BRIGHT NOVEMBER SUNSHINE SHONE through the windows in John Honderich’s corner office the day after his fifth anniversary as editor of The Toronto Star. He relaxed in his swivel chair, hands clasped behind his head, and talked about the last five years, a half-decade marred by economic and personnel catastrophes that would curl the hair of even the most resilient of leaders. But Honderich’s smoothed brown hair parted cleanly to the right, and his trademark bow-tie, today red and navy checked, sat balanced at the base of his neck. Calm and cordial in the quiet of his west-wing office, he didn’t appear beset by many problems.
Well, not too many.
There was the small problem of money.
The newspaper division of Torstar, the Star’s parent company, had registered a $28.6-million loss in 1993, and the much heralded shiny new printing plant was eating up money with start-up problems and massive overtime nobody budgeted for.
Then there was the aftermath of June 1992’s five-week strike: bitter, disillusioned employees, strained management-staff relations, and 22 months of layoffs and buyouts that left 360 demoralized editorial people to do the work 435 used to do.
Just down the hall and around the corner from Honderich’s office, the misery in the newsroom was hard to miss.
And now I sat on the couch in his office levelling criticism at the Star. I was saying that in two months of interviews, his staff and former staff had called the paper flat, predictable, and gutless. But more importantly, they’d said the crusading nature on which the paper was founded and thrived has been lost under his leadership. The Toronto Star, a paper that had championed the underdog since the turn of the century, no longer fights for the little people.
But Honderich seems undisturbed. He is only mildly challenged when I ask him to spell out his vision for the paper. “That’s an interesting question,” he says, raising his eyebrows briefly. “Well, the vision of the paper keeps on evolving, but the fundamental vision is to be a mainstream, broadsheet, authoritative, all-purpose newspaper for the readers of this city. We are a paper of the people and for the people that talks about people.”
He is similarly self-assured when I ask how he’s coping with morale problems. “It’s an ongoing process of communication,” he says evenly. “I don’t think there’s any magic formula. I go and meet with people, have them hear me out, and explain where we are and what’s happening. I tell them how I feel about things and where I see the paper going.”
Many of those same people think the place is falling apart, but the idea of the Star in eclipse seems to engage Honderich. He helps me on with my coat, then opens his office door and walks out behind me.
“Soooooo…’The Decline of the Star,'” he teases, his voice edged with the hint of a challenge. “Is it more complicated now?” I turned around to face him. “It’s a big task you’ve taken on,” he continues. “There are no easy answers.”
No, but there were thoughtful answers from his critics, and an hour talking with this consciously charming man didn’t complicate laying the blame for the falling Star squarely on his shoulders.
But he wasn’t really waiting for my response. Already John Honderich was striding down the hall, heading into the newsroom to try to communicate his vision of the paper to a staff adrift after five years of working under him appears to be wanting as a leader, it is in part because of the long shadow cast by the editors who went before him: Joseph Atkinson, Harry Hindmarsh, and Honderich’s own father, Beland. The Star’s crusading editors have never had any trouble saying what the paper stood for.
In 1899 Joseph Atkinson took over what was then The Evening Star, a newspaper that began as the strike-sheet for 21 printers locked out of The Toronto News. His paper crusaded for social reform, devoting biting editorials and entire pages of the paper over months to championing the social legislation we take for granted today: public housing, mother’s allowance, unemployment insurance, workmen’s compensation, and higher taxes for the rich, to name a few. The Star’s constituency was what Atkinson called “the little people,” first and foremost, the labourer. When only 249,000 of Canada’s 1.8-million workers were unionized, Atkinson’s Star, virtually alone among the country’s capitalist-owned papers, backed their right to organize.
