Which one will survive?

Allan Fotheringham December 18 2000

Which one will survive?

Allan Fotheringham December 18 2000

Which one will survive?

Allan Fotheringham

Richard Gwyn, the veteran Toronto Star columnist, recently made a trip to his native England after a long absence away. Gwyn, who had to buy his way out of the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst when as a youth he decided he didn’t want to be an army officer, has come to an astonishing conclusion.

He decided, after reading several of London’s 10 national dailies, that Toronto and Canadian newspaper readers are getting better quality. Arguably, he may have been right. The quality, and the trash—fuelled by Rupert Murdoch, the Dirty Digger from Down Under—has been diluted from even 10 years ago on what used to be Fleet Street.

The reason for the increased quality and readability of Toronto’s press is, of course, due to the Paper Wars. The city has now four ferociously battling papers—two of them fighting for the national market.

It’s nonsense, naturally; New York, with three times the population of Toronto, is now down to three papers.

Toronto cannot last with four, but it’s fun for the reader—while it continues. (This scribbler, as can be imagined, operates with a clear conflict of interest in this commentary, being a writer for one of the four.)

The Paper Wars have been fuelled by Lord Almost, Conrad Black, the Don Quixote of millionaires who wishes to rule and command Canada while living abroad, a most wonderful conceit. His birthing of a national paper—a very good paper—two years ago set off a duel that will end, as always, with one death.

There is, you see, (my patron) the paper-of-record, The Globe and Mail, fondly known as the Mop and Pail, or the Grope and Flail. There is Conrad’s invention, the National Post, fondly known as the National Pest. The one thing that is known is that any Toronto businessman who tries to read both papers will not get to work until 11 a.m.

The reason readers are served better, as Gwyn knows, is because the threat of the Pest has made the Globe a better paper, shaken out of its superior attitude. And the Post!Pest is invigorated, knowing that it has become a threat.

There is The Toronto Star, the largest circulation in the land only because Hogtown women buy it for its ads, looking for bargains. It no longer has Pierre Berton or Ron Haggart as a “must-read” columnist, save for those readers who love the language and have Dalton Camp, the best stylist still. It is going sideways.

In some trouble is the tabloid Toronto Sun, with its doublebreasted daily Page 3 girl. It has lost its best feature, Christie Blatchford, to the Post, who writes longer than a Florida court judgment and fascinates women by laying out in every column every single personal emotion she can confess. Another prominent columnist (ahem) has fled lately.

The Sun has a dreadful problem with an absentee landlord, Quebecor, with senior executives running the paper flitting in from Montreal on an irregular basis, and morale is in the Dumpster. Brian Mulroney, appointed six months ago to head a search committee for a new successor to CEO Paul Godfrey, can’t seem to find one.

And so we have the Globe and the Post, both losing money because they are spending so much money fighting each other. In the new circulation wars, the Globe found its circulation some 16 per cent higher than the Post, the Post pointing out that it was the fastest-growing paper in Canada.

More pertinent to those of us keeping our heads down in the trenches is the advent of corporate owners. BCE, which is about to take over CTV, will control the Globe. Izzy Asper’s Can West empire now owns 50 per cent of the Pest—Conrad, while wanting to dictate Canada’s future, now no longer wants to own all of it.

The question, naturally, is whether good-Liberal Izzy and his smart son will want to continue the Black-inspired Fleet Street style of making the Post more a propaganda machine on its front page and elsewhere than a mere dispenser of news. It’s fun to read, but the bias becomes a trifle tiresome.

Neither BCE, nor Izzy, one suggests, will abide forever their mutual debts while chasing the same advertising dollar. Just as Canada is too small to support two national airlines, it (i.e., the Toronto advertising market) is too small to support two national papers.

All I know is that in two-three years there will once again be just one national newspaper, one of the duellists having surrendered. Most likely the Postw\\\ revert to a fine national Sunday newspaper like the Sunday Times of London—badly needed—or go back to its roots as a daily financial paper, as is The Wall Street Journal.

The Globe will survive, supreme again. I am, as is obvious, completely objective.