Former Toronto Star publisher John Honderich was a champion of journalism and reporters

Torstar Chairman John Honderich addresses shareholders at their annual general meeting in Toronto on Wednesday, May 7, 2014.Aaron Vincent Elkaim/The Canadian Press

When NordStar Capital co-owner Jordan Bitove first approached John Honderich about buying the parent company of the Toronto Star in February 2020, the chairman of Torstar Corp. of the time handed him a book.

The 144 pages contained some of the Toronto Star’s best work. The compilation was a labor of love for Mr. Honderich which was released to commemorate the paper’s 110th anniversary. Entitled Humanity firstaccording to a noted quote from legendary Star editor Joseph E. Atkinson, the gift was meant to serve as a history lesson for Mr. Bitove and his business partner Paul Rivett.

What Mr. Honderich “was really trying to teach me and inspire me was the importance of what I was about to undertake. I wasn’t buying a widget factory. I was buying an important part of Toronto history – Canadian history – and I was not to take it lightly,” Bitove said in a phone interview Sunday. “It was his way of basically handing me, you know, the Bible.”

Mr Bitove, who is now the Star’s publisher and co-owner of Torstar, said he read the book cover to cover. After NordStar prevailed over a competing bidder in a battle for control of Torstar, Mr. Bitove thanked Mr. Honderich for giving him the book. It continues to sit on Mr. Bitove’s coffee table as a tribute to Mr. Honderich, whose passion for journalism marked the Star.

Mr Honderich, who was also a former editor and publisher of The Star, died on Saturday after suffering a heart attack. He was 75 years old.

Born into a family of journalists, Mr. Honderich, in his ubiquitous bow tie, was a legendary champion of journalism and journalism, dedicated to Canadian politics and social justice issues. In fact, he never stopped giving his opinion on the Star’s journalism.

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“He talked about what we could improve on – which he felt needed a push, a push, a kick,” said Mr. Bitove, recounting his last meeting with Mr. Honderich in December.

“That lunch we spent 2 1/2 hours, and he was brilliant as always giving really solid advice on how we can improve paper and do better.

Mr Bitove said he intended to ask Mr Honderich to cut the ribbon at the Star’s new headquarters after it opens next August or September.

Phillip Crawley, Publisher and CEO of The Globe and Mail, said: “For two decades John and I have been competitors and collaborators. Despite the trade rivalry, we often found common cause, especially when we traveled together to Ottawa in 2010 to ask for federal support for pension relief from The Canadian Press.

Mr. Crawley, who is also Co-Chair of CP, added: “John’s unwavering support of CP will be one of his many positive legacies. His good health today is a vindication of his faith in our national news agency.

“His good humor and warm spirit will be missed. He fought the good fight for our industry with passion and determination.

It was Mr. Honderich’s love of journalism that left a lasting impression on his friends and colleagues, many of whom expressed shock at his sudden passing.

“John was passionately committed to his vision for the Toronto Star and put his personal stamp on the newspaper for more than 30 years as editor and publisher and then chairman of Torstar,” said Robert Prichard, chairman of Torys LLP and former CEO of Torstar.

“What was once Joe Atkinson’s diary became the Honderichs’ diary as it was run from 1955 by John’s father and then by John himself – a longer publication than Mr Atkinson’s. John, like his father, became a giant in the industry and leaves an important legacy.

A father of two, Mr. Honderich lived in Toronto – of course – and spent his summers at the family cottage on Georgian Bay. He was also a dedicated Toronto Raptors fan.

John Allen Honderich was born in Toronto in 1946 – into a newspaper life. Her father was Beland Honderich, also a former publisher of the Toronto Star – whom John Honderich had written about in a recently completed book. (He has already written the book Arctic Imperative: Is Canada Losing the North?published in 1987.)

A graduate of a junior college in Switzerland, the University of Toronto and the London School of Economics, with degrees in political science and law, he initially rejected the idea of ​​a career in journalism. “When I started…I didn’t even write a letter to the editor,” he said in 2019.

Despite his family’s connections to the industry, he began his journalism career in 1973 at the Ottawa Citizen, working as a copyist and night reporter.

“His last name secured him a place in the C suite,” said Tony Wong, the Star’s former television critic, noting that Mr Honderich has risen through the ranks. “I don’t know of any publisher of a major North American newspaper who has taken this tortuous route. But he was someone who truly respected the ideals of journalism and getting to work.

