Marking the end of a journalistic era

PEETER KOPVILLEM September 12 1988

Marking the end of a journalistic era

PEETER KOPVILLEM September 12 1988

Marking the end of a journalistic era


He began his journalism career as a teenage rural correspondent for Ontario’s Kitchener Waterloo Record, earning 10 cents for each column-inch of his work that the paper published. Last week, more than 50 years later, Beland H. Honderich announced his retirement as publisher of Canada’s largest-circulation daily newspaper, The Toronto Star, and as chief executive officer of the paper’s parent company, Torstar Corp.

During his career, Honderich became a legend in Canadian journalism, a man who dominated the Star during his 22 years as publisher, inspired fear among many of his employees and used his paper to promote causes including Canadian nationalism and Liberal party policies. For some veterans of Canadian journalism, the retirement of the man widely known as “Bee” marked the end of an era. “He was one of the last of the journalists to run a newspaper,” said author Pierre Berton, a Star columnist from 1958 to 1962. “The days in which newspapermen ran papers are gone.”

Honderich, who will turn 70 on Nov. 25, will be replaced by David Galloway, 44, as Torstar president and David Jolley, 46, as the Star's publisher and Torstar executive vice-president. The two men—both have business, not journalism, backgrounds—will share the duties of chief executive officer on an annually rotating basis. They will assume control of a company that in 1987 had revenues of $904 million and includes among its assets not only the Star—with a daily circulation of more than 500,000 copies—but also Harlequin Enterprises Ltd., a major international publisher of romance novels, and 22.4 per cent of Southam Inc., publisher of 17 Canadian newspapers, most of them dailies. Both Galloway and Jolley have said that there will be no changes in the Star’s editorial direction—which over the past 22 years was clearly set by Honderich. Said longtime friend Senator Keith Davey: “He knew what he wanted and he made sure it happened.”

Honderich, who will remain as Torstar’s chairman of the board, was born in the Kitchener area and joined the Star in 1943 after working for eight years as a full-time reporter at the Record. In 1945, he became the Star's financial editor and was instrumental in establishing a newspaper guild local at the Star. Honderich went on to hold various editorial positions at the Star, including a stint as roving foreign correspondent.

Then, in 1955, he was named editor-inchief, at a time when the Star had a reputation for sensationalism. Locked in a fierce struggle for circulation with Toronto’s now-defunct Telegram, the Star in that period regularly sent whole teams of reporters to cover such stories as the 1958 Springhill, N.S., mine disaster.

At that time, the Star was also a paper that had sullied its reputation by its openly propagandistic stories on behalf of the Ontario and federal Liberal parties. On June 25, 1949, two days before the federal election that pitted Conservative Leader George Drew against Liberal Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent, the Star published allegations that a secret deal had been struck between Drew and Premier Maurice Duplessis of Quebec to ensure a federal cabinet post

for former Montreal mayor Camillien Houde. The headline—possibly the most ridiculed in the paper’s 96-year history-read: “Keep Canada British, destroy Drew’s Houde, God save the King.” Honderich, first as editor and from 1966 on as publisher, is widely credited with curbing the Star's excesses and turning it into a more serious paper. Said Berton: “He toned it down, tried to make a good newspaper out of it—and

at that point he succeeded pretty well.” Although the Star became more balanced in its handling of news, its editorial direction clearly flowed from Honderich’s nationalistic and “small 1” liberal ideology. Said William Dimma, president of the Star for three years in the 1970s and now deputy chairman at the real estate firm Royal LePage Ltd.: “In the parts of the country where the paper is read, Honderich has made Canadians more conscious of their country. Journalistically, he is one of the great Canadians.”

In the election of 1979, which Joe Clark’s Conservatives won, those beliefs led Honderich to turn his back on Pierre Trudeau’s Liberals—traditionally the Star's party of choice, although Honderich had sometimes criticized them for not being progressive enough. Instead,

he offered the paper’s qualified support to the New Democrats.

