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Version of Tely Demise Disputed

Book Review by John Marshall


It was a union iceberg that in 1971 sank the Tely Titanic, says Peter Worthington — looking for trouble — in his book Looking for Trouble.

In one of the more revisionist sections, he gives his version of events leading up to the killing of Canada's third-largest newspaper, the Toronto Telegram. He blames The Newspaper Guild, particularly for what he repeatedly calls a strike vote, for pushing the poor publisher, John Bassett, into announcing 48 hours later that he couldn't keep the paper going. Worthington says the union organizers were demanding that Bassett — with a paper that lost $1-million in 1970 to the Toronto Star's $3-million profit — match a Star pay hike of about $40 over two years.

But as was reported at the time, and in Jock Carroll's November 1971 book The Death of the Toronto Telegram; in Maggie Siggins' revealing 1979 biography Bassett, in the October 1971 Content magazine and in Editor and Publisher, Sept. 25, 1971, the facts are quite different.

To begin with the union vote — 298 to 111 — was not to go on strike. It was the common resolution giving negotiators in tough bargaining the authority to call a strike if a breakdown in negotiations made it necessary. In this case of union solidarity (praised by rightists only if it happens in Poland) few thought there actually would be a strike.

The vote Worthington calls a charade. Yes it was. That was because Bassett had already pushed the other owners, including the Eaton merchant family, into a decision to close the paper. Their then political editor, Fraser Kelly, now at the CBC, also counters Worthington. The night of the vote he was at a dinner with the publisher, and Bassett said no matter how the vote went the paper was through, and that he didn't give a shit about the paper any more. That was in two other books for Worthington to read.

Worthington didn't tell his colleagues that he and his wife had been tipped off by Bassett to look for a job elsewhere. But he told that dramatic membership meeting that if Bassett had warned he might close the paper if wage demands were too high, then he would. "He (Bassett) might gamble, but he didn't bluff or lie."

Now — with the facts long available — Worthington avoids telling how Bassett was gambling, how the union called his bluff, and how Bassett tipped over the table.

What the union didn't know was that Bassett had two wild cards up his sleeve.

The union objective had been the Star's wage level. But when Bassett opened his books to union auditors, negotiators admitted there was a problem. Bassett had proposed a wage freeze and a $10 raise the next year (not the immediate $10 Worthington reports). The union committee saw Bassett and raised, said they'd take the freeze but as an IOU, with a deserved raise for the year payable when the paper made a profit. And — also unreported by Worthington although revealed in 1971 in Content by Marc Zwelling, the Guild local's president — a union analysis agreed with a management one that the paper could break even in 1972 and make a profit in 1973. Bassett had rejected the proposal. And Siggins later documented that a substantial amount of Bassett's big losses were paper ones attributed to depreciation. And there was a leaked management study showing how efficiencies could be made.

But what organizers didn't know when they sought support from a membership not noted for militancy was that there'd be no more bargaining. And as Time magazine later reported following hectic unionists' efforts to get buyers to save the paper, a "buyer" had already been found. The Star was paying $10-million, allegedly for the Tely's circulation list, and $2-million for two years' use of its modern presses. The Globe was then getting the paper's plant for $7-million. Worthington mentions only the Star's Sl2-million, all of which he says was for the so-called circulation list.

Worthington also says if Bassett had only realized the Star was moving to a new building and going to have trouble with its new presses, he could have held on and successfully profited from its problems. Worthington blames the publisher's "minions" for not having this knowledge and telling Bassett.

The CBC's Ron Haggart, then a star, hard-news Tely columnist who was kept on salary but banned by Bassett from writing because of his support of the Guild, says that's one of Worthington's errors, too. It was common knowledge in the industry the Star move had been years in the planning. And Bassett knew the trouble he, himself, had had with his own new presses only a few years before.

Worthington also reports that the remarkable Telegram (elsewhere I've described it as a mix of brilliance and banality) had once been a place of great esprit but that it had become a place of "lethargy, bitterness and cover-your-ass journalism."

I guess he was out of town too much to know what was going on. From Canada's centennial year to 1971, its "lethargic" staff won 14 major writing awards compared to the Star's 13 and the Globe's five. In its last two years it was winner of the most prestigious award for graphic excellence and design.

While Worthington was obsessed with international matters, particularly Soviet spies, only the kind of team spirit that existed at the Tely could have pulled off a unique and still-unequalled cross-Canada project, "Canada 70." It was the most in-depth journalists' study ever made of the country and ended up as a boxed set of six McClelland and Stewart books. About 4,000 people up to and including Prime Minister Trudeau participated in this "cover-your-ass" project by a team of top reporters and editors, additional freelancers, Le Devoir staffers, sociologists and computermen.

As for "bitterness," as just one of the journeymen journalists involved, I felt none of that in those final years reporting from Ireland, Cuba, the United States, Quebec, Bahamas, Newfoundland, the shores of James Bay and elsewhere.

But I did become bitter at the management attitude that forced us into that final Guild meeting. Worthington writes that I stood up and said I'd "go out and shovel snow rather than debase (myself) and accept a wage settlement below that of the Star." He said the same thing in a 1982 column when Guild complaints about the intransigence of Globe and Mail ownership made him break out in a case of cloudy deja vu. He published my subsequent letter saying that I had learned from him the meaning of the science fiction term, "time warp." It apparently did not send him to Sun files or elsewhere to check on his memory.

My participation was correctly reported in the news at the time and by Jock Carroll, a Telegram feature writer at the meeting. I did not speak to any money demand. Foolishly, that has never been an obsession of mine in this business. I was responding to a troubled Helen Gagen, food editor, who said a strike would have everyone out shovelling snow for a living. "That may be all right for some of you younger people — but not people of my age."

I was then a white-haired 50 (Worthington reported 45). I was — judging by her appearance — older than Helen. Almost in its entirety, my assurance of at least some older support for the younger people was: "I'd rather be out shovelling snow than on the paper the way it is being run now!" — J.M.


Check the original reviewed version : The Trouble With Looking For Trouble


Published in Sources, Winter 1984

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