Something died when The Toronto Sun turned The Financial Post into a daily tabloid
Once upon a time, there was a great grey lady of the financial press. Prim, pedigreed, if a trifle sheltered and old-maidish, she was a respectable broadsheet, born of leisurely and writerly ways, contemplative and conservative in her nature. Every week (more or less at the same time, depending on the whims of Canada Post), her collected thoughts on investing reached the doorsteps of her readers. Her name was The Financial Post, and her servants were loyal for life. ‘@’ But life for The FinancialPost changed irrevocably in 1987 when her father, Maclean Hunter Publishing, arranged a marriage of convenience between the paper and a most unlikely suitor: the brash, ballsy, somewhat boorish, big-bucks tabloid, The Toronto Sun. The union was not a happy one. But by wedding the financial depth of one with the hands-on experience of the other, they gave painful birth to The Financial Post daily-and caused the death of the old Post tradition. ‘@’ It was a slow death, with many casualties. Post people-those who remain, that is-don’t want to talk too much about it. But four and a half years ago, on the day it was announced that the Post had been sold to the Sun, one longtime senior manager confided his fear to another, and in doing so, prophesied the future: This isn’t a merger,” he said. “It’s a take over” The weekly Financial Post was founded in 1907 by John Bayne Maclean to guide investors safely through an unscrupulous market. It exposed nefarious investment schemes like stocks in peat bogs, and oil wells in the Peace River. Through diligent, if sometimes ponderous reporting, it won its reputation as a financial bible. It grew successful enough to become the foundation of the Maclean Hunter publishing empire.
Staff were a loyal cornerstone of that foundation. “Maclean Hunter was a solid company to work for,” recalls Bea Riddell, who did 20 years as a reporter, then editor at the Post, “sometimes stodgy, but a benign, good company.” In those good old stodgy days, Riddell’s byline had to run as “B.W. Riddell” because women then didn’t write about business. (When her gender was eventually revealed to Post readers, 10 cancelled their subscriptions.) What made the Post special through those years was its editorial depth as a weekly, she says. “We were trying to run away from the pack, not with it. We looked for added value on everything we gave. We were trying to give analysis.”
In 1977, another Post lifer, with a mere 17 years under his belt, assumed the title of editor. Much as Neville Nankivell revered the tradition of an insightful weekly, he had long dreamed that the Post should make the progression to a daily. He explains: “You can’t just be a business paper for the elite.”
In the late seventies, coincidentally at the same time as the Post redesigned its format and began to print on the more modern Toronto Sun presses, Nankivell proposed some strategies for a daily Post to Maclean Hunter. “Nothing much happened,” he says. And he got the same reaction when he tried again in 1984.
Meanwhile, on the edge of the city’s financial centre, the risk-taking Toronto Sun was becoming a power in its own right. Planted firmly in the ashes of The Toronto Telegram, the Sun was decidedly working-class, with scantily-clad women posing on a color Page Three, right-wing editorials, pages and pages of sports and opinionated columnists, and miniscule business coverage. In other words, a success. In April 1981, Maclean Hunter bought a 50 per cent controlling interest.
Nobody in their wildest imaginings figured that the investment would lead to the odd coupling of the Post and the Sun six years later. Hartley Steward, a diehard Sun boy, who from 1980 to 1984 published and fine-tuned the corporation’s newest progeny, The Calgary Sun, neatly sums up the Sun view of the Post in the eighties. “When all the things were piled up on my desk to read…I almost never got to The Financial Post weekly. It never had a sense of urgency for me,” he says, then adds with incredulity: “I couldn’t believe the circulation it had. A weekly business paper delivered by mail!” Urgency wasn’t high on the list of Post employees either, according to Steward. “We used to print the weekly,” he says. “Sometimes they would miss their deadline by five or six hours. That used to cost them.”
Maybe so, but there were benefits to the Post’s gentler approach to publishing. “It had the reputation of being a good place to work,” says Tracy LeMay, who came to the Post from The Globe and Mail in 1984 to bolster its personal finance coverage, and is one of the few from those days who still remain. “Newspapers some’: times can be very brutal, fast-paced, but the Post wasn’t like that. It was a civil place, civil because it could afford to be.”
