Honderich was Star-crossed
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 31 January 2004)

Innocent readers of the Toronto Star must have found it a baffling week. Something unthinkably tragic had happened, but nobody could explain exactly why. The publisher, John Honderich, now revealed to be the most loveable and dedicated boss in Canada, had been fired by Rob Prichard, the head of the parent company and the former president of the University of Toronto.

Star people spoke as if they had suddenly been robbed of their hero and their only protector. One columnist told me he felt like weeping. If some journalists were pleased to see Honderich go (for example, union members who fought him bitterly during a strike a decade ago, and denounced him afterwards as a grudge-holder), they fell silent. In print the columnists were unanimous: A great newspaperman had been struck down in his prime by cruel, heartless executives.

Antonia Zerbisias, who writes on media, began: "The heartbreak here is palpable." Rosie DiManno, a prolific columnist, wrote that she was perplexed and angry: "And for the first time in more than 20 years at the Star, I'm ashamed of my paper." She said the Star has "a corporate boardroom where love of profit trumps love of newspapers ... What they've done to John, it sickens me." The city hall columnist, Royson James, wrote: "What's the problem? Why the need for change? I'm stumped."

So was David Olive, a financial writer, who claimed that the Star, compared with other North American papers, makes good money. More important, Honderich had maintained the Star's position during the newspaper war initiated by the Post. The Star remains the best-selling paper in Canada by far.

Some writers, in their enthusiasm, may have gone a little too far. Zerbisias said Star journalists stand with the world's best, and "have an international reputation for doing what newspapers should be doing -- comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable." If the Star has an international reputation, I've never heard of it; I'm not sure it has a reputation outside southern and eastern Ontario.

But certainly Honderich was an effective leader. When the Star was threatened by the creation of the National Post in 1998 and the board decided to spend more money on the paper, Honderich knew what to do. He expanded local news and entertainment coverage and gave more space to various commentators (who bring to Toronto every left-wing cliche in the world). In general he did precisely what the Star has always done, but did more of it and better. He responded to the visual style of the Post by enormously improving photography and design. Honderich's version of the paper usually looks (and often reads) better than the Star has in decades.

Probably he had to go because Rob Prichard wanted to put his own stamp on the paper and found Honderich an impediment. It must have been hard for Prichard to supervise someone whose father, Beland Honderich, created the modern Star and whose family owns shares in the corporation. And it must have been hard for Honderich to take Prichard, a non-journalist, seriously.

It's been suggested that Star profits have been limited by the legacy of the founder, Joseph Atkinson. All those running the place, even Prichard, make a point of solemnly pledging loyalty to the principles found in Holy Joe's will when he died in 1948. He declared that for all eternity the Star must remain fundamentally liberal, put good journalism ahead of profits, and stand up for the workers and the poor. Curiously, no one has ever asked, so far as I know, what Holy Joe would think of the pornography published by Harlequin, now the most profitable division of his old company. (Anyone who claims they don't publish pornography hasn't sampled Harlequin's Blaze line of novels.) Alas, Joe neglected to mention pornography in his will.

The Holy Joe principles probably have never deducted a nickel from the Star's share price. So far as I can tell, a large part of the population endorses the almost robotic liberalism of the Star; those who can't take its politics seriously, like me, read it for other reasons.

Whatever else it does, the change at the Star illustrates a famous maxim about the ferocity of academic infighting. It's often said that the power struggles relentlessly enacted within the universities make the toughest battles in capitalism and government look like garden parties at Buckingham Palace. That notion has always seemed exaggerated to me, and in any case unproven. But in future those setting it forth will be able to cite the case of Rob Prichard.

He went through a decade of political and financial struggles as president of the University of Toronto and then moved to the corporation that owned the biggest newspaper in Canada. There he took on an opponent who not only had decades of experience in the meanest kind of newspaper politics but the name Honderich as well. And after just two and a half years in his new job, the university president, having earned his battle stripes in what The Globe and Mail this week naively and anachronistically called "the ivory towers of academe," emerged triumphant.

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