John Honderich: Editor and Publisher of the Toronto Star, Scion of a Legendary Media Family, and Champion of Newsrooms and Progressive Values

From an obit in the Toronto Star by Jim Coyle and Ben Cohen headlined “John Honderich, former publisher and editor of the Toronto Star, is dead at 75”:

John Honderich, the former publisher of the Toronto Star, scion of a legendary media family and a champion of newsrooms and progressive values, died Saturday.

He died of a heart attack, his son Robin Honderich said. “I went for dinner with him Friday night and he was in great spirits and full of verve and energy and talking about all the latest comings and goings,” he said….

Honderich, who served as chair of Torstar Corp. until its sale to NordStar Capital in 2020, was a member of the Order of Canada, the Order of Ontario and was recognized by the Canadian Journalism Foundation in 2019 for lifetime achievement in journalism.

Over the last 30 years, Honderich was the personification of the Toronto Star, the six-foot-two owner of broad features, a prominent jaw and a wide grin, a peripatetic presence at chattering class functions and an enthusiastic promoter of the city.

Robert Benzie, the Star’s Queen’s Park bureau chief, said he had spoken to Honderich at length last week. “Nobody cared more about this city and telling its stories than John. He loved politics and gossip and always shared tips and tidbits of news.”

Toronto Mayor John Tory said Honderich “truly believed in Toronto, our city’s promise and its unique place in the world.”

He was “always motivated by a desire to make this a better place to live,” Tory said. “He was a larger-than-life Torontonian who left us too soon.”

Longtime Star reporter Richard Brennan said Honderich “mentored so many of us. He knew all our names and always had time for a chat. John always supported me when support was hard to find.”

Robin, who is the director of editorial analytics and content monetization at the Star, said his father – who was divorced in 1997 and never remarried – “was always, always there for me. He loved his work. He believed so passionately in the media.”

Benzie said Honderich had been working on a memoir on the Star, titled “Above the Fold,” and had promised it would “make some headlines.

“Toronto and Ontario and Canada have lost a giant of journalism,” Benzie said. “In the newsroom and our bureaus, John was known as a fierce protector. He was a newspaperman through and through.”

For all the honours Honderich received, and there were many, that title — “newspaperman” — would likely have been his most cherished.

Honderich’s father, Beland, was appointed editor-in-chief of the Star in 1955 and ran the paper for the next three decades before retiring as publisher in 1988.

John was a teenager when his parents broke up and his father subsequently remarried.

“It was traumatic,” he once said. “I was in high school at the time. My father was very involved in the business and was away a great deal.”

The son — who would one day establish his own brand of bow-ties and bonhomie — wanted to make his own reputation.

He enjoyed an elite education and seemed bent on avoiding the media business, graduating, instead, in law.

“He spent a long time trying to avoid it,” Robin said. For a time, “it was anything but the Star.”

When Honderich was drawn, perhaps inevitably, to newspapers, he wanted to make his own way.

He started in 1973 as a copy boy and night reporter at the Ottawa Citizen….

In 1976, Honderich joined the Star. He served as bureau chief in Ottawa and Washington, deputy city editor, business editor and editorial page editor. He wrote a book on the Arctic.

He became president of Torstar Corp. before becoming publisher of the Star in 1994.

“I was so lucky to have worked with a titan of journalism,” said Mary Deanne Shears, a former Star managing editor.

“He loved this city, was seized with its issues and determined to find solutions,” she said, recalling Honderich’s great delight at “provoking fierce debates at the multitude of dinner parties he hosted at his home and at his beloved Georgian Bay cottage.”

Former Star lawyer Bert Bruser said he met Honderich at the University of Toronto law school and didn’t much like him at first.

“His family owned a newspaper and mine didn’t,” he said. But they became friends as well as colleagues.

“He was a very, very fierce person. Fierce about the Star and the good it did. What he believed with a passion was that the newspaper was there to do the public good.”

