On a rainy, grey day at 1 Yonge St. in October, 2016, John Honderich knew his days were numbered as leader of the newspaper business he personified and animated throughout his life’s work.
Torstar Corp., the company he led as president and board chair, was under intense pressure as it tried to sustain a dual mandate at a moment of singular upheaval in the news industry. The company was a crusading journalistic force as the publisher of the Toronto Star and a large collection of daily and community papers, and also a publicly traded corporation with wide 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 reporter from The Globe and Mail, in one of his last lengthy interviews: “My time’s coming to an end, no question.” But he was not about to give up.
Dressed in a blue blazer, a purple and pink spotted bow tie flanked by an Order of Canada pin in his lapel, he was doing his best to stay ebullient and optimistic about the future, as was his nature. He believed as fervently as anyone in the Star’s mission as articulated by the Atkinson Principles that he helped draft 20 years ago – and insisted they would endure.
Those principles codified a commitment to social justice, individual liberties, civic engagement, the rights of working people and the necessary role of government. And they guided Mr. Honderich’s intense passion for journalism.
“It is my view that these principles give a character to the corporation, and also give a character to the newspaper, which makes it distinct from many of its competitors,” he said.
Mr. Honderich died of a heart attack on Saturday. He was 75.
Late in 2016, mounting financial challenges threatened that mission. A structural shift in advertising had punched 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. – were not paying off as anticipated.
As chair of the voting trust that controlled the company, Mr. Honderich conceded that shareholders – and his own family fortune – had “taken a huge hit” as Torstar’s share price fell and the company slashed its dividend.
“And yet, throughout it all, there has been this tremendous commitment to the Star, to what it stands for, and the kind of newspaper it is in this city and this country. And that matters. And that’s something that we feel very strongly, that goes back to our history,” Mr. Honderich said, his optimism evident in his characteristically wide smile. “It’s a commitment we made.”
The five families that controlled Torstar “could have sold out at a much higher price, way back,” he added. “We chose not to. We’ve chosen to stay with it, to try and make the difference.”
Ultimately, Torstar was sold in 2020 for $60-million – a tiny fraction of its former value – to NordStar Capital LP, led by investors Jordan Bitove and Paul Rivett. Mr. Honderich said in a farewell article published in the Star that the time had come “to pass the torch” to new owners “with both resources and determination” to safeguard its future.
“We have tried to innovate and adopt new strategies to succeed in this new world,” Mr. Honderich wrote. “But quite frankly, it has been an uphill struggle.”
The Toronto Star that Mr. Honderich led as editor starting in 1988, and as publisher from 1994, was a powerful force. His father, Beland Honderich, had run the paper for three decades and its parent company had acquired the book publisher Harlequin Enterprises Ltd., famous for its romance novels, as an insurance policy to stabilize the company’s finances – and occasionally subsidize good journalism in lean times.
John Honderich was an experienced Star reporter and devoted newsman who had joined the paper in 1976 and then held prominent roles that included bureau chief in Ottawa and Washington, business editor and eventually publisher. Even late in his career, he was still regularly seen walking the newsroom floor.
By the late 1990s, Torstar was still expanding its newspaper holdings. In 2004, Mr. Honderich departed as the Star’s publisher amid a push to professionalize the company’s leadership, but his influence persisted and he returned to prominence as Torstar’s board chair in 2009. From then, he oversaw an era in which Torstar made wide-ranging investments in digital experiments as it searched for its place in a world where print publishing businesses were in decline.
“We haven’t been sitting back saying, ‘Oh my god, the world’s falling down, what are we going to do?’ We’ve tried to do various things,” Mr. Honderich said in the 2016 interview.
Over more than a decade, Torstar made investments in the job-posting website Workopolis (with The Globe), Eye Return Marketing, now-defunct CTVglobemedia Inc. and Olive Media, online deals site Wagjag.ca and Blue Ant Media Inc., to name a few. But by 2014, pressure on traditional publishers was intensifying, compelling the company to change course.
That year, Torstar sold Harlequin to NewsCorp. for $455-million, used part of the proceeds to wipe out its debt, and spent much of the rest buying VerticalScope and bringing the Star Touch tablet edition to market.
Both were all-in bets for a company of Torstar’s size. “I think if you’re going to try a new venture, you’ve got to go full scale,” Mr. Honderich said in 2016, though he acknowledged that Star Touch hadn’t attracted the audience he expected, and that investors were hesitant to give Torstar credit for the VerticalScope deal.
The Star reversed its stance on digital paywalls more than once even as other prominent newspapers embraced them. Mr. Honderich said the newspaper industry was “collectively guilty” of giving up content for free in the misguided belief that attracting a mass audience would generate large enough digital advertising revenues. But he also questioned whether a regionally focused newspaper like the Star that didn’t cater to business readers could rely on digital subscriber fees to survive.
Star Touch was a final bet on the free model for newspapers, but Torstar abandoned the tablet edition in mid-2017. And new owners NordStar reaped the rewards from VeritcalScope, taking the company public and raising $125-million last year.
For decades, one of Mr. Honderich’s singular talents was his ability to keep cohesion in an alliance governing Torstar: the five families that controlled its voting trust; its broader shareholder base; senior executives; and newsroom leaders. Critics targeted the two-tier share structure, but Mr. Honderich defended the benefits of family control: The “great advantage” was that it insulated the company from short-term thinking driven by its obligation to report quarterly results, he said.
By late 2016, Mr. Honderich knew it was “unclear” whether another generation of family leaders would emerge to carry the torch. But he remained a constant champion for Canadian journalism, living and breathing all aspects of the Star, and never stopped believing the paper would continue to serve its purpose to advocate for the vulnerable and investigate the powerful.
“People know what the Star stands for,” he said.
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