Dunnery Best left the Post over a hiring decision in 1987, just before the news of the Sun takeover, but he too recalls his seven years of reporting as mostly golden. “The Post was a writer’s paper and we had a number of name journalists,” says Best, now managing editor of The Financial Times of Canada. “In 1985-86, our circulation was over 200,000 and we were making money. It was a profitable book. It had no identity crisis, and could compete with the dailies.”
Such was the Post on the eve of the Sun buyout-relatively content, successful, harmonious, and in no way prepared for the power plays to come. While Neville Nankivell may have long dreamed of a daily Financial Post, it took the CEO of The Toronto Sun Corporation, Doug Creighton, and the head of Hollinger Inc., Conrad Black, to start those presses. “Creighton and Black had been talking about the need [for a Canadian financial daily], and said ‘Why don’t we talk to Maclean Hunter,'” recalls Nankivell. He got a call in August 1987, from the same bosses who had turned him down three years earlier, saying “Can you revive the plan and put it together in two weeks?” With a few trusted staff members, Nankivell went immediately into secret Saturday meetings to begin fulfilling his dream. In what ex-Poster Dunnery Best describes as “selling from one pocket into another,” Maclean Hunter facilitated the finances for a daily Post while diluting the risk to itself. It sold 100 per cent of the Post to the Toronto Sun Corp. in exchange for an increase of Sun stock, to 62 per cent from 50 per cent. The Sun then sold 25 per cent of the Post to The Financial Times of London, and 15 per cent to Conrad Black’s Hollinger Inc. At the time, a good deal for everyone.
In October 1987, at Maclean Hunter headquarters in Toronto’s College Park building, The Financial Post staff were shepherded from their desks and offices on the sixth floor to a large empty room on the fourth.
There were no chairs for the audience and no fanfare. Just a few people sitting behind a long table, and a podium. One by one, they went up to the podium-among them, Creighton for the Sun, Ron Osborne, president, for Maclean Hunter, Nankivell for the Post-and broke the news to the staff. “I t was short and sweet,” says Ron Mitchell, who on that day was with the Toronto Sun Corp. and with no editorial experience is now publisher and CEO of The Financial Post. “There were no questions.”
Maybe that’s because most listeners were stunned-less about the implications of going daily than being bought by the people famous for Page Three. “It was a shock,” says Bea Riddell. “The big surprise was the relationship with the Sun.”
When the news went public, the Sunshine Girl jokes began. Riddell was not the only staffer to be teased about the Post having a little T & A alongside its stock quotations. What wasn’t so funny was whether a Sun run Post could pull off a miracle and launch a paper in four months.
The amount of work ahead to create a daily tabloid, while maintaining the weekly edition, demanded more bodies. The first to arrive were the Sun’s number-crunchers, Mitchell and Tom MacMillan. They spent time at the Post learning about the environment, talking to the staff about what they could expect from switching to another corporate system (payroll, benefits, etc.) and as Mitchell puts it, “getting to know what we’d bought.”
It didn’t take long for them to size up the situation. In order to get a daily out, the Sun clearly had to move in. At the time, Hartley Steward was stationed in Europe on Sun business. Creighton asked him to be the point man on the daily launch. Steward hasn’t forgotten his first impressions of the Post’s original weekly staff, nor the impression he made on them: “I was ‘the guy from the Sun,’ and it was difficult for them to realize that a tabloid guy was their boss.”
Steward hired an outsider, Steve Petherbridge, to create and head the news desk. As ex-managing editor of The Toronto Star, Petherbridge had what everybody else on staff lackedexperience in getting out a daily. “It didn’t seem to have occurred to them that you couldn’t put out a daily in the same way as you could a weekly,” he says. “They had very antiquated systems and notions about how to move copy for a deadline.” He began to motivate them by iron fist, often using it to pullout his hair, but his gruffness rubbed many of the Post people the wrong way. As Eric Reguly, who is now running the daily’s New York bureau, says, “Steve wasn’t the best-loved man.”
The culture clash created all kinds of friction. Almost immediately, two camps began to develop in the newsroom; on one side were the new employees hired by the Sun management, and on the other the old staff accustomed to Post ways.
