Former Star editor John Honderich fought for the paper’s mission in an age of digital change

The Toronto Star, led by John Honderich as editor from 1988 and as publisher from 1994, was a powerful force.Glenn Lowson/The Globe and Mail

On a rainy, gray day at 1 Yonge Street in October 2016, John Honderich knew his days were numbered as head of the newspaper business he personified and animated throughout his life.

Torstar Corp., the company he led as president and chairman of the board, was under intense pressure as it tried to maintain a dual tenure at a time of singular upheaval in the industry. information. The company was a crusading journalistic force as publisher of the Toronto Star and a large collection of daily and community newspapers, as well as a publicly traded company with vast holdings and duties to its shareholders.

In his two-room corner office on the sixth floor of the Star’s Toronto headquarters, which displayed a row of historic front pages, Mr. Honderich told a Globe and Mail reporter, in one of his last lengthy interviews: “My time has come to an end, no question. But he wasn’t going to give up.

Dressed in a blue blazer, purple and pink polka dot bow tie flanked by an Order of Canada pin on his lapel, he did his best to remain exuberant and optimistic about the future, as he did. was his nature. He believed as fervently as anyone in the Star’s mission as set out by the Atkinson Principles he helped draft 20 years ago – and insisted they would endure.

These principles codified a commitment to social justice, individual freedoms, civic engagement, workers’ rights and the necessary role of government. And they guided Mr. Honderich’s intense passion for journalism.

“I believe that these principles give character to the company, and also give character to the newspaper, which sets it apart from many of its competitors,” he said.

Mr Honderich died of a heart attack on Saturday. He was 75 years old.

At the end of 2016, growing financial difficulties threatened this mission. A structural change in advertising had ripped a hole in Torstar’s revenue, and the Star’s newsroom was shrinking. Two big bets on a digital future — the 2015 launch of the Star Touch tablet edition and the $200 million purchase of digital publisher VerticalScope Inc. — didn’t pay off as expected.

As chairman of the voting trust that controlled the company, Mr Honderich acknowledged that shareholders – and his own family fortune – took a “huge hit” when Torstar’s share price fell and the company cut its dividend.

“And yet, throughout all of this, there has been this enormous commitment to the Star, to what it stands for and the kind of newspaper that it is in this city and this country. And it matters. And that’s something we feel very strongly, going back to our history,” Mr. Honderich said, his optimism evident in his characteristic broad smile. “It’s a commitment we made.”

The five families who controlled Torstar “could have sold for a much higher price a long time ago”, he added. “We chose not to. We chose to stay with him, to try to make a difference.

Ultimately, Torstar was sold in 2020 for $60 million – a tiny fraction of its previous value – to NordStar Capital LP, led by investors Jordan Bitove and Paul Rivett. Mr. Honderich said in a farewell post published in the Star that the time had come to “pass the torch” to new owners “with both the resources and the determination” to secure its future.

“We tried to innovate and adopt new strategies to succeed in this new world,” Honderich wrote. “But frankly, it’s been a tough fight.”

The Toronto Star, which Mr. Honderich led as editor from 1988 and as publisher from 1994, was a powerful force. His father, Beland Honderich, had run the newspaper for three decades, and his parent company had acquired book publisher Harlequin Enterprises Ltd., famous for its romance novels, as an insurance policy to stabilize the finances of the newspaper. business – and occasionally subsidizing good lean journalism.

John Honderich was an experienced Star reporter and dedicated reporter who had joined the newspaper in 1976, then held senior positions including bureau chief in Ottawa and Washington, economics editor and eventually publisher. Even late in his career, he was still regularly seen walking around the newsroom.

In the late 1990s, Torstar was further expanding its newspaper portfolio. In 2004, Mr. Honderich left his post as editor of the Star as part of a drive to professionalize the company’s management, but his influence persisted and he returned to prominence as chairman of the board. administration of Torstar in 2009. From then on, he oversaw an era in which Torstar made extensive investments in digital experiences as it sought its place in a world where print publishing companies were in decline.

“We didn’t sit around and say, ‘Oh my god, the world is falling apart, what are we going to do? We tried to do various things,” Mr. Honderich said in the 2016 interview.

For more than a decade, Torstar has invested in jobs website Workopolis (along with The Globe), Eye Return Marketing, now defunct CTVglobemedia Inc. and online jobs site Olive Media. Wagjag.ca and Blue Ant Media Inc., to name a few. But in 2014, the pressure on traditional publishers intensified, forcing the company to change course.

That year, Torstar sold Harlequin to NewsCorp. for $455 million, used some of the proceeds to clear debt, and spent much of the rest to buy VerticalScope and bring the Star Touch tablet edition to market.

Both were all-in bets for a company the size of Torstar. “I think if you want to try a new business, you have to go big,” Mr. Honderich said in 2016, though he acknowledged that Star Touch hadn’t attracted the audience he was expecting and that investors were hesitant to give Torstar credit for the VerticalScope deal.

The Star has reversed its position on digital paywalls more than once even as other leading newspapers embrace them. Mr Honderich said the newspaper industry was “collectively guilty” of dropping content for free in the mistaken belief that attracting mass audiences would generate sufficiently large digital advertising revenue. But he also questioned whether a regional newspaper like the Star that did not cater to professional readers could rely on digital subscription fees to survive.

Star Touch was a last bet on the free newspaper model, but Torstar dropped the tablet edition in mid-2017. And new owners NordStar reaped the rewards of VeritcalScope, taking the company public and raising $125 million last year.

For decades, one of Mr. Honderich’s singular talents was his ability to hold together an alliance governing Torstar: the five families who controlled his voting trust; its wider shareholding; senior executives; and newsroom managers. Critics targeted the two-tier shareholding structure, but Mr Honderich defended the advantages of family control: the “great advantage” was that it shielded the company from short-term thinking driven by its obligation to release quarterly results, he said.

By late 2016, Mr Honderich knew it was “unclear” whether another generation of householders would emerge to carry the torch. But he remained a steadfast champion of Canadian journalism, living and breathing all aspects of the Star, and never ceased to believe that the paper would continue to serve its purpose of defending the vulnerable and investigating the powerful.

“People know what the star represents,” he said.

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