Historicist: The Telegram Sets, The Sun Rises
Over Halloween weekend in 1971, the Toronto newspaper landscape shifted dramatically.
11:20 p.m., Friday, September 17, 1971. Telegram publisher John Bassett entered his newsroom at 440 Front Street West. Assistant city editor Tim Porter, the son of one of the paper’s most colourful columnists, noticed something was amiss when he greeted his boss. “There was anguish on his face,” Porter later told the Star. Bassett tore a sheet of paper off a teletype roll, entered his office, locked the door, and sat down at his typewriter.
Two hours later the sheet was delivered to a copy editor. After two minor errors were fixed, Bassett’s piece went to print. It was published in a grey box on the front page of the weekend edition of the Telegram. Black would have been more appropriate, as Bassett had composed the death notice for the 95-year old-bastion of Tory Toronto, out of whose ashes emerged a tabloid which soon declared itself “the little paper that grew.”
“The decision has been taken to cease publication of the Toronto Telegram,” began Bassett’s message to readers on September 18, 1971. “Many details must be completed and, hopefully, the newspaper will continue to appear for a time, but the decision has been taken.” He cited losses of $2 million over the previous two years, projected a deficit of $1 million for 1971, and noted that $8.3 million from other sources had been required to keep the paper alive. Bassett had made $5 million by selling shares in Maple Leaf Gardens and the Argonauts earlier that month; it was used to reduce the Telegram’s corporate debt. Deals to sell off the paper’s assets were underway, with the proceeds used to pay off banks, employees, and suppliers. The decision to close the paper was “the saddest I have ever had to make in my life, in war or peace.” Bassett ended the notice by thanking readers and staff for their loyalty and offered an apology: “I’m sorry, I couldn’t do better.”
The paper’s unions were immediately blamed for the paper’s demise, two of which had voted to authorize a strike action two days earlier at the King Edward Hotel. Labour strife had dogged the Telegram for years: members of the International Typographical Union had picketed all of the city’s dailies since 1964, while agreements with the other unions had expired at the end of 1970. Bassett offered a wage freeze for 1971 and a $10/week raise for 1972, and opened the paper’s books to verify that the paper was, in fact, losing money. The unions later proposed taking any wage increases for 1971 as IOUs, but Bassett held firm, coldly stating in a meeting before the vote “You’ll have to take whatever steps you feel are necessary and so will I.” Some union members felt that Bassett was close to capitulating or couldn’t believe that, given his interests in CFTO-TV and sports teams, he didn’t have enough money to meet their demands.
What they didn’t know before voting was that Bassett had already decided to shut the paper down, despite having the third largest circulation of any English daily in Canada. He had shopped the paper’s assets around for awhile, including negotiations with the Star to sell the Telegram’s subscription lists. He offered the paper to journalists Pierre Berton and Charles Templeton, who declined after seeing the books. The final decision to fold the paper was made on September 13, when Bassett sought permission to do so from the paper’s trustees. The Telegram’s fate was sealed during a meeting that night at John David Eaton’s home at 120 Dunvegan Road, where the Bassett and Eaton family members who were shareholders in the paper gathered. Only the publisher’s son Johnny opposed the closure.
During the strike vote, Bassett dined at Mister Tony’s restaurant in Yorkville with Telegram managing editor Douglas Creighton and political editor Fraser Kelly. After they learned the vote results, Kelly told Bassett that there were many Telegram employees who felt he didn’t care about the paper anymore, believed he had or was about to sell, and that regardless of the vote the paper was through. “You’re right on all counts,” Bassett responded.
Employees were shocked when they heard about the paper’s closure, which had inspired fierce loyalty. Hartley Steward captured this in a Toronto Life article on the paper’s demise:
Nobody ever had a job at the Tely. You were with the Tely. And if you weren’t with the Tely, you were against it. At cocktail parties we were backed up against the wall, always with drink in hand, to answer for its insanities. And we came back off the wall swinging every time at the armchair critics because, with all its imperfections, it was our newspaper and it was put together four times every day with so much energy, so much loving care, against so many odds, that it could not go undefended.
The most quoted line regarding the closing came from veteran sports columnist Ted Reeve: “When I started to work for the Telegram in 1923, I thought it was going to be a steady job.”
