As It Happens

Torstar chair hopeful papers will hold onto progressive values under new ownership

Torstar, which owns dozens of digital businesses in Canada and publishes more than 70 newspapers including the Toronto Star, has been sold to NordStar Capital for $52 million. John Honderich, chair of Torstar's board, spoke to As It Happens about the decision.

Layoffs are 'probably close to inevitable' after $52M deal, says John Honderich

John Honderich is the chair of the board of Torstar. The media company announced this week it has been sold to private firm NordStar. (Aaron Vincent Elkaim/The Canadian Press)


The chair of Torstar's board of directors says he's hopeful the media company will retain its progressive values under its new ownership. 

The company, which owns dozens of digital businesses in Canada and publishes more than 70 newspapers including the Toronto Star, has been sold to NordStar Capital for $52 million.

The move will transform Torstar from a public company with voting shares controlled by five families, into a private company owned by NordStar, which is run by businessmen Jordan Bitove and Paul Rivett.

John Honderich, chair of Torstar's board of directors and former publisher of the Toronto Star, spoke to As It Happens host Carol Off about the decision. Here is part of their conversation. 

In your op-ed, you said it was time to pass the torch. Why now?

It got to a situation where we didn't have either the resources or the determination to take it further.

The financial situation for media today in newspapers is exceptionally tough, has been. COVID exacerbates all that. And so we felt it was time for people who had the resources and the determination to take over and see if these brands can be successful.

OK, so I understand from what you said, you didn't have the resources. Why didn't you have the determination?

We probably did have the determination, but without the resources, that wasn't going to work.

A sign reading 'Toronto Star' is seen on a building.
The Toronto Star building in downtown Toronto. (Eduardo Lima/The Canadian Press)

You talked about how it was a very frustrating day. What does this mean for you? You've been there for a number of decades, haven't you?

I've been [there] four decades, in fact.

What really matters to me is the voices of the papers, particularly the Toronto Star. There aren't a lot of great progressive voices out there.

And what makes you think that the people, the men, who are buying Torstar, are actually going to continue with those principles?

First of all, I would say Jordan Bitove came to the five families. He also came to the board of directors and personally made his pitch, talked about his commitment to the principles.

He was very clear that the Star has a very distinct brand as the progressive brand, and that it makes good business sense to maintain it as this voice.

To, say, turn it into one more conservative newspaper, that doesn't make any business sense.

How does it make business sense for them if it doesn't make sense for you and the other families? 

It's going to take resources and money to get things going, to take steps. I mean, the runway was, in fact, getting shorter and shorter.

I think it's an open question, Carol, as to whether or not you can have three competing subscription models in the country. We had a subscription model for our paper. So does the Globe. So does Postmedia. 

Is it possible there may be combinations in the future and that will involve financing, getting things together? Those are the kind of considerations and deals they may well be thinking of doing.

And it was not just the Toronto Star. You have progressive papers — the Hamilton Spectator, the Waterloo Region Record. You've got 70 community newspapers.


What future do they have?

I mean, you're right. The audience today, this is a fundamental question that I think this country is facing.

Are people prepared to pay for news? Everyone is out there trying to get subscribers. That's the model everyone's trying to do.

We've seen it work extraordinarily well in the United States with the New York Times. And it has a national mandate — in fact, an international mandate.

Can one Canadian digital service work? I've certainly come to the view that I think perhaps one can work. But three? And so that's going to involve bringing various properties together and doing something. I think that's more likely the path that will come forward.

Well, it sounds like you have some kind of a vision. Why didn't you proceed with that instead of selling?

You have to have the resources to do all that. Things don't come for free. You have to have the financing. You have to have the capital to make these things happen.

A StarMetro newspaper stand is shown at a subway station in Toronto on June 28, 2018. (Doug Ives/The Canadian Press)

We have seen these kinds of shakeups in the industry. We've seen papers being sold and reshaped. It almost always comes with job losses. What do you anticipate in that department?

I don't know what their plans are, but unfortunately, given the circumstances that we're in, I mean, given this pandemic and what we're already going through, you are seeing in the news media industry furloughs, four-day weeks, layoffs and everything. The government's 75 per cent wage subsidy has helped alleviate. How long will that go? How much will we be affected?

I can tell you, no one wants to advertise now. Things aren't open. Maybe that's going to open up a bit more. Maybe we're going to see. But so far, advertising has been dramatic.

Given that, eventually that leads to job loss. The sad reality.

Is that inevitable?

Given where we are ... probably close to inevitable.

If it hadn't been for this pandemic, do you think that you could have held on?

I will tell you that the offer, which was unsolicited, came in just before the pandemic, and we were still considering it seriously. But certainly COVID accentuated that process.

What does this day mean for you, personally?

It's the end of an era. This has been my life. I guess you could call it, Carol, my mission in terms of helping to put out this paper. It certainly affected me profoundly.

It's a sad day.

Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview produced by Chris Harbord. Edited for length and clarity.

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