Closeup/The Press

Blazing typewriters

The Sun was a crazy idea-but its time had come

Mark Nichols August 8 1977
Closeup/The Press

Blazing typewriters

The Sun was a crazy idea-but its time had come

Mark Nichols August 8 1977

Blazing typewriters

Closeup/The Press

The Sun was a crazy idea-but its time had come

Mark Nichols

Born amidst hangovers and physical chaos, it should never have worked—and almost everyone outside the preposterous venture was smirkingly confident that it never would. Yet today, nearly six years after its birth, the tabloid Toronto Sun is raucously, crudely, sometimes brilliantly alive. Senator Keith Davey, Ottawa's well connected mass media critic, has accused the paper of "McCarthy-like" tactics; CBC

broadcaster and pundit-at-large Larry ZoIf calls the Sun "a piece of dung," but admits that he reads it and, what's more, enjoys it. Flamboyant, erratic and al ways unpredictable, the Sun comes gaudily clothed in a cos tume made up of screaming headlines ("AGONY OF A RABID ANIMAL ATTACK," bawled a re cent front page), a clanking neck lace of columnists, a décolletage of nubile "Sunshine Girls" and a patchwork of cut-to-the-bone national and international news. Some question whether the Sun is really a newspaper at all or something more closely approxi mating a comic book for grown ups. But love it or loathe it, the Sun has cheerfully thumbed its nose at all the naysayers and has no plans at all of going away. In stead, it is keeping alive for To rontonians the privilege of living in one of North America's few re maining three-newspaper cities, and in doing so is substantially changing the shape of the city's journalistic landscape. Starting with an initial press run of 75,000 copies in 1971, the Sun today has audited daily sales

of more than 145,000 while another 295,800 readers reach for the paper's Sun day edition, introduced in 1975 and still the city's only Sunday paper. The rays of the rising Sun have begun to melt away some of the readership of the staid but au thoritative Globe and Mail. In 1972, the Globe's weekday circulation stood at around 270,000; now, instead of growing in boomtown Toronto, the Globe's sales have drifted lower, to some 263,200 copies daily. On the financial side, the Sun, amaz ingly, qianaged to turn a profit after its first six months and has done so ever since. However, no one is earning dividends yet, since the privately held paper also owes a debt of around seven to eight mil lion dollars. "But," predicts General Manager Don Hunt, "by 1982 we'll be in

the clear, owing nobody a cent.”

The Sun's stunning success has inspired imitators in other parts of the country. In Ottawa, a group of Ontario investors plans to launch a tabloid morning paper called Ottawa Today this fall. In February this year, the Calgary Albertan shifted from broadsheet to tabloid format and since then has boosted circulation by 25% to around 45,000 papers daily. The Sun itself

is considering going west. The target is Edmonton, a rich fast-growing city where, as in Ottawa, the morning paper field is wide open. Under consideration is a joint venture by the Sun and Toronto’s Financial Post (which is printed on the Sun's presses) to fill Edmonton’s morning void with a Sun-type tabloid.

If there is a secret formula for the Sun's success, it is probably that there is no formula. Reading the Sun is rather like taking a stroll through a journalistic lunatic asylum in which half of the inmates appear to be babbling incoherently, while other, apparently quite lucid residents sit around playing chess and learnedly discussing politics. On the sober side, the Sun's sports coverage is easily on a par with that of the Globe and the mighty afternoon Toronto

Star, as are its entertainment pages and its television coverage by columnist Bob Blackburn. In Andy Donato, the Sun arguably has one of the two best (with the Star's Duncan Macpherson) editorial cartoonists in the country. Nor is the paper lacking in editorial guts. This summer, while other papers held nervously back, the Sun had the courage to publish the names of alleged Mafia figures cited in a

CBC documentary, Connections, on organized crime.

On the other hand, back in 1971, the Sun's first edition defined the paper editorially as “a politically nonpartisan voice of moderation ...” It has been anything but. Throughout the paper, the tone is insistently right-wing. It seems to thrive on heaping outrage upon outrage. During this summer’s Ontario election campaign, a Sun editorial blithely administered what is surely one of the most gratuitously insulting dismissals of a serious Canadian politician in recent times, announcing that provincial Liberal leader Stuart Smith was, “to put it bluntly, a dink.”

In a similarly unsubtle vein, a Sun editorial last February, operating on the assumption that Ugandan dictator Idi Amin is suffering from a progressive, debilitating disease, urged: “C’mon syphilis, do your stuff and do for Idi what you did for AÍ Capone.” But the standing Sun record for shock-administration is held by the erudite, jack-of-all-subjects columnist McKenzie Porter for a piece he wrote last year on “the

washroom habits of some men.” The “most depressing spectacle a man may see upon entering a public washroom to urinate,” wrote Porter, “is that of the feet of another man who is seated behind the halfdoor of a water closet in the act of defecation. There is something wrong with a man who defecates in some washroom outside his home. He is either ill, ignorant or unclean.” Right-thinking people should, like the soldiers of the Indian Army he once served with, learn to empty their bowels

once a day, upon rising, before bathing.