Jaws dropped when it was soon revealed that the Star bought the Telegram’s subscription lists for $10 million and would lease the paper’s home for two years (the building was soon bought by the Globe and Mail, who moved in after the Star’s lease was up). The unions and groups of employees scrambled to find anyone willing to buy the paper, though potential saviours like Ed Mirvish and mining magnate Steve Roman passed, or placed conditions Bassett did not wish to honour. They urged all levels of government to save the Telegram, which produced little more than regrets and partisan bickering.
Among the more immediate concerns: questions about how the timing of the paper’s closure would affect coverage of the provincial election in October 1971. After Bassett announced that the paper’s final edition would appear on October 30, a week after the election, Ontario NDP leader Stephen Lewis charged that the Telegram was hanging on long enough to print editorials supporting Premier William Davis and the Progressive Conservatives.
While the paper’s 1,200 employees looked for new jobs, a handful revisited a recurring idea to improve the paper’s advertising and circulation numbers, which had declined against evening rival the Star for years. Around 1966, Creighton and Johnny Bassett had discussed a companion morning tabloid which would be physically easier for commuters to handle, and offer a livelier alternative to the city’s only a.m. paper at the time, the staid Globe and Mail. This idea was refined by former Telegram managing editor Andy MacFarlane in 1967, who supervised mockups designed by artist Andy Donato of a multi-edition paper called “The Sun.” MacFarlane pictured a paper which was light on hard news and heavy on columnists, features, and sports. Publisher Bassett rejected the idea, feeling that it would compete with the Telegram instead of complement it. He wasn’t comfortable with the tabloid format due to its association with past sleazy Toronto rags like Flash and Hush. Creighton and MacFarlane tinkered with other tabloid formats, including a national paper inspired by the New York Post, but all received thumbs down.
As prospects of saving the Telegram dimmed, a group which coalesced around Creighton, Telegram Syndicate manager Don Hunt, and foreign correspondent Peter Worthington planned a new weekday morning tabloid. There was little time to develop the proposed publication, as Creighton and Hunt felt it needed to hit the presses within 24 hours of the Telegram’s final edition. Remembering Bassett’s qualms about the tabloid format, the paper was dubbed the Toronto Sun because it sounded like a traditional newspaper name.
Over the course of October 1971, the Sun developed its editorial policy. In his biography, Sunburned, Creighton included Worthington’s notes from the discussions that would shape the paper’s viewpoint, elements of which won’t surprise long-time readers:
Policy would be of basic “independence” and ideologically in the centre—more so than either Globe or Star. It would appeal basically to people who work for a living, not those who seek a free ride from society.
It would concentrate on local affairs—would be brightly written, irreverent, but balanced and responsible. In essence, it would tend to be an “opposition” newspaper and have no sacred cows. It would be the mouthpiece of no group—and certainly not the fashionable “left” elements of our society.
The editorials would be straight, hard-hitting and opinionated, and quite unlike the wishy-washy editorials that the Telegram indulged in. They’d be Daily Mirror-style in bluntness. We would stress the idea that we are Toronto’s “other voice”—the voice that the death of the Tely deprived Torontonians of. Keep stressing our independence
Creighton would be publisher, Hunt general manager, and Worthington executive editor of the new paper.
Nailing down financial backing wasn’t easy. Lawyer Eddie Hyde was the initial financial point man, but a deal he built collapsed. Another lawyer, Progressive Conservative fundraiser and advisor Eddie Goodman [PDF], rounded up $700,000 worth of promised support (half of which was actually collected). With those funds in place, the Sun’s existence was publicly announced on October 14, 1971. Negotiations with Bassett allowed the paper to claim the Telegram’s paper boxes and news archive, as well as the Telegram Syndicate. Major media figures like Roy Thomson and the management of Southam Press gave the Sun little to no chance of survival in an age where long-running papers like the Telegram were folding.
A lone print run of 340,000 copies was made for the final edition of the Telegram on October 30, 1971. Sensing a future collector’s item, people grabbed as many copies as they could. One antique dealer, who claimed to be serving former Torontonians, ordered 1,000 papers. Demand was so high that some copies of the 25 cent paper reportedly sold for five dollars. While some carriers reported that their bundles were stolen, one creative paperboy tossed his papers in a shopping cart and hawked them along Jarvis Street. His lineups were up to six vehicles deep.
