.” It is this last remark, repeated on several occasions, that has given rise to the bold prophecy that in another ten years Roy Thomson might be the biggest newspaper publisher in the world. Kemsley owns approximately forty-five papers.
Thomson, a bustling bulky man whose disarming manner conceals an iron will, can’t understand why his Scottish purchase caused such a furore. As he looks at clippings hinting that he is a mysterious figure of high finance and intrigue, only his habitual nervous sideways jerk of the head reveals his irritation. “Look,” he says, “everybody else is selling papers today, not buying them. If you had a paper for sale today, who would you offer it to? Why, you’d offer it to me. And chances are that I’d buy it.” Canadian newspaper statistics show that in 1930 Canada had one hundred and sixty daily papers; last year there were only ninety—and three of those were new dailies created from weeklies by Thomson.
The story of how Thomson got the Scotsman, how he came very close to not being able to take it, and what he intends doing with it, illustrates the intricate pattern of his career.
In 1951 the Commonwealth Press Union held its conference in the Royal York Hotel, Toronto. Thomson, then president of the Canadian Daily Newspapers Association (he is now president of the Canadian Press), was there asking pleasantly —as is his custom at such gatherings “is your paper for sale?” A minority stockholder in the Scotsman Publications Ltd., asked in his turn, replied with a shocked negative. Thomson, who had never read a copy of the Scotsman in his life, didn’t realize that a suggestion that the Voice of Scotland could be bought was akin to suggesting that Edinburgh Castle be turned into a tourist hostel. But his skin isn’t that easy to puncture. With his engaging smile he rattled on: “Well, if there are any shares on the market at any time, let me know.” There was little likelihood of that, he was told frostily.
The next year, far from cloaking the possibility of his expansion to Britain, Thomson told reporters in his suite at Claridge’s that he was trying to buy a provincial daily or a group of weeklies in Britain. When he returned to Britain last spring to launch Canada Review, the Manchester Guardian commented that “. . . Something more was in the wind ... Mr. Thomson appeared to be armed with a potent cheque book and stalking for very big game.”
The next act opened back in Canada, where the curtain had gone up on the federal election campaign. Thomson, a lifetime Conservative, had accepted nomination as the PC candidate for the new riding of York Centre.
Soon after his candidature was announced, but before he had begun campaigning, he received a registered letter from Edinburgh. It gave him concrete belief for the first time that it might be possible for him to buy control of the Scotsman. It was a belated affirmative to the routine question he had asked in the Royal York Hotel two years earlier. And it set him perhaps the toughest personal problem of his career.
The Scotsman, long headed by Sir Edmund Findlay Bt., was the most powerful voice of Scottish nationalism, and it was not for sale to an Englishman. “If my name was spelled with a ‘p’ I couldn’t have bought it,” Thomson said later. It was not for sale to an absentee owner, either. But it badly needed an infusion of new capital (there is no elevator in its thirteen-story building) and some managerial change was indicated (it lost money in 1951 and 1952).
Is Success a Handicap?
Thomson’s problem was this: by now he wanted the Scotsman more than he had ever wanted anything before —apart from the fact that he was sure he could make money with it, there’s little doubt that its dignity and prestige appealed strongly to him after a lifetime of small-town and sometimes pinch-penny operations. But he was committed to try to win a seat in the House of Commons. If he failed to win and then bought the Scotsman, a lot of the cream of his coup would be skimmed by his ever-ready critics who would say he had turned his back on Canada in sour grapes. If he did win then how could he both fulfil his obligations to his electorate and still qualify as a resident of Scotland?
Thomson’s decision was to take a rain check on Edinburgh and fling himself into the York Centre campaign with a zeal that astonished his party, his three opponents and the public. He had had a booklet written telling his rags-to-riches story but associates advised him not to distribute it. “It seems that failures make the best politicians,” Thomson commented wryly. He worked out a package-deal tea party by which a co-operative housewife could give a tea for her neighbors with everything laid on --silver tea service, dainty sandwiches and cookies, and Roy Thomson. He blanketed the area with signs painted on a high quality building board—and nearby residents waited impatiently for election eve so that they could grab the signs to help finish off their basements. One day he knocked on the door a suburban bungalow and a woman’,s voice called, “Nothing today, thank you.” Thomson yelled back, “I’m not peddling anything; I’m selling myself. Won’t you come and have a look?” She came in a housecoat, with apologies.
