When stock price drives management change at a newspaper – journalists, prick up your ears. In the aftermath of Toronto Star Publisher John Honderich’s resignation over the now famous “corporate desire for change” there remains a creeping cynicism over Torstar CEO Rob Prichard.
In the 1990s, as president of the University of Toronto, Prichard was the billion-dollar fundraiser, but many students recall him differently. In 1997, Prichard gave George Bush, Sr. an honorary degree amid rumours that it was a fundraising favour. Thirty professors walked out of the ceremony, while 4,000 students protested outside. Later that year, Prichard silenced an orientation concert by the band Wide Mouth Mason because it was interrupting a speech by the president of the TD Bank, announcing a new student banking service.
In 1998, when pharmaceutical giant Apotex threatened to sue medical researcher Dr. Nancy Olivieri for publishing her concerns about the pediatric drug trials of deferiprone, Prichard was notably slow to her defense. Later, an inquiry criticized the university’s failure to provide legal or moral support for Olivieri. The next year, when Apotex threatened to reduce a promised $20 million donation to U of T, Prichard lobbied then prime minister Jean Chrétien for a policy change on drug patents – an appeal he made on university letterhead.
I remember Richard’s tenure as one of desperate protests – both public and among friends – on behalf of academic freedom. The underlying questions were always “What is a university essentially for?” and “How should that purpose translate into priorities?” At U of T, he answered the students with unprecedented tuition hikes and an air of corporate encroachment.
I wonder how he will answer the same kind of questions at Torstar. Newspapers, like universities, need autonomy. And what is most disquieting is the fear that Richard will not vigilantly defend that autonomy. Honderich, whose leadership we skewered in a cover story 10 years ago (Spring 1994), has kept Canada’s largest daily strong and successful through the newspaper wars. But he was unwilling to make sweeping cuts that would push the return on investment up from around 15 per cent to the Torstar board’s desired 20. That five per cent difference means the balance between shareholder’s interests and editorial integrity will likely shift perceptibly.
Once again, Honderich finds himself on our cover. And the future of The Toronto Star becomes the subtext for our special editorial section, “Crusades, Convergence and Cutbacks.” Now it’s up to incoming publisher Michael Goldbloom to him to defend the Atkinson principles, which govern the Star’s mandate of socially relevant, progressive journalism. We’ll all be a bit more cynical if Goldbloom aligns himself with Prich ard, whose position has more to do with dollars than sense.