At the Telegram, the farewell celebrations began with a champagne delivery to the sports department around 8 a.m., and continued at various apartments and watering holes across Toronto for the rest of the day. Even the police supplied complimentary booze. One worker showed up in a rented top hat and mourning suit, and repeatedly played “The Last Post.”
Despite hangovers, Sun employees were expected to show up at the space the paper rented at the Eclipse Building on King Street West on Halloween, to prepare the paper’s debut. Because the second floor was still being renovated, the paper initially operated out of the fourth floor, recently abandoned by a silk screening company. The worn, grimy conditions fit the underdog image the paper built. It also had a shaky electrical system, as columnist Paul Rimstead quickly discovered. When he attempted to plug in a kettle to make, depending on the source, either tea or booze-laced coffee, he plunged the newsroom into darkness.
Rimstead got plenty of mileage from the sad state of the premises, who referred to it as “the beautiful downtown Eclipse Building right next door to Farb’s Car Wash and across the road from King’s Plate Open Kitchen where you can buy a beef steak pie for 50 cents.” His ability to get away with revealing the behind-the-scenes world of the Sun, especially when he insulted his bosses in a manner that would have seen him canned elsewhere, became a key element of the new paper’s style. Many found it incongruous that a paper of such ‘conservative’ beliefs could be so liberal in its treatment of staff,” Worthington later noted, “not realizing that this was the essence of consistency for a paper that believes in and trusts individuality.”
The first print run didn’t go smoothly. First a courier got lost on the way to Inland Printing in Mississauga. One story was still sitting at the Eclipse Building. When the presses finally rolled at 2 a.m. on November 1, 1971, they produced a loud bang. The low-grade newsprint they were using was prone to breaking on the press, causing paper to spill everywhere. Less than two hours later, the first papers were ready. Because of the delays, only 75,000 out of the intended 125,000 copies were printed. Just like the final Telegram, the first edition of the Sun disappeared quickly.
Readers who saw the Sun rise discovered a paper whose content and tone linger in more sensationalized forms today. The headline story by future columnist Bob MacDonald spotlighted wasted government spending. The Sunshine Girl was in place, though she more closely resembled Worthington’s original vision of a girl-next-door than the later tarted-up models. Letters received snappy one-line responses. Cultural sensitivity was on display: an Asian-themed fashion spread was titled “Next: the year of the coolie.” Lubor Zink promised to continue providing “serious analysis of the complex domestic and international problems” that he had in his Telegram political column, which was code for obsessing over Communism and the evil of Pierre Trudeau.
The paper started with 62 employees and a tight budget, forcing everyone involved to come up with creative approaches to fill its pages. Because the Sun couldn’t afford the fee the Toronto Stock Exchange charged for listings, it copied the Star’s stock pages. When the Star found out, they purposely inserted mistakes. Eventually, Star managing editor Martin Goodman had a good laugh, then allowed the Sun to continue copying the Star’s listings for the princely sum of one dollar a week.
The paper quickly developed a rapport with its intended audience with its self-mythologizing narrative as the underdog of Toronto media fighting for the little guy. Staff received plenty of gifts from readers, including Chinese takeout, cigars, flowers, and a lost Telegram box. Phone lines jammed after Rimstead promised to give away bumper stickers on day three. An editorial celebrating the paper’s one-week anniversary thanked the readers for their support and provides points about the Sun that are still debatable:
For all us underdogs trying to challenge the goliaths, journalism has suddenly become fun again. We are the lucky ones in the Tely’s death. We are still fighting for something; we have hope. For that we thank you, our readers. And we’ll get better. Honest.
Additional material from The Death of the Toronto Telegram & Other Newspaper Stories by Jock Carroll (Richmond Hill: Pocket Books, 1971), Sunburned: Memoirs of a Newspaperman by Douglas Creighton (Toronto: Little, Brown, 1993), Life in a Word Factory by Ron Poulton (Toronto: Toronto Sun, 1976), The Little Paper That Grew by Jean Sonmor (Toronto: Toronto Sun, 1993), Looking For Trouble by Peter Worthington (Toronto: Key Porter, 1984), the November 1971 edition of Toronto Life, and the following newspapers: the September 18, 1971, September 25, 1971, and November 1, 1971 editions of the Toronto Star; the November 1, 1971 and November 8, 1971 editions of the Toronto Sun; and the September 18, 1971 and October 30, 1971 editions of the Telegram.
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A previous version of this story misspelled the surname “MacFarlane.” Torontoist regrets the error.