Manitoba Historical Society
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The Canadian Newspaper Today

by George V. Ferguson

MHS Transactions, Series 3, 1959-60 Season

This article was published originally in MHS Transactions by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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The following is the text of the address by Mr. Ferguson to the Manitoba Historical Society at the Dinner Meeting, Fort Garry Hotel, on November 16, 1959, commemorating the one hundredth anniversary of the West's first newspaper, The Nor'Wester.

A hundred years of anything on the Canadian prairies is worth some kind of celebration, and I am deeply flattered that you should have chosen me to talk about one of these centenaries tonight. I am no scholar. Few journalists are-though some journalist-scholars are often remembered long after their contemporaries are forgotten. I appreciate the honour you have paid me, though I am also grateful that you have asked me to speak not about the history of journalism in Western Canada, not even the history of Canadian journalism as a whole, but of the Canadian newspaper today, and the part it plays in the development of our nation. I entered the field thirty-five years ago. If I have not good views, at least I have views. I welcome the opportunity to express them.

Before I do so, however, I would like to say a word or two about the two young men, William Buckingham, aged twenty-seven and William Coldwell, aged twenty-five, who, a hundred years ago, shipped their type, their press and themselves to Fort Garry. They did not, in transit, have the difficulties of Frank Oliver on his way to Edmonton to start the Bulletin twenty-five years later. That indomitable young man went west with his type by ox-cart from Fort Garry, and lost it all fording the North Saskatchewan River. Nothing daunted, he went back to Philadelphia, bought a new lot, and started west again, and this time, he reached Edmonton without serious mishap.

Buckingham and Coldwell were good newspapermen. That shines out of the first numbers of the Nor'Wester. They were badly handicapped by our standards. The news from Eastern Canada in the first issue, December 28, 1859, was dated August and September of that year, scalped out of papers like the Globe for which they had worked in Upper Canada. But the local coverage was just right, and all of it must have been like manna from heaven to the English-speaking settlers of the tiny colony. By our standards, the Nor'Wester would be called a little stodgy-long court reports, long accounts of sermons by Bishop Anderson, and so on: the columns wider than ours, the type much smaller, the display negligible. In those days, editors and readers alike went for hard news. There were no features, no Dick Tracys and L'il Abners, no cross-word puzzles, indeed no trivia of any kind, and-from our point of view-far too few advertisements. But they made a go of it.

Like many editors starting a paper before and after them, they stoutly denied they had any axe to grind: they were going to be nonpartisan, objective, impartial. In actual fact they were disciples of George Brown, determined to help the great campaign to destroy the Hudson's Bay Company monopoly, and effect the annexation of the Red River by Canada. But neither of them stuck too long at the job. John Christian Schultz had the paper by 1864, and there were no longer any claims to impartial purpose. Five years later, the Nor'Wester was seized by Louis Riel.

This brief dip into the past tempts me too much. Like a lot of other newspapermen, I'm a frustrated historian. I would like to go and on, and talk about the lively tradition of journalism on the western plains.

That famous old scalawag, Edward Farrar, who wrote the campaign literature for both sides in the federal election of 1882, served his term on the Nor'Wester. John W. Dafoe arrived first in these parts in 1886, not in time for the North-West Rebellion but in plenty of time for the collapse of the first real estate boom. But he was not a Nor'Wester man. He worked for Luxton on the old Manitoba Free Press. There was a lot of colour on the prairies at that time, and indeed long afterwards. It was only in our time that the prairies became a region of branch offices and of chain plants and the crushing force of big business made itself felt in a once strictly regional culture which owed much less to others than it owed to itself.

Don't let's shed too many tears over that, for there's no use weeping over the inevitable. The same thing has happened all over what once could be called the North American Great Plains. But, if we don't weep, let's at least sigh a sentimental sigh for the old colour, the individuality, the special flavour of the prairies. These qualities become shadowy, just as they have become virtually non-existent in Texas and Oklahoma, in Colorado and Wyoming, in the Dakotas, - as well as here. We are now the lackeys of big business, we have become the slaves of big capital responsibility. In a word, we have become terribly respectable, and, perhaps as a consequence, our newspapers make a terrible lot of money. All this has its points-particularly if you happen to own a newspaper.

