Hail and Farewell to the Whig
At least as we knew it
One day in September 1990 Neil Reynolds, the editor of The Whig~Standard of Kingston, Ontario, strode into the office of the publisher. Reynolds was an astute man and something had been bothering him for the last 10 days. Much as he had for 11 years as editor, he elected to share his concern with his friend and publisher Michael Davies. Davies was working behind an imposing mahogany desk in the office from which three generations of Davies men had directed the family business. Tanned and relaxed from a recent yachting vacation, Davies was startled by his editor’s question: “Have you sold the paper, or what?”
For a few long, silent moments Davies leaned back in his chair and stared at Reynolds through his wire-rimmed glasses. In fact, he had decided to sell the Whig.
The decision had come at the end of August, while Davies was sailing his yacht The Archangel near Indonesia on the east Timor Sea. He had hand-written a letter to Southam, initiating the sale that would take place on October 26. Davies had confided his decision in only two members of the Whig’s senior management.
None of the editorial staff had been told. Finally, Davies asked, “How did you
“I knew by instinct,” Reynolds said, “I didn’t have to be told.”
Many of the staff, like Reynolds, had seen the writing on the wall long before they were told about the sale on the morning of October 26. In the paper that afternoon it was impossible to miss the front-page lead story: “THE WHIG-STANDARD IS SOLD TO SOUTHAM.” The official announcement was made in a Queen’s University auditorium at the end of the day. David Warren, then an editorial writer, was fatefully wearing a Whig tie and when Davies walked by, the publisher solemnly told Warren to “wear it proudly.” After the announcement, the staff brooded over “the proper etiquette when one’s paper gets sold,” Warren says. Many did the only thing they could do: “We went to a bar and got smashed.”
The Whig prides itself on being Canada’s oldest daily newspaper and it has been hailed as the best medium-sized daily in Canada. Now the official title on the masthead is Whig-Standard Co. Ltd., a division of the Southam Newspaper Group. Its course is directed from an office in suburban Toronto instead of by the captain of a local empire; the wind has finally been knocked from the sails of one of the last fine, independent daily newspapers in Canada. “Now that the Kingston paper is part of the Southam chain, it has to shoulder part of the burden for financial problems it didn’t help create,” says Peter Desbarats, dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of Western Ontario. “This is just another illustration of the negative aspects of group ownership.”
The Davies-Reynolds era, the golden age of the Whig, has already been consigned to history. Two-and-a-half years after the sale, Davies is just another inscription on the tombstone of former publishers on the Whig’s masthead: “Michael L. Davies, 1969-1990.” Although Reynolds resigned last May he is still listed with the living as “contributing editor,” which means his free-lance writing appears a couple of times a week on the editorial page and in the weekend supplement.
From 1978 to 1990 the Whig won eight National Newspaper Awards, four National Magazine Awards, three Nathan Cohen Awards for dramatic criticism and two Michener Awards for public service journalism. It developed a reputation among Canadian journalists as a “writer’s paper” and attracted the attention of the North American media, including Reader’s Digest which, shortly before the sale, profiled the Whig in an article titled “The Little Paper That Thinks Big.” It dispatched foreign correspondents to destinations as far-flung as Afghanistan and Romania and each year commissioned a long-term investigative journalism project. Its quirky editorial pages ran signed editorials and a letters section where a UFO sighting might bump against an intellectual dialectic about abortion between Queen’s University professors. The work of its reporters generated a dozen books and its Saturday magazine featured the lights of Kingston’s literati and academia. This, from a newspaper in a small Canadian city serving a community of 139,000.
The Kingston community, often characterized as sophisticated and snobbish, reacted with chagrin to a remote corporation entering its territory and fiddling with its newspaper. As one resident told me, things that have been wrong with the Whig for years have suddenly become Southam’s fault. Among locals the paper’s longtime nickname has been The SubStandard. “I have not heard that said in eight or 10 years,” says one staff member. “Now it’s coming back.”
In its public declarations, Southam is adamant that it is a white knight riding to the Whig’s rescue. “I would think this is one of the more challenging acquisitions Southam has made,” says Jake Doherty, fifty-six, the Southam-installed publisher. “The chance to buy a paper like this one doesn’t come along very often.”
As Doherty sits at the big desk in the corner of the publisher’s office, oversize portraits of Rupert, Arthur and Michael Davies loom over his shoulder. He dismisses them with a wave of his hand: “I’m the guy who’s in charge.” Doherty has lively blue eyes, a brisk step and big plans for the Whig. He says, “It’s easier for new faces to make changes.”