Ian Urquhart, another former Star managing editor, said some people might have thought Honderich rode his last name to the paper’s top job but “that is not true. John succeeded entirely on his own merit. He was a first-class journalist who loved his craft and the newspaper business. His tireless efforts helped keep the Star going through some very tough times.”

The Star’s former editor, Michael Cooke, said Honderich had a reporter’s heart and soul all his life.

“He was a reporter. And he did it very well. He loved the story.”

Honderich understood newspaper leadership in all its power and great honour, all its onerous demands.

“Publishing a newspaper is not only a privilege, it also carries responsibilities,” he once wrote. And he never lost sight of that duty.

Robin said the stories his father spoke most often and most proudly about was the Star’s role producing a new deal for cities, reporter Jim Rankin’s ground-breaking series on carding by police, and the coverage led by Kevin Donovan of the chaotic reign of the late Rob Ford in his term as mayor of Toronto.

Donovan said Honderich “lived for the front page. He loved a scoop and he epitomized what Toronto Star founder Joseph Atkinson believed in: Get a story. Sew it up. Play it big. And make a difference by doing it.”

Honderich believed passionately in the importance of a newspaper as a living, breathing part of the city, province and country, Donovan said.

“He was a publisher who worked in the trenches on the city desk before heading to Ottawa to cover politics. I can remember so many times when he was in the newsroom until the presses rolled.”

He was also a big part of the Star’s charitable work that gave tangible expression to the paper’s values, Donovan said.

For the last decades of his career, Honderich was immersed in the high-stakes, high-stress fight for survival in the turbulent media world.

“It got to a situation where we didn’t have either the resources or the determination to take it further,” he said when the decision was made by the five families who controlled Torstar to sell.

The financial situation for the newspaper, and the challenge of finding revenue online to replace declining advertising and circulation, was “exceptionally tough,” he said.

Through those years of trial, Honderich “was basically the guy on the bridge of Thermopylae defending the newsroom from the bean counters,” recalled Cooke.

“He defended journalists. He defended the reporters. And he defended the story, all his life.”

The person who may have known Honderich best at the paper was his longtime assistant, Lorraine Campbell, who said he was “incredibly savvy, quick-witted and cheeky as hell.

“Nothing escaped his universe. He was my friend, and I loved him.”

If precious little of his effort to reposition the Star went well, Honderich’s commitment to the values of the paper — and the journalists who took those values seriously — remained solid.

There was concern, Honderich said, about Torstar’s direction after the sale. But he took heart from the recognition by new owners Jordan Bitove and Paul Rivett that they saw it as a good business strategy not “to turn the Star into another conservative paper.”

In a letter to readers when they took over the paper, the owners wrote: “The founding families have built a distinguished company dedicated to solid journalism … As the company’s new owners, we see it as our mandate to perpetuate these principles and to bring fearless, progressive journalism into the 21st century.”

“John was a part of this city, this province and this country, not only as a leading publisher, but as a businessman and a city-builder,” said Bitove and Rivett on Saturday.

“He set the Toronto Star on a path that led it to being at the top of Canadian journalism, focused on investigative reporting, excellence and fairness. As well, he was a first-class person and honourable in all that he did. That is a fabulous legacy.

“We, and all the Torstar employees, owe him a deep debt of gratitude.”

The Star was, at the core, his own guiding philosophy.

While the newspaper could occasionally be given to moments of excess, its heart was almost always in the right place and the journalism it produced was influential and agenda-shaping.

The Star had been founded just before the turn of the 20th century when a small group of disgruntled printers and apprentices from the old Toronto News got together to publish, almost overnight, the fledgling Toronto Star, which they dubbed a “paper for the people.”

Early publisher Joseph “Holy Joe” Atkinson envisioned a crusading voice for change, tolerance and equality and he immortalized his credo in an early editorial: “Humanity above all.”

Historian William Kilbourn once said: “Win or lose, the Star has been goading, cajoling and haranguing Torontonians into action or reaction or fury for more than a century.”

And for a glorious share of that time, it was Honderich who led the way in pushing, prodding and campaigning.

All in the name of a society that valued humanity above all.

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