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From the archives

The Path of Poetic Resistance

To disarm Canada and its canon

Are Interests Really Value-Free?

A salvo from the “realist” school of Canadian foreign relations

Going It Alone

The marvellous, single-minded, doggedly strange passion of citizen scientists

Bow Tie Confidential

As he wished upon a star

David Marks Shribman

Above the Fold: A Personal History of the Toronto Star

John Honderich

Signal

368 pages, hardcover, ebook, and audiobook

Admire the Toronto Star or disdain it, champion its place in Canadian culture or deplore it, rely on it as a news source or ignore it — it is difficult to deny that the rise to power of the Honderich family, long associated with the institution, is an astonishing North American story. From poverty to power, from social isolation to arbiters of society, from village life to the high life of what would become Canada’s premier city, Beland Honderich and his son John personified any number of forgotten Horatio Alger novels, including Fame and Fortune, Struggling Upward, Luck and Pluck, and Strive and Succeed, if not always Strong and Steady.

The one Alger title that seems not to fit is Bound to Rise, for it was far from inevitable, and in truth very unlikely, that a Mennonite “water boy on a railroad repair and construction gang” would climb to the top of Canadian journalism, largely on the strength of carrying water for no individual and no interest. Sometimes stumbling, oftentimes succeeding, Beland Honderich was known by many as Bee — a word that brings to mind hard work and dedication. And indeed he epitomized both definitions of “pluck,” which has unusual prominence in stories about the ascent of news personalities from grinding indigence to great influence. He had, to be sure, the spirited and determined courage of the word as a noun. But his life also carried the meaning of the word as a verb: to take hold of something and move it from its place. That’s because Bee moved, physically and metaphorically, from the Ontario farmlands of his Baden home to the commanding heights of One Yonge Street. The son’s trajectory lacked the hardscrabble drama and the raw risk taking of the father, to be sure. But along the way, John Honderich had to conquer the jeers and jibes of colleagues who believed that, as the tart deprecating phrase often puts it, he was born on third base but thought he hit a triple.

Soaring notes from a bygone era.

David Parkins

It is the late John Honderich who narrates Above the Fold, which carries the revealing subtitle A Personal History of the Toronto Star, and he offers a mostly affectionate portrait of his father; a bracingly revealing sketch of his own life; and a drugstore romance about the paper the two of them led after the departure of Joe Atkinson, whose ghost and whose high-minded principles have inhabited the halls for decades. This is the tale of how Bee originally hawked not newspapers in the Horatio Alger tradition but rather sports shorts — tiny accounts of local athletic contests. By selling these to the Kitchener Daily Record, the high school dropout with a dream could earn a couple of bucks but not yet a byline. Eventually, though, Bee would join the Star, and the rest is history — or, more properly, the making of Canadian history’s first draft on a broad scale.

Stories like this — of good fortune turned into big fortunes, of smoky old newsrooms and rum-smelling reporters — have a certain charm for readers like me who grew up amid drunks pounding Royal typewriters and those glue pots sitting beside the black rotary telephones on desks with booze stashed in the bottom drawers. But I have always wondered why people who wouldn’t know a printer’s rule from the infield fly rule would care. Insurance companies are rich and powerful, but where are the romantic accounts of producing term life policies? Is there a tool-and-die movie to rank with Citizen Kane ? A person howling “Get me rewrite!” might just as well be someone asking his lawyer to recast a last will and testament, yet where is the fawning documentary about estate planners?

This book offers a partial answer. It is about an intoxicating mix of people, power, and politics, about virtue, values, and value. Above the Fold isn’t as gripping as All the President’s Men, and no one will option it for a screenplay to rival The Post, about the Washington daily’s decision to print the Pentagon Papers. But the story of the Star is part of the story of Canada, and you understand this vast, continent-wide land less well if you don’t understand the role its pages played in making Canadians feel Canadian. Much of this is an outgrowth of those legendary Atkinson Principles, the first of which called for “a sturdy and self-reliant Canadianism.”

