The news that Conrad Black was starting a new national newspaper, with Ken Whyte as its editor, was all anyone in the Canadian media could talk about. So when Whyte asked me to lunch that day, a few months before the launch, I had some expectation of what we might discuss. I was writing then for Southam News, a forebear of Postmedia. Perhaps the new paper could use a political columnist?
We chatted as we ordered, then talked some more over lunch, about every subject, it seemed, except newspapers, columnists, employment or me. I had concluded this was just a social call when, as we were getting up to leave, Whyte mumbled, diffidently, “So, you’re going to come join us, right?”
So began my adventure at the National Post. As anyone who was there at the time can tell you, the first years at the Post were like something out of a dream. Whyte had been given carte blanche to hire anyone he liked, and everyone wanted to work at the Post.
With a lineup that included every prominent conservative columnist — a couple less reliably so — plus a desk full of nervy British editors who had been in a newspaper war all their lives, the Post flouted every convention of how a quality newspaper should act or look, broke every rule, and generally took hell to the Globe and Mail. I imagine pop-eyed Globe editors, sputtering incredulously: “What? They did what? They, they can’t do that — can they?”
I think we could have made a fair claim to being the best newspaper — certainly the best written — in the world. Every single day the paper was bursting with lively, mischievous pieces in a style that crossed the Daily Telegraph with the New York Observer (when that paper was still in print and still interesting). It had, someone said, the brains of a broadsheet and the loins of a tabloid, and though it took a staunchly, even rabidly conservative editorial line, it remained a guilty pleasure for many on the left. It was simply too much fun not to read.
It couldn’t last, of course, as we were informed more or less from the first day. And yet, improbably, it has. Our industry has declined into not-so-genteel poverty since then — in retrospect, the idea of launching a nationally distributed, ink-on-newsprint newspaper just as the internet was about to consume us all has an almost suicidal gallantry about it — but the Post carries on, if not surrounded by quite the same richesse then with the same culture: that bullish irreverence, that smile of amusement, that jaunty informality, relaxed and subversive at once.
When people talk about what the Post means to them, that’s what comes to my mind. A culture is a fragile and mysterious thing, not readily created but easily destroyed. Part of the Post’s founding culture, it should be said, owed to our proprietor, who gave what were essentially a bunch of kids the freedom to create, to take chances, to mess up. What other newspaper baron would, when something appeared in the paper he owned that displeased him, confine himself to writing a letter to the editor?
But a lot of it stemmed from Whyte, and the people he hired, and the people they hired in their turn, several of whom still work at the paper. The Post inspires an affection that is unusual in this, or any business, even amidst the indignities that come with working in an industry “in transition” and a company that is fighting for its life. Some workplaces tend to produce, or tolerate, or perhaps attract deeply unpleasant people. The Post’s seems to have the opposite effect: it’s an unusually good-natured place, that good-natured people are drawn to. That’s cultural, an inheritance from its early days.
And so is the paper that culture produces. A newspaper, I learned from Whyte, is a coalition: different sections and different writers will appeal to different groups of readers.
Not everything in it can be to everyone’s taste. But all of it can be done carefully and well. Much of good writing is simply an aversion to bad writing, and Ken took the view that nothing in the paper needed to be badly written. You could have surprising, sharply written horoscopes, or obituaries, or even automobile reviews, and if you could, why would you accept dull, pro forma ones?
About three years after the Post was launched, Black sold it; not long after that Whyte was gone, whacked by the new owners for no particular reason other than he was in the way. A bunch of us day-oners held a dinner to mourn our loss, but by the end of the evening we looked at each other as if to say: Oh, dry up. What a run we’ve had. We’ve had an experience few others get to have in their entire lives. We should count ourselves lucky. I still feel that way.
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