This leads me on to my main theme, - the newspaper of today and its usefulness to our society and, in this context, the question of profits, after all, has relatively little importance. It is no virtue for a newspaper to make no money. It has indeed very definite dangers, for an unprofitable newspaper is subject to pressures which a healthy newspaper is not. But I cling to the belief, which receives not too much support in actual practice, that an ideal newspaper should be prepared to sacrifice something in a money way if it is to perform its proper function. Let's not ask too much. Let's not imagine that a newspaper should behave like Don Quixote, and tilt at windmills, and, in so doing, run into the red and die. But I do believe that a really great newspaper will, on occasion, jeopardize its financial statement for the sake of presenting facts and opinions unpalatable to many of its readers, when it profoundly believes this should be done. In this respect, the opinions can be more important than the facts from the point of view of the balance sheet. Therefore some courage is needed. Most newspapers, nowadays, present the facts, one way or another. But there are times when opinions can affect adversely both circulation and advertising.

You may think that I have not yet got to my main theme, and that I am talking around it. Let me move on a bit, and perhaps we'll get to the heart of the business, - a heart not too far removed from the early days of the Nor'Wester. My years in the newspaper business have coincided with the growth of the newspaper's first really serious competitors in the field of mass communication, - radio and television. They scared the hell out of the newspaper publishers. Looking back at it, it all looks a bit ludicrous, but, after all, I was never in the position of having a million or two invested in a newspaper plant. Many people came rapidly to the conclusion in the 1920s that radio was not here to stay. In this they fell into the same pattern as the keepers of livery stables fifty years ago who believed that the automobile was a passing phase. The horse and buggy, after all, was the safe, dependable thing. The publishers got over this, and after more years than you can imagine. It was not really until the 1940s that they got around, en masse, to believing that they had to get along with radio. And, at that point, they all began, or a lot of them, to buy radio stations themselves. The reason they gave, of course, was that, because they were newspaper publishers, they had special knowledge about how to operate a radio station-on examination, a phoney argument, but which, like many phoneys, lingers stubbornly on.

Thus the first competitive crisis came more or less to an end. There were problems, of course, about the sharing of the advertising dollar. Particularly when it came to wage negotiations, the cry would go up in newspaper circles that the economic base of the industry was in jeopardy, and it could afford to pay no more. Competition may indeed have increased the speed of the trend to consolidation and monopoly, a trend which continues, but which began long before radio as the names of many Canadian newspapers go to show: the Halifax Chronicle Herald, the Saint John Telegraph-Journal, the Toronto Globe and Mail, the Kingston Whig-Standard, the Fort William Times-Journal, the Stratford Beacon-Herald, the Regina Leader-Post, the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix.

The radio crisis was, of course, succeeded by another, - the television crisis, and the inroads of this somewhat competitive medium upon the advertising dollar. Again there were great cries of anguish in the counting house and it was duly announced that the end of the world was at hand. Events repeated themselves. There was a publishers' rush for TV licenses, with the simple objective that if one had to lose on the swings, there was much to be said for winning something on the merry-go-rounds. There has not been, however, anything like the degree of the radio panic. The fact is that the newspaper business is, generally speaking, in a pretty healthy state.

It has, however, completely changed from the days when Coldwell and Buckingham founded the Nor'Wester, and the change was epitomized in the course of a CBC TV interview with Roy Thomson a few months ago. Mr. Thomson came back to Canada shortly after his purchases of the Kensley Press in England. He was asked what he considered to be his major contribution to the development of the press. He replied that he thought he had performed a public service in putting his newspapers on a sound business basis. There had been, he said, far too little attention paid in the past to the business end of the operation. Editors used to own their newspapers. He had, he said, the highest regard for them, but they were not, in fact, very good businessmen. He bought newspapers and made them solvent and he left their editors as much independence as he could. If they took a news and editorial line that was bad for business, then perhaps something had to be done about it. He would certainly ask questions. But he preferred, on the whole, to leave them alone: they knew their own business best, and he certainly did not want them to do anything because it might suit his business interests to advocate them. He could, he said, look after himself.