The paper that was the inspiration of the Daily Planet in the Superman comics and that carried the bylines of Ernest Hemingway, Robertson Davies, Barbara Frum, Pierre Berton, Peter Newman, Richard Gwyn, and Christie Blatchford was and in many ways remains the paper that Joe Atkinson built, much the way the old Yankee Stadium, replaced by a new version in 2009, remained the House That Ruth Built well after the Babe left the Yankees in 1934. Atkinson, Honderich writes, “embodied what it stood for, what it fought for, and what it meant at its core,” and over the years this included the abolition of public hangings, workers’ compensation, women’s suffrage, universal medicare, Sunday retail sales, and union rights. The paper could send Hemingway travelling 10,000 miles in a single year, some of them on the Orient Express, but it also could carry stories with headlines like “Man She Adored Left Her to Drown.” Bee himself covered the growing popularity of Tommy Douglas and the funeral of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. John covered two Canadian federal campaigns, the return of the American hostages from Iran, the assassination attempt against Ronald Reagan, and various aspects of the Canadian-American relationship.

Born in 1946, John Honderich may have inherited something of the Atkinson ethos, but he also sculpted his own version:

This is a paper that likes to stand up for the little guy and minorities. It likes going on crusades. Its political leanings are progressive, most often Liberal. It is a newspaper with character. It was a tradition I was committed to pursue and build on.

The Star being a newspaper, it was both cause and victim of intrigues. As Atkinson’s health declined, he drafted a will that was at once a financial and a moral statement, carrying a clause dear to the hearts of reporters and anathema to the people whom every newsroom denizen derides as narrow-minded, penny-pinching accountants and philistines. He acknowledged that the profit motive was “still important” but — and here came the fighting words —“subsidiary to what I consider the chief functions of a metropolitan newspaper.”

Ontario provincial officials and publishing rivals combined to foil Atkinson’s vision of a foundation-based news organization. It was a shameful episode, all the more so because foundation sponsorship has assured the survival of many a great publication — the Philadelphia Inquirer, for example.

What followed Atkinson’s death in 1948 was a multi-dimensional fight for the ownership of an iconic organization. One of the suitors was Jack Kent Cooke (who owned the NFL’s franchise in Washington, D.C., the NHL’s Los Angeles Kings, and the NBA’s Los Angeles Lakers, as well as the Toronto Maple Leafs minor-league baseball club and various Canadian media properties). Another was the Southam Chain (with its national reach). A third was Argus Corporation (the investment firm based in Toronto). Some of the most contentious and convoluted manoeuvring in the history of Canadian business affairs followed. None of the wannabe owners prevailed. The winners were a voting trust made up of five families, including the Honderiches.

By this time, Bee had ascended to editor, and he reigned with iron rules that might be summarized as follows: no sensationalism, no distortion, and no crime stories on the front page (though he surely would have countenanced the lead headline in the September 5 edition: “Police Hunt Suspects after 10 Killed in Stabbing Attack”). To explain his father’s vision, John quotes some anonymous newsroom doggerel:

Bless this crap, O lord we pray,
keep it dull in every way,
Keep it free of sense and verve,
Keep us free of guts and nerve,
Bless the banal, bless the trite,
And Bee will love us every nite.

It was a hop (over his corporate rivals), a skip (over subsidiary roles in the business), and a jump (to the top ranks of Canadian newspapering) that placed Bee at the head of the Torstar company. And then the purchase of the Toronto Telegram circulation list solidified his paper’s position as the biggest one around.