Honderich’s beliefs have also been reflected in the areas in which the Star has regularly pushed for improved public policies: subsidized housing, multiculturalism, police reform, day care and the quality of education. “The general tone of newspaper publishing in many places has become very conservative,” said Olivia Ward, who joined the Star 10 years ago from the Vancouver Province and who now reports on arms control and public policy issues for the paper.

“But Honderich never gave in to that. One has to give him credit for being, in fact, a genuine liberal.”

At the same time, many of those who worked with Honderich said that, despite his liberal beliefs, he was highly conservative in his relationships with others.

“He is not an anecdotal kind of a character,” said Davey, whose father, Charles, worked for 53 years at the Star. Indeed, Honderich will be remembered as an austere, intensely private publisher—and one who exercised a firm control over the newsroom. When the Star moved into a new building near Toronto’s waterfront in 1971, the Star threatened to fire any employee who brought food or drinks into the clean, modern newsroom (the rule was later relaxed).

Former Maclean's managing editor Walter Stewart in his 1980 book, Canadian Newspapers: The Inside Story, recalled that once, when a managing consultant suggested that the newspaper’s Star Weeklythen the weekend supplement— needed to attract young readers, the order came down to use the word “young” in the first paragraph of every story. Wrote Stewart, who worked at the Star from 1964 to 1968:

“My proudest accomplishment was getting the word ‘young’ into the opening sentence of a story about Charles de Gaulle.”

According to some former Star employees, Honderich’s dominant presence often proved counterproductive as editorial employees sought to gain his approval. That, critics say, often resulted in a lack of creativity as editors tried to tailor stories to what they thought

Honderich wanted. Wrote Stewart: “A newspaper shaped to the tastes of a single man may have a sense of discipline, but not a nose for news. We were not journalists, we were courtiers, and that

is a difficult way to run a newspaper.” But, said Berton: “I don’t think a paper can be any good unless it is a vision of one guy. The problem is that you should never try to second-guess the

boss—you just go out and do your job.” In fact, some critics say that the Stars current fierce opposition to the proposed Canada-U.S. free trade pact may be the result of those attitudes. Said Berton: “I think that on certain things, right now on free trade, the edi-

tors just think that Honderich wants opposition to it.” But Ward, for one, says that the Star, as a liberal newspaper, has tended to attract and hire people who fit its mould. “I have never talked to anyone who works at the Star who is for free trade,” Ward said. “And I don’t think this has anything to do with the publisher telling them what they ought to do.”

In the meantime, the Star has been without an editorin-chief since 1985, when George Radwanski left the paper. Editorially, the paper is currently directed by executive editor Ray Timson, 60, managing editor Ian Urquhart, 39—and editorialpage editor John Honderich, I Beland Honderich’s 42-year-

0 old son.

1 Galloway and Jolley, who ° are scheduled to start their x new jobs on Sept. 30, share » a long history. They attend-

2 ed high school in Toronto £ together and, before joining

Torstar in 1981—the same year as Honderich’s heir apparent, Star president Martin Goodman, died of cancer at the age of 46—worked together in the Canada Consulting Group, a management consulting company that they helped to found in 1971. Since 1986, they have worked together with Honderich and shared the responsibilities of running Torstar.

The appointment of the two men to share Honderich’s former duties led to speculation over how they will fill the retiring publisher’s shoes. Said Berton: “I don’t know how that will affect the Star. It may lose some of its fierceness, some of its dedication.” And Berton also said that he wonders if Honderich, in his continuing capacity as Torstar’s chairman of the board—he is also a shareholder-will be able to resist involving himself in the editorial direction of the paper. “I was going to write him a letter and say, ‘Dear Bee, I don’t believe this,’ ” Berton said. “I find it hard to believe that he will keep his hands off that newspaper.” It is an issue that is clearly in the minds of many Star employees as a colorful period in Canadian journalism comes to an end.