The Liberal, Allan Hollingworth, beat Thomson for the seat by twenty-four hundred votes in a total poll of thirty-one thousand. William Newcombe, the CCF candidate, was a surprised third. He had been confident he would beat Thomson handily, because the majority of the voters in the riding were in the lower-income groups.
Another thing that surprised Newcombe was the fact that although Thomson owned the Weston Times and Guide, a weekly circulating in the area, reports of CCF meetings got scrupulous fairness in the new's columns.
“I really thought he’d use the paper against me,” Newcombe says, recalling Thomson’s known dislike of anything socialistic. “But in some editions my reports would be on page one and Thomson’s on page two.”
Thomson says he stood for parliament because he thought that Ottawa could use some good businessmen. To those who suggest that he was hoping for a cabinet post in the event of a PC victory—or maybe an early senatorship—he says, “Look, I’m a director of the Gallup Poll of Canada. I knew that the Conservatives would get only thirty percent of the national vote.”
Free from his election commitments, Thomson packed his cheque book and grabbed a plane for Edinburgh to make the deal of his life.
It didn’t take long. Thomson has bought smaller papers without ever visiting the premises personally; he bought the Scotsman without ever having been a subscriber. He approaches a deal of this kind with an almost frightening singleness of purpose. No inspiring pitch by editors about the role of a newspaper in modern life can turn his head, which is bowed low over The Books. He loves columns of figures, percentages, budgets, estimates, accounts receivable; all the digits sift through the computing machine that is his brain and, tempered by the potential application of business systems that are his own creation, resolve themselves into a yes or no answer. Yet there has always been a streak of the gambler in Thomson, so he turns to his secretary-treasurer, Sidney F. Chapman, for his opinion. People close to them both say, “Roy gets the big ideas; Sid tells him if they’ll work.”
The way they saw it, they couldn’t lose on the Scotsman. Thomson says that the total outlay involved was two million two hundred and forty thousand dollars. It has been reported that Thomson’s personal share amounted to seventy-five percent of the stock of the operating company, at a cost of nearly one and three-quarter million dollars. The Findlay and Law family interests — the previous owners — presumably held the rest in the involved deal, but Sir Edmund Findlay, the former principal shareholder and chairman of the board, severed his connection with the firm. Two insurance companies—the Scottish Widows’ Fund and Assurance Society and the Standard Life Assurance Co.—each took a bundle of preferred shares in the new organization.
Financial circles in Canada consider this remarkable; Canadian insurance funds are seldom invested in anything less solid than bonds. It is prima-facie evidence of the strength of Thomson’s business reputation and indicates the practically unlimited resources of his credit. The naming of James Muir, president of the Royal Bank of Canada, to the new board of the Scotsman Publications Ltd. is yet another measure of Thomson’s excellent connections.
Thomson’s attitude to borrowing was clearly illustrated several years ago when a newspaper acquaintance mentioned longingly that he’d like to borrow about two hundred thousand dollars to buy a certain struggling daily. “Don’t be a fool!” Thomson said. “Borrow a million and buy yourself a good paper.”
Thomson believes there’s no risk at all in his new venture. “You’d have to be crazy not to make money on these papers,” he said. “The real estate and buildings alone are worth a million pounds.”
Sid Chapman was held in Edinburgh to reorganize the allegedly chaotic business office. “My God,” Thomson said, “coming from Canada you’d wonder how they could run a business like this. It wouldn’t last six months back home . . . we’re playing for keeps now.”