In the midst of this commotion, John stood apart from Bee. Was it an act of independence from all that had transpired in the old days under the brilliant chandeliers of 80 King Street West? Or an act of self-abnegation? The truth finally came out when the younger man wrote his father, “It is time to stop cutting off my nose to spite my face and realize what I want.” Into the fray he jumped, for reasons explained in a letter that reveal much about both son and father:

I have lived with you long enough to see the day-to-day routine, the pressures, the experiences, the people you worked with, the environment in which you were stimulated, the people you met and the lifestyle you had. To put it bluntly, I have constantly been fascinated and envious of it all.

John started his drive for his father’s lifestyle as a minimum-wage copy boy at the Ottawa Citizen. He may have been born on third base, but his 7 p.m. to 3 a.m. shift put him in the deepest expanses of journalism’s sprawling outfield. No matter. His career didn’t end there, shagging fly balls fungoed his way late at night. It turned out that he had some aptitude for the news biz after all. Quelle surprise! To the Star and back to Ottawa and then to Washington he went, though in the American capital, he complained bitterly, he had little access to American sources. (Perhaps his access was even less than that of a pitifully clueless twenty-five-year-old junior member of the Washington bureau of the Buffalo Evening News, who had a small but significant advantage: my readers at the other end of the Peace Bridge at least could vote in U.S. elections. And yes, we met one time, briefly. I remember nothing about it, but I am certain Honderich, in crisp bow tie, dressed better than I did.)

The Star ’s commitment to liberalism and Liberalism seldom flagged, though the paper broke from its own orthodoxy in 1972 when it sided with Robert Stanfield’s Progressive Conservatives against Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s Liberals (Bee himself wrote that editorial). Over time, the paper developed a separate and deeply significant ethic, a profound skepticism about if not downright opposition to creeping American economic, cultural, and political influence.

All this is part of Honderich’s story, along with memories of journalistic derring‑do and dutiful reporting, making the book more a biography of a newspaper than an autobiography of a newspaperman. Anecdotes abound. The author also includes as good a summary of a newsroom as any I’ve seen — and having helmed a paper for sixteen years myself, I have seen, and conjured, a lot of them:

To me, being editor of a newspaper is somewhat akin to conducting a full symphony orchestra drawn together to play Mahler. There are so many disparate elements and egos that must be harmonized simultaneously to produce a great result.

Note that Honderich invokes Mahler. He didn’t, for example, choose Beethoven, whose Pastoral Symphony might not have been as effective, though the allegro movement of that particular work might have done well as an allusion. It is called “The Thunderstorm,” and that would be an apt description of the boardroom struggles John faced once he reached the apex of his career.

In mid-2000, the younger Honderich launched a new transit paper, GTA Today, while steering the Star reasonably, responsibly, and respectably in what was perhaps the most competitive city in North American newspapering. But he felt a deep isolation from other decision makers, growing out of his determination not to sell the company’s Harlequin book publishing division (“Of all Torstar’s acquisitions, none gave Bee greater pride”). John also had frosty relations with J. Robert S. Prichard, the former University of Toronto president who became the CEO of Torstar and, in John’s mind, the potential liquidator of the paper’s legacy. Their disputes were wide-ranging, but most important were the battles over cost-cutting — the classic clash in modern news.

Eventually the Star fell to earth and found that it was, like every other news company, a business. It has happened at every newspaper, and at every one it has been a disorienting, distressing, and profoundly wounding moment. The end of every fable is wounding, especially when the fable is nurtured by grown men and women who believe, deeply and reverently, in a myth that alters their lives, animates their world views, and elevates their work, in their minds if not in others’, beyond the actuarial tables of life insurance and the mechanics of manufacturing. It remains true that, as Bee and John Honderich both discovered at the Star, there’s no business like the news business. But, as Ethel Merman sang in Annie Get Your Gun, staged a mere three-minute walk from the old West Forty-Third Street headquarters of the New York Times, there’s “the opening when your heart beats like a drum,” and then there’s “the closing when the customers won’t come.”

David Marks Shribman won a Pulitzer Prize for beat reporting in 1995. He teaches in the Max Bell School of Public Policy at McGill University.

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