Harry Comfort Hindmarsh, Atkinson’s managing editor and eventual successor, put the razzle-dazzle in his crusades. Hindmarsh perfected the paper’s most bizarre news gathering technique, adapting an approach to stories invented by Atkinson that became a Star trademark. When a big story happened, Hindmarsh would empty the newsroom: flocks of Star men would swoop down on an event or a politician like Hitchcock’s birds descending on Tippi Hedren. In 1939, for instance, more than 70 Star reporters and photographers converged on the Royal Tour. “It was said that Their Majesties were never out of the sight of a man from The Toronto Star,” wrote Pierre Berton in his 1952 Maclean’s profile of the Star, “The Greatest Show on Earth.” Hindmarsh didn’t concern himself much with the little stories that filled the daily paper: what counted was clobbering the competition on the big stories. The razzle-dazzle disappeared when Beland Honderich took over from Hindmarsh as editor in 1956. He was no less a leader than his predecessors and the zest for crusades stayed very much alive, but he was reserved by nature and his approach to the news was completely different. No hype, no flash: just every single fact of the story, plus context and analysis, in words the average reader would understand. The writers were instructed to write for “my barber.” In the 12-hour day Honderich regularly spent at the paper, he would ensure down to the cutlines that his vision was being carried out, driving his staff mad in the process.
Decked out in his characteristic dark or grey pinstriped suit and vest, he only had to be in the newsroom to set people shaking. Known by the staff without any hint of humour or fondness as “The Beast,” Honderich read everything, questioned everything, and was satisfied with little. He didn’t make small talk, didn’t make friends, and made no pretence of democracy. Staff engaged in a frantic tap dance to please him, rarely succeeding.
But the paper itself did succeed, surprising those who thought the bland version of what was once a lively publication would lose circulation, especially since The Toronto Telegram was still kicking. But Star circulation rose, profits skyrocketed, and the T ely gasped a last breath in 1971. In part, the writers were the catalyst behind the Star’s popularity. If Hindmarsh had his Fred Griffens, Lou Marshes, and Jimmy Frises, Honderich had what some have called the finest collection of journalists to congregate on a Canadian newspaper, including Pierre Berton, Ron Haggart, Bob Reguly, and Robert Fulford. Legendary Maclean’s editor Ralph Allen worked behind the scenes, and a body of exceptional reporters like John Brehl and Ray Timson filled out the newsroom. Honderich picked great talent, but he didn’t know how to leave them alone. Few lasted: they grew tired of writing and editing for the barber.
Early in his editorship, Honderich solicited a pack of market surveys that told him two things: Toronto was becoming a middle-class, service-oriented city instead of a blue-collar, industrial one; and the paper should focus on its primary market. Out into the newsroom Honderich went, holding monthly meetings with editors to detail the new direction of the paper. He told them to cover more middle-class topics and follow his First Commandment: Every story in the Star should answer the question, ‘What does it mean to Metro?’ Editors bent and twisted stories to find the Toronto angle, no matter how far-fetched. “World’s End Snarls Metro Traffic” would surely be the Star’s final headline, wrote Walter Stewart in Canadian Newsrooms: The Inside Story.
But while the paper shifted direction, the fundamentals Honderich inherited from Atkinson and Hindmarsh stayed the same: standing up for the little guy. In the mid-eighties, for instance, the crusade was to defeat free trade. Around 1985, a Mulroney government document was leaked to the Star that said the public should be “sold” on the Free Trade Agreement and kept in the dark about its consequences. Honderich, now publisher and editor, unleashed the dogs, subjecting every cranny of the deal to analysis the government didn’t want. Cries of bias and propaganda journalism rang out from press critics and Conservative politicians as a barrage of anti-free trade articles filled the paper every day for months. Honderich was remorseless. “You cannot publish a newspaper without making value judgments on what news you select to publish and how you present it in the paper,” he told a Carleton University graduating class in 1989. “These value judgments reflect a view of society-a point of view-that carries as much weight, if not more, than what is said on the editorial pages.”
But such a weight of certainty is hard to carry, and as Honderich approached his 60th birthday in the late 1970s, only one man at the Star seemed equal to the burden: Martin Wise Goodman, his anointed successor. Writing about Marty Goodman is like summing up God-impossible to do in a few lines. Energy, ambition, brilliance: all are synonymous with the fiercely driven newsman, said to be the only man able to win an argument with “The Beast.” If some judge John Honderich’s editorship harshly, it may be because the ghost of Marty Goodman lingers. Goodman died at 46 of pancreatic cancer, leaving all too many mourners wondering how the “Goodman era” might have played at the Star. More than 1,000 people attended his funeral in December 1981, including the lieutenant-governor, the premier, the mayor of Toronto, and seemingly every journalist of note in the country. In the background of the black-and-white photo the Star carried of his pallbearers, Beland Honderich’s face stands out. He looks all of his 63 years, straining to hold up his corner of the casket, the effort etched into the folds of his face.
