In July 1954, there was a spectacular birthday party in an isolated Quebec town, hemmed in on three sides by thick bush, and on the fourth side bordering the St. Lawrence River. A large crowd enjoyed French-Canadian ballads played by an accordionist and fiddlers in colourful lumberjack shirts and neckerchiefs. According to a report in the Chicago Tribune, the three-foot-square birthday cake was topped by a model of the town’s founder paddling a canoe, “as he did when he surveyed the forests and streams of the Quebec north shore…in search of pulpwood.” A Toronto newspaper executive who attended the party, according to the same report, hailed the founder as “a bulwark of America and builder of Canada.”
From today’s perspective, the sentiment and spectacle ring hollow. The birthday boy, and focus of all this jubilation, was Colonel Robert McCormick, a powerful and eccentric Republican from Chicago who, over the previous four decades, had built one of the most important newspaper corporations in North America. At the time, his company published the two highest-circulation newspapers in the United States: the Chicago Tribune (which had covered the bash in the bush so enthusiastically) and the New York Daily News. “The Colonel,” as he was known, had achieved this by developing a vertically integrated operation in which his corporation owned every stage in the production process, with its unlikely starting point in those remote spruce forests of Ontario and Quebec.
The 1954 celebration acknowledged that Baie Comeau owed its existence to McCormick’s canny recognition that Quebec’s north shore could supply the logs and hydroelectric power required for the manufacture of newsprint. (The notion that he had personally canoed through its turbulent waters, as suggested by the birthday cake, was pure cotton candy.) McCormick combined a nose for cheap resources with an adroit feel for how to manipulate governments on both sides of the border in order to secure timber leases, tariff elimination, infrastructure subsidies, and tax reductions. McCormick’s success ensured that, throughout the twentieth century, almost all the trees felled to produce U.S. newspapers grew in Canada.
McCormick’s activities did indeed bring benefits to the north shore, as he carved a thriving community out of bedrock and forest, and created thousands of jobs there (including one for Brian Mulroney’s father, Benedict, an electrician). American investment in Canadian paper mills in Quebec and Ontario provided a huge boost to the economy. According to Tribune company documents, which Michael Stamm has mined rigorously for his book Dead Tree Media: Manufacturing the Newspaper in Twentieth-Century North America, in 1936 and 1937 McCormick’s company alone had spent in Quebec more than one and a half times what the Canadian government had spent on public works in the province from 1932 to 1937. In 1946, the Tribune company employed over seven thousand wood workers in their northern operations.
In correspondence, McCormick’s most important executive in Canada, Montreal-based Arthur Schmon, described the company’s workforce as almost all “migratory French-Canadian lumberjacks…illiterate for the most part but they were a simple, honest folk and seemed to me to possess more nobility than their kin who were closer to civilization.” These simple, honest folk worked incredibly hard: an average lumberjack produced one and a half cords of wood per day from which, according to the Canadian Pulp and Paper Association, fifteen thousand standard-sized sixteen-page newspapers could be produced. Meanwhile, the indigenous Innu people were considered “a great menace to the forest” and squeezed out of Tribune territory.
But as Canada, and in particular Quebec, strove to develop a more mature trade relationship with its southern neighbour, the colonel’s ruthlessness came to be seen as robber-baron imperialism of the worst kind. Schmon’s comments about the workforce, and the folkloric habitants on display at McCormick’s birthday party, underlined Canada’s colonial status in this enterprise.
Colonel Robert McCormick dominates Dead Tree Media as he once dominated the Tribune organization. However, this book is more than a biography of an extraordinary entrepreneur and egomaniac; it is a fascinating narrative about newsprint that encompasses the history of journalism, trade relations, and industrial capitalism in twentieth-century North America. It owes its genesis to the discovery by Stamm, a media historian at Michigan State University, that the Chicago Tribune had built a well-organized and comfortable company town in a remote region of Canada. Asking himself why, Michael Stamm traced a commodity chain, and cross-border relationship, connecting Canadian spruce trees with U.S. readers.
