By John Nicol
Henry Bartlett Burgoyne, the last of the family-owned daily newspaper publishers in Ontario, died Feb. 7 of cancer. He was 61.
Murray Thomson, his long-time managing editor at The Standard in St. Catharines, said the recipe Burgoyne developed for running a newspaper is one all journalists, in all countries, should aspire to.
“When he gave me the job in 1980, he said there would be a fence around the newsroom,” said Thomson, now 82. “He didn’t want us to be influenced by advertisers or the powerful.
“There is no school for publishers, but he understood who the reader was, and he wanted us to be as honest with them as possible. It was not so much about making money as serving the community well.”
Burgoyne was expected to become the fourth generation of publishers for the newspaper his family bought in 1892 for a dollar, but the circumstances didn’t go as planned. In 1970, his larger-than-life father Bill died at age 49, when Henry was only 21 and still a bit of a hellion known for partying and driving fast cars. His apprenticeship, going to other newspapers to learn the business, was accelerated, and with the death of the caretaker publisher in 1975, he became publisher at the tender age of 26.
At the time, The Standard was a respectable community oriented newspaper where you could have a job for life, but the newspaper wouldn’t surprise you with exposés or in-depth analyses. Burgoyne made his paper hold a mirror up to the Niagara region, and showed the community he loved both its foibles and how it could improve.
One of his first bold moves, after the 1979 Love Canal disaster in Niagara Falls, N.Y., was to create an environment beat.
Doug Draper, who became that environment reporter, says he was amazed at the integrity Burgoyne showed at such a young age.
“Sometimes I would do a story that upset someone Henry knew and sometimes they would complain to him,” said Draper, who now runs the Niagara At Large website, “but he never once stopped me just so long as my stories were accurate and fair.”
Burgoyne allowed reporters to do exposés that affected his friends, the police and the mayor, and also his advertisers, in some cases costing the paper tens of thousands of dollars in advertising.
What was remarkable, says Kevin McMahon, now a documentary filmmaker in Toronto, is that Burgoyne “was born into power and wealth in a small conservative city, yet he never wavered even slightly in championing our duty to stand for the truth, regardless of the consequences. But he was never pompous about it; he was a man ever ready with a gregarious smile and a slap on the back .
“As young journalists, he made us feel our work was important – but also insisted it be fun.”
In 1985, McMahon was part of The Standard‘s series on the police handling of a washroom sex scandal that won the top award at Canada’s investigative journalism conference in Vancouver. The picture of The Standard team that he feted first class to the conference at the then-new Pan Pacific Hotel, would become an icon for the newsroom.
It would encapsulate the Burgoyne business philosophy: train your charges well, give them confidence, backing and something to look forward to, and most importantly, have fun.
Over the next decade journalists at the relatively small paper would be nominated for three Michener awards, five national newspaper awards and over five years would win four journalist of the year titles in what was then the Western Ontario Newspaper Awards.
The winner of three of those titles, Carol Alaimo, is now a military affairs reporter at the Arizona Daily Star in Tuscon. She felt there was such a fervour for investigative reporting at the paper that it developed a reputation in the community of an Argus, or all-seeing checks-and-balance on society. She had one retiring town clerk tell her, “You don’t know what shit didn’t go down here because somebody thought you’d find out.”
Burgoyne’s concern for the community was never more prevalent than when tragedy struck in the early 1990s with the death of Kristen French at the hands of Paul Bernardo and his wife Karla Homolka.
Anne Marie Owens, now a managing editor of news at the National Post, covered the Bernardo trial for The Standard with instructions to report with decency and honesty.
Henry’s instructions, she said, were: “I don’t care if we sell a single extra paper on this coverage. I just want it done properly.”
Kevin Cavanagh, his last managing editor before Burgoyne sold the paper to Southam and Conrad Black in 1996, said the people of Niagara have no idea of Burgoyne’s real impact. “Every resident in this city benefited from Henry’s integrity, whther they knew it or not,” said Cavanagh, who went on to work at the National Post and Hamilton Spectator.
The biggest compliment for the Burgoyne era came from one of Conrad Black’s minions who took over the paper, declaring it “too good of a newspaper” for a city of 130,000. Whereas Burgoyne was content to get a 10 per cent return, the Black-era people aimed for 35 per cent.
“He was one of a kind and the last emblem in Canada of a sadly missed era of family-owned, community-first daily newspapers,” says Peter Cooney, who toiled at The Standard in the early 1980s and is now an editor working in Washington D.C. “Henry cared about his journalists, valuing us as creative troublemakers rather than ‘content providers’ or ‘profit centers.’
“He was the boss every journalist dreams of and few are fortunate to know.”
The Burgoyne family will be accepting visitors at Hulse & English Funeral Home on Church Street in St. Catharines on Friday, Feb. 18 from 2 to 4 p.m. and 7 to 9 p.m. A celebration of his life will be held at Ridley College on Saturday, Feb. 19 at 11 a.m. Cremation has taken place.
John Nicol is an investigative producer with the CBC. He formerly worked with Maclean’s and The St. Catharines Standard.