Mr. Honderich joined the Toronto Star as a reporter in 1976. He later became the Star’s bureau chief in Ottawa and Washington. After serving as deputy editor, he was appointed economics editor in May 1984. He became editor of the Star in 1988 and publisher in 1994.

In 2009, he became Chairman of the Board of Torstar.

“John Honderich was a giant of Canadian journalism who believed deeply in building a better Toronto – and a better Canada,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tweeted on Saturday. “As we mourn his passing, I send my deepest condolences to his family, friends and former colleagues at the Toronto Star.”

In a thread of tweets, Toronto Mayor John Tory also expressed his condolences.

“John Honderich truly believed in Toronto, the promise of our city and its unique place in the world. He was equally passionate about the Toronto Star and the important role quality journalism had to play in building a strong and prosperous, but also inclusive and fair Toronto,” Mr. Tory wrote.

“His contributions beyond business have been many, always driven by a desire to make it a better place to live. He was a larger than life Torontonian who left us too soon and will be truly missed.

Mr. Honderich was a member of the Order of Canada and the Order of Ontario. He was the 2019 recipient of the Canadian Journalism Foundation Lifetime Achievement Award.

“His total dedication to journalism, not only in Canada, but in emerging countries, is unparalleled,” said CJF.

“A brilliant mind, an inquisitive intellect and someone filled with scintillating good humor,” was how Adrienne Clarkson, former governor general, jury member, described Mr. Honderich in the video of the award ceremony. prices.

In his acceptance speech, Mr. Honderich highlighted the link between quality journalism and a healthy democracy. “Unfortunately, I think everyone knows there is a crisis in journalism today,” he said. It was a question that bothered him a great deal. In his speech, he quoted perhaps the Toronto Star’s most famous former reporter, Ernest Hemingway: “The best ammunition against lies is the truth.

Along with his father in 1987, Mr. Honderich launched the Atkinson Fellowship in Public Policy. Atkinson’s principles, the editorial values, which have been embraced by Mr. Honderich – and many other journalists – can be summed up as follows: “a strong, united and independent Canada; social justice; individual and civil liberties; community and civic engagement; workers’ rights; and the necessary role of government.

Atkinson’s principles were central to Mr. Honderich’s identity as a journalist.

“He used to say he was bleeding blue,” said former Torstar manager Phyllis Yaffe, a nod to the Star’s signature color. “It was in his blood and it was in his heart.”

As chairman of Torstar, Mr. Honderich – who was a member of the five families that controlled the company through a voting trust – agreed to a takeover by NordStar in 2020. Losing control of the company was “heartbreaking” for Mr. Honderich, Ms. Yaffe said, but she noted that he remained an unwavering optimist about the Star’s future.

Ms Yaffe said: “It was his legacy, his family, his father – there was so much connected to it for him. But you know, like a very brave soldier, he did the right thing.

Former Toronto Star columnist Royson James told the Globe that Mr. Honderich was “absolutely one of the great figures in Canadian journalism.

“He saw something in me and I was and am determined never to let him down.”

Even during the years that Mr. Honderich worked on the business side of the paper, he remained an accomplished journalist.

“Honderich was a businessman who, by his job description, had to take care of the money, which was easy when advertisers were knocking down the doors of the Star to advertise – 10 and 20 years,” said former Toronto Star editor Michael Cooke. “But times got tough, then desperate, and Honderich always protected the newsroom, the reporters and The Truth – yes, with capital letters, from attacks by the Bean Counters. Journalists loved him.

These sentiments were echoed by other industry leaders.

“He was one of a kind, there’s no doubt about it,” his longtime friend Scott White, former editor of The Canadian Press news agency, said on Saturday. He noted that Mr. Honderich, along with Mr. Crawley of the Globe, was “sort of the last of the lions of journalism in this country.”

Mr. White, who is now editor of Conversation Canada, an independent online publication that serves as a platform for scholars, noted that among Mr. Honderich’s accomplishments, he was largely responsible for reviving CP.

Mr. White had spoken at length with his friend on Friday and said Mr. Honderich had planned to travel to British Columbia for an extended vacation later this month. What else did they talk about? – politics and the state of journalism.

“He was truly the embodiment of Atkinson’s principles,” Mr. White said. “And he lived them and he believed them. And he felt he had to be its guardian. And I always respected him for that, because Atkinson’s principles sometimes got in the way of what could have been good business, but he always put them first. And someone who was just in there being a bean counter wouldn’t have done it that way. He cared about Canada, he cared about journalism and he loved the Star.

With reporting by Robyn Doolittle and The Canadian Press

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