I came to the Toronto Star for their crusades. Then came ‘The star springs into action!’

I came to the Toronto Star for their crusades.  Then came ‘The star springs into action!’

Like so many Torontonians, I had to choose: Star or Globe?

Not which newspaper to read. Which one to write for?

Both major dailies offered me a job fresh out of college, armed only with an economics degree. I did the sums.

I could write for the gray Globe with its business-oriented readership and intellectual pretensions.

Or join the broader Toronto Star crusade that crossed divisions of class and color, origin and orientation, religion and education.

I chose the Star and the magic of its demographic reach, which made it the biggest and best newspaper in the business. Even if it wasn’t always better on the business side of newspaper publishing.

All these years later, to mark the 130th anniversary of the Star, I have been asked to tell how the arc of a writer’s journey has coincided with the narrative of this newspaper. It’s a truism that journalists should stay out of the story, but Star has been the story of my life, as a reporter, editorialist, foreign correspondent, foreign editor, and now a political columnist.

I joined in the 1980s (I missed the 1890s founding). The editors wanted to know what I learned along the way, not just writing for the Star, but seeing it in action.

As in “The star springs into action!”

That boastful headline, heralding the biggest stories on the paper’s front page, was dreamed up a decade ago by one of the Star’s most famous editors, Michael Cooke. All the writers (including me) enjoyed those words in their work, because “Star gets action” captured the paper’s creed of fighting injustice while setting the agenda for change.

But beyond the big scoops, this newspaper led the way with a different kind of campaign, of tolerance, which seemed to me, from the beginning, to be at the forefront. Today, that anonymous effort is largely forgotten, so let me tell you what I discovered when I walked into the cavernous newsroom at 1 Yonge St.

First, you must understand its unrivaled dominance of Canada’s most competitive media market: the largest city in the wealthiest provinces. Legendary publisher Beland “Bee” Honderich understood the importance of knowing his audience; He pored over endless reader surveys to understand what his nearly one million paying customers (twice as many readers) thought they wanted every Saturday beyond TV listings and sports scores.

He not only told readers what Dear to know. He insisted on giving readers what necessary to know.

Bee not only pointed out the problems, but he pointed out the solutions that people had to listen to. When I wrote about welfare recipients struggling to make ends meet (the government numbers didn’t add up), he insisted that promotional posters be placed on the Star’s fleet of delivery trucks and on all of its newspaper boxes that week. .

Honestly, he doesn’t sell newspapers with hardship stories. But Honderich wasn’t just selling newspapers to readers, he was selling ideas to readers.

That’s why he mandated the creation of a “community relations” beat, a clunky term in today’s terminology, but groundbreaking for its time. Honderich wanted to showcase the stories of racial or religious minorities that would otherwise be smeared in police reports, misrepresented in the media, and stereotyped in the pages of his own newspaper.

Few editors listened or paid attention to them in those days, but The Star also hired some of the best voices at the time (including pioneering black journalists like Royson James and Hamlin Grange). Years later, The Star continued that tradition by exposing systemic police racism through the controversial practice of “carding” that profiled Black youth.

That’s not to say that the paper had an impeccable record on diversity issues, just that it had the foresight, and was one of the first, to report on insidious forms of religious and racial discrimination long before identity politics became mainstream. a topic of conversation. Or a point of sale.

Blessed with an enviable advertising base, the newspaper could afford to be introspective. And protector of the newsroom when powerful clients weighed in on other issues.

As a rookie reporter, I witnessed the horrific fall of a child from an oversized float in the Eaton Santa Parade when it became entangled in overhead wires. A big shot from our biggest advertiser personally descended on the newsroom to suppress the story, but the editors ran it on the front page after listening to me.

Despite her frugality and formality, Bee enjoyed the attentions of a private chef in the Star’s executive dining room with influential guests. Selected editors were sometimes invited to soak up the conversation and scholarship, and as a young political reporter I was flown in from our Ottawa office for one of those sumptuous meals.

I didn’t expect Bee to open lunch by making me sing for dinner: “Martin, tell us what’s going on on Parliament Hill,” she asked in her formal nasal accent.

No one had warned me that I would start speaking in front of the assembly. But a few years after that lavish lunch, Bee financed me a trip across Canada to tour every province and interview every prime minister about the country’s constitutional future.

After Ottawa, I came to the editorial board under John Honderich (Bee’s son). From my office down the hall, I could see several managers walking down the hall of power to his expansive corner office, knowing he would share the gossip later.

If I survived office politics, despite a few mistakes, perhaps it was thanks to his protection as I climbed the ladder. As a picket captain during our union’s strike in the 1990s, I publicly urged readers to boycott the Star by brazenly noting in a television interview, “Our best writers toe the line instead of writing the best lines in print.” . David Jolley, the editor at the time, was not amused when he saw a television clip showing a powerful editorial board member, the voice of his paper, bad-mouthing his paper.

But John smoothed things over. And he later he paved the way for me to take over the Middle East office of the Star.

When readers complained about our coverage (people aren’t exactly on the same page about the Middle East), Honderich once again stood by me. When I survived four years, he secured my next posting at the Asia office in Hong Kong.

During my annual vacation home, we ate lunch at his favorite table in Biff’s elegant restaurant (the Star’s private dining room was a thing of the past) to discuss the future of the paper and my recent travels. I wanted to know more about who I had seen: what the Dalai Lama looked like, what the prime minister of Israel told me, how we got exclusives with the dictator of Pakistan and the prime minister of India. He would ask about landings in war zones with Canadian troops, or what our ambassadors were saying from their listening posts. – never living vicariously, just listening intently like a former foreign correspondent.

When I came back from the cold—returning to the newsroom after 11 years of covering acts of God and manmade disasters—the paper was facing its own upheavals. Honderich had been temporarily sidelined at the same time I moved into management.

That was just the beginning of the bad news. At management briefings, we’d get depressing updates about declining ad revenues and costly subscriber “churn,” just like metro dailies everywhere. Fortunately, I returned to writing just as the most painful cuts were looming: foreign agencies were closed, beats were removed, reporters were pruned, editors were laid off, and desks were laid off.

All that said, all these years later, did I make the right decision writing for Star? The newspaper sent me to the nation’s capital as a young reporter and sent me to countless foreign capitals before awarding me the privilege of a political column.

My answer is that I have been lucky in unfortunate times and in an uncertain era. The only certainty is that people have been predicting the 130-year-old star’s demise since the day I walked into the newsroom at 1 Yonge St., and they’re still predicting it as we move into a newsroom this month. more modern. on Front Street with a smaller footprint.

The seemingly magical demographic of The Star, which first drew me in decades ago, turned out to be short-lived. Advertising agencies came to dislike our paper’s broad reach, even excessive reach, because their clients preferred the more targeted readership of the Globe or Sun, whose narrower market segments were cheaper than the big buy-in ads. a newspaper of a big city.

The journalist in me could proudly boast that the Star reached more stockbrokers than the Globe, and that we sold more newspapers to more taxi drivers than the Sun tabloid. However, the realist in me also realized that our once lucrative business model had been shattered by the demands of advertising and the economics of digital disruption, just as those stockbrokers were overtaken by the technology a long time ago and those taxis are being undermined by Uber.

There is melancholy but not fatality in the Star. Just as I could not predict my future when I made my choice a lifetime ago, no one can predict the fate of the newspaper in the future.

Yet all these years later, the Star lives to fight and crusade another day: 130 years and counting. Count on me.

Martin Regg Cohn is a Toronto-based columnist who focuses on Ontario politics and international affairs for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @reggcohn


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