“It wasn’t only the clash between the daily and the weekly,” notes Petherbridge, “it was the clash between the old virginal Financial Post and the nasty rough Sun, which’ people found hard to take. I mean the old Posters, as they came to be known, really had trouble getting used to the notion that they were owned by a tabloid newspaper that had semi-naked women on Page Three. And Sun people thought that Posters were effete old snobs who weren’t used to hard work. I mean, there’s some truth to both attitudes.”
The differences were on every level-ideological and practical. “The Sun didn’t understand our concern with accuracy and providing something more than the news,” says Bea Riddell. “They didn’t understand our need to have experts.” And some of the differences were irreconcilable. “A lot of people left,” says Tracy LeMay, “who might not have wanted to work for a daily or because of the culture clash. The first couple of weeks I’m surprised we survived.”
The only person who downplays the problems with this “merger” of corporate styles is Neville Nankivell, then editor-in-chief and publisher of the Post operation: “I suppose some noses were out of joint. There were certainly some personality clashes. But some of the best weekly people turned out to be the best daily people.”
More power to them, because the place was in chaos. LeMay says understatedly, “I don’t think people were having a whole lot of fun-in at eight in the morning, out at eight at night, and hardly having any time to eat.” It didn’t help that while the Post was busy reinventing itself into a hard-nosed, ahead-of-time news business tabloid, the stock markets crashed. Ron Mitchell says ruefully, “Timing in life is everything, and we picked the wrong time.”
Not only was it the wrong time, but there was so little time to think before the February 1988 target date, says then-editor John Godfrey, that he was picking new staff almost on the basis of “the color of their eyes.” To save money, the Post hired cheap-many of the recruits were young and inexperienced, some right out of journalism school. Besides adding to the already divided feeling of the newsroom, this contributed to the confusion of new faces. Nametags were worn, mistakes were made. Such was the pandemonium, that Bea Riddell approached a man wearing a nametag and asked him if he’d finished his story. He replied, “Listen lady, I’m just here to install the phones.”
Hartley Steward had bigger problems to fix. Worried about the pace of production, he devised the idea of doing dummy runs of the paper. Every day for two weeks before the launch, stories were written, edited and laid out as if they were being published for circulation. Steward stood in the centre of the composing room with a stopwatch, and at deadline yelled, “Time!” at which point whatever was available was printed. In the first dummy run about half the paper was empty, or stories were missing leads, photos or cutlines. But with each successive run, the paper got closer to being filled.
The night before launch day, February 2, 1988, The Financial Post’s timing again proved unlucky. A major snowstorm effectively stalled delivery of the all-time thickest, 96-page Financial Post daily. Sun CEO Creighton wasn’t delivered a copy of his launch issue at all.
Those who did lay eyes on the historic launch paper saw a product closer to the Sun’s style than the Post’s. It was short and snappy, could be read on a crowded subway, and gave news analysis over to a pack of right-wing, pro-business columnists such as Diane Francis, Barbara Amiel, and Peter Worthington. American and international coverage was strong. Obviously vying with its major competitor, the Report on Business section of The Globe and Mail, it carried a higher story count.
The body count was higher too. In the Post’s struggle to be noticeably different, it became famed for its “revolving door.” Hard to say whether the turnover was simply because of the suddenness of change or because of poor management, or maybe an unsettling combination of the two. When Hartley Steward was called away by the Sun to start up another paper in Ottawa, he left an operation staggering to fill its own pages and prepared to eat its young in order to do so.
“The newsroom had never been geared to producing copy to strict deadlines,” says Petherbridge in defence of their survival tactics. “It didn’t even have an assignment desk as such there were incredible bottlenecks. There was no order of system to it. I think after a couple of months it became apparent to the Sun people who were involved in the long run that it couldn’t go on like that, that some drastic changes were needed. So we had this quick reshuffle.”
The “reshuffle” catapulted Petherbridge from news editor into the newly created position of executive editor, over the head of editor John Godfrey, as well as the heads of the existing Post managing and deputy managing editors. All retained their titles, but lost their clout. Effective control of the newsroom was taken from Godfrey, whom the Post had hired in 1987 although he had no working newspaper experience.
Ostensibly the changes were made to streamline the daily process. A memo to the “grunts” circulated downwards from on high, read, “This is the end of lunch as we know it.” Petherbridge admits that serious differences in attitude wouldn’t be resolved by one memo on too-long lunches. “A lot of these problems were not solved until some people left and new ones came” And more and more of those new ones came from the Sun.