The commodification of Canadian forests began with one key nineteenth-century development: the 1870s switch from rag-based paper (for which raw materials were limited) to wood-based paper. In 1879, U.S. papermakers produced around 149,000 tons of newsprint, and the price per ton was $129.20; twenty years later, the price per ton had fallen to $36 and the production of newsprint had shot up. By 1920 publishers were buying 2.2 million tons of the stuff. U.S. newspaper publishers, including William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer as well as McCormick, had used this vastly increased and cheaper supply to create hugely profitable metropolitan papers with high circulations and advertising revenues. How could they fail? The pool of city-dwelling, educated readers kept growing, and so did the number of department stores anxious to reach shoppers for their Saturday specials.
As American publishers ran out of trees south of the U.S. border, they looked covetously to the north. Initially, heavily forested central Canada appeared to be in a strong bargaining position. So provinces, responsible for forest policy, tried to ban the export of raw logs in the hope of developing paper industries within their borders. In response, American pulp manufacturers tried to protect themselves by demanding import tariffs on Canadian newsprint. There is a dreary familiarity to these tensions, isn’t there? And the way that tariff battles over this particular Canadian primary resource have played out ever since has followed the larger pattern of cross-border trade across the forty-ninth parallel.
In the early twentieth century, the big battle was between American newsprint manufacturers and their customers, U.S. publishers. The latter reacted with outrage. Morally indignant (and blatantly self-interested) editorials appeared in their newspapers, slamming what they derided as the “Paper Trust” for its “conspiracy” to levy “a tax upon intelligence and upon general information.” Media barons lobbied Congress to push for lower tariffs on cross-border trade—a policy that had some appeal for prime minister Wilfrid Laurier. Alas for him. In the 1911 election, his support for more open trade with the U.S. would prove his undoing with an electorate that clung to its British links. Post-election, these voters assumed that Canada’s economy would continue to grow within its fortress of tariffs. But one commodity slipped through: newsprint. The U.S. Congress passed a “special provision” to allow newsprint manufactured in Canada to enter the U.S. duty-free. The media barons had got their way.
But Canada-U.S. trade relations, as we are all too aware these days, are vulnerable to bully tactics. During and after the First World War, the Canadian government tried to impose on one of Tribune’s Canadian pulp mills its wartime regulations on newsprint production. McCormick fired right back, Stamm writes, damning Ottawa’s newsprint allocation programs as “not robbery, but downright bolshevism.”
Stamm explores newspapers as industrial products rather than focusing on the substance of what was printed on all those tons of dead trees. But there are plenty of commentators who have deplored two further aspects of the story. At the end of his life, historian Harold Innis would abhor the way that American exploitation of Canadian lumber, a Canadian staple, had allowed American media to reinforce the United States’s domination of North American politics and culture. A passionate Canadian nationalist, Innis regarded U.S. newspapers as intellectually vapid, driven only by the need to increase circulation and advertising and catering to “the prevailing interest in orgies.” Vertical integration certainly allowed the colonel to articulate his fiercely anti-Progressive, anti-British views in spluttering editorials that slammed Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, U.S. involvement in the Second World War, and any hint of the dreaded socialism.
More recently, American novelist Annie Proulx described the long-term, shortsighted devastation of North American forests in her bestselling novel Barkskins. She regards the American takeover of the Canadian wilderness as the “story of corporate paternalism, right-wing rhetoric, supping with the devil without the long spoon, yes men…and decades of environmental destruction.”
In his concluding chapters, Stamm traces the collapsing demand for newsprint as mass-circulation newspapers topple into free fall and new media emerge. Perhaps his unwillingness to write off dead tree media as truly dead seems a little naive, given the shrinkage and closures of newspapers throughout North America. On the other hand, the trade battles have not abated. Earlier this year the U.S. Commerce Department imposed duties as high as 20 percent on Canadian newsprint, after a complaint from a paper mill in Washington State. The duties were lifted in late August not because of Canadian lobbying, but because of a ruling by the U.S. International Trade commission after protests from struggling community newspapers in the United States.
Stamm’s account of the rise and fall of American newspapers, and the impact on Canada, is occasionally ponderous and repetitive. But his research is impressive and the portrayal of McCormick’s empire enthralling. Dead Tree Media has particular resonance as our politicians grapple with the same old trade issues that are threaded through this country’s history: protectionism versus easy access to markets, jobs versus environmental protections, economic sovereignty, survival of manufacturing industries, and even whether Canadian resource ownership poses a security threat to our brawny southern neighbour.