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culture

Historicist: More News of Toronto

The conclusion of a two-part look at a nearly forgotten Toronto newspaper.

Newsboys, from the front page of the October 3, 1905 edition of the News.

In part one, we looked at the birth of the News, the controversies it endured under the editorship of E.E. Sheppard, and labour troubles in October 1892 which resulted in a lockout of the paper’s printers.

When the printers at the News were locked out, the Toronto Typographical Union could only provide strike wages of five dollars a week for single men and seven dollars for married men. To supplement their income, and perhaps strike back at the News, the printers launched their own newspaper. Assembled by 21 printers and four apprentices under the guidance of foreman (and future Toronto mayor) Horatio Hocken, the first edition of the Evening Star hit the streets of Toronto on November 3, 1892. They received assistance from several competitors of the NewsWorld publisher William Findlay Maclean offered use of his printing plant and an office (in exchange for a short-lived majority share of the paper), while the Telegram’s John Ross Robertson offered the new paper composing room equipment.

The infant Star earned little money and, despite the dent the new paper made on the News’s circulation, many of the printers, including Hocken, drifted back to their former employer. A settlement was reached with the News in December 1892 which proved to be one of the first written labour agreement between an employer and a union in the city. Militants stayed with the Star, though the paper would continue to struggle for the rest of the decade, to the point of suspending publication for a few weeks in 1893.

Sir Joseph Wesley Flavelle, circa 1918. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 666.

History books and studies of the Toronto newspaper industry have little to say about the News for the following decade until the paper drew the interest of Joseph Flavelle in 1902. The meatpacking tycoon and co-owner of Simpson’s department store decided he wanted to improve the level of public discourse by buying or launching a newspaper to champion good government, strong public service and a non-partisan discussion of public affairs. He found a partner in veteran Globe editor-in-chief John Willison, who was tired of constantly defending the actions of the Liberal Party. Despite his friendship with Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier, Willison found himself under attack from some fellow Liberals whenever he presented even-handed federal and provincial election coverage in the Globe. As he wrote to federal cabinet minister Clifford Sifton in 1900, “personally I resent the assumption of every Liberal politician that I am his hired man.” When Flavelle offered to provide Willison with the money to run an independent, non-partisan newspaper where he would be free to express any views, the editor discussed the proposal with Laurier, who advised Willison to jump at the opportunity. From most accounts, Willison departed from the Globe on friendly terms in November 1902. A few weeks later, after failing to buy either the Mail and Empire or the World, Flavelle purchased the News (which he referred to as “a low grade evening paper”) for $150,000.

Front page of first edition of the News edited by John Willison, January 19, 1903.

Those picking up a copy of the News on January 19, 1903 noticed a few changes. The paper had a new logo, which dropped “Evening” from its title and switched to a classier Old English–style font. After apologizing for poor print quality as the paper prepared to move to new quarters at the southwest corner of Yonge and Adelaide, Willison outlined the new direction of the News in his first editorial. While praising the political party system as “the best that has been devised for the government of free communities” Willison promised that his paper would help cultivate “wholesome, sane, independent thinking among the people,” promote “frank and free discussion of public questions,” and promote an “intelligent interest” in academic and cultural issues. Willison’s views aligned with Flavelle, who wrote to his editor that the News should be “on the side of those who were fighting in the strenuous way of progress and courageous optimism.”

Appealing to the intelligentsia and the civic-minded was an honourable aim, but Flavelle and Willison quickly found out it didn’t pay the bills. Rival papers took advantage of a decision to drop advertisers who no longer fit with the classy ideals of the News. While the paper was praised by political movers and shakers, its circulation dropped as the paper’s less sophisticated readers dropped away—the public preferred a little sensationalism in its reporting, which helped the Star overtake the News in sales by 1905. The paper’s problems were analyzed by Charles Clarke, a former Telegram staffer who had moved on to William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal. In a letter he wrote to Flavelle in 1906, Clarke suggested that Willison was too old-fashioned in his editorial style, which was full of classical allusions only hardcore academics would get. Clarke recommended shorter, snappier writing that focused more on Toronto news than Mother England. In response, Flavelle declared that he was “old-fashioned enough to believe that a newspaper proprietor has some other duty to the public than to make money, and some other responsibility to society than seeking to inflame prejudice and passion.”

Signs on the News building, 1911. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 343.

