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.
I met Izzy Asper on a hot and hazy morning on the last day of July, 2000. I remember the day vividly, not so much for the impression left by Izzy as for that left by Jenna Lewis. Jenna, you might recall, was one of the castaways on the inaugural season of Survivor: a lissome, gregarious young woman who was in Toronto to promote the show’s final episode.
I had been a daily newspaper reporter for less than a year, and I handled the interview clumsily, not least because I couldn’t unlock my phone and turn down the ringer, which trilled incessantly. Finally, after the third or fourth time, I excused myself to take the call. It was the business desk, telling me that CanWest Global Communications, the media giant assembled by Izzy Asper, was buying the bulk of Conrad Black’s newspaper empire for more than $3-billion. I was to abandon Jenna immediately and get over to the news conference.
Hundreds of media had assembled already, crammed into a dark auditorium. Izzy and his 36-year old son and CanWest CEO, Leonard, sat at a dais with their lieutenants and outlined their rationale for the deal.
These were the heady, expectant days of “convergence,” a word that had been whispered so everentially by media luminaries it had acquired an aura of ineluctability. This was the answer to the question of the future, and the industry couldn’t wait to get there. At the beginning of the year, Time Warner and AOL had partnered in the biggest industry deal in history. And not long after the CanWest deal, BCE and the Thomson family pooled their media assets, including The Globe and Mail and CTV, to form BellGlobemedia.
“This merger,” Leonard promised on cue, “is the ultimate convergence transaction.”
Izzy saved his flourish for the scrum, once the formal news conference had ended. Surrounded by a coven of reporters, he first called for an ashtray, and then pulled a Craven “A” from his pack and began to smoke. This deal, he vowed, would be the capstone of a lifetime’s ambition. “We’re now, finally, in the business of finishing the great Canadian dream,” he said. “I want to go out as a champ.”
Not long afterward, my phone rang late one night, and it was Izzy, and he may or may not have had a few drinks, although history suggested the former. He was at his summer home at Falcon Lake, Manitoba, and seemed more restive than usual. We talked for a bit about the future of newspapers, and the Post, in particular. He confided that Ted Rogers was goading him to help acquire the Blue Jays, and that he just didn’t want to own a baseball team. And then he painted for me what is my enduring image of him, and of the forces that conspired that year to convulse traditional media.
He told me he had retreated to the cottage to study–that he had ordered a dozen or so books about the Internet and he somehow needed to figure it out, understand the platform, see how the innards worked. For someone who had just bet a king’s ransom on convergent media, the notion seemed absurd. But I found it affecting, too: Here was one of the Great Disruptors, a man who for decades clawed and cajoled his way to a national broadcasting empire, suddenly forced to confront the most disruptive force the media industry had ever seen. This was the distillation of an industry’s rupture–a 68-year-old tycoon, holed up in his library, cramming in vain to preserve a dynasty and bridge two epochs.
Izzy once said, by way of justifying the Hollinger deal, that CanWest didn’t intend to be “one of the corpses by the side of the Information Highway.”
CanWest, riven by debt, sought creditor protection in 2009. Izzy had died six years earlier, never having seen the roadkill.
Sinclair Stewart was a business journalist from 2002 to 2009, including several years in New York City, where he covered the financial crisis. He is now the deputy editor at The Globe and Mail.
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