All we pessimists were fully agreed: Conrad Black was a mad man

How else do you explain his founding the National Post in the worst of all possible times?

The National Post newspaper this month marks the 20th year of its publication. Ted Byfield was one of several Canadian journalists asked to comment on it. His commentary follows.

It’s difficult to adequately portray the sudden and most improbable appearance of the National Post in the Canadian newspaper world as it existed in the closing years of the 20th Century. Metropolitan newspapers in that era were definitely not something people founded. They were something people terminated, or at best merged with another so that one name or the other slid into oblivion of journalistic history.

How many people today have never heard of the Montreal Star, the Ottawa Journal, the Toronto Telegram, or the Winnipeg Tribune, the Calgary Albertan, the Edmonton Bulletin, once respected dailies with substantial circulations, and names familiar in every local household.

Even so, the ancestry of Toronto’s morning dailies is chaotic. It goes back nearly two centuries. In 1844, the reform politician George Brown founded a morning daily, the Toronto Globe, and made himself editor. In 1872,the Toronto Mail appeared as a Conservative paper. After it re-proclaimed itself independent, Canada’s first prime minister, John A. Macdonald, founded a rival paper, the Toronto Empire, to restore a Conservative press. He merged it with the Mail to become the Mail and Empire in 1887.

For the next nearly 40 years, a kind of permanent newspaper war prevailed, as the Mail and Empire and the Globe hammered away at each other for control of the morning market, while the Liberal giant, the Star, battled the Conservative Telegram for control of the evening. The Star eventually won.

Then in 1936, a new figure appeared on the Canadian newspaper scene, one Clement George McCullagh, who began as a copy boy on the Globe, switched to stock brokering, and made millions. With those millions, he bought both the Toronto Globe and the Toronto Mail and Empire and merged them. Thus was born the Globe and Mail in 1936. Most of McCullagh’s millions, however, were the product of his association with a rugged Northern Ontario prospector named William H. “Bill” Wright, multi-millionaire discoverer of a major gold mine at Kirkland Lake. Ontario. (As the saying went, “Wright discovered gold, and McCullagh discovered Wright.” But Wright was happy. How many prospectors live to become major newspaper publishers?)

McCullagh’s years were short, however. Stricken by recurring heart attacks, he committed suicide in 1952 at age 47.. And with him, many journalists agreed, we saw the last of the great Canadian newspaper founders.

But in this, we were wrong. Few people actually foresaw the advent of Conrad Black as a metropolitan newspaper publisher, any more than they foresaw the advent of a National Post. Moreover, he was seemingly sworn to the creation of a great newspaper in the worst of all possible times. Newspapers were dying,. Television news viewership was dwarfing newspaper readership, and when coming forward over the horizon loomed the Web bearing no one knew how many nails to drive into the coffin of a once-great industry? One example: Classified advertising,. Do you remember the eight or ten pages of it, daily and without fail. All top-level revenue. All but gone.

There was worse. Even today changing to another newspaper is not like changing to another brand of socks. For diehards, it would be more akin to changing to another religion. Did Black actually think he could persuade tens of thousands, maybe eventually hundreds of thousands of people to do this? Was the man mad?

Some of us thought so. I, for one. Yet here we are, 20 years later. The Post is the best read for the money on the Canadian market. How are they doing it? The answer is by very clever journalism. Virtually every heading in the paper is a little work of art, neatly singling out that angle of the story which will draw in the reader without cheating him by overstating the facts. That takes skill. But they’re doing it better all the time, and they’re turning out a product which I suspect nearly everybody in our Web-hammered industry hopes will be winner.

Yet I won’t commend them for a one-hundred per cent performance. They are missing a golden opportunity. One weakness in their coverage is glaring. Like nearly all the other newspapers, (with the curious exception of the Wall Street Journal) they do a lousy job on religion. They apparently believe that all believers have the minds of a six-year-old.

The case for the truth of the creeds is much stronger than anyone could ever learn by reading newspapers, even this newspaper. If they’d correct this, they’d find that a steady growth in their audience would ensue. Why? Because their presentation of religion would be primarily rational, not emotional. The reader would gradually realize that the road to reason leads to God, and to make this discovery is a life-changing experience.

Ted Byfield was founder and publisher of Alberta Report news magazine, general editor of Alberta in the Twentieth Century, a 12-volume history of the province, and general editor of The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years, a 12-volume history of Christianity. His column on education appears in The, a web journal. He has aslo authored three little books on modern pedagogy: Why History Matters, The Revolution Nobody Covered and most recently The Time is Now. You can order copies here.


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