Twelve candles

The National Post, 12 years old on Oct. 27, has now been published under three proprietors. Only a year ago the Post was part of an industry-wide Asper family bankruptcy watch, and the assumption was that bankruptcy would lead to the liquidation of assets, and the obits for the Post that our friends and colleagues began writing before we had ever published a copy would finally come due. Yet the Aspers cashed out and the Post, after a fashion, endures.

This matters. When a newspaper comes out most days, year after year, from one owner to another to yet another, in much (though never all, and lately less) of the country, it starts to look like an institution. Not a juggernaut, not a cultural centrepiece, but simply part of the landscape that lasts, more permanent than the various corporate structures through which it passes. What’s more, it is still a damned good paper in many ways on many days. Its staff, most of whom arrived after the paper launched and have no patience for this corner’s annual bout of nostalgia, is full of brains and creativity. Its arts and living pages are still almost always the best among Toronto-based papers. Its news pages are full of surprises, often the good kind. The columnists can surprise you. George Jonas wrote a humdinger today.

None of this is a guarantee for the future. The Post has never enjoyed the luxury of any guarantees for the future and by now its staff would surely be suspicious of any that were offered. It’s in a daily fight to survive, still, just like old times, and that doesn’t change just because it is joined by the entire industry in that precarious battle.

So with that in mind, and the annual congratulations aside, I think the Post is well due for a rethink, and it would benefit from remembering some of the thinking that went into its creation. It was born as an ideological vehicle for Conrad Black’s hobbyhorses of the day, of course. But Conrad understood that his various obsessions would take a readership only so far, so he set out to create a paper that would be distinctive in tone and approach, regardless of ideology. A year before we launched, a bunch of editors holed up in the Hamilton Spectator newsroom would look at each night’s wire-service feeds, dummy up a front page for the yet-unnamed new paper, then compare their handiwork with the next day’s Globe and Star fronts. “It’s amazing how easy it is to put out a paper that looks nothing like them,” one of them told me back them.

It’s at least as easy today, and still worth it. Today’s competitive landscape leaves room for a paper that would be less frantic than its competitors, especially the poor, lost Globe. Its front page would try less desperately to be liked by everyone. Such a paper would realize a newspaper isn’t going to look like the internet and shouldn’t try — just as William Thorsell realized in 1990, when he edited the Globe, that newspapers’ attempts to look like television were simply making them look needy. It would cover news according to its own sense of what matters, not its fears about what the reader doesn’t have time for. Those are broad criteria but somewhere within them is a paper, different from today’s Post, that would also be distinct from the rest.