Since our inaugural Top 1000 issue in 1984, Report on Business magazine has been reporting on the highs and lows in business, from around the world. Some of the juiciest stories, however, were the ones we never reported. Read all 12 articles here.
This magazine has had many distinguished contributors through the years. Conrad Black was one of them. He wrote a monthly opinion column from 1985 to 1987. He was the only columnist I ever knew who had his own chauffeured limousine.
He took his duties very seriously. He always filed on time and was extremely copy-proud. God help the editor who changed a word of his impressive prose without consulting him. Every so often, our soft-spoken fact-checker would find some detail that Black had gotten wrong. Black did not appreciate this. He stood his ground, strenuously, and occasionally complained to me about the abuse he had to take from ignorant underlings.
We’d never met, until one day his secretary invited me to lunch at his office at 10 Toronto Street. I put on my best power suit and waded into battle.
The lunch was dry veal cutlets and some overcooked veg. I couldn’t help noticing that the wine was especially cheap. He didn’t seem to know how to operate the corkscrew. Over lunch, Black delivered a monologue on British history, in which both Pitt the Elder and Pitt the Younger made appearances. I had nothing to add to this conversation, which left me feeling pitifully ignorant. Later, I learned that Margaret Thatcher had this very same reaction after her first encounter with Black, who eventually became proprietor of the Telegraph.
Over coffee, Black got to the point. He wanted a raise.
This was not what I’d expected. But I didn’t know my man. Black is a highly competitive individual. He had learned that a certain back-page columnist for Maclean’s was paid more than he was, and he demanded to know why. Black had already extracted a surprisingly good deal from my predecessor. In fact, he was probably the best-paid freelance columnist at the entire Globe and Mail. But that wasn’t good enough. He wanted to be the best-paid columnist in all of Canada. He explained that he didn’t actually spend the money on himself. He put it in a trust fund for his children.
It occurred to me that the money Black spent on his household retinue was probably more than the entire annual editorial budget for the magazine. But that was not the point. The point, I quickly realized, was status. He wanted to say he was in the same league as the guy on the back page of Maclean’s.
I stood my ground, so far as I was able. He browbeat me into a 6 per cent raise and I slunk, humiliated, back to my cubicle. I hoped no one would find out.
Our professional relationship continued until he bought a bunch of rival newspapers and had to quit the column. I still have a soft spot for him. He taught me an invaluable lesson about the egos of powerful men, and I have to say it was worth every penny.
Margaret Wente was the editor of Report on Business magazine from 1986 to 1991 and is now a columnist for The Globe and Mail. She thinks those are the two best jobs in journalism.Report Typo/Error
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