At times, the Sun's ethics regarding advertisers seem questionable. Stories in the real estate section often read like thinly disguised plugs for builders’ projects, though other papers are guilty of that practice. The Sun went a risky step further recently when it allowed a builder of new homes to publish an ad that closely resembled a straight news story, save for the firm’s logo at the bottom of the page.

It all began—this madness, this Sun in vulgar splendor—on Monday, November 1, 1971, on the top floor of the Eclipse Whitewear Co. Ltd. Building in a bleak industrial section of downtown Toronto. Two days before, John Bassett’s 95-yearold Toronto Telegram, debt-ridden after years of ferocious competition with the Star and embroiled in labor troubles, had published for the last time. Throughout the night, Tely veterans drowned their sorrows by the gallon. On Sunday morning some 60-odd survivors walked or tottered along King Street to the Eclipse Building. There, amid packing cases and a few pieces of hastily assembled secondhand furniture, they set to work. Toiling for up to 16 hours straight, writers and editors frantically wrote, edited and improvised, then dispatched copy by car 20 miles across town to the Bassett-owned Inland press where, at 4 a.m. Monday morning the first copies of the Sun came into being. “It was,” recalled sports editor George Gross,

“one of the most thrilling, emotionally intoxicating moments I have ever had.”

The driving force behind it all was Douglas Creighton, the plump, boyishlooking redhead who had been the Tely's last managing editor and is now the Sun's publisher, aided and abetted by ex-Tely reporter Peter Worthington and Don Hunt, who had run the Telegram's syndication service. Convinced that there was a market for a morning tabloid—aimed mainly at public transit riders and with no home delivery—the trio began a desperate search for financial backing two weeks before the Tely went under. It was an agonizing process; at one point, a key potential backer dropped out and the project seemed to collapse. Then at Thanksgiving, Edwin (“Fast Eddie”) Goodman, the Ontario Tories’ powerful political power broker, went to work and rounded up $500,000. The Sun was in business.

The paper began with a little help from other friends. John Bassett bequeathed the Telegram's street boxes to the Sun and handed over the Telÿs library for a nominal one dollar annual rent. More important, devoutly loyal Tely staffers instantly transferred their devotion to the Sun. Knowing what lay ahead, about-to-be Sun employees swept through the Tely offices, stocking up on paper, pencils, erasers and staplers, and anything else they could carry away. Bob MacDonald, the hard-nosed Ottawa correspondent, saved

up his last couple of Tely exclusives to provide the Sun with its first huge headlines.

From the start, the underdog Sun attracted spontaneous public sympathy. Readers sometimes descended on the Sun offices with sandwiches and cakes. One anonymous fan even sent along a perfectly presentable oil painting of a country scene that still hangs in the Sun offices.

Those pioneering days are long gone now. In 1975, the Sun moved into a comfortable new three-storey building in • Toronto’s east end. But the rapport between the Sun and its readers lives on, partly because the paper remains preeminently a columnists’ domain and perhaps because the Sun so often seems not to be looking outward at the world but inward at itself. Columnists regularly write about themselves, about each other and— refreshingly—have the freedom to twit the paper’s brass and be replied to in kind. Among the paper’s top-rated writers:

• Peter Worthington. According to the Sun's own surveys, Editor-in-Chief Worthington’s column and the paper’s editorials (95% of them are written by Worthington) make him by far the most widely read writer. A trim, youthful-looking 50year-old, the Winnipeg-born Worthington served as a paratroop lieutenant with the Canadian Army during the Korean War, took an arts degree from the University of British Columbia and by 1960 had become the Telegram's chief foreign correspon-

dent, covering conflicts from the Congo to Ulster. As a columnist, he has a penchant for documenting Communism’s evil ways—a result in part of two years he spent as the Telÿs man in Moscow, where he was “exposed to Soviet reality.” But, as he does in his sledgehammer-style editorials, Worthington is just as likely to take off in any direction—striking out against bilingualism in the air, against Pierre Trudeau’s desire to bring home the constitution, against the way that Ottawa’s price and wage controls have been administered. “Basically,” says Worthington in the editorial plural, “we are loyal anarchists, always kicking shins,” adding, after six years of editorial and column writing, “I’m surprised I haven’t run out of prejudices.”

• Paul Rimstead. A legend among Canadian journalists, Rimstead, 42, is a kind of slob’s Renaissance Man: an inventive, awesomely energetic hustler, musician, adventurer and writer. Hard-drinking and gregarious, Rimstead came up the hard way. Leaving his family’s impoverished northern Ontario farm at 17, he eked out a threadbare existence in Toronto as, among other things, a bank clerk, pool hustler and Fuller Brush salesman before landing his first job in journalism with a suburban weekly. By the late Sixties he had worked and played his way through a succession of Ontario newspapers and as chief sports writer for the old Star Weekly was widely regarded as the finest sports writer in the country. A prankster on a grand scale, he once audaciously promoted a broken down nag named Annabelle the Wonder Horse, who collapsed just before a scheduled run in the Kentucky Derby.

