When NordStar Capital co-owner Jordan Bitove first approached John Honderich about buying the Toronto Star’s parent company back in February of 2020, the then-chairman of Torstar Corp. handed him a book.
The 144 pages contained some of the Toronto Star’s best work. The compilation was a labour of love for Mr. Honderich that was published to commemorate the newspaper’s 110th anniversary. Entitled Humanity Above All, after a noted quote from the Star’s legendary publisher Joseph E. Atkinson, the gift was meant to serve as a history lesson for Mr. Bitove and his business partner Paul Rivett.
What Mr. Honderich “was really trying to teach me and inspire me with was the importance of what I was about to undertake. I wasn’t buying a widget factory. I was buying an important part of Toronto’s history – of Canadian history – and that I shouldn’t take it lightly,” Mr. Bitove said in a telephone interview on Sunday. “That was his way of handing me essentially, you know, the bible.”
Mr. Bitove, who is now the Star’s publisher and Torstar’s co-proprietor, said he read the book from cover to cover. After NordStar prevailed over a rival bidder in a takeover battle for Torstar, Mr. Bitove thanked Mr. Honderich for giving him the book. It continues to sit on Mr. Bitove’s coffee table as a tribute to Mr. Honderich, whose passion for journalism left a mark on the Star.
Mr. Honderich, who was also a long-time former editor and publisher of the Star, died Saturday after a heart attack. He was 75.
Born into a newspaper family, Mr. Honderich, in his ever-present bow tie, was a legendary champion for journalism and journalists, devoted to Canadian political life and social-justice issues. In fact, he never stopped offering his feedback about the Star’s journalism.
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“He talked about where we could improve – who he thought needed a push, a shove, a kick,” Mr. Bitove said, recounting his last meeting with Mr. Honderich in December.
“That lunch, we spent 2½ hours, and he was great as always just giving some really solid advice on how we can improve the paper and do better.”
Mr. Bitove said he intended on asking Mr. Honderich to cut the ribbon at the Star’s new headquarters after it opens next August or September.
Phillip Crawley, The Globe and Mail’s Publisher and CEO, said: “For two decades John and I were competitors and collaborators. Despite the business rivalry, we often found common cause, especially when we went to Ottawa together in 2010 to seek federal support for pension relief for The Canadian Press.”
Mr. Crawley, who is also co-chair of CP, added: “John’s steadfast support for CP will be one of his many positive legacies. Its healthy status today is a vindication of his faith in our national news agency.
“We will miss his good humour and warm spirit. He fought the good fight for our industry with passion and purpose.”
It was Mr. Honderich’s love of journalism that left a lasting impression on his friends and colleagues, many of whom expressed shock at his sudden passing.
“John was passionately committed to his vision for the Toronto Star and put his personal stamp on the newspaper for over 30 years as editor and publisher and later chairman of Torstar,” said Robert Prichard, chair of Torys LLP and a former CEO of Torstar.
“What was once Joe Atkinson’s newspaper became the Honderichs’ newspaper as it was led from 1955 forward by John’s father and then John himself – a longer run than even Mr. Atkinson’s. John, like his father, became a giant in the industry and leaves a large legacy.”
A father of two, Mr. Honderich lived in Toronto – of course – and spent summers at the family cottage on Georgian Bay. He was also a dedicated Toronto Raptors fan.
John Allen Honderich was born in Toronto in 1946 – into a life of newspapers. His father was Beland Honderich, also a former publisher of the Toronto Star – about whom John Honderich had written in a recently completed book. (He previously wrote the book Arctic Imperative: Is Canada Losing the North?, published in 1987.)
A graduate of a junior college in Switzerland, the University of Toronto and the London School of Economics, with degrees in political science and law, he initially rejected the idea of a career in journalism. “When I started … I hadn’t even written a letter to the editor,” he said in 2019.
Despite his family’s industry connections, he began his newspaper career in 1973 at the Ottawa Citizen, working as a copy boy and night reporter.
“His last name assured him a place in the C-suite,” said Tony Wong, the Star’s former television critic, noting Mr. Honderich worked his way up from the bottom. “I don’t know of any publisher of a major North American newspaper who would have taken that tortuous route. But this was someone who truly respected the ideals of journalism and putting in the work.”
Mr. Honderich joined the Toronto Star as a reporter in 1976. He later became bureau chief for the Star in Ottawa and Washington. After serving as deputy editor, he was appointed business editor in May, 1984. He became editor of the Star in 1988 and publisher in 1994.