It’s January 4, 1992, and The Financial Post has just marked another major launch. The weekend broadsheet, the last hold-out from old Post days, has become a tabloid.
It bursts with characteristic Sun energy and noise, boasting four-color cover, splashes, and a pumped-up schizophrenic “Spectrum” section that includes cooking, all kinds of commentary (from Preston Manning to Allan Fotheringham), a feature on William Burroughs, and a business travelers’ guide to London, England.
The old Post staff has traveled almost as far as the paper. Neville Nankivell is now carrying the specially created title of “editor-at-large” in London, heading the Post’s bureau and keeping an eye on its European division. N ankivell says he chose to divest himself of the power and titles he had accumulated over 30 years “because I wanted to do the writingYou can’t just hang on forever.
Things change, roles do change.”
Indeed they do, and none more significantly than when, in 1991, Sun transplant Ron Mitchell was quietly appointed publisher of the daily paper that Nankivell had dreamed so long of and fought so hard for.
John Godfrey, editor-at-large for his last seven months at the Post, was delighted to move on to the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research. He chose to jump instead of getting the push. Dedicated 30-year-plus Post editors Carlyle Dunbar and John Soganich were fired without warning January 30. Soganich received a retirement package, but 61-year-old Dunbar did not. “At this age, it’s rather unlikely that I will find another full-time job,” he says.
Eric Reguly still heads the bureau in New York City, but as one who’s weathered all of five years from pre-Sun to daily, feels like a relic from the Ice Age. “Very few of us old weekly people survived.” Even those hand-picked by the Sun proved expendable, such as Steve Petherbridge, who was fired last year for not vetting a story critical of a major Post advertiser with senior management. Replaced with a transplant from The Edmonton Sun, Petherbridge thinks the decision “signals that the Post is prepared to be a lot more accommodating to its business constituency, maybe to soften stories that might offend major businesses who potentially might be advertisers.”
If so, you might excuse it as the kind of desperate measure a desperate company might take to outlast the current brutal recession. But all along, the Post under the Sun has paid an uncommonly high human cost.
More visible, however, at least to the Sun’s shareholders and media buyers, are the stunning financial costs the daily has incurred, a steady hemorrhage of dollars that continues to debilitate the Post. This past December, the Toronto Star reported Financial Post losses to date at $55 million and counting, not including the original $45 million investment to go daily. Ron Mitchell calls the Star’s figures “pure speculation,” but neither confirms nor denies their accuracy. Rumor puts the losses higher.
Media buyers are closely watching to see whether the Sun/Post marriage can be saved. “This is clearly a make-or-break year for them,” says Patrick Walshe, vice president of Harrison, Young, Pesonen & Newell Inc. “This is the year they need to start to show some black ink.”
Readers have mixed views about the four-year-old daily, now that it has come so far from the business views and voice of the Post of yesteryear. “Competition has inspired The Financial Post and The Globe and Mail,” says Chuck Winograd, chairman of the brokerage house Richardson Greenshields, who reads both: “The dark side is that perhaps it has forced people to do more sensationalization.” A source well-established in the Toronto business community, says the Post is doing too much “rumor mongering” in its rush to scoop the competition. Nor, reports the source, is Bay Street impressed with the recent appointment of Sun columnist and business journalist Diane Francis as editor.
If said to her face, these comments wouldn’t faze Francis. She’s Sun material through and through-brash, ballsy, and shooting for big bucks.
The Financial Post has never known a healthy economy in its daily form, nor are papers expected to show profits for their first five years. But you have to wonder how much longer the Toronto Sun Corporation will continue to suffer the bitter pill it swallowed for its ambitions to tabloidize the Post. It is too late to go back to the old ways. But, of course, there was never any intention of preserving those ways. Whatever the daily’s future, it deliberately left in its wake another newspaper’s tradition, values and philosophy.
Francis makes no apology about the rising of the Sun and the setting of the old Financial Post. “It was a sort of stodgy place before. Now we have drink-ups and people don’t take themselves so seriously.” Then, as if we didn’t quite get the picture, she says, “The takeover is complete.”
by Mick Gzowski
Mick Gzowski was the Assistant Managing Editor, Features for the Spring 1992 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.