Southam insists it will maintain the Whig’s venerable character while bringing it into the colourful, reader-friendly realm of modem newspapers. Its mission is to “preserve The Whig-Standard as Canada’s oldest paper,” and “restore it to its glory,” Doherty says. To this end, Southam has invested $3.2 million in a new offset press plant, a key element in the relaunch of the Whig planned for this September. The relaunch includes a redesign to incorporate the colour capability of the new press, and an editorial revamping to attract a broader readership. Once the use of colour is mastered in the daily paper and in revamped “special sections”-that is, advertorials-Doherty predicts that the new press will also handle some of Southam’s commercial printing jobs. Restructuring of the Whig management and staff has resulted in a young, aggressive advertising team that hopes a crisp, colourful paper and improved graphics will help win back local advertisers.
The changes go beyond cosmetic surgery. In January 1993 the newsstand price was raised for the first time in three years, from 50 to 60 cents, at a time when circulation had already dropped from a high of 37,000 daily (in 1990) to an average of 33,600. In March the award-winning Whig-Standard Magazine, the literary and intellectual heart of the paper, was cut out and replaced by a mundane weekend supplement. The paper’s staff has been gutted by 22 members and morale has steadily declined as familiar faces disappear. Almost every member of senior management from the Davies-Reynolds era has been replaced.
The exception is the current editor. Harvey Schachter, one of Reynolds’s colleagues at The Toronto Star in the late seventies, followed Reynolds to the Whig in 1978. He joined the paper as city editor and has since held a variety of positions (most recently in marketing, planning and promotion), and won two National Newspaper Awards, one for columns and one for editorial writing.
With his curly brown hair and reddish beard, Schachter, forty-five, looks as snuggly as the teddy bears on his necktie. A few days after being named editor in November, the small, slight Schachter sits on a couch in his office, speaking in a gentle monotone and clutching a dingy pink and white stuffed bunny. The bunny is left over from Reynolds’s era, a talisman from his young daughter. Reynolds kept it because he was amused by the way visitors were unconsciously drawn to pick up the bunny. It remains in the editor’s office, a survivor of the Southam takeover.
Schachter is careful to give his predecessor his due, and he calls Reynolds his mentor. “Eighty-five or 90 per cent of my journalistic beliefs agree with Neil’s,” Schachter says. “I didn’t become editor to tear down what he did.” In fact, some of the decisions he has made are “not necessarily what I would’ve done if I hadn’t had the economics forced on me.”
Still, Schachter plans to implement his own vision of the Whig. “I’m not comfortable working for a paper that doesn’t have a life-style section, doesn’t cover health, doesn’t cover food, doesn’t have enough sports,” Schachter says. The new paper will incorporate these but nobody not even the new editor-knows for certain what else it may become. So far, it seems that in September the gray and serious Whig will begin its transformation into something that’s a little more like the Star than like The Globe and Mail, a maxim that is dutifully recited by those involved with the relaunch. Already, certain contemporary flourishes have appeared on the staid Whig, such as skyboxes above the flag and infographics.
Readership is divided between those who want a local paper that provides the best available coverage of Kingston and the large surrounding area, and those who want a paper that competes, journalistically, on a national level. The requisite surveys, studies, focus groups and task forces have been trotted out to divine the magical mix that will be everything to everyone. Budget cuts mean there are three fewer reporters than last year, so Schachter is covering the ground close to home. In the recessionary environment, self-generated international reporting seems to be on the back burner.
“Across the country, we were the paper that went to Afghanistan. But we didn’t cover Kingston township,” Schachter says. “We have a reputation with journalists across Canada-well, so what? Are they reading it? Are they buying it? The reputation of The Whig-Standard I’m concerned with is in my community.”
Two autumns after selling the Whig, the former publisher downplays its significance by decorously referring to the award-winning paper as “a little blip” in the prosaic course of Canadian journalism. Michael Davies, fifty-six, has a no-nonsense manner and the air of a man who is accustomed to being surrounded by fine things. He is looking out over Kingston Harbour from his well-appointed office at the Davies Charitable Foundation, which he set up after selling the family paper. The foundation, a philanthropic organization which helps local nonprofit groups, is his family’s bequest to Kingston.
When Davies hired Reynolds from the post of city editor at the Star in 1975 and made him editor in 1978, his aim was to produce the finest provincial daily in Canada. “I did it, but don’t forget I could afford to do it,” Davies says. He decided to sell “not because I particularly wanted to get out, but because I could see the time was up” for independently owned newspapers. He received an undisclosed sum of cash and 1.1 million Southam shares at the time worth about $19.5 million just as the bottom fell out of the newspaper business. “I’ve always said that Michael’s sense of timing was exquisite,” Doherty says wryly.