The new board of directors met for the first time on Oct. 27 and immediately learned what was meant by “playing for keeps.” Thomson opened the meeting at 10 a.m. sharp and thrashed the business through without a stop until after 2.30, riding roughshod over the time-honored luncheon ritual. Among the upper classes in Britain luncheon begins at 12.30 and runs leisurely on to 3 p.m.
One of the directors tugged at Chapman’s sleeve after the meeting. “Doesn’t this fellow Thomson have any sense of time?” he asked. “Not when there’s work to be done,” Chapman replied.
“Well, we have to keep regular hours around here, you know,” the director continued. Chapman rejoined: “With Thomson, that’s one habit you can forget.” Lesser members of the staff had already been left slack-jawed at the sight of the chairman of the board bustling in to work at 8.45, grabbing a snack in the office cafeteria, and working on till 10 at night.
On his first working day Thomson had brushed aside Scotsman traditions like a charging moose. He shook hands with as many of the eight hundred and fifty employees as he saw, including the janitors. He introduced himself as “Roy Thomson and this is my son, Ken.” A group of minor executives and reporters were waiting to meet him in a room and after greeting them Thomson saw a couple of teen-age girls in a corner, obviously excluded. “Who are they?” he demanded. “Oh, just clerks,” someone said. Thomson walked over and shook hands with them. “There will be no more of this isolation of executives and staff,” he announced. “I’ll eat lunch in the cafeteria every day.” He did, too bolting his food in twenty minutes flat.
In the first few months of his proprietorship Thomson flew back to Canada several times, checking in at the nerve centre of his publishing, radio and industrial complex—a large suite of modernistic offices on the top floor of the towering Bank of Nova Scotia Building on Toronto’s King Street. Then he flew back to Edinburgh where he peered through his heavy lenses at circulation maps, studied floor plans for remodeling, advertising figures and production costs.
He hauled in all the Scotsman’s senior men and asked for any complaints or suggestions. “I must sponge for ideas,” he said. “Anything he doesn’t know he learns damn quick,” one staffer reported, admiration lurking in his Highland burr. Scotsman reporters began to warn erring colleagues: “Better take care, mon, or it’s Moose Jaw for you!”
When Thomson says, “The Scotsman represents the greatest challenge I’ve ever faced,” he is not referring entirely to the necessity of making the company show a good profit. His promise to run the Scotsman personally means that he must also become a first-class newspaperman. He says: “Up to now I’ve just been an accumulator of papers. Now I’m going to operate a paper day by day.” It will be his policies that will guide the Scotsman, his final judgment that will rule on any editorial changes that may be made. And it is in this field that the main elements of the Thomson controversy have always rested.
Keenly aware of the criticism of newspaper chains, Thomson and his right-hand man, thirty-eight-year-old St. Clair McCabe, have a ready defense of their technique. Although they cheerfully admit that all the business aspects of the Thomson papers are tightly controlled by head office—in fact, that is the key to the Thomson system—they claim energetically that no Thomson editor has ever been told what cause to support.
It’s Good Enough for New York!
The political philosophies supported in the editorial columns of Thomson papers show no pattern, unless it is a sharing of the general Canadian newspaper opposition to the CCF Party. Thomson’s News-Herald in Vancouver supports Social Credit; the Prince Albert and Moose Jaw papers are Liberal (but the Prince Albert Herald supported John Diefenbaker in the last federal election); the Port Arthur Evening News-Chronicle is Liberal in federal matters and Conservative in provincial; the Quebec Chronicle-Telegraph supports Maurice Duplessis’ Union Nationale. The Scotsman is traditionally Conservative in national policies, but often strongly critical of Westminster on Scottish affairs.
From the office of J. E. Slaight, Thomson’s editorial supervisor, the Canadian editors are fed special editorial features, new columns and makeup ideas, but there is no evidence that compliance is demanded. Once a year all the editors come to Toronto to attend a pep-talk conference which is given the label “forum” to avoid any suggestion of pressure. Last year they discussed, in a long agenda, recent libel suits, the importance of “letters to the editor,” and the value of features of the “Enquiring Reporter” type. This last item, St. Clair McCabe pointed out mildly, was good enough for the New York Daily News (circ. two millions) to run every day.
