People and Places

POLITICS CHATTER: The blame game. Pondering news in an era when North American newspapers are scared of their own shadows

Ottawa Magazine contributing editor Mark Bourrie accuses North  North American newspapers of being scared of their own shadows. 

Imagine you worked with a guy – let’s call him Johnny – who took the blame for every mistake made by everyone in your business or office.

The business isn’t making any money? Don’t blame the CEO. Blame Johnny.

The staff’s become moribund and lazy? Blame Johnny. No one’s come up with a new marketing idea in three decades? Johnny will take the blame.

So your business jacks up its prices and makes a lousier product every year? No one gets fired. Just point your thumb over your shoulder at Johnny.

Managers only hire their pals, or pals of pals — real slow learners and fools — and your industry becomes a laughing stock. Damn that Johnny.

Wouldn’t it be great to have Johnny around to take the blame for every bad decision, every screw-up, every lousy management decision? No matter what you did wrong, you’d always been in the clear. And if, the odd time, something went right, you took the credit. Johnny’s only there for the blame.

Well, you’re looking at the modern newspaper business. Johnny is the Internet.

Last week, 25 staffers of PostMedia news service got canned by the same people who decided that a national news agency to compete with Canadian Press was a good idea. The reporters, most of them bright kids just out of school, got two whole weeks’ severance pay before being turned loose into a job market that doesn’t want them.

People in the business pointed all kinds of fingers. My own Facebook page had a fascinating discussion involving a former National Post editor and some good journalists about the quality of media management in this country.

I bring this up because I’m writing a biography of George McCullagh, founder of The Globe and Mail. His story is a lesson for Canada’s tribe of numbskull newsroom managers and journalism prrofs, if any of them deigned to read a book.

George McCullagh was born poor in London, Ontario, in 1905. At the age of 20, he was a high school drop-out and a Globe financial reporter. He quit four years later, in the summer of 1929, and went to work on the stock exchange. Market collapse, schmarket collapse: by 1935, McCullagh had a staff of 40 and the financial clout to by the Globe. A few weeks later, he bought the Mail and Empire and cobbled them together into The Globe and Mail.

McCullagh had many, many faults but, like Conrad Black, he loved newspapers. In the middle of the Depression, when publishers were using the economy to cut staff, McCullagh was hiring, building a state-of-the-art headquarters and a company plane. The Globe and Mail had reporters everywhere. It dictated the political agenda of Ontario and Canada.

McCullagh had started off as a newspaper salesman at 16. He had walked the back-roads of rural Ontario selling subscriptions to farmers. In 1989, The Globe and Mail literally threw these readers away. It wanted hip, urban, wealthy readers. The modern Globe would never hire a guy like George McCullagh.

Yet George McCullagh ran newspapers that made money. In 1947, at the age of 42, he bought the Toronto Telegram and plunged it into a head-to-head battle with the Toronto Star.

George McCullagh liked to hobnob with powerful people but, unlike most media managers today, he preferred story-telling to social climbing. McCullagh went after the federal government over its World War II censorship policies when raising the issue invited charges of subversion. He fought to get rid of provincial governments, calling them narrow and divisive. He tried to start a national movement to break the back of political patronage.

He had some really odd ideas. He thought political parties should be abolished and, for a few weeks in 1938 that a lot of politicians later wanted to forget, he talked the Ontario Liberals and Tories into agreeing.

He also thought he should be able to buy hour-long blocks of time on the national radio network of the CBC to share his ideas with everyone in the country. When Mackenzie King’s cabinet and the CBC turned him down, McCullagh used the pages of his newspapers to wage war against them.

A George McCullagh running a Canadian newspaper, or newspaper company, is unimaginable now. Not because of the nutty ideas, but because North American newspapers are scared of their own shadows. They’re run either by businessmen who are one step ahead of their bankers and or faceless entities like telephone companies and pension funds. The formula today relies completely on predictability and the rather weird business model of giving news away today and trying to sell the same news tomorrow.

If McCullagh was alive, he’d draw the same thunderbolts as those hurled at Conrad Black, another eccentric genius loaded with many faults, including hubris, who loves great newspapers.

But McCullagh’s gone. He was pursued by his own demons and killed himself at the age of 47.

The Globe and Mail has no records from George McCullagh’s time as publisher and shows no interest whatever in a biography of him. McCullagh’s papers were burned by his wife. The man who was arguably the country’s best newspaper publisher has been very deliberately erased from history.

I’ll have some faith in the Canadian news industry – whatever it morphs into – when it starts to show signs of fight. I think those 25 kids chucked over the side at PostMedia had lots of fight in them and, from what I know of them, I bet George McCullagh would have fought tooth and nail to hang on to them.

But McCullagh never had Johnny to blame. And, as long as people don’t care whether they’re informed, and don’t see the relationship between solid journalism and democracy, we’re going to have the sad-sack news managers who run Canada’s media.

And they’ll always have Johnny. Because without Johnny, they might have to face the wrath of the likes of George McCullagh and Conrad Black.