This point of view has merit. It has candor and honesty. Mr. Thomson does not pretend to any great ideological or political crusades. Indeed, in the interview, he looked back at his nomination for a Conservative seat in the Ontario Legislature, and said it was one of the greatest mistakes he ever made, and he was glad he was beaten. He does not pretend that he is a publisher because he wants to advocate ideas and policies. He wanted to become a millionaire, and he succeeded. He still wants to make money. I prefer his candor to the pretensions of some other publishers who love to talk grandly about the promulgation of ideas, while in actual fact, they are in the business for what they can make out of it.

Roy Thomson has, in my mind, still another good mark. At the time when most of his colleagues in the trade were trying to buy radio stations in order to give them an anchor to windward, he sold his radio stations and bought newspapers. He was, in other words, smarter than his fellows, and this is a point I would like to elaborate a bit now. At a time when newspaper publishers were beginning to think they had better buy radio stations or perish miserably, Roy Thomson was selling his radio stations, and buying newspapers. He was, in this respect, several jumps ahead of the crowd. That means, in turn, that, if making profits out of the mass communication business is the end to be desired, Mr. Thomson is a lot smarter than most of his colleagues in the trade. It does not mean, of course, that he is a cut above the old editor-publishers of the past. They had other objectives in view, and the making of profit was not their major aim. But, if we have got to an age where the manufacture of soap or the manufacture of newspapers is on an even keel, then I put Mr. Thomson in the front rank of publishers, for he knows how to make a lot of money out of them.

Don't think, from all this, that I do not regret the brave old days of Coldwell and Buckingham, or of Nicholas Flood Davin in Regina, or of Frank Oliver in Edmonton. They were great old days when men threw their caps over the windmill and to hell with the consequences. But I am realist enough to know that dreaming about the brave old days won't bring them back and, as a matter of fact, the brave old days had many flaws. They were days when newspapers were often insolvent, and the result was terribly poor wages and terribly long hours for the working staff. They were days too when, by our standards, reporting was terribly partisan, and what got into the news columns was very often a mere reflection of what the politically-minded editor wanted to see there.

There was, indeed, no golden age in the business of journalism. The brave old days had their flaws and mighty big ones. The modern age has its flaws too. One of them is being a wing of big business with all its caution and its sense of responsibility to the capital invested in it, and its need to provide a profit. But you can't have everything all at one time, and, in any event, you can't reverse the kind of trend I've been talking about tonight. We have, at all events, passed into a new era.

So now, after all this time, let me get back to my point of departure and the fears and horrors experienced in the newspaper trade when, for the first time in several centuries, it was faced by real competition. This after all is the point that matters about the newspaper today. What service is it performing, and what value has it? That value, or so it seems to me, becomes in the face of competition, greater and not less. The newspaper is entering on a new era in which its value to a democracy is increased, and not diminished by the competition of the last thirty years.

To understand this fully it is worth examining, to begin with, the nature of the society the newspaper serves. That society is one filled with uneasiness, with fear, with instability and insecurity. In saying so I am not talking mainly about the cold war and nuclear weapons. These are relatively minor manifestations of what I mean. The real causes lie far deeper. Far more important in the creation of these basic conditions of weakness is the continuing industrial and technical revolution, the impact of incessant change upon societies ill-adapted to face it. The change in human environment in the last 250 years has been greater than it was in the 25,000 years that preceded the modern age. Our ancestors, for many centuries, were peasants and tillers of the soil. Before that they were hunters. Many of us here are only one, two or three generations removed from the land. Our heritage is the heritage of the peasant, rooted in his acres. The only change of which he was conscious was the change of the seasons. His production was the result of his own labour, mingled with the sunshine and the rain.

