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The Toronto Star building is shown in Toronto on June 8, 2016.Eduardo Lima/The Canadian Press

The proposed sale of the Toronto Star to two Bay Street deal makers should have Joseph Atkinson rolling in his grave. The newspaper’s legendary editor and long-time controlling shareholder did everything within his power to ensure that the Star continued to reflect its social-justice and welfare-state ethos beyond his death in 1948. And the “Atkinson principles” have remained at the core of the Toronto broadsheet’s journalistic mission ever since.

It is a sign, however, of the desperate times in which the newspaper industry finds itself that Canada’s once dominant metropolitan daily is about to be sold for a relative song to two businessmen, one of whom has specialized in rescuing fallen corporate giants. There were few options left for the Star’s parent company, Torstar Corp., which was already bleeding red ink even before the novel coronavirus pandemic sapped what was left of its advertising revenue base.

What the proposed sale of Torstar for just more than $51-million to an entity called NordStar Capital, controlled by Jordan Bitove and Paul Rivett, really means will depend on whether the two men are serious about ensuring the paper continues to adhere to the Atkinson principles. Those principles would seem to be out of sync with the deal-making, cost-cutting, property-flipping capitalist ethos that Mr. Bitove and Mr. Rivett have embodied in business. Both men are known to support Conservative causes and politicians, not the small- and capital-L ones with which the Star has always been associated. They are free-marketeers; the Star, not so much.

Both men referred to the Star’s “brand” as the paper’s best asset. Yet, I can’t think of anything more insulting to Mr. Atkinson’s legacy, or to the journalists who seek to uphold it, than to refer to the Star as a brand, like Tide or Nike or Apple. The Star’s progressive values are not a marketing tactic to attract left-leaning readers. They’re bred in the bone.

I experienced those values firsthand when I was hired as a Star summer intern in 1988, as the country debated then-Progressive Conservative prime minister Brian Mulroney’s free-trade deal with the United States. At the height of the era of deregulation and the downsizing of the welfare state, the Star stuck religiously to its Canadian nationalist and progressive principles and fought the trade deal with everything it could throw at it.

“This deal strikes at the heart of our sovereignty, radically diminishing in energy, investment, agriculture, the environment and culture our ability to function as an independent country. In short, it strikes at our very capacity to maintain our distinctiveness,” a Star editorial proclaimed on the eve of that year’s historic federal election that returned Mr. Mulroney to power.

The Star lost the free-trade battle – the Tories even swept 18 of Metro Toronto’s 33 ridings that year – but it never lost its soul. You could agree or disagree with what the paper stood for, but you could never deny the authenticity of its values or its commitment to upholding them.

I returned to the Star as a full-time reporter in 1990 and spent four years writing for its business and national sections. By far the country’s largest circulation newspaper, the Star was everything you would have expected a big North American metropolitan daily to be back then.

The paper’s massive fifth-floor newsroom at One Yonge Street buzzed constantly as we raced to produce morning and afternoon editions of the paper, taking delight in beating The Globe and Mail to print with the day’s news. Neither The Globe nor the Toronto Sun could match the depth and breadth of the Star’s coverage of the city it served. Today, its pages reflect the multicultural miracle that Canada has become.

Back in my day, the mood in the Star’s newsroom was unfailingly joyful and optimistic, just like its then-editor-in-chief John Honderich. But optimism only goes so far in an economic environment that has made big-city newspapers such as the Star an endangered species.

As a member of one of the five families who control Torstar’s voting shares, it must be excruciating for Mr. Honderich to preside over the paper’s sale to, well, a couple of unapologetic capitalists. He must know that, if the sale goes through, it will mark the end of the Star as he knows it. Mr. Bitove and Mr. Rivett can argue otherwise all they want. But buying a newspaper is not the same thing as buying into a newspaper’s ideals.

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