Former staff members say Davies was a generous and respected family publisher who did not shrink from tough decisions; Davies admits that despite all the fond eulogizing of the past two years, he was not always popular. One 31-year Whig veteran says, “In some ways, there was a lot more respect for him when he announced the sale than there was while he was running the paper.” Warren, who left the Whig to devote himself to editing the literary magazine The Idler in 1991, says the staff had mixed feelings when Davies sold: “It was something much more complicated than betrayal. Betrayal was only a small part of it, and only for some people. It was impossible to believe that this feudal protector would betray his staff.”
Journalists associated with the Whig over the years say the resignation of its crusading editor marked the demise of the paper as they knew and loved it. Reynolds is a naturally elegant man who carries his fifty-two years well on a tall, lanky frame. From his charming smile and eloquent conversation it is apparent why colleagues describe him as a charismatic personality.
“Complex” and “enigmatic” are two other frequent characterizations. He is a high school dropout who read Wordsworth aloud at staff meetings and edited one of the most literary newspapers in Canada. The same man has a gift for writing sensational, tabloid-style headlines, such as “Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary, Where Did You Really Go?” rebuking an errant local commissioner. He took a leave from the Whig in 1982 to pursue politics as the leader of the ultra right-wing Libertarian Party of Canada. His fervent, resonant speech reveals his legacy as a preacher’s son, and he has the magnetism of a man who, as one former colleague says, “should’ve played a role in Canadian public life, but hasn’t.”
Four days after the sale, in an inspiring Atkinson Lecture at Ryerson’s School of Journalism, Reynolds expressed guarded optimism about the Southam takeover. “They’re not going to shoot themselves in the head,” he said, speculating that if the newspaper changed direction it wouldn’t happen overnight.
Eighteen months after Reynolds’s rosy prediction, the erosion of staff and a gradual stultification had set in. “What really makes the business fun is passion,” Reynolds says. “I thought we were at the point where further reductions would take the fun out of the paper.” So on May 29, 1992, he made a flurry of final announcements. One was his resignation. The Whig’s front-page story the next day quoted Reynolds’s parting memo, in which he nobly said that he “wasn’t pushed.”
“I think it was inevitable that I would go and I knew that from the start,” Reynolds says. When he started to talk to Doherty about leaving “it was a completely mutual decision. No one tried to keep me there. I knew that if I stuck around much longer we would get in a fight one day.”
If the paper had remained under the ownership of the Davies family, says Reynolds, “there’s no question we would’ve gone through the same recession and the same restraint. But I have no reason to believe that the relationship with my publisher would have changed.”
At the core of the vision Davies and Reynolds shared of the Whig were editorial pages that would make many publishers nervous. Editorial writers expressed opinions so extreme and volatile that they often infuriated editors of other newspapers when they went out on the news wire. A 1990 readership poll showed that an incredible 74 per cent of readers read the editorials, traditionally one of the least-read departments in a newspaper. (Only 58.6 per cent of Globe and Mail readers peruse the editotial pages, and the industry norm is closer to 37 per cent.)
“It was a good page, a thoughtful page,” says Michael Cobden, a former editorial page editor and another colleague who followed Reynolds from the Star to the Whig. “It provoked a lot of anger in the community because people weren’t used to it.” Now director of the journalism school at King’s College in Halifax, Cobden says he altered editorial policies while he served as editor during Reynolds’s 1982 leave. For instance, he edited the letters, which normally went into the paper virtually untouched, and he tried to improve the inconsistent local news coverage for which the Whig has always been criticized. The same resources and imagination devoted to national and international stories were not spent on coveting Kingston, critics say. Under Reynolds a beat system was adhered to only loosely, allowing reporters to explore unusual tangents. Local institutions received uneven coverage. For a newspaper serving an area with two universities, a college, a military base, six hospitals and eight positions, not covering institutions is a serious charge. To which Reynolds replies, “A local paper is not just one that sends reporters to local meetings, but one that’s open to local people with something to say.”
Instead, Reynolds thought Kingston needed a wider window on the world. Good journalism “says something about the community by saying something about the world,” he says. He once sent an award-winning entertainment writer and two photojournalists on a clandestine assignment to interview Soviet POWs hiding in Afghanistan, waiting to defect. The resulting Whig articles were carried by papers across the country. They stirred an interest in the plight of the POWs that prompted the Canadian government to send Operation Moonstone to rescue five of the defectors and the stories won the paper international attention.