GREAT LEADERS ARE RARE. BELAND Honderich groomed one man to take the reins of the paper, and now he had a hole impossible to fill. So he stayed on as publisher for seven more years, and the editor’s position remained empty until 1988 when his oldest son, John, took the helm. John Honderich is not like his father. This is something he would want you to know. He has spent half of his 47 years carving out a name for himself in an industry where his last name is famous. He does not define himself in terms of someone else-certainly not in terms of his father. By the time he became editor, Honderich had a reputation as a respected newsman who had stubbornly refused to ride Beland’s pinstriped coattails. His vow to stay as far away from journalism ended in his mid-20s after he acquired a law degree at the University of Toronto. What he called a suppressed “hankering for journalism” asserted itself and he headed straight for The Ottawa Citizen in 1973, the same year he was called to the bar.
On April Fools’ Day he started at the bottom-overnight copyboy for $83 a week-but he didn’t stay there for long. In a few months he was writing a series of front-page investigative features. In 1977, he could hold fate at bay no longer and came to the Star. He was hired, apparently without his father’s knowledge, as the economics reporter for the Ottawa bureau. Three years later, he was the bureau chief. The following year, Washington bureau chief. Deputy city editor in 1982, business editor from ’84 to ’86, then editorial page editor in September 1987 after taking a year off to write Arctic Imperative, a book about sovereignty issues in Canada’s north. John Honderich had paid his dues and in the beginning people who worked under him respected him.
The publication he inherited in 1988 was Canada’s largest-selling newspaper, its 522,000 circulation outdistancing its rivals, The Globe and Mail (318,000) and The Toronto Sun (306,000). Torstar had made operating profits of $133 million in 1987 and $139 million in 1988.
The paper’s main agenda didn’t change much over the first three years. Beland Honderich still exerted influence as Torstar’s chairman of the board, and the paper continued to lash out against free trade. Most of the front page would often be given to commentary, analysis, charts, and graphs geared towards telling people how this agreement would affect their lives.
But inside the newsroom, some things had changed. The differences between John and his father were immediately clear to the staff when he took over the paper. For one thing, he actually talked to them. His towering six-foot-two form, complete with characteristic ear-to-ear grin, became a fixture in the newsroom; he made friends where his father had at best made acquaintances. Friendly, outgoing, enthusiastic, John Honderich was not The Beast Jr.
In the early nineties, the paper continued to make money, albeit less money than it had in the eighties-$108.6 million in 1990 and $84.3 million in 1991. Circulation was dropping, but it was dropping at every newspaper in the country. No matter: the exciting process of building the most sophisticated printing plant in the country was underway at what was then an affordable $420 million, and Honderich was flying to newspapers all over the U.S. to get ideas for the redesign of the paper.
The bottom began to fall out under Honderich on June 8,1992. At 6:01 p.m., the guild took to the picket lines to protest contracting out delivery, a move that would put 92 permanent employees out of a job. The pressmen, a separate union, had already settled a contract and continued to work all but one day of the five week-long strike, in which management’s actions against its employees would have had Joseph Atkinson rolling in his grave. Throughout June, 22 management types laid out flimsy editions of the paper once a day and with the pressmen crossing the picket line, the union had little leverage. The high point, or the low point, depending on how one looks at it, came the night of June 26. The next day, for the first time in the paper’s history, in its centennial year, The Toronto Star didn’t publish.
By this point the issues had changed. Contracting out seemed inevitable. Now the union was fighting back-to-work protocol, specifically management’s refusal to offer retroactive pay and its insistence on the right to discipline employees who had vandalized company property. Then, early in the day, the Star fired 12 people for acts of damage to company property.
That night more than 300 employees walked in a circle in front of the Star building. Somebody brought a book of old union songs and began to sing. The pressmen gathered across the street. Nobody crossed the line. No paper was printed.