What has happened to his descendants, increasingly hived in cities, living literally on top of each other, constantly changing jobs and residence, a restlessly moving swarm of creatures? If they are as happy as their ancestors-and they probably are - it is a happiness differently based and on different values. What is certain is their loss of roots and the security that roots give us. And with that loss, and perhaps because of it, there has come the widespread loss of real religious faith, that deep sense of the continuity of the existence of the human soul, the recognition of the belief that our life on earth is only a part, and not the major part, of the spirit's immortality.

These facts - and they are fundamental to what I want to say - contribute mightily to the kind of newspapers we have, the kind of radio we have, the kind of television we most enjoy, and to the kind of effect our mass communications - that pretentious phrase - have upon those who read, who listen and who view.

Because I believe that most of these facts are ineluctable, I am driven to a major conclusion. The first is that, by the nature of the society in which we live, certainly in that society's present stage of development, the media of mass communication cannot be very different from what they now are. Those who urge reform and better practices upon press, radio and television overlook the fundamental causes which make them what they are. If they are febrile, unbalanced, trivial and neurotic, they are the servants of a society which has itself been made so by the plunging progress of the technologists.

I am not, of course, talking about the handful of deliberately dishonest and unscrupulous men and women who from time to time entrench themselves in the newspaper and electronic fields. Bad as they are, I am not really interested in them, because even if the industry as a whole were open to sweeping reform and betterment, they would exempt themselves from all reformist tendencies as long as they went on making money. You put up with them just as you necessarily put up with some incurable type of non-fatal disease. You learn to live with it.

What I am talking about is the huge majority of decent newspapers, radio and television stations, staffed by decent men and women who yet find themselves applying to their work standards both of judgment and of conduct which they would not for an instant apply to their own private affairs or to their relations with their families and friends. Because of this, I go on the assumption that they act as they do professionally because there is, under the circumstances, no other way to act. There is no escaping it. As well ask a monkey to turn into an elephant overnight as to ask for an overnight, or indeed an over-years, change in present practices. In the present state of society I do not believe that what we have can be made much better. If we believe in progress, and in a basic will to human improvement, we are bound to believe that newspapers, radio and television will get better too. There are signs of it. We are in what we call the objective era of reporting, and we regard this rightly as a vast improvement over the old days when no editor consciously ever gave a political opponent a break. They were usually consciously unfair, which would insult a modern newspaper reader. The modern trend has been toward far greater objectivity in the reporting of hard news. But, at the same time, more and more space has been given not to serious news but to entertainment, comics, features, sports and the like. There has been, if you like, a balancing process which has been better and more informative in some ways, far more trivial in others. It would be interesting to learn if expenditures on hard news have kept pace with the expenditures on entertainment features. One of the most successful newspapers in the world today, the London Daily Mirror, hardly publishes any hard news at all, though its daily sales outstrip those of any other daily newspaper in the English-speaking world.

But, if a newspaper specializes in trivia, what is to be said for its competitors in the mass communication field? The question only has to be asked to be answered. The fact is that in retrospect, it can be seen that if radio and television were certainly competitors for the advertising dollar; they were never competitors of the goods which the newspaper traditionally provided. In spite of all the frills and sidelines published in a newspaper, its backbone has been news, interpretation of the news and comment on the news. Radio and television affected newspaper techniques. They killed stone dead the excitement of Extras. Newspaper production is, by ordinary standards, very fast. But under the best conditions it would take a newspaper thirty minutes to hit the street after the reception of a piece of exceptional news. Publication by radio was possible thirty seconds after the receipt of the news, and radio was on the third, fourth or fifth laps of amplification before the cumbersome scanty newspaper Extra, mostly froth and headlines, hit the street.