In its zeal for a story, the Whig sometimes pushed journalistic ethics beyond the limit. In 1990, the paper hired private investigators to follow Kingston public utilities commissioners to a conference in Texas. One commissioner didn’t attend any sessions of the conference-in fact, she wasn’t even in the same city as the conference. The story caused a local scandal, but the shady use of PIs was questioned in the journalism community.
The uncompromising journalism practiced ?t the Whig in the golden years sometimes offended advertisers. On May 12, 1990 a favourable review of a new book on how to sell your own house ran in the “Homes” section. On the front page. Of what is, in most newspapers, a glorified advertising insert for the real estate business. It didn’t slip through any cracks, either. Davies and Reynolds discussed the impact it might have, and still chose to publish. A few days later they met with Kingston’s incensed real estate community but refused to apologize. The resulting realtors’ boycott has so far cost the Whig an estimated quarter-million dollars in lost advertising revenue.
“It’s like an accident, a really major accident, that takes about eight different things to happen,” says Davies of the boycott. He says the realtors were actually looking for an excuse to cut back on advertising. There were other factors as well, among them the soft real estate market, the recession’s lock on advertising dollars, and the competition from chain newspapers, such as Kingston This Week (part of Torstar’s Metroland group), to deliver fliers cheaper than newspaper advertising. “We had every right to publish. It was a true story.”
But truth has its price. “Every time the Whig made a mistake, they would quietly move in, bit by bit,” Warren Stanton says on the paper’s competitors for ads. Stanton has followed the Whig over the years with a curiosity greater than that of the average Kingstonian; he is the former managing editor and Neil Reynolds’s immediate predecessor. Since leaving in 1979, Stanton has been publishing the kind of small, local niche magazines, such as Fishing East and The Best of Kingston, that Davies calls “ankle-biters.”
Stanton has not made peace over the events of 1978-79, when Davies made Reynolds editor and ended Stanton’s 22year tenure at the paper. He disagrees “totally” with Reynolds’s brand of “vanity” or “enterprise” journalism. “The Whig started to alienate the community. There was almost a meanness of temperament in the paper,” says Stanton, like Reynolds a native of the Kingston area. “You can’t bring big-city journa4sm to a small town and start kicking the shit out of people and institutions.”
In 1979, the Whig exposed an aluminum smelter in New York state that was contaminating Cornwall Island, just up the St. Lawrence River from Kingston. It found experts who said that the native band on the St. Regis reserve, its cattle and its gardens suffered from fluoride poisoning. The series prompted a federal government study and won the paper’s first Michener Award. Stanton says it was a “show-off’ story that served no purpose. “The cows are still standing and the Indian band is still there.”
“I’m comfortable with that,” Reynolds says, responding to allegations of muckraking journalism that hurt the community. “Just by reporting the news you offend people every day,” Davies concurs. Stanton says he used to fantasize that one day Davies would sell out and Reynolds would leave the Whig. Now that it has happened, he still doesn’t understand why Davies devoted the paper to Reynolds’s brand of journalism. “I don’t get any pleasure out of it,” Stanton says, “but I think he made a mistake.”
For the 10th anniversary of The WhigStandard Magazine in 1989, Reynolds wrote an essay that reiterated its original mission: “We have The Whig-Standard Magazine, a 32-page tabloid dedicated to readers who love to read and reserved for journalism as literature and reserved, further, for our own community, for Kingston. For 10 years. ..no writer without an organic connection to Kingston has appeared in its pages. No wire-service copy. No syndicated copy. No strangers allowed. Yet in these pages we have circumnavigated the globe.”
The Magazine represented Reynolds’s belief that the Kingston community was uniquely suited to appreciate literary journalism. Its loss in March marked a distinct shift in the journalistic tradition of the Whig. “I believe that successful publications are the result of someone’s vision, and the attempt to fulfill that vision,” says former Magazine editor David Prosser, in 1986 the Whig’s reporter in Afghanistan. “I believe that Harvey is fulfilling the needs of a corporation.”
The Magazine featured thoughtful columns and essays, short fiction, classical music reviews and an acclaimed books section that in 1987-88 was voted the best in the country in a Writers Union of Canada survey. When the Whig was working a big scoop, the entire magazine could be devoted to a single story, as with a 48page issue titled “Rock a Bye ‘Baby” in 1989. The story profiled a woman who had spent most of her life, and committed suicide, in the Canadian penal system. It won both the gold President’s Medal and a silver for investigative journalism in that year’s National Magazine Awards, and a National Newspaper Award for special project journalism.