Before the strike was over, management gave the 12 employees their jobs back. In the end, property damages were tallied at $100,000. The damage to morale was harder to quantify. Almost two years later, Honderich is still among the targets of a vast residue of strike-related bitterness.
“Before the strike, everybody thought, John’s on the side of the paper, John knows what he’s doing, he’s had some newspaper experience, et cetera, says one staffer. But during the strike, perceptions changed. The staff knew he was in a bad position. “Yes, at the time, he had no choice but to be on management’s side,” but, he adds, “it’s common knowledge he threw himself into his role with some zeal, and in the process forfeited a great deal of goodwill he will never get back.”
“With some zeal” is defined in different ways. In the first weeks of the strike, Honderich often went down to the picket lines to talk to people he considered friends. Some remember being told not to worry, me paper was fine. Honderich may have been trying to reassure people, but they wound up feeling generally dispensable and hopeless about the amount of leverage they had in negotiations. Others still feel betrayed because Honderich said no action would be taken against the strikers-and then 12 people were fired.
“That decision was made elsewhere and I’m not going to comment on it,” Honderich says grimly. “I was not aware of the firings. I had no prior knowledge. I was not actively involved in negotiations. Basically the fundamental role I played was getting the paper out [during the strike]. It wasn’t with any sense of joy.”
Other staffers were angered by Star editorials they felt unfairly painted them as violent and abusive, and the selection of letters to the editor mat overwhelmingly supported management. “Twenty-two million people in the country,” says one reporter, “and they all thought we were scumbags? We were saving jobs and fighting for what we believed in. Now what’s left are a bunch of cynical, embittered people who are thinking about banking as a career.”
Honderich nurses his own wounds.”1 used to talk to people on the picket lines, and then I discovered that what was said was taken out of context and put in news releases and ended up on radio broadcasts. When you get betrayed like I got betrayed, several times, you discover it’s a very unreal situation. But I never showed any hostility towards the people. I never saw the workers as demons-quite the contrary.” Almost two years later, the realities of the strike have ascended into folkloreeverybody has a version of who did what to whom. But management and staff agree on one thing: the strike was a watershed for The Toronto Star. To the employees, management’s actions against them contradicted everything the paper ever stood for: its crusade for fairness and fighting for the labourer. The ways in which this disillusionment has manifested itself in the pages of the paper are difficult to measure, but one thing is sure: if the climate has markedly changed inside the newsroom, it pales in comparison to the degree to which the newspaper itself has changed.
THE SLIMMER TORONTO STAR THAT ROLLS off the new presses today looks brighter, weighs less, and sports a pretty blue masthead. But it reads as a mishmash of stories with all the energy of wet toast. “Nobody ever says, ‘My god, did you see that thing in the Star yesterday?'” says Robert Fulford, whose books column was sometimes the best writing in the paper in the sixties. “The writing is not only predictable, it’s for the most part colourless, decaffeinated, homogenized writing.”
Why it reads like this is open to debate, although economics must playa role. Profits have been sliding at the newspaper division of Torstar since 1990. More than 800 jobs have been axed company-wide and Honderich can no longer deploy hordes of reporters on one story. There is less money to cover the news, and the cutbacks that are a by-product of the recession are helping suck the lifeblood from the paper. So is the strike hangover manifested in reporters and editors now less than enthusiastic about their jobs.
But a deficit and hurt feelings alone cannot account for the freefall in the quality of journalism that characterizes today’s Star: What’s missing is a voice from the comer office with a powerful social conscience that says this is the way the Star will tackle the world.
It’s not that there’s a lack of crusade fodder out there: the NDP government continues to shove a carved-in-stone agenda for three Ontario mega-dumps down the public’s throat, and more people are begging on the streets of Toronto than most can remember. Nationally, social programs have been hacked away, Canadian troops idle in Bosnia, and Preston Manning and his anti-immigration, anti-choice policies have wormed their way into the Houseall the kinds of issues the editors of yesteryear liked to wrangle with.
But Honderich believes his paper does battle with issues that concern his constituency. “We’ve spent time on welfare reform, we’ve assigned a health policy reporter to look at medicare. In terms of crusading, we’ve crusaded for an alternative economic strategy.”
