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The Post was so Black and Whyte Add to ...

More than any other Canadian media figure in recent memory, Ken Whyte was his publication. Its wit, flair and combativeness were his. Its anti-Canadian cant, political myopia and streak of paranoia were his.

Where the National Post succeeded, as it so often did in its first two years, it did so almost entirely because of Whyte's talent for attracting talented journalists, binding them to himself and infusing them with quasi-messianic zeal.

Where it failed, as it ultimately has, it did so because Whyte was never able to distinguish between the National Post's commercial interests and his own passionately held political beliefs.

With him, the Post was energetic, interesting, fatally flawed. Without him, it is doomed. The title may survive, perhaps even eventually prosper, as a bare-bones pastiche of CanWest Global Communications chain copy, or a rewarmed Financial Post. But don't bet on it. And don't imagine for a moment that the old National Post, the one that turned the Canadian newspaper scene on its head in the fall of 1998, is still around. As of this week, it's gone.

Contrary to common belief, neither Ken Whyte nor Conrad Black were the intellectual genesis of Canada's second national newspaper. Indeed, the idea's earliest roots can be traced to a rambling, speculative article by Chris Dornan -- now director of Carleton University's School of Journalism and Communications -- that appeared in Ottawa Business Quarterly in 1994.

In his analysis, essentially a blueprint for the re-invention of the Southam newspaper chain (now CanWest), Dornan posed the following questions: How could it be that Southam, then owner of 17 urban newspapers, 10 of them in important Canadian cities, had so little national heft? Why was it that the company, employer of so many of the country's best journalists, was so woefully incapable of better pooling its wealth for the benefit of all and reducing overlap? Why, for example, did each newspaper have its own movie critic, when all wrote about the same films, at the same time?

In February of 1995, Southam appointed Gordon Fisher, then publisher of the Kingston Whig-Standard and a veteran newspaper manager, to the new post of vice-president, editorial. He'd read the Dornan article, and passed it around to colleagues. Increasingly his thinking, and that of senior Southam management, turned to the idea of a national paper -- one that would compete directly with The Globe and Mail.

By that time, Black was already a Southam shareholder, though not a controlling one. All that changed on May 4, 1996, when, late on a Friday, news crossed the wires that Black had raised his Southam stake from about 20 per cent to 41 per cent, at a cost of $241-million.

It's unclear at precisely what point Black's Napoleonic ambitions and his growing frustration with the Liberal hegemony in Ottawa, intersected with the idea of a new national paper. But intersect they did. By late summer of 1997, the Canadian newspaper scene was alive with rumours that Ken Whyte, the young and controversial editor of the Black-owned Saturday Night Magazine, had been recruited to edit the new daily.

By the end of September, the nucleus of the Post's senior management team -- which included Fisher, Whyte and Kirk Lapointe, then editor of the Hamilton Spectator -- were working on the project full-time at Southam's headquarters in Don Mills, a suburb of Toronto. By April of 1998, hiring began in earnest.

Whyte hand-picked every member of the editorial team. He spared no expense, whether in time or money, to get the people he wanted. He recruited Martin Newland, a brash, aggressive Englishman whom he'd met while studying newspaper production at London's Daily Telegraph, to be his deputy. He hired Howard Intrator, until then a hard-driving mid-level assignment editor at the Financial Post, to begin planning a business section (Intrator died tragically in July, 2000).

Marvin Zivitz, who'd made a name as a production whiz at The Montreal Gazette and The Globe, was hired to ensure the pages went to press on time. Lucie Lacava, an award-winning layout artist, was charged with design.

Together, Whyte and Lacava turned Canadian newspaper layout conventions upside down. They borrowed heavily from magazines, introducing short top-of-page items to catch a reader's eye. They re-introduced traditional sprawling dogleg columns. They drew on the London newspaper look, dramatically increasing the prominence of photographs. The Avenue feature, possibly the truest reflection of the best of the early Post, was developed as an eclectic, inventive, splashy, street-smart, funny interlude at the heart of the newspaper. Nothing like it had been done before in a daily.

Most important, Whyte lured some of Canada's best-known journalists -- among them art critic John Bentley Mays, columnists Christie Blatchford and Roy MacGregor, essayist Allen Abel -- to join him, ensuring that the new paper would have a confident, mature voice from day one.

All of which raises the question: If Whyte's Post was such a grand achievement, why did it fail?

Long before the Post's launch on Oct. 27, 1998, Ken Whyte's approach to journalism was blatantly political, with little room for middle ground. During his tenure as editor of Saturday Night in the 1990s, the magazine regularly went in for political skeet shooting, blasting left-wing Canadian icons with lucid, intensely critical, even embarrassing articles. Authors Farley Mowat and Pierre Berton were targets. Child-poverty activist Craig Kielburger was a target. The CBC was a target.

At the National Post, Whyte's interests turned overtly political and economic. It was obvious to everyone on the paper in the late 1990s that both Messrs. Whyte and Black were fervent supporters of Preston Manning's crusade to unite the Right. This manifested itself in a seemingly endless series of front-page stories on the brain drain, waning productivity, the lacklustre Canadian dollar, the urgent need for personal income-tax cuts and the personal failings of Prime Minister Jean Chrétien. That political energy, the zeal manifested in the selective placement of front-page stories for maximum political effect -- even if they required a little "torquing", as Post editors used to call it -- initially set the newspaper's front page apart. Combined with saucy brighteners of the man-bites-dog variety, sumptuous top-of-page cutaways of starlets and lavish spreads on the lives of the rich, it made for a lively mix.

Behind the sense of fun and mischief though, was a serious intent: To unseat the Liberals and replace them with the Canadian Alliance. Black, ever canny, sold 13 Southam dailies and half the National Post to CanWest in July, 2000, for $3.2-billion. But he retained management control. His and Whyte's attention, and thus the Post's, were fixed on winning the next federal election, which materialized that November.

Contrary to all their hopes, the Liberals won, and handily. They did so by stealing the most popular aspect of the Canadian Alliance's platform -- tax cuts -- while tarring the rest of its policies as dangerous and reactionary. It was a brilliant strategy, and left the Post with a difficult choice: It could soft-pedal the rightist political crusade in hopes of winning over Canada's centrist elite, The Globe and Mail's core readership. Or it could stay the course. Whyte stayed the course. He chose political activism over the prospect of grabbing readers from his competition. That was his big mistake.

Meantime, events were conspiring to make the Post's blend of silliness, wealth veneration and ardent continentalism an even more difficult sell. In March, 2000, the stock market began its long collapse. Then came the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The U.S. economy turned down. Enron and other scandals discredited the business class. The Post's Gatsbyesque ethos became an anachronism overnight. Still, Whyte stayed the course, even as circulation plummeted and losses mounted.

By the beginning of last year, ironically, Canada had begun looking much stronger in economic terms, relative to the United States. This country's fiscal position and job growth are now the envy of the G7. Thus, the Post had little left to crusade on this year but the war in Iraq. Its coverage was marked by a frenzy of Canada-bashing and hair-tearing that drove one of the paper's best columnists, Patricia Pearson, to quit. She was the newspaper's only moderate of note, and therefore the only columnist in its pages whose views reflected those of most literate Canadians.

That, along with the brilliance, the verve, the fun, the revolution in design, is Ken Whyte's legacy.

Michael Den Tandt joined the National Post in April of 1998. He left the paper in October, 2000.

 

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