Stung by a round of editorials which viewed - with - alarm his rapid expansion, Thomson in 1951 published a full-page signed ad in several major newspapers. Under the heading, The Canadian People Deserve a Free and Fearless Press, he stated . . . “It is well for the general public to know that the only way to have an independent Press in this country is to have the Press independent financially. It simply means that newspapers should be, and in fact must be, profitable.” Discussing the papers he had acquired, Thomson added . . . “not one of them, in editorial outlook and policy, was changed one iota by me.”
Toronto Globe and Mail columnist J. V. McAree has several times taken a poke at the Thomson papers, not for trying, as one might suppose, to sway public thought in a certain direction but for not trying to sway it at all. He refers specifically to the towns where the Thomson paper has no competition and where it tends to sit primly on the fence in controversial matters to avoid giving offense to anyone. McAree and many others feel that newspapers fail in one facet of their purpose unless they give a strong lead to public thought. Professor A. R. M. Lower, of Queen’s University, a well-known watchdog at the doorstep of Canadian culture, joins in this argument. He feels that the newspaper monopolies in the smaller cities tend to express a static conservative point of view and thereby make it more difficult to get any kind of reform movement going. Lower also believes that Thomson’s international expansion sets a dangerous precedent. “If Americans were to start buying up Canadian newspapers they would control just about the last avenue of our public expression,” he warns.
Thomson has listened to all this criticism with an attentive ear but it’s doubtful if much that he has learned will help him in his present problems with the Scotsman. For now he seems bent on breaking his own rigid rules. He has often stated that newspapermen make poor businessmen; now many newspapermen are sitting back with obvious relish fully expecting the brash businessman Thomson to make a poor newspaperman.
In his very early days with the Timmins Press publisher Thomson would sometimes sell an ad and then have to scribble some copy to fill the rest of the space on the page. During World War II he got himself accredited as a war correspondent and went over to London and Paris. He sent back several undistinguished stories which were dutifully used by his papers and radio stations.
With this kind of editorial background—his reading, other than financial papers, consists entirely of paperback detective stories—Thomson is plunging boldly ahead with the twin aims of retaining the Scotsman’s prestige and yet broadening its appeal (i.e., more circulation). “If I can’t run the Scotsman myself I’ve got no right to be in it at all,” he says. “It is something pretty awe-inspiring . . . There’ll be no rash acts out of me.” Then again, he told a reporter from World’s Press News: “I run quite differently from the British newspaper policy. I worry more about the sales than the contents of the paper. Of course I have good writing . . . but in the long run it is the business side that counts.”
Although his enthusiasm for his new property has led him to exclaim that Scotland is his native land, Thomson was born at 16 Monteith Street, in a seedy midtown Toronto district, on June 5, 1894. His father, Herbert Thomson, once a telegrapher and later a barber, was born at Markham, a village twenty miles northeast of the city. His mother was an Englishwoman from Bath. There were two children —Roy and a younger brother, Carl. Mrs. Thomson kept roomers, and Roy had a paper route for the Sunday edition of the long-defunct Toronto World.
He grabbed an education on the run through the Church Street School, Jarvis Collegiate and Elliott’s Business School and began work, at fourteen, as a clerk for a coal company. After a few months he left that to join J. A. Scythes, of the Colonial Cordage Company, as a clerk at five dollars a week. About this time he also joined in a partnership with an aunt, Miss Sara Hyslop, who traded in cheap second mortgages. At first Roy helped her with her bookkeeping, then she took him in as a partner, allowing him to pay his share of the outlay on time payment from his wages. They plowed back all profits into more mortgages.
When Scythes began a manufacturing operation of his own he took Thomson with him and, sensing a selling ability in the amiable nearsighted youth, put him on the road. Thomson, sensing the commercial sagacity of his employer, cashed his mortgages and bought as much common stock in the new firm as he could. The company expanded and prospered and Thomson became Toronto manager at fifty dollars a week.
