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Only a Glimpse of Thomson Empire
Provided by The Thomson Empire

The Thomson Empire, Susan Goldenberg
Methuen Publications, 320 pages, $24.95

Reviewed By Gord McIntoshh


I spent my formative years, like a lot of journalists, working as a cub reporter for this strange family called the Thomsons. The venue of this weird initiation isn't really important because all Thomson papers are the same.

Everybody who has worked for Thomson Newspapers seems to have his or her favourite bizarre stories. And I have mine. It was the employer who left thousands of dollars' worth of equipment unguarded at night in the composing room but locked up the toilet paper.

Reporters were expected to supply their own notebooks. To be issued a new 19-cent Bic pen for assignments you had to take the old one down to the silver-haired old accountant and show her that the ink had run out. She never believed you anyway and held it up to the light before announcing "I guess you're due for another one." (Don't ask what would happen if you didn't have a Bic to flick. I never had the nerve to lose mine.) All mail, personal or otherwise, was opened — and read — by the publisher.

The publisher once told me without blushing that the company didn't like people winning Western Ontario Newspaper Awards because it would only make people expect quality in the product. Besides, the winner would only want a raise.

There was the company editorial manual entitled "Accentuating the Positive" and the time the managing editor said "Editors and publishers may not always be right but they are never wrong."

So The Thomson Empire by Susan Goldenberg will likely be read by jaded ex-employees with more than passing interest. There's the standard Horatio Alger yarn about how it all began with a near-sighted guy starting a radio station so that he could hawk his radios up north, and the touching account of how a decent, shy man like Ken Thomson built up the empire he inherited from father Roy in 1976.

Even though they have been described time and time again, the Thomsons' idio-syncracies always make good reading. The book tells why Roy Thomson started buying U.S. newspapers with the purchase of the St. Petersburg, Fla., Independent. Roy used to dock his boat there and by buying the paper he could write off the mooring costs as a tax expense.

"Ken Thomson gets his Christmas cards for nothing. He does this by allowing Hallmark to reproduce one painting a year from his collection of Krieghoffs, which is the world's largest.

Then there are all those famous quotes from Roy, like the time he called Scottish Television a "licence to print money." Or news as the stuff you stick between the ads.

The book does a nice job of piecing together where each company fits into the empire. In fact, it might be the best primer to date on the Thomson corporate tree and all the countries it shadows.

But that is what this book is, a primer. Thomson's 140 (or is it 142 now, I forget) North American newspapers are boiled down to a couple of chapters with references to some of the hoarier events occurring at some of them. There was the time the Lethbridge Herald was down-graded in quality because it was deemed to be too intellectual for its readers. The book also mentions how the Conservative burghers of Brampton, Ont., were allowed to run the editor and his reporter-wife out of town for stirring things up.

You could probably fill Maple Leaf Gardens with ex-Thomson employees, yet you could count the number interviewed in this book on your hand.

Somehow, that seems like tertiary treatment for a newspaper chain that has been assailed by two royal commissions and reviled all over the place. If any business deserves a critical look, Thomson is it.

What we get instead is a blow-by-blow account of how the Thomson business grew in travel, North Sea oil, book publishing, trade magazines. Much is devoted to the British operations. This book might be of more interest to readers in the United Kingdom. Thomson newspapers are well thought of there, hard to believe as that might be in North America.

There is also a detailed account of extensive executive infighting in the British companies. Yet little is said about what goes on at Thomson headquarters in Toronto. Several publishers and senior executives have quit or have been fired in recent years.

Colin McConechy, until 1980 the head of the editorial for Thomson and a staunch defender of the company when I reported to him, wound up testifying bitterly against his old employer at the Kent Commission. This man saw the Oshawa Times through a particularly nasty strike as managing editor in the 1960's. He is not interviewed.

Margaret Hamilton, briefly company president in 1980, mysteriously left the company after marrying another senior executive, St. Clair McCabe. Ken Thomson was quoted publicly as saying "She can't work here." That is not examined.

Goldenberg did manage to find some people with nice things to say about Thomson and she takes pains to record the other side of the story from company executives. That's fair enough. But the book leaves far too many questions unanswered.

For one thing, as someone who worked for them for 5 l/2 years, I'd like to know how the Hell they do it. The company's tightfistedness is legendary, yet it seems to welcome protracted labor disputes and will waste no time shutting down a paper for months. Reader boycotts are frequent.

At the Thomson daily where I worked the advertising manager frequently loaded the paper with house ads so that it could reach its minimum 12 pages. The ad department rarely came close to making its budget and sometimes whole sections of the city didn't receive papers. Our major competitor was a shopper carrying no editorial. It had 72 pages every Tuesday to our lousy 12. This Thomson paper is still limping along a decade later. The Brampton Daily Times has a circulation of 5,000 in a city of 100,000.

There are plenty of Thomson newspapers like this. A lot of them are losing money, according to some company executives I have spoken to.

Curiously, this is a company utterly without public vanity. It doesn't seem to care what its customers think. When a citizens' protest like the one in Lethbridge becomes a national story, one would think a company with any sense of public relations would put this fire out fast. If anything, it seemed to fan it.

A lot of Thomson's papers are in dilapidated buildings that Goldenberg rightly calls a disgrace. (Head office is lavishingly furnished in Chippendale furniture, mahogany panelling and carpeting so thick you run the risk of tripping in it, and of course the gallery of Krieghoffs. Ken Thomson likes beautiful things.)

The harder the criticism levelled at this empire, the stronger the profits. Its earnings in the first half of this year — $70.3 million — come close to matching what it was making in a full year four years ago.

Billionaire Ken Thomson is believed the wealthiest man in Canada. His empire may one day rival General Motors or IBM in capital strength. Yet this book reads like a committee report. It does neither the subject nor the reader justice.

Many of the answers about this company will never be known. The branch of Thomson I knew was a highly secretive organization whose executives often spoke in their own little code words. When a Thomson manager says an employee "wears a white hat" he means that person can be counted on to help keep a union out.

The book could have looked at the personalities of the father and son. Ken is rightly described as a kind and decent type who lets people tour his art gallery. He never cheats on his wife. Roy did, in his early years. But Ken Thomson was also the man who said "Each one has to find his own way in this world" after he shut down the Ottawa Journal.

Such a sketch may be fine for a newspaper article, but a book needs to probe deeper. For one thing, what prompted Roy to collect newspapers like they were postage stamps? And what prompts Ken to collect Krieghoffs in the same way?

The thousands of people around the world who work for this empire, shop in its stores, read its publications or travel on its vacation plans need to know a lot more. This book only provides a glimpse.

Gord Mclntosh is on the staff of The Canadian Press in Toronto.


Published in Sources, Winter 1984

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