He’s tight-but you have to go digging through a scattering of unconnected stories and short editorials to find it. An unfocussed presentation and a flabby editorial page don’t make a crusade. A stand on the issues, complete with strongly voiced ideas on changing the system, is missing. John Miller, chairman of Ryerson’s School of Journalism, who was senior deputy managing editor at the Star from 1981 to 1986, says the ghost of Joseph Atkinson only briefly threatens to materialize today. There is the odd half-hearted attempt to fight for the little guy, Miller says. Someone about to be deported and facing death in a Third World country still gets some space in the paper, and sometimes, with pressure attributable to the Star, he gets to stay in Canada. “But they treat these kinds of stories like a one-shot thing, as a sort of oddity. They’re dealing with the symptoms, they’re not dealing with the cause. They’re not taking an editorial stand saying we’ve got to change the immigration system this way. It’s not crusading on those things anymore. It’s not crusading about anything.”
But Hondetich insists that Atkinson’s ideals and strategies live on. “We have a definite editorial point of view and that is often reflected in the stories we highlight. I think we’re a paper with a personality. Joseph Atkinson spoke for and represented certain values and there’s been an evolution in his mission, but the idea of being lively, of being controversial, of standing for certain things, that part has stayed the same.”
However, hammering away at the issues, says Honderich, is more difficult now because “with TV, people look to newspapers for certain things, not to get the fundamental facts, so that has changed our focus.” Perhaps the trouble is that this new focus seems to be clear to few but Honderich. The people responsible for writing and editing the paper every day seem to have nary a clue about the goals of the paper under him.
“What is our mission now? Well,” says investigative reporter Kevin Donovan doubtfully, “I think my city editor thinks we should concentrate on the big stories. I think Honderich would probably agree with that. I bet you haven’t had a good answer to that question,” he says hesitantly. “Who defines the mission?”
If Donovan’s response was the exception, it wouldn’t be worth mentioning. The emphasis on cosmetics escapes no one. But, says assistant entertainment editor Joe Fox, “Any decisions about the content of the paper have been neutralized by emphasis on changing the way the paper looks. I don’t see any new vision for news coverage, except we’re supposed to be upbeat and emphasize glimmers of hope for the recession.”
The mission question throws off people higher up, including the second-in-command, managing editor Lou Clancy. He heads a company-wide communications committee started last June for the purpose, he says, of examining the objectives of the paper. “There was a desire that we restate the editorial and community goals of this newspaper. Is Joseph Atkinson still valid? What is the vision? We went through a bad recession and layoffs and you start thinking what are we as a newspaper and what do we want to do?”
Former deputy city editor Kelly Toughill, who returned to the Queen’s Park Bureau after three months on the desk last fall, isn’t any more certain about the paper’s direction, but she knows what she’d like to see. “The paper has a long tradition of concentrating on issues of important social policy. We need to get back to that. I don’t think the Star has abandoned its mission, and I think the people at the top are still committed to it, but there’s been some confusion.”
A veteran staffer delineates the muddle: “There’s a sort of an inarticulate all things-to-all-people approach. It leaves the paper with no particular direction and it leaves the people doing their jobs, whatever that means, in an episodic fashion.”
AN EVERYTHING-TO-EVERYBODY APPROACH isn’t new at the Star, although it’s a particularly dangerous tactic for a Toronto paper to adopt in the nineties. Revenues are dropping at the three newspapers Toronto used to ably support. Unlike the Star, the Sun and the Globe have cornered their markets, the Sun netting those who like their news sensational and littered with sex and crime, and the Globe grabbing the right-wing, upper middle class by its white collar. The Star, however, is still flailing about, battling to draw the ever-elusive majority by targeting nobody specific. “We are a mass-circulation newspaper,” says Honderich. “We attempt to cater to as many interests as possible, as many needs as possible. We aim for cross-appeal, across a whole audience.”
