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
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
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
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
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
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
Published in Sources, Winter 1984
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