In 1917, when he was twenty-three, Thomson married Edna Irvine, a stenographer at Scythes’, and he began to be plagued by the stirrings of a greater ambition. He had volunteered for overseas service in the war but was rejected because of his weak eyes and had accepted the unsatisfying substitute of a commission as a lieutenant in the home defense militia. In 1919 his restlessness got the better of his judgment and he quit Scythes’, sold all but a few shares of his stock (he realized twenty thousand dollars for the seven thousand he had invested) and bought a six-hundred-and-forty-acre wheat farm near Holdfast, Sask. After six weeks he knew that he would never make a farmer and at the end of the summer he quit and returned to Toronto. At first he rented the farm, and then sold it but the buyer couldn’t keep up his payments. Thomson finally wrote it off, at a loss of about eighteen thousand dollars.
Far from scurrying back to the security of a salaried job (Scythes offered him a managership) Thomson, with a dogged and remarkable persistence, went looking for his million dollars down all the roads that were opened up by the industrial expansion and research of the war years.
His early ventures brought him a lot of rough - and - tumble experience, but not much else. He had tried to cash in on the prairie land boom. Back in Toronto he tried the mushrooming automobile business, setting up a company to supply parts to garages. He decided he could undercut Ford’s price for its own axles, scalped the design and for a while turned them out of a little factory in Acton, Ont. When radio began to boom he was in partnership in Ottawa with his brother Carl in Service Supplies Ltd., a company that had grown from his Toronto experiments. He got practically the whole of northern Ontario as a sales district from the De Forest Crosley Radio Company and on one trip he sold more than one hundred receivers in Sault Ste. Marie, where the reception depended almost wholly on good weather conditions. “The only difference between me and other salesmen,” Thomson has said, “is that I worked.”
When the over-expanded economy nose-dived at the end of the Twenties, Thomson was stuck with a stock of radios on credit. Yet it was in 1931, at the pit of the depression, that he found the key to his fortune. For eight hundred dollars, most of it credit, he started his own radio station in North Bay. He even borrowed the license, CFCH, from the Abitibi Power and Paper Company.
Jazz Made the Sales Jump
It didn’t seem such a dramatic move at the time. Radio reception from the distant stations was so poor in northern Ontario in those years that a prolonged spell of unsuitable weather could mean that Thomson would go weeks without a single sale. Pushed by desperation as much as by inspiration Thomson bought a used fifty-watt transmitter that measured eighteen inches wide by three feet high. He struck a deal with the Capitol Theatre in North Bay by which he got an unused dressing room for a studio in return for plugs for the current show. He rigged a portion of an old windmill on the roof for a transmitting tower. Soon a ten-mile area around North Bay was jumping to Thomson’s canned music and his stock of sets began to move.
At the start he did not realize that he was sitting on a gold mine, that the mother lode of advertising dollars awaited his probing pick. But when the local merchants began to buy time to announce their Friday sales, Thomson was on his way. He still says today, “The most beautiful music to my ears is a spot commercial at ten bucks a whack.”
The great mining strikes of the Thirties were tripling the population of the northern towns and, using CFCH as a springboard, Thomson started similar stations in Timmins and Kirkland Lake. And he became a newspaper publisher.
How Thomson in 1935 turned the moribund Timmins Press from a weekly into a daily has become a legend in the Canadian newspaper business. He had only one linotype and a creaky eight-page flatbed press.
His radio station in Timmins, CKGB, occupied the top half of a shaky frame building on Spruce Street; the ground floor sheltered the Press. His station manager, Tommy Darling—now general manager of CHML, Hamilton— had an arrangement with the editor of the Press for a news commentary. Then a Roman Catholic priest, Father Therriault, launched an opposition paper in French and Darling made a similar arrangement with him for a French newscast. This caused a local rift and, when Darling claimed he had been insulted by a remark in the Press, Thomson raced up from North Bay threatening court action. The Press was owned in equal partnership by three men, only one of whom was actually operating it.
