Conrad Black's latest bold, uphill challenge

The Nation’s Business

Peter C. Newman April 20 1998

Conrad Black's latest bold, uphill challenge

The Nation’s Business

Peter C. Newman April 20 1998

Conrad Black's latest bold, uphill challenge

The Nation’s Business

Peter C. Newman

Conrad Black’s decision last week to launch a new national newspaper in his home country is a bold step that he couldn’t avoid taking.

Conrad is unique. He and his wife, Barbara Amiel, have become the royalty of Canada’s business Establishment. That means he must heed impulses and challenges quite different from the other members of his golden circle.

His attitude reminds me of Cassandra Wilson, an American jazz singer, who was recently interviewed by The New York Times. Asked about sexism in jazz, she wisely replied that her gender actually gave her a decided advantage. “Jazz is like a good-old-boys club,” she said. “It’s very difficult to get into and it has its own secret language. But once you’re inside of it, you gain a certain freedom. You can hang out with the guys. And you can be one of the guys. But they can never be one of you.

Any new newspaper, magazine or book must be something the reader not only wants, but needs

Being a woman and a singer, I’m kind of an outsider. So I’ve never felt I had to abide by any rules.”

That’s Black. He makes up his own rules and creates his own challenges. One reason he is planning to launch a new daily is that he feels he has to prove himself to the one national audience that has failed to praise him: his own country folk. The Black empire now controls some of the world’s great newspapers. Conrad has gone global in a big way. He owns papers in Israel, London, Regina, Medicine Hat,

Alta., Chicago and 56 other places in Canada. He has homes in Toronto, London, New York City and Palm Beach, Lia.

He is a citizen of the world. His world. His newspapers now boast a daily circulation of 4.3 million, only surpassed by the empire of Rupert Murdoch and the Gannett chain. He has become one of the richest entrepreneurs of his generation, almost always outsmarting his competitors and never failing to decapitate them with the appropriate bon mot.

A large part of his clout flows from his personage. He has the theatrical knack of creating space around himself. I’ve interviewed him many times, especially when I was researching my book about him, The Establishment Man: A Portrait of Power, which was published in 1982. And even when there were just two of us in his home or office, he would act out his answers to my questions, sometimes rising in his seat, to imitate Charles de Gaulle or Napoleon Bonaparte, two of his favorite role models.

He has a very special knack. His presence is charged with an expectant silence that invites confidence. Because he withholds so much of his real self, his interviewers, dinner guests, stock analysts, diplomats—everybody—rush in to fill the void. Visitors confide in him, hoping he will reciprocate.

He gives off an aura similar to that which surrounds movie stars, Himalayan prophets and Mafia bosses. The truly pow-

erful are always more interesting than the merely rich.

No businessman in Canadian memory has attracted—and deserved—so much attention. Being Conrad Black is not just a name, it’s an occupation. Despite all of that renown and gossip value, Black has never actually started a newspaper. Even at the very beginning of his run, he was buying properties such as Quebec’s The Eastern Townships Advertiser in Knowlton and the Sherbrooke Daily Record and, more recently, Canada’s biggest newspaper chain, Southam Inc. Most of Black’s 33 daily newspapers have felt his presence since the purchase was completed in the summer of 1996. He has installed new editors closer to his ideology, purchased new presses, and even his ideological critics would have to admit that the quality of each of his papers, strictly in terms of its presentation and content has improved. That has certainly been the case at The Vancouver Sun, which is my local paper, where John Cruickshank, formerly managing editor of The Globe and Mail and now the Sun s editor-in-chief, has transformed a pedestrian daily into a must-read.

And that’s one of the new national daily’s problems. How many newspapers can one household absorb? If you’re already buying The Globe and Mail, which may be quirky but has, by quite a wide margin, the best editors, writers and commentators of any newspaper in the country on its staff, plus subscribing to the Sun—or whatever the local equivalent may be—can you afford the time and money to buy and read yet another newspaper? I doubt it.

What all newspaper publishers must carefully consider these days is that they are in a severe competition for their readers’ time. That’s why any new newspaper, magazine or book must be something the reader not only wants, but needs.

That’s a tough requirement to meet. It’s easier to make a newspaper entertaining than essential. Black’s people have already conceded that the new journal will not be concentrating on business coverage, which is already ably and imaginatively covered by The Financial Post and the Globe's Report on Business. That leaves general news as the main topic for a national daily, because entertainment is more local than national.

And that opens a much larger question. Newspapers are seldom any longer the first carriers of breaking news. That honor goes to television and radio. To grab their share of attention, tomorrow’s newspapers will have to be very different. They must deliver relevant criticism, dependable predictions, the reconstruction of current events—explaining in fascinating detail how and why something happened, not that it happened, which will be old news.

If Conrad Black’s new national daily newspaper delivers that kind of solid interpretive line, it will be a great success. If not, it will be his first great failure.