Canada’s largest newspaper changes hands amid vow to keep liberal voice

  • >> Ian Austen, The New York Times
    Published: 2020-05-28 12:21:44 BdST


The new owners of the Toronto Star, Canada’s largest newspaper by circulation, pledged Wednesday to maintain its tradition of championing liberal causes in a news market dominated by conservative views.

Less clear, however, are the new owners’ plans for reversing the newspaper’s financial decline at a time when Canadian publishing is in such dire straits that the government is offering to subsidize newsroom salaries, including at the 128-year-old Star.

The trusts of the five families that have controlled the Star for 62 years announced Tuesday evening that the company’s board had approved its sale to two Toronto financiers, Jordan Bitove and Paul Rivett, for about 52 million Canadian dollars (about $38 million).

Like newspapers throughout North America and many parts of the globe that are facing declining fortunes, the Star has made several attempts to adjust to a world of digital-first news delivery and an advertising landscape dominated by the social media giants.

The steps taken by the Star include investing heavily in an edition for tablets, a move made just before phones became consumers’ news reading device of choice. Currently, the Star is on its second attempt to limit online access to paying subscribers. But efforts like these have not fixed the once powerful and influential newspaper’s financial woes.

While Bitove and Rivett have no direct experiencing in publishing, the new owners do possess substantial wealth and both have long histories of investment success in other areas.

But Christopher Waddell, a professor in the journalism school at Carleton University in Ottawa, said he was sceptical about anyone’s ability to come up with a rescue plan for the Star.

“Will it be like what we’ve seen in the United States when private capital groups have bought newspapers?” Waddell asked. “That hasn’t turned out well.”

While Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, has invested substantially in The Washington Post since acquiring it, other American newspapers have experienced cost-cutting with sizable layoffs after being sold by their longtime owners.

Waddell said that the sale of the Star, which will take the public company private, will eliminate pressure on management to produce short-term results, but it isn’t a panacea. “The challenge for anybody is how do you come up with a three- to five-year plan for a newspaper that will actually last three to five years.”

The Toronto Star has long been guided by a pursuit of liberal causes, in accordance with the principles laid down by Joseph E Atkinson, who became the editor in 1899 after Liberal Party operatives purchased the newspaper to support their cause. Atkinson, who eventually took control, launched a large number of crusades for various social reforms including unemployment insurance, public health care insurance, minimum wages and women’s rights.

After Atkinson’s death in 1948, the Star still overtly supported Liberal candidates on its news pages. While that practice eventually faded away, its editorial positions and its opinion columnists generally continue to favour the Liberal party.

By contrast, The Globe and Mail, the National Post and the Toronto Sun all tilt to the right by varying degrees, as do the dailies across much of Canada owned by Postmedia, the parent company of the Post and the Sun.

Bitove financially supports both the Conservative and Liberal parties. He said that when it comes to political donations, Rivett, who was until recently the president of an investment firm that held a stake in the Star, “is definitely more on the Conservative side.”

But John Honderich, the current chairman of the Star and a trustee, said that Bitove had assuaged the trustees’ concerns that the paper could take a new political direction.

“He said this country does not need another Conservative paper and the Star’s voice and its principles are critical for its success,” Honderich said. “I believe him.”

The new owners will underscore their commitment to the Star’s principles, Bitove said, by appointing as their vice-chairman a former Liberal premier of Ontario, David Peterson.

The idea of a sale was first broached with the Star’s management this year before the coronavirus shut down most of Canada, Bitove said.

He said that his family’s success in launching the Toronto Raptors, a National Basketball Association franchise, in 1994 makes him optimistic about his ability to turn around the Star.

“Everyone looked at us like we were out of our minds: This is Toronto, this is Canada, we’re a hockey country,” he recalled.

Now the Raptors, since sold to two Canadian telecommunications companies, are the current NBA champions and a lucrative franchise.

The sale of the Star, which still requires shareholder approval, includes six smaller daily newspapers in Ontario and about 70 small-town publications.

“Our championship will be to keep the Star strong and effective,” Bitove said. “We’re going be custodians of this thing for the next generation or next, whenever, 100 years.”

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