Joseph E. Atkinson

Bob Brehl: Holy Joe’s principles worth preserving

  • June 4, 2020

It was sad news to see the once dominant Toronto Star sold for a mere pittance of $52 million. Only 16 years ago, Torstar Corp., the parent company of the newspaper, was trading above $30 a share and worth about $2.4 billion.

But like all newspapers, the Star fell victim to the digital age where more and more people get their news on their phones and iPads, often for free. And advertisers follow eyeballs so the likes of Facebook, Google and others easily scooped up print advertising dollars.

Of course, the Star inflicted wounds upon itself, too, with bad strategic moves in the digital era that wasted hundreds of millions of dollars. When revenues shrink, squandering money speeds up the downward spiral. The pandemic didn’t help, either.

New owners Jordan Bitove and Paul Rivett say they’ll give it a go and even adhere to the fabled “Atkinson Principles” of a crusading social activist newspaper that the Star promoted itself as for decades.

Whether one liked the Star’s left-of-centre campaigning or not, it’s always nice to have various perspectives in the marketplace. It’s difficult to believe a couple of Bay Street money guys and their backers will continue along the same vein as Joseph E. Atkinson. Maybe. Unlikely.

Which brings me to another reason the sale is disappointing: personal nostalgia.

My dad started work in the old Star newsroom on Adelaide Street just months before Joseph Atkinson died in 1948. Dad carved out a terrific 45-year career at the Star — and raised, along with Mom, seven children on his single income. We weren’t wealthy, but we were never hungry and happy a lot of the time.

Nicknamed “Holy Joe” for his progressive fights against poverty and discrimination, and his battles for universal health care and workers’ rights, Atkinson was often labeled a socialist, even a communist, by his business contemporaries.

“He was neither,” wrote former Torstar Chairman Beland Honderich in a front page story Dec. 13, 1999 on the 100th anniversary of “Holy Joe” being made editor and publisher of the Star. “He saw defects in the capitalist system but acknowledged in an editorial that it was ‘the best industrial system yet devised’.”

Beland, who died in 2005, is the father of John Honderich, Torstar chair at the time of the sale.

“Holy Joe’s” principles have a Christian tinge to them: help others, love thy neighbour, lend a hand.

“Religion played an important part in his life,” Honderich wrote. “His mother was caught up in the fellowship of the Methodist Church, which soon would be advocating radical change in the capitalist system. Later, in defending himself against business criticism, he would say the reforms he advocated were not as radical as those proposed by the Church.”

Over the years, Star crusades have diverged from Christian doctrines on various topics like abortion, same-sex marriage and euthanasia. I wonder, if he were around today, whether “Holy Joe” would approve or not?

The other piece of nostalgia comes from within. I worked almost 15 years at the Star. I was young and I was fortunate. I got to be in Fort Simpson when Pope John Paul II was there; I travelled around Europe with former premier David Peterson on a trade mission; I spent two weeks in Nicaragua near the end of the war against the U.S.-backed Contra rebels; I covered Blue Jays playoff games and met my idol, Jack Nicklaus. All thanks to the Star.

I have lifelong friends from working there. I learned so much from true journalism professionals. While I didn’t always agree with the Star’s leftist political leanings, I made the most of my time there.

When he died, Atkinson left control of the company in a charity. But a decade later, the Tory Ontario government — often a punching bag for the Liberal-leaning Star — ruled charities could not own businesses.

Atkinson’s heirs and four senior executives, with Beland Honderich as the linchpin, set up a voting trust and bought control of the flagship Toronto Star for $25.6 million.

Through voting and non-voting shares, the five families controlled the company for 62 years with most of the time the company being a cash-generating machine. And over the years, the five families scoffed at lucrative offers from the likes of Ted Rogers and Prem Watsa, a financier the media called “Canada’s Warren Buffett.” He has strong links with the new owners.

And that’s one more reason for melancholy: Hubris of the five controlling families and the impact on the hundreds of families of employees of the Star. Had the families handed over the reins sooner, maybe all would have been better off — owners and employees.

Agree or disagree with the Star’s politics, it’s been important to Toronto, and its social, cultural and political development, for almost 130 years. Let’s hope it isn’t silenced or its voice changes too much.

(Brehl is a writer and author of many books.)

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