Thomson put a scare into the silent partners, pointing out that they were equally liable for anything the Press might say, now or ever. They asked him what they should do, and Thomson advised them to sell out. “But who would buy it?” they asked. On the spur of the moment Thomson said, “I would.” “How much is it worth?” they wanted to know. “How about six thousand?” Thomson offered. Thomson didn’t have the six thousand; at that moment he didn’t have six hundred. He offered two hundred dollars down and promised to pay two hundred a month for the next twenty-nine months. They took it.
At the end of his first year as a publisher he had only been able to pay off one of his two-hundred-dollar notes. The temptation to quit and concentrate on his burgeoning radio properties must have been strong, but instead, pushed by his stubborn resolve, he decided to increase his worries by going daily.
Some of the results, to unfeeling critics, were hilarious. The Press might come out on time at 4 p.m. on a Monday, slip to 6 p.m. on Wednesday, and sometimes on a Saturday it would hit the dusty streets of Timmins at 9 p.m. When a sudden influx of advertising made a second section necessary Thomson sometimes ran short of type and filled the columns of page ten with news that was already in the same edition on page two.
At forty-one Thomson swallowed the scorn of the scoffers, the forebodings of the financiers, and settled down for nine years to fight his properties into prosperity. In the triangle of Timmins, Kirkland Lake and North Bay he won a reputation as a tough businessman and a tougher employer. One employee who owed Thomson a little money once asked him for a raise; Thomson convinced him he should take a cut and apply the difference to wiping out the loan. He bought out and closed the French weekly in Timmins and told Father Therriault, “Someday I’ll be a millionaire.”
He began to attract young aspirants in the radio and newspaper business who couldn’t get a start in the cities and he wasn’t slow to realize that a novice at apprentice rates can almost immediately produce plenty of copy, if quality isn’t too important. He also hired older experienced men from the fringes of the city papers, including some spectacular drunks, at bargain prices. One young manager in the chain, who started work for Thomson in southern Ontario for fifteen dollars a week after holding a wartime commission, recalls that he sometimes put the paper out almost single-handed while the city editor and sports editor conducted an awesome binge. Thomson’s early staffing experiences later cemented into his conviction that men in the literate arts are a pretty fuzzy-headed lot.
He cut costs everywhere. There were even times when Thomson’s salary cheques, small as they were, couldn’t be cashed at the local banks until company deposits caught up with them.
By 1944 Thomson had proved that he could make money and he was greeted with warm handshakes in banks that ten years earlier had refused him even trifling loans. He flashed out of the north country and planked down nine hundred thousand dollars for four dailies in the southern Ontario centres of Welland, Galt, Woodstock and Sarnia, which had been operated loosely as a partnership. He gave them back a bond for half the price and borrowed most of the rest from the bank them to the Timmins Press, he had five units on which to test his idea for central office financial control of papers which would remain independent editorially. It worked. “Today I wouldn't take a million dollars for the Sarnia paper alone." Thomson says.
In the, quick years that followed Thomson, now using money raised by public bond issue to bolster his bank loans, and forging new companies out of old in a bewildering succession, added paper after paper to his chain. Guelph, Moose Jaw, Chatham, Prince Albert, Port Arthur, Oshawa, Galt, Vancouver, Orillia, Brampton and Quebec became “Thomson towns;” in 1952 he bought the St. Petersburg Independent in Florida “to have something to do on my vacation.”
He had attempted a parallel expansion in radio until the Radio Committee of the House of Commons recommended against multiple ownership in 1942. At that time Thomson, in association with Jack Kent Cooke, owner of station CKEY, had closed a deal with Senator Arthur Hardy to buy Hamilton’s CHML for one hundred and twenty thousand dollars. But Thomson’s application for the extra license was turned down. He commented sourly, “Now that radio is so damn socialized I’ll stick to papers from now on.”
