My view of deposed Toronto Star publisher John Honderich, who, admittedly was publisher of Canada's most progressive daily, is coloured by the fact that he once ordered me to sell him my newspaper - "A minority piece will be fine as a start" - or his company would stop taking cash from me to print NOW Magazine. NOW had been with the same printer, Metroland, since we started, and we were proud to have gone from late payers to juicy clients during the 18-year relationship. Along the way, Honderich's company, Torstar, gobbled up our printer as it chewed its way through publishing companies across southern Ontario. But the subsidiary continued to do a great job printing NOW, and we kept giving them millions of dollars.
Until we got the call for lunch.
My business partner, Alice Klein, and I thought it nice enough that Honderich and an underling wanted to meet personally to talk about our business. We figured they wanted to discuss our desire to have our printing done in their swankier Vaughan plant.
Instead, Honderich wanted us to become one more piece of booty in his burgeoning media monopoly bag, demanding we sell him part of NOW because suddenly he didn't want to print "a competitor." (I did wonder whether he would've paid us with one of those oversized cheques he's so fond of appearing with in the Star, like a small-town bigwig dishing out charity.)
Over the years, many major media companies have courted NOW, and we have respectfully given them the thanks-but-no-thanks routine and gone our own way. Only Honderich went full-on thug with us. And he really did stop printing us. Now we're printed by the Sun (talk about strange bedfellows), which does a great job, cheaper.
But to give him his due, on John Honderich's watch, and his dad, Beland Honderich's, before him, the paper has been a drearily written champion of the little guy, impressive in its occasional stands in support of the NDP and David Miller, and gutsy enough to battle the cops and stake out a controversial - i.e., balanced - position in its Middle East coverage.
Of course, the Star also supported the disastrous creation of the megacity, the Olympics bid, a fixed link to the Toronto Islands, occasional wars and somebody called Mel Lastman. And it's all been done in the name of something called the Atkinson Principles. Torstar bosses and staffers toss around the Atkinson Principles the way North Koreans invoke Kim Il Sung's Juche theory and the Chinese cited Mao's Red Book during the Cultural Revolution.
Both Honderich and the man who deposed him, Torstar CEO Robert Prichard, claim to be acting in conformance with the Atkinson Principles, a loose commitment to "social justice" articulated by the paper's founder, Joseph E. Atkinson, in his will.
After watching Torstar swallow up newspapers from Whitby to Windsor and north to Owen Sound, I find it hard to believe that Atkinson's principles included monopoly capital. Surely, diversity of viewpoint would have been part of the progressive founding publisher's worldview. Atkinson would never have condoned the Star's attempt to snuff out or absorb all independent media within 500 miles of One Yonge Street.
Honderich and Torstar had a monumental, in-print hissy fit when their efforts to spread their media might even further were thwarted when they were denied the Toronto One TV licence.
Much is made of Honderich's early days as a "copy boy" at the Ottawa Citizen and the accompanying mythology that he worked his way up through the Star's ranks. But he's basically the Belinda Stronach of publishing, an underachiever handed the keys to the executive offices by his dad. Honderich was given the top job in the family business after an indifferent career that never saw him develop as a writer. His bylined pieces, especially his laughable correspondence with the editor of Montreal's La Presse, were usually the worst articles in a badly written paper.
Admittedly, he was one of the increasingly rare breed of publishers who actually read their papers and value what's in them.
For all his successes, Honderich's reign has featured many failures. One of the most costly saw him talk Torstar's board into sinking millions of dollars into the Starphone interactive phone system about 10 minutes before the Internet broke, making this costly, clumsy technology obsolete.
The Star suffered through a messy and ugly strike on his watch that certainly didn't reflect Atkinson's lofty pro-worker sentiments. And a strike never looks good on the manager who oversaw it.
When Sweden's Metro free paper wanted into Toronto, Honderch initially pledged to work with it and then double-crossed the Scandinavians when they attempted to go it alone. Eventually, he had to crawl back to his scorned partners, with whom he now jointly operates Metro, while his GTA Today is nothing more than a ghost of a name on a few ugly news boxes.
It would be a shame if Toronto got yet another full-on right-wing daily as a result of the coup that ousted Honderich, but surely newly undisputed ruler of the roost CEO Prichard must realize that, even from a business point of view, sticking with a progressive progam makes sense. Oh yeah, and it would be true to the Atkinson Principles.