In part, the Star’s formula to attract everybody is simple: do not make anybody mad. Stick with the conventional good paper-getting-the-bad-guy kinds of stories, and buckle under to the all-powerful political correctness that permeates the nineties. Ironically, the predictable, flat journalism that results from what one reporter calls this “cover-your-ass” culture neutralizes potentially interesting stories. Take the Star’s ongoing coverage of the Teale/Homolka publication ban; almost every story ends by reminding the reader that the Star is challenging the ban through the legal system. It’s safe in the courts. Apparently it’s not safe in the pages of the paper. Star ombudsman Don Sellar doesn’t favour breaking the law, but the ways in which the paper could make a mockery of the ban put an impish smile on his face. “Let’s print The Washington Post and Buffalo News stories on the front page, but black out the parts that break the ban,” he suggested in a column. According to Sellar, the editorial board’s response was, well, subdued. “They think I’m a radical,” Sellar explains. A similar response greeted an editor’s idea for a story about the myth that Chinese people are the worst drivers. “The editors said, ‘Oh god, that’s just about as bloody racist as you could come,'” says one reporter. “The Star say there are differences between people? Hah! There are so many questions you can’t ask and so many stories that can’t be written for The Toronto Star.”
“Afraid of controversy? Amazing,” Honde rich says, shaking his head incredulously. “We’ve probably got more libel suits than anyone. The people who say this don’t read the paper very carefully.” He throws out two high-profile stories as examples: an investigation of the city’s Pizza Pizza fast-food chain, and the police strip-search of Jamaican Audrey Smith. “Are those controversial stories?” Honde rich continues. “Has any reporter brought forward a story that we’ve been afraid to run? I defy you to bring one forward. The police chief hates us. No other paper in town has the courage to do that.”
And, argues Lou Clancy, people pointing fingers at the Star for skirting controversial social issue stories aren’t always looking in the right place. It’s not the Asection but the Life section that harbours the hard-hitting social issues, he says, grabbing a copy of the day’s Life section off a table in his office.
“Okay, so today’s cover is about Halloween and candy,” he says with a level stare. That’s natural, three days before the end of October. But the rest of the week’s Life section doesn’t hold up much better. Monday’s two cover stories are “The 90s Nun” and “The Doggy Day Care Centre Is Filled with Barks of Delight.” Tuesday’s cover profile of figure skater Elvis Stojko has no apparent hook. Michele Landsberg is the one crusader in the Life section that week: one column Tory-bashes following the election, another calls for stronger child-support laws.
Predictable, sometimes silly topics are further compromised by writing styles that give stories all the spark of a wet firecracker. Rarely is the reader engaged by the tone and style of a piece, or surprised to learn something new. Beland Honderich’s legacy of discouraging creative flair may be partly responsible, although his son would like to see more “wordsmiths” in the paper like Joey Slinger (on a year’s leave), Richard Gwyn, and Rosie DiManno. “There is no ideal Star writing,” he says firmly. “When you’re a broadsheet you have all kinds of writing.”
But if more style is being encouraged by Honderich, again it’s difficult to see in the pages of the paper. What is easier to see is how information derived from market research is commonly used to make stories duller to read than watching The Weather Network.
For 80 years, the Star’s editors have looked at the world and told readers what they thought was important for them to know. Today, the masses are surveyed for ideas. Give the readers what they want is the new commandment, or at least what readers and nonreaders said they wanted in research commissioned by the Star from Goldfarb Consultants in Toronto and Minneapolis-based MORI research in 1991. Apparently, what people want most is to see their lives reflected in the paper. There’s my life mirrored in the 20s spread of the six-part Stages of Women series, published in early winter, a single female trying to carve out a career, a relationship, unsure of the future, et ceterayawn. A sidebar details sexually transmitted diseases that only a twenty-something buried in ice for a decade wouldn’t have known since Grade 10 health class. In the next instalment, thirty-somethings balance career and family; then forty-somethings grapple with career, family, and menopause. Spoon-feeding readers images of their own lives results in uninspired stories with little new information.
SITTING IN THE WARM, MUSTY DEN THAT is McVeigh’s Irish Pub, John Brehl, Gerry Hall, Mel Morris, and Lew Gloin, with more than a century of years at the Star among them, have little good to say about the paper, although the regular Thursday get-together starts off well.