The association of Thomson and the younger Cooke is a story in itself. It began with Thomson giving Cooke his start in radio at twenty-five dollars a week, developed into a radio partnership and then they entered the magazine field together with New Liberty magazine. Thomson lost confidence in the magazine business and sold his interest to Cooke, who went on alone to put the magazine in the black. They are still equal partners in National Broadcast Sales Ltd., which represents their radio stations in the national advertising field.
In spite of rumor to the contrary, Thomson has never had a penny in CKEY, nor was he a silent partner in Cooke’s bid to buy the Toronto Telegram when it was on the block in 1952. As a matter of fact Thomson had a secret understanding with John Bassett Jr. that if Bassett didn’t succeed in raising the money to buy the paper himself then Thomson was willing to discuss some sort of partnership with him. Thomson adds that Bassett was willing to work for him as an employee, if it came to that. Bassett, of course, did raise the capital elsewhere -the investor is generally believed to be John David Eaton, although this has never been officially confirmed.
Although Thomson could in no sense be called a social climber —he refuses to pretend that he enjoys the arts even though he owns a Gainsborough and likes to sit around at home in his suspenders—over the last few years he has been quietly winning his way Into the upper and ultra-conservative fastnesses of the Canadian man of means. He is co-chairman (with Louis St. Laurent) of the Canadian Council of Christians and Jews, is president of the Albany Club in Toronto and a member of the board of governors of the Toronto East General Hospital. He a United Churchman and a Mason.
But he is only really happy and content when he is talking business.
"If I were ten different men," he says, “I’d be in ten times as many deals every day.” He will literally talk for hours about his system of centralized control, to competitors or anyone who is interested. The magic word is “budget.” Every facet of each business works on a budget, or a series of budgets. In the Canadian papers, it works this way: the individual publishers sit down with the head-office executives once a year and work out their prospective costs and their revenue aims—salaries, paper, ink, hydro, rent, photo-developer, birth-and-death notices, everything. Accountants swiftly translate this into the vital “cost per page.” Sheet after mimeographed sheet is then drawn up to allow the publisher, and head office, to keep a firm finger on the paper’s profit pulse. Each week the publisher reports on his “cost per page” and on his advertising linage; each month on his “profit and loss,” with a detailed analysis of unusual items. As these sheets come into head office the figures go under a gimlet scrutiny and are matched with the record for the previous year. If one paper is making its cuts at a lower price per inch than the others the reason is sought; if it can be made to apply generally, the new wrinkle becomes standard. If one paper is falling off in department-store ad sales, advice on how to restore the business flows out to that publisher. Head office controls all capital expense, and represents the papers as a group in the national advertising field.
A before-and-after-Thomson look at his papers generally produces two immediate opinions: most of them are better looking papers; they all look alike. Both of these results were achieved when Thomson hired Gilbert Farrar, an American makeup expert, and asked him to fix on the most practical design for the chain. Farrar suggested Karnak and Cairo type faces throughout and many sound, if routine, makeup ideas. There is a tendency for managing editors to follow Farrar slavishly, but, as Thomson says, “What do folks in Prince Albert care that the paper in Woodstock looks the same? Are they better than they were before—that’s the important thing.”
The look-alike of Thomson papers is magnified by the fact that many of them play the same Canadian Press stories in the same way. They are all linked to the teletypesetter service that Thomson pioneered in Canada. Less its technicalities, this is a wire system by which editorial copy is typed onto a tape in the CP headquarters in Toronto and sent direct into the composing rooms of newspapers across the nation. It can be, and often is, fed right on without further editing through a linotype machine, which transforms the perforated symbols into words in type at the rate of twelve lines a minute—roughly twice as fast as the average operator can set. Thomson saw this machine at the Graphic Arts Exposition in Chicago in 1950 and, realizing the tremendous saving to be made by “packaging” most of his editorial matter, spent two hundred thousand dollars to build a teletypesetter link for his own papers. In 1951, under agreement with Thomson, the Canadian Press took over the system and expanded it to member papers. Editors refer callously to this electronic miracle as “the yard goods.”
Will the Guild Get In?
