National Post, ten years later

Kirk LaPointe

Kirk LaPointeTen years ago this week we launched the first edition of the National Post newspaper and its then-ambtious site.

I was its executive editor, working for editor-in-chief Ken Whyte (now publisher and editor of Maclean’s), publisher Don Babick (now interim publisher of the Toronto Star) and proprietor Conrad Black (now writing columns while serving a jail term related to financial wrongdoing).

Whether you are a friend or foe of the Post, it is inarguable that Canadian media were improved by its arrival. The Post was not so much a breath of fresh air as a new oxygen supply to Canadian journalism. People who loved it read it voraciously, but they were the milder readers — people who hated it seemed to memorize its every word. Even its most bitter rivals should thank the Post for either regenerating their moribund newsrooms or enhancing their resources to perform at a higher level. And many journalists I could name, but won’t, owe the Post thanks for lifting the phone and inquiring of their availability — telling the boss about getting that call was usually worth a larger salary, more holidays and a better beat.

It has changed the acceptable tone of daily journalism in Canada, the design of the best newspapers, and the aggression of our journalists — no doubt, all for the better.

I connected with the project more than a year earlier while editing The Hamilton Spectator, mainly due to geography. Whyte, then editor of Saturday Night magazine but clearly the anointed leader of the project, needed a newsroom with access to wires and pagination software and Hamilton’s was the closest newsroom Southam had to Ken in Toronto. He brought along Michael Cooke (then editor of The Province in Vancouver, now editor of the Chicago Sun-Times), Brian Kappler (then national editor, now editorial page editor of the Montreal Gazette) and Carl Neustaedter (then design chief of the Ottawa Citizen). We were joined eventually by my successor at Southam News, Giles Gherson (who went on to be editor of the Star and the Edmonton Journal and now is a top Ontario public servant) and a few others in those early days. A couple of Spectator colleagues helped us with some of the grunt work of pagination, and I became increasingly drawn into the project because I knew the chain’s newsrooms (which were going to be vital in contributing content), had a few of those eccentric ideas that seemed to hold sway, and had a good Rolodex in Canadian media.

By April of 1998 I was there full-time. By then we had analyzed our competition, determined they were largely institutional and grey, and designed a livelier, riskier format that would change several times over in the weeks to come. We prototyped two full editions, both bearing Times Canada as National Postthe title. We’d played around and tested The National (associated too much with CBC), The Sentinel and The Reporter. As I was being hired the Post was making a play for Ed Greenspon, then the Ottawa Bureau Chief (and eventually the editor) of the Globe, but when that fell through, Ken enlisted Martin Newland from the Daily Telegraph as deputy editor (who later returned to England to be editor of that paper and now has launched The National in Abu Dhabi).

We plucked dozens of great journalists here and abroad for the team, paid them competitively and made them work feverishly. The scale of the enterprise grew from an anticipated staff of 35 to 40, to one of 60, then 80, then 100, then (when the big deal was done in July to trade newspapers and cash for the Financial Post newspaper, which would anchor the business coverage), upwards of 200. The budget grew along with it. We weren’t spending like drunken sailors. We were more like power shoppers. Christie Blatchford, Roy MacGregor, Cam Cole, Terence Corcoran and Robert Fulford were joining the likes of Diane Francis, Jonathan Chevreau and the Post stable to create an extraordinary daily team.

As we approached launch, our prototype got into the hands of our competitor and we feared the worst — that our best ideas would be appropriated in advance of late October and that we’d have to come up with a Plan B (actually, by then it would have been about Plan L). But it never happened. Instead the competition waited until we launched, until it became clear they had underestimated our appeal, until it became clearer they were in need of a major facelift, and then they went about shaking up their ranks and pages. Everyone suddenly had larger photos, bolder voices, spicier themes and sharper delivery.

I kept a diary for about six months before and three months after the launch, and  for good reason it’ll likely go to my grave. But when I look back on those days there was an exceptional sense of journalistic mission. Sure, there were miscues and nearly-missed deadlines and many laughers of journalistic pursuits that were goofy mistakes, but there were also breathtaking columns, stories, packages and pictures, and a Web site that made the first real attempt in this country at connecting with a new audience.

Newland and I looked over the Southam headquarters atrium from the third-floor newsroom that first day and realized that likely nothing would be as good as how we felt at that moment.

But the Post has done some extraordinary things since and it continues to fight well above its weight class.  It has been challenged in making a profit, but that day will come. Meantime, it deserves a happy birthday from all of us.

Kirk LaPointe is managing editor of the Vancouver Sun, adjunct professor at the University of British Columbia’s graduate school of journalism and a J-Source contributing editor.