In 2009, he became chair of the Torstar Board.
“John Honderich was a giant of Canadian journalism who believed deeply in building a better Toronto – and a better Canada,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tweeted late Saturday. “As we mourn his passing, I’m sending my deepest condolences to his family, friends, and former Toronto Star colleagues.”
In a thread of tweets, Toronto Mayor John Tory also expressed his condolences.
“John Honderich truly believed in Toronto, our city’s promise and its unique place in the world. He was just as passionate about the Toronto Star and how big a part quality journalism had to play in building a Toronto which was strong and prosperous but also inclusive and fair,” Mr. Tory wrote.
“His contributions beyond business were many, always motivated by a desire to make this a better place to live. He was a larger than life Torontonian who left us too soon and who will truly be missed.”
Mr. Honderich was a member of the Order of Canada and the Order of Ontario. He was the 2019 recipient of the Canadian Journalism Foundation’s Lifetime Achievement Award.
“His total dedication to journalism not only in Canada, but in emerging countries, is unrivalled,” the CJF said.
“A brilliant mind, a curious intelligence, and someone filled with scintillating good humour” is how jury member Adrienne Clarkson, the former governor-general, described Mr. Honderich in the award-ceremony video.
In his acceptance speech, Mr. Honderich emphasized the link between quality journalism and a healthy democracy. “Sadly, I think everyone knows there is a crisis in journalism today,” he said. It was an issue of great concern to him. In his speech, he quoted perhaps the Toronto Star’s most famous former reporter, Ernest Hemingway: “The best ammunition against lies is the truth.”
With his father in 1987, Mr. Honderich launched the Atkinson Fellowship in Public Policy. The Atkinson Principles, editorial values, which were embraced by Mr. Honderich – and many other journalists – are summarized as: “a strong, united and independent Canada; social justice; individual and civil liberties; community and civic engagement; the rights of working people; and the necessary role of government.”
The Atkinson Principles were the core of Mr. Honderich’s identity as journalist.
“He used to say that he bled blue,” said Phyllis Yaffe, former director of Torstar, a nod to the Star’s signature colour. “It was in his blood and it was in his heart.”
As Torstar chairman, Mr. Honderich – who was a member of the five families that controlled the company through a voting trust – agreed to a takeover by NordStar in 2020. Losing control of the company was “heart-wrenching” for Mr. Honderich, Ms. Yaffe said, but she noted that he remained a steadfast optimist about the Star’s future.
Said Ms. Yaffe: “It was his heritage, his family, his father – there was so much tied up in it for him. But you know, like a very brave soldier, he did the right thing.”
Former Toronto Star columnist Royson James told The Globe that Mr. Honderich was “absolutely one of the great figures in Canadian journalism.
“He saw something in me and I was and am determined to never let him down.”
Even in Mr. Honderich’s years on the business side of the newspaper, he remained a consummate newsman.
“Honderich was a businessman who, by job description, had to look after the dollars, which was easy when advertisers were knocking the Star doors off their hinges to advertise – 10 and 20 years ago,” former Toronto Star editor Michael Cooke said. “But times got tough and then desperate, and Honderich always protected the newsroom and reporters and The Truth – yes, with capital letters, against the Attacks of the Bean Counters. Reporters loved him.”
These sentiments were echoed by other industry leaders.
“He was one of a kind, there’s no doubt about it,” his long-time friend Scott White, former editor-in-chief of The Canadian Press news agency, said in an interview late Saturday. He noted that Mr. Honderich, along with The Globe’s Mr. Crawley, was “kind of the last of the lions of journalism in this country.”
Mr. White, who is now editor-in-chief of the Conversation Canada, an independent online publication that serves as a platform for academics, noted that among Mr. Honderich’s achievements was that he was largely responsible for the revival of CP.
Mr. White had spoken with his friend at length on Friday, and said Mr. Honderich had planned to travel to B.C. for an extended holiday later this month. They talked about – what else? – politics and the state of journalism.
“He really was the embodiment of the Atkinson Principles,” Mr. White said. “And he lived them and he believed them. And he felt he had to be the guardian of them. And I always respected him for that, because the Atkinson Principles sometimes got in the way of what might have been good business, but he always put them first. And someone who was just in there being a bean counter wouldn’t have done it that way. He cared about Canada, he cared about journalism and he loved the Star.”
With reports from Robyn Doolittle and The Canadian Press