Thomson points out proudly that his Scotsman was using a teletypesetter twenty-eight years ago to transfer news from London to Edinburgh.
To bolster his claims that his papers have gained a wider public acceptance since he took them over, Thomson points to his circulation figures. By last November his Ontario dailies as a group were showing an increase of ten thousand over the previous year. The Vancouver News-Herald claimed a ten percent gain.
Countering criticism that he packs his papers with ads to the detriment of news, he offers a breakdown of editorial and advertising percentages. On May 1, 1953, Thomson’s figures show that the Timmins Press produced an eighteen-page paper with 47.2 percent advertising; the Toronto Star with fifty-six pages the same day carried 78.1 percent advertising. On Saturday Sept. 5 the Guelph Mercury with a total of a hundred and seventy-six columns carried 89.5 columns of news, divided this way: wire news, 14.9 columns; local news, 23; features, 7; comics, 12.6. Thomson claims none of his papers carries less than forty-five percent news.
The International Typographical Union has closed-shop contracts covering the composing rooms of all Thomson’s Canadian dailies except three —Kirkland Lake, Timmins and Chatham. Although a conference of the Ontario Federation of Printing Trade Unions in 1950 pledged full support “toward organization of those units of the Thomson chain where substandard conditions are developing” the ITU did not attempt to block the introduction of the Thomson teletypesetter that year. They got an agreement from Thomson that no one would be fired, even though the new system allowed drastic reduction in composing room staffs; the union in its turn agreed that Thomson need not replace all men who retired or quit.
Harry Finch, international representative of the ITU, says Thomson drives a hard bargain but sticks to it. He has been known to discipline individual publishers who have tried to deviate from agreed conditions.
The only organized editorial workers in the Thomson chain are those of the Vancouver News-Herald but, with the American Newspaper Guild making major strides among metropolitan papers in Toronto, several of his publishers expect organization to begin within their papers. Some of them are likely to welcome it, even if unofficially: they hope that guild security will give them a chance to compete for the better type of newspaperman. The present individual arrangements in editorial salaries have resulted in some cases in a city editor being paid less than the man in charge of obituaries. But the guild will likely find that organizing within the Thomson chain won’t be easy; Thomson, as president of the Canadian Press, took a leading part in the news service’s successful fight against the CP guild last year.
Since his wife died at Fort Lauderdale, Fla., in 1951 Thomson has seemed a lonely figure to many people. Although he is easy to approach, he has made few lasting friendships. For the last few years in Toronto he has spent most of his evenings alone, often driving himself home in an unkempt Oldsmobile. He lavishes something more than affection on a twelve-year-old Scotty called Biff; in fact one of the main chores of the immigrant couple and two gardeners on his domestic staff is to make sure that Biff gets companionship and exercise during the day. Holes covered with rubber flaps have been cut in the wainscoting so that Biff can roam in and out as he pleases.
When Roy Thomson establishes a home in Edinburgh this month his son, Kenneth Roy, a Cambridge graduate, will take over Mississauga House, his twenty-eight-acre home near Toronto. With the two other Thomson children, Mrs. C. E. Campbell and Mrs. T. Elliott, Ken has for many years owned a large piece of the Thomson Company. With an eye on succession duties —Thomson estimates that he now controls assets worth between seven and eight million dollars—Thomson personally owns less than a quarter of his major Canadian property, the Thomson Company. Since he has up to now retained the general managership himself he is in effect a salaried employee of his own children and his three grandchildren.
Thomson has often been asked why he keeps on trying to make more money. He will readily suggest that the comparative poverty of his childhood probably made him determined to succeed, but he laughs at suggestions that he, like Bennett and Beaverbrook before him, is heading for the House of Lords. “I’m not that kind of man,” he says. He once tried to explain his attitude to money at length:
“Every man in Canada has a chance to amass a fortune and I see no reason why I shouldn’t work to get my share of it,” he said. “I agree that money isn’t everything. It may not buy you immunity from death, for instance, but having the funds to hire top-notch doctors certainly helps to delay it.” ★