Burly, pot-bellied and graced with a •thrice-broken nose, Rimstead has become a familiar figure to millions through his TV spots for the Carling-O’Keefe beer people (his preferred tipple is actually Scotch). On the side, Rimstead for years has played drums—after a fashion—with jazz groups around town and operates a lucrative sideline as a professional promoter whose enterprises are often blatantly plugged in his column space. All in all, he pulls in about $ 100,000 a year and is in deep trouble with the income tax authorities—a recurring theme in his meandering columns that usually focus on his latest encounters with old friends or consist of lengthy explanations of why his column did not appear the previous day. One of his favorite topics is Publisher Creighton’s fondness for martinis. Typically, he wrote recently that Creighton once “did a half-gainer off his swizzle stick and knocked himself out on an olive.” For its part, the Sun retaliates with snide remarks in Rimstead’s column space when the writer goes missing.

• Joan Sutton. Until recently chief of the Sun's Lifestyles section, Sutton’s often highly personal column is a major drawing card for the paper. A Toronto girl who attended the University of Toronto before going into modeling in her native city and in Detroit, Sutton decided around 1970

that she really wanted to be a writer and enrolled in a creative writing course at York University. Hired by the Tely as a fashion writer in 1971, she was there just nine months before the paper folded; she followed the exodus to the Sun. As a columnist, she has produced well-crafted interviews, profiles and straight news reports. The dark-haired, wide-eyed 44year-old has also developed a mawkish genre of “love columns” that speak—in prose and poetry—of love, loneliness and desire (sample: “I cannot speak to you./Not because I do not like to speak to you./Because I do”). While some of the love columns clearly spring from personal experiences (she is separated from her husband), others are the result of the hundreds

of appeals for tea and sympathy she receives from readers. Now she is locked in a dispute with her bosses; Sutton wants to concentrate on serious writing, but the editors insist that the love columns are what pull in readers. Says Sutton: “I’ve walked around naked long enough. I’d like to wear some clothes for a change.”

(Journalists who interview the Sun's navel-gazing columnists do so at their own risk. After I talked to Rimstead, he filled his next-day column with an account of the interview that was cheerfully replete with inaccuracies and inventions. When I approached Sutton, she coyly reported in her column that she sallied forth to be interviewed with a bikini and a nightgown in her handbag. “After all, how could I tell?”) At midday in the newsroom of the Sun's airy new building, an atmosphere of purposeful tranquillity prevails among the potted plants, the neatly ordered desks and the numerous slim blond secretaries and editorial assistants who look as they might have been ordered to specification. But, as in every journalistic enterprise, tensions and rivalries exist beneath the surface. Tempers flared when Publisher Creighton decided that a firmer editorial

hand was needed in the newsroom and hired J. D. MacFarlane, a former Tely editor-in-chief, as editorial director. To soothe Worthington’s injured pride, his title was changed from executive editor to editor-in-chief. “Peter,” says a Sun staffer, “is a master politician and he is determined to maintain editorial control of the paper.” Among some Sun people the impression prevails that there is no such control. When MacFarlane began posting a daily “assessment notice” of the paper’s performance, members of an anti-MacFarlane contingent gaily corrected the grammar in red ink, then began issuing their own alternate assessment notice.

Nevertheless, there is a place where the buck stops, and that is with Douglas Creighton. Toronto-born and bred, Creighton went straight from high school to the Telegram where he did nearly every job on the paper before rising to the post of managing editor. A cherubic-looking 48year-old bon vivant who revels in fine dining and life bn the country club circuit, Creighton was the target of a minor staff revolt during the Sun's early years when it was felt that too much money was being spent on Cadillacs and other frills, and too little on giving the paper greater journalistic depth. Today, Creighton is firmly in charge and widely admired by his staff. Says Rimstead: “The paper couldn’t survive without him. Doug does what Bassett did for the Tely—he puts it all together. He got the people who could make it happen.” Creighton is the first to admit that the Sun as “an editorial product could be a lot better. We have to be a complete newspaper. I’d like to see the Sun a little better and a little less profitable.” The risk, of course, is that by getting better, the Sun might turn off some of its present readers without necessarily attracting new ones. Notes Creighton sadly: “All my favorite newspapers”—meaning serious, non-tabloids—“are either in trouble or belly up.” In the meantime, the Sun is looking at future prospects. Along with the proposed Edmonton venture, Sun executives, as a longer-term possibility, are considering going up against The Toronto Star with an afternoon edition—if, says General Manager Don Hunt, “we felt we could make a profit.” The Star itself may soon start making a dent in the Sunday Sun's own profits. Starting in mid-October, the Star plans to begin publishing a Sunday edition that will provide a “people approach to the week’s events,” along with a color supplement on urban life. As for the likelihood of the Sun broadening and deepening itself journalistically, Paul Rimstead may well have the answer. “The Sun” he observes, “has found that you can’t bullshit people. People think that we have a good time at the Swn—and we do. The readers just really want to be entertained.” Having hit upon such a successful form of journalistic entertainment, the Sun is thus likely to go its noisy, joyful, and shallow, way for quite some time to come.