So that was the end of the Extra and while old-timers like myself regret the loss of the excitement and the obvious promotion a newspaper got from its production of an Extra-the so obvious sign of a newspaper monopoly of one of the world's most exciting commodities there was no great harm done to any one. Radio took over that field, and took it over very well. Incidentally, it still has it, for television is not well adapted to spot reporting. It likes to dress its news up with pictures, and often chooses its news because it has some camera product available to go with it,-and sometimes a very phoney product it turns out to be.

As time went on, it became obvious that radio had its sharp limitations. It could produce spot news and add to it, but the sad fact was discovered that the ear of the listener was not so acute as the eye of the reader. I found this out early in my reporting career. The degree of concentration required to take facts in by the ear alone was more than I could keep up for long, - and you doubtless have shared this humiliating experience. Besides that, there were distractions. A movement in the room, perhaps even a low buzz of conversation, competed with the ear desperately tuned to the radio. Long before I got into my head the effect of these difficulties on the future of my own trade, I realized that, if I wanted to be sure of my facts, I had to read them, not see them or listen to them. The effect was more lasting, and I think this goes back to something I was saying earlier. Our peasant ancestors still to a large extent control the speed with which our minds work. If they could read at all, their lips moved when they read. Ours seldom move in the same way, but we are just as slow, or nearly so, in our perceptions.

What is true of radio is even more true of television, even though television appeals to two senses instead of one. Malcolm Muggeridge had something to say about this recently:

"The thought has occasionally occurred to me that, if the present obsession with television continues, the written word may become unnecessary, irrelevant and therefore obsolete. Mankind may develop square eyes or, at any rate, a single square eye in the middle of the forehead." But he summed up, from my point of view-and perhaps from yours also-more hopefully. He suggested that television might rescue journalism from the triviality and sensationalism which have so corrupted it, and he added:

"It might force journalism to return to an earlier, better tradition by, as it were, syphoning off the excrescences - the cheese-cake, the gossip, the overplaying of news stories, to make a more dramatic effect - simply because of the happy chance that, in this field, television is unbeatable. I often think to myself that if the Christian gospels had first been presented to mankind on television, the founder of the Christian religion might well have become a television personality-but there would have been no Christianity. For that, the written gospels were necessary. There is that great, majestic, incomprehensible phrase 'In the beginning was the word' - but it was a written word, not a telecast or a televised word."

Malcolm Muggeridge is right. We have seen enough of radio and television to know that now. The press, with all its tendencies to simplification, to exaggeration and to triviality has become by long odds the most responsible medium of communication that society has. The newspaper, such as it is, has become the solid backbone of democratic communication. The newspaper represents the only permanent record that now exists. The world of radio or of television passes like a vision or like a bad dream. We await the newspaper to see what it was that somebody actually said or did. The other media are too fast. They outstrip us. We get, if we are lucky, the salient fact. Then we are assailed by doubts. Did we hear aright? Did we see and hear aright? Our slowwitted minds turn with relief when they hear the clump of the newspaper on the front stoop: we can, from that moment on, take in the facts at our leisure; and, when we have read them once, we can read them a second, a third, a fourth or a fifth time, depending on our interest. It is there, a permanent matter of record, - permanent that is until the housewife's need to wrap the garbage up in something. Then the record is gone, but I have yet to hear of the housewife who wrapped the garbage up in her radio or television set. That may come. It has not come yet.

The result of this argument, if it has any validity at all, is a queer one. The newspaper, if it ever did, no longer has to stand on the defensive. It is the most reliable, the most enduring record of events which modern society possesses. Before it had time to cast off its faults, it assumed this position, and it is possible to assume that the limitations and the excesses of its two rivals will drive it into greater and greater respectability. The newspaper, indeed, has achieved in its several centuries of growth, certain standards of performance from which it relatively seldom departs. It is a private enterprise, dominated as it must be by the need both of solvency and profit-and neither I may add in parenthesis is a sin-but it has developed certain standards of conduct and behaviour. These may not suit you, but they are there, and they are growing stronger. Newspapers in many quarters are considered irresponsible organs. The term is relative. In comparison with their competitors they are as responsible as the Christian Church. I do not mean by this that journalists are dedicated clergymen. They are not. But I do mean that, by comparison with the directors of radio and television, they behave with a greater sense of responsibility and respectability than their younger competitors. There are certain things they refuse to do. There are other things they do in full knowledge of the fact that what they are doing will not be widely read and that, if they are, they will not be popular. They do this because, over the years, they have been affected, in the American legal phrase, by a public interest. The standards of their competitors are much more uncertain.

