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Book Excerpt: The making of an iconic newspaper, in Big Men Fear Me


George McCullagh could see the business potential of the Globe, even though it was becoming threadbare and faced labour trouble.

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As the year draws to an end, we highlight non-fiction by regional writers in 2022. In this excerpt from Big Men Fear Me, Mark Bourrie recounts why George McCullagh wanted to buy the Globe newspaper, which he would then merge with the Mail and Empire into one of Canada’s great news publications. 

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For generations, newspapers had been small businesses. Printers, once they learned their trade, went off to start their own papers. Most towns had at least two newspapers, and some had half a dozen. The printing press was always being improved, so there were plenty of cheap used machines available in the United States that could be brought across the border. But in the late 1800s and through the early years of the new century, Canadians started to expect more from their newspaper than just a few pages of ads and some columns of old news and partisan opinion. This was especially true in cities, where competition had become fierce.

The market was oversaturated before the First World War, so there was an epidemic of newspaper fatalities in the first two decades of the twentieth century. Craft printers and politicians were driven out of the big markets, and outsiders with deep pockets started taking over newspapers for their value as investments. This remaking of the market continued through the Roaring Twenties, and there were more newspaper closures during the Depression. Survivors were hungry for investment capital. Big-city papers now needed good presses, big staffs and downtown offices. The Globe could trade on its name, but it was becoming threadbare and worn, a throwback in a city with four big daily newspapers and scores of other news sheets and magazines. There was also labour trouble brewing: in the summer of 1936, journalists on the Globe and the Mail and Empire were trying to organize a union.

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But George McCullagh could see the business potential of the paper. It probably still turned a profit, despite the Depression, and could make serious money when the economy was back on its feet. Since the Globe was a private company that didn’t issue an annual report, he’d need to see the books to find out for sure. There was certainly more money to be made in the short term, just by accepting booze ads and running horse-race results. And that was before spending a dime to improve its stable of reporters and modernize its design to steal readers from the Star, the Telegram and the Mail and Empire. If it was going to be McCullagh’s paper, it had to be the best, so he needed journalists who were better than the rest, and reporters who were willing to do more than just cover every religious revivalist who passed through Toronto. It needed a whole new vision of journalism. And presses. And building. And things to make it shine.

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If it was going to be McCullagh’s paper, it had to be the best, so he needed journalists who were better than the rest, and reporters who were willing to do more than just cover every religious revivalist who passed through Toronto.

McCullagh knew the Globe’s weaknesses, but he also understood its strength, which would be forgotten by its bean-counting owners fifty years later: the paper got out to every farm and every backwater in Ontario — places like Ripley — and the Globe valued every one of its subscribers. McCullagh would make it indispensable to all the province’s small-town store owners, building contractors, political activists, and country lawyers. It would not be, as it often is now, a trend-chaser appealing only to would-be sophisticates. McCullagh’s Globe would provide the most incisive political news, the best coverage of business issues, and quick reporting of important legal cases. If something halfway important happened in Ontario, it would be mentioned in the Globe’s pages, in stories written by staffers and a network of freelancers.

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There were obvious benefits to McCullagh, beyond the financial. Ownership of the Globe brought instant power and wide-open access to everyone else with power. The recent version of the Globe, something of a shadow of its glory years, had still given the senior member of the Jaffray clan (which owned it) the connections and clout to make him a senator. (Before becoming a newspaper publisher, he’d owned a chain of grocery stores.) Like the British newspaper proprietors, Canada’s publishers were great and honoured men. One, Hugh Graham, who published the Montreal Star, had been raised to the British peerage as Lord Atholstan. That could happen to another great publisher. The wartime Nickle Resolution advising King George V to refrain from bestowing knighthoods and titles in Canada had been relaxed under R.B. Bennett’s government, and honours were flowing again. Sir George McCullagh likely had a very nice ring to it.

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This would be the first big step on the path to greatness. Everyone told him he would be prime minister someday. Magazines even put it in writing. Sure, there were moments of glumness, times when he felt rage. But that was the price paid by great men like Abraham Lincoln, William Pitt and Sir Isaac Newton. Winston Churchill spent most of his working day drunk to keep his anxiety and depression at bay, and most of the British political class covered for him. McCullagh had stopped using booze to anaesthetize the black dog, and, so far, he was able to keep his depression on a leash. If, and it seems likely, McCullagh was bipolar, he was likely on a high through most of the Great Depression, before hitting a low in the spring of 1939. He seemed to crash hardest when he faced public humiliation, but life appeared to be going very well in late 1935 and early 1936. He was married, with small children, had lots of money and interesting friends, and, except for the death of (millionaire and friend) Percy Parker , no real setbacks.

McCullagh desperately wanted the Globe, and, judging from his risk-taking, along with his indiscrete talk during and after the negotiations for the paper, he was on a manic swing. The paper was an institution. It was high status. Controlling such a thing was beyond the imagination of any thirty-one-year-old working-class man from the bad side of London, Ontario.

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Mark Bourrie is an Ottawa author, lawyer and former journalist. He received the RBC Charles Taylor Prize in 2020 for his book Bush Runner: The Adventures of Pierre Radisson.

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