“Your Cheatin Heart” plays in the background as they sit drinking pints of Smithwick’s and pulling out memories of razzle dazzle days. Asking how the paper today stacks up against the paper they worked for guarantees a change of atmosphere. “Oh god, a lot’s been lost,” says Lew Gloin, digging into his steak pie. “Good writing and good editing for a start.”
The Star is a difficult subject. They all harbour a sort of patriotism towards the paper and, despite their criticisms, they sympathize with the problems of running a newspaper in the nineties. Editors now are at the mercy of the bottom line, and the role a daily plays in the world is less clear now than it was in Atkinson’s day.
“Atkinson had causes and he took them seriously,” says Gerry Hall. “He used the front page to keep pushing them out. Atkinson would never have stood by while these homeless people slept on the streets. He would have taken on the city councillors one by one until something changed. But I don’t know anyone who would take it that far today. Maybe it’s not possible.” However, that the world has changed, they say, is no excuse for insipid columnists, pathetic city politics coverage, and news judgment that frequently means fluffy front-page pictures and stories. For the most part, the men are lost to explain why the paper they’ve given much of their working lives to fails miserably at what it once did well. Something fundamental to running a newspaper seems to be missing, says former editor Mel Morris. “I think they’ve lost their energy, their sense of mission. I don’t think they know where they’re going.”
It’s difficult to compare John Honderich with his father, says Gloin, who freelances a “Words” column for The Saturday Star. “They’re very different people.” But, he says carefully, “I don’t think John is the guiding light. He doesn’t seem to have the same single-minded set of convictions his father had. Beland Honderich was like one of the prophets from the Old Testament.”
HOVERING BESIDE AN OVERHEAD projector and an ominously large stack of transparencies, John Honderich is looking decidedly unbiblical. He has agreed to lecture 23 graduate students in an advanced editing class at Ryerson’s School of Journalism on exactly how the redesign, which has taken chunks of time and energy from virtually every editor and reporter in the newsroom for three years, came into being. The redesign is a favourite and familiar subject for Honderich, but even so, he isn’t on solid ground in the grey, windowless classroom. Almost every student is under 30-not an age group Honderich has a lot of experience dealing with lately. The internship program that once brought in about 15 fresh faces every Aptil was cut last year. Layoffs have taken almost all the younger full-time people without seniority out of the newsroom, leaving what one reporter calls “the middle-aged and the burnt out.” This group is anything but, and having spent the class before examining the redesign (the verdict: unimpressed), is curious to hear the rationale behind why the paper has devoted most of its financial and human resources to cosmetic change. The idea behind the redesign, Honderich begins, was to change the paper in ways that would draw in new readers. Goldfarb and MORI surveyed innumerable faceless people. According to the never-ending series of charts and graphs Honderich displays on the transparencies, they wanted, among other things, an easier-to-handle paper they can read on the subway. More crime coverage, said some (they got it). Others wanted more indepth analysis, although they were at loggerheads with those who wanted a quick easy read.
“And we asked them, if you had a go at this Star, what would your priority be? There’s the answer,” said Honderich. “The majority said format or appearance of the Star would be their number one issue, content second, editorial stance third, reporting style fourth.”
The numbed class eyed him with renewed skepticism. After all, the idea is to read a newspaper. Those people in the surveys obviously never went to journalism school where a newspaper’s aesthetic value places behind its content. Some “superb” prototypes for new local sections and a youth section had emerged from the research, but, Honderich explained, they’ve been temporarily dumped because money is tight.
A hand went up. “Yes?”
The student spoke quietly, going a bit red in the face. Posing this question to the editor of Canada’s largest newspaper is difficult. Perhaps it will seem impertinent. “With all the money and the entire editorial staff involved in the redesign, you have to wonder where the Star’s priorities are.” John Honderich laughed sharply.
“That’s another issue,” he said. “We’re now in the fourth year of an awful recession. Our advertising revenues have declined by $120 million.” In the tidy summary of the impact of the recession that follows there isn’t a discernible direct answer to the question. For sure, he mentions nothing about crusades to tight social wrongs.
The next question is more difficult to dodge. “If declining ad revenues force Toronto to go to two papers,” a student asks, “which two do you think it will be?”
“I won’t say,” says Honderich. People looked surprised. “It’ll be the Globe and someone else, that’s all I’ll say.”