But there was only so much public service Flavelle was willing to provide. Financial setbacks during a market crash combined with losses up to $400,000 at the paper over the course of his ownership convinced Flavelle to dump the News in 1907. The paper was sold to a syndicate headed by Ontario Minister of Lands, Forests and Mines Frank Cochrane which was linked to the provincial Conservative government. Willison was theoretically allowed to maintain an independent streak, but his own views were drifting toward the Tories federally and provincially. His old support for the Liberals was severely strained during debates over establishing separate schools in Alberta and Saskatchewan in 1905 (Laurier attempted to establish them, Willison opposed) and appeared to break for good when the federal government announced a reciprocity free trade agreement with the United States in January 1911. Willison used the News to denounce the deal as one that would sacrifice the emerging Canadian nation and its historic ties to the British Empire to American desires. He gathered alienated Liberals and Toronto businessmen to work with Conservative leader Robert Borden to oppose the deal. Willison worked on Borden’s successful 1911 election campaign and tended to back the new prime minister’s government in the News. By this point, any lingering claims of independence and non-partisanship rang hollow.

John Willison leaving his home, circa 1912. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 1295.

Like Flavelle, the new owners found the News an unprofitable operation. Increasing equipment and labour costs didn’t help, nor did reduced advertising from the city’s major department stores. By 1917, Willison had pledged his life insurance to help keep the paper afloat. Having been named a Canadian correspondent for the Times of London in 1908 and knighted in 1913, Willison no longer needed the aggravation. The June 18, 1917 edition of the News announced Willison’s resignation to devote more attention to the British paper, a move that the paper’s competitors saw as a great loss to Canadian journalism. The Star praised Willison for being “fair and courteous in dealing with his contemporaries, never misrepresenting them or imputing evil motives, but discussing the issue fairly and stating his own views frankly. In that respect, Canadian journalism has improved in his day.” Willison remained active in Canadian affairs until his death in 1927, even if his increasingly pro-imperialist views fell out of favour with Conservatives and Liberals alike. In a memo found amongst his papers, Willison admitted that “very few people people wanted a really independent newspaper and each person who did had a different view of independence.”

Advertisement, the News, March 26, 1919.

Willison’s departure may as well have marked the end of the News, which tottered on through the rest of the First World War. In March 1919, the paper announced that it was purchased “on behalf of a strong company” which assumed immediate control. While the editorial staff stayed on, the paper would be revamped by its new unnamed owners who, according to the Star, saw “an exceptional opening for an aggressive newspaper devoted to the public interest.” Change brought a new identity: after nearly 40 years as the News, the paper was rechristened the Toronto Times, “a forward-looking journal for forward-looking Canadians.” In its debut edition on March 27, 1919, the Times presented its editorial direction: continued support of Conservative fiscal policies including income taxes implemented during the war, loyalty to the British Empire, generous support of returning soldiers, improved conditions for the poor, and a greater role for organized labour in running industries.

Toronto news page, the Toronto Times, August 9, 1919.

The paper itself was handsomely designed with illustrated section headers. Efforts were made to attract children and war veterans with extensive coverage catering to those audiences. But the revamp came too late. In an era where newspapers were folding or merging, it seemed unlikely Toronto would support six dailies for much longer. Being near the bottom in terms of circulation didn’t point to a bright future for the Times’s owners. When Times staff arrived at work on the morning of September 12, 1919, they were given notice that the paper was suspending publication. Business manager C.W. McDiarmid issued a statement indicating that the paper’s shareholders unanimously decided to wind up the business, throwing 120 people out of work. Competitors issued rundowns of the paper’s history—there were no great editorial page eulogies for the News or Times.

So what were the legacies of the News? Its two strongest editors provided contrasting examples of how to run a paper: E.E. Sheppard took up the cause of the working class through a gossipy, sensationalistic approach, while John Willison attempted to create a thoughtful, intelligent journal to promote discussion on the issues of the day. Ultimately, its role in the creation of the Star is where most people will encounter the News, unless they take time to scroll through the microfilms which preserve the paper’s stories.

Additional material from A Canadian Millionaire: The Life and Business Times of Sir Joseph Flavelle by Michael Bliss (Toronto: Macmillan, 1978), Press, Politics and People: The Life and Letters of Sir John Willison by A.H.U. Colquhon (Toronto: Macmillan, 1935), J.E. Atkinson of the Star by Ross Harkness (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1963), From Politics to Profit by Minko Sotiron (Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1997), the Dictionary of Canadian Biography website, the January 19, 1903 and March 26, 1919 editions of the News, the June 21, 1917, March 6, 1919, March 20, 1919, and September 12, 1919 editions of the Toronto Star, and the March 27, 1919 edition of the Toronto Times.

Every Saturday, Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.

Comments

  • Canadianskeezix

    This was a great piece (both parts). Well done.