I do not mean by this that newspapers are approaching perfection or anything like it. All that I mean is that they are the best purveyor of information we have, and-because their competitors are worse they are likely to become still better. We no longer have the same incentive to behave badly. Our competitors can behave badly so much better! And, since it is important socially and politically for a democracy to have some reasonably reliable medium of communication, I am personally well pleased that I have been able to earn my living as I have done.

What I have been trying to say, if you will let me sum up briefly. is that the daily newspaper in its two centuries of life has, in a queer way, developed a tradition. You can, if you study the history of the trade, watch an uneven if relatively steady development to that end. It is a tradition which increasingly demands that facts are sacred and that readers must have them. Nowadays, if an editor or a publisher seeks to suppress facts he is likely to run into some form of opposition from the underlings on the staff. These young men and women are groping toward something that might be called "professional status". They are a long way from getting it, for journalism is not a profession in the strict sense of the word. But they have a feeling that there are certain standards they would like to maintain. Contrariwise, there are some young smart alecks in the lower echelons of the trade who think it would be clever to distort or to omit facts. These, as often as not, are rebuked and certain standards of performance are laid down.

I recall a story which John W. Dafoe, the great editor of the Free Press, used to tell about the publisher of the paper in Sherbrooke, Quebec. A friend told him he was going to run for Parliament but he was frightened by the prospect that Mr. X was going to run too. "I'll tell you what I'll do," said the publisher. "I won't publish the fact that he is running, and no one will know it but himself." Those days are gone.

All this means the growth and the growing firmness of tradition, a word I didn't think too much of when I was young but one for which I have learned increasing respect, and I rejoice to observe the growth of a worthy one in my own trade.

Our competitors in radio and television will come to the same thing sooner or later. Meanwhile they are too young for the idea to have made too much impact, and this is hardly surprising when you consider that the older of them is not yet forty years old. Traditions build slowly.

As to the younger of them, - well, you watch television as I do, and not much has to be said. What interested me, when the quiz scandals broke was the number of TV fans who kept asking what all the shooting was about. Wasn't TV just show business, and who expected anything of show business? Well, sure enough. But I think that a sport like baseball is show business too and should, on this argument, be run on television ground rules. Yet, in 1919, when the Chicago White Sox threw the World Series and took bribes, there was a terrible row about it, which makes me think that baseball is old enough to have a tradition, and when you have that, there are some things simply not done.

Now I am near the end of things, but it would be a churlish and an ungracious thing if I did not say a word or two about some of the men - and some of the women too - who helped to create the western newspaper tradition that was begun a hundred years ago by The Nor'Wester. Their names should be remembered. W. F. Luxton, R. T. Richardson, M. E. Nichols, E. H. Macklin and John W. Dafoe here in Winnipeg. Every one of them lived through the hurly-burly and left their trade better off than when they entered it. There were Davin and Oliver in the early days in Regina and Edmonton, and the next generation saw W. A. Buchanan in Lethbridge, E. H. Woods in Calgary, John Imrie and Balmer Watt in Edmonton, W. F. Herman in Saskatoon, and later still, those two children of the Free Press, D. B. MacRae and J. S. Woodward in Regina and Saskatoon respectively.

If there are toasts to be drunk tonight, I would like to raise my glass to them, for everyone of them without exception raised the standards of journalism in the cities where they lived, and left their newspapers better than when they found them. They are names to be honoured, and if I hold that the greatest of them was my old chief, Dafoe, I only share the opinion the others all had of him. He was a towering figure, a great man, and his integrity was like granite.

Page revised: 7 March 2011

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