Its cost-conscious substitute, The Whig Companion, replaced many local free-lance reviews and features with wire-service copy and additional work by Whig staff. Coverage has extended to popular music, and fashion, health, science, television and gardening stories now vie for space in the 24-page tabloid.
An October 12,1992 Globe and Mail story blew the whistle on the plan to cut the Magazine. Five days later, the Whig, in an editorial letter by Schachter, confirmed that the Magazine would be replaced by a Saturday section with a broader appeal to serve more readers. Schachter claims that the Magazine was considered elitist by some readers and some of the newspaper staff, but the real motive in killing it, according to Prosser, was to serve the bottom line by eliminating its $100,000 free-lance budget.
He says he offered to trim it to as little as $21,000 in order to keep the Magazine going, but “it became quite clear, by the end of that number-crunching process, that zero was too much.” It was also apparent that Prosser didn’t have a future with the new weekend section. “The way it was presented to me was, ‘Would you like some money to leave?” Which he did at the end of 1992. The two other Magazine staff have continued as coeditors of the Companion.
The Magazine faced a similar crisis a few years ago, when it was first thrown on the budget chopping block. To save it, the editors agreed to take a little slice off of everything to preserve the essence of everything. “Journalism is cheap. Publishers believe it is expensive,” Reynolds says. “A hundred thousand dollars is a bargain for what the magazine covered.” A former magazine employee says it was rumoured that under Reynolds the Magazine operated on a ridiculously low budget-on paper. In reality, Reynolds always made the necessary funds available.
Editors again offered to make unilateral cuts to save the Magazine. But Schachter, who edited it for four months in the eighties and was one of its advocates in the 1990 crisis, felt that gradually eroding the Magazine would have a worse impact on readers than cutting it altogether.
Appeals for a grass-roots, mail-in protest appeared on Whig vending boxes this winter. The articulate protests, many by former free-lance writers for the magazine, poured into Doherty’s office and were dutifully run on the editorial pages. Doherty and Schachter were unmoved. In fact, Schachter admits to greater reservations about cutting another popular feature, one which detailed provincial court cases such as drunk driving arrests. “I’ve received far more calls about giving up ‘In the Courts’ than I have on the Magazine.”
On the fourth floor of the nearly century-old, decrepit Whig building, is a quiet chamber with a row of high windows that afford an outstanding view of Kingston’s grand old City Hall and the daily busyness of King Street. It is a boardroom that Michael Rupert Llewellyn Davies built in 1985 to commemorate 50 years of service at the Whig by his father, Arthur Llewellyn Davies. The seldom-used room is plushly carpeted and handsomely wood panelled. A long, diamond-shaped wooden table runs its length; from a certain angle the table looks like a large coffin. Although it is decorated in contemporary shades of rose and plum, the boardroom is a vestige of an era past, a fragment of grace and elegance that is out of sync in the prevailing corporate milieu.
In 1894, fifteen-year-old Rupert William Davies arrived in Canada from Wales with nothing but determination to succeed. He became a printer and published several Ontario weeklies before purchasing the British Whig in Kingston in 1925. In 1849, the British Whig had become the first continuously published Canadian newspaper to put out a daily edition. In 1926 he merged it with The Kingston Daily Standard and by 1939 he was sole proprietor of The Whig-Standard. His son Arthur joined him in running the paper and two television and two radio stations in which the family had a major interest. Rupert’s other son, Robertson, was editor of the Davies-owned Peterborough Examiner, and has become an internationally renowned novelist. Rupert was appointed to the Senate in 1942, and died in 1967. Arthur, eighty-nine, was publisher of the Whig from 1951 to 1969, when his son Michael succeeded him.
Michael became owner in 1976, and under his leadership the paper continued a tradition of donating generously to local charities. Until the summer of 1990 he hoped to pass his journalistic inheritance to his son Eric, who joined the Whig as an assistant to the general manager in 1987 (and has since left). Prohibitive tax laws affecting non-arm’s-length transactions, such as those between a father and ~on, made the transition an economic impossibility. After 64 years and three generations, newspapers were no longer a viable family business.
“We probably ran the best provincial newspaper in Canada, bar none,” Davies says of the years he and Reynolds ran the Whig. It practised cutting-edge journalism that often skirted the gray areas around libel law and invasion of privacy. At times it went too far, and could have used some reining in. But, as Davies says, “I would much rather have a tiger by the tail and be dragged through the jungle than have no tiger at all.”