Book excerpt: The Making of an Iconic Journal, in Big Men Fear Me

George McCullagh could see the commercial potential of the Globe, even as it grew worn and faced labor issues.

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As the year draws to a close, we shine a light on nonfiction for regional writers in 2022. In this excerpt from Big Men Fear Me, Mark Bourrie shares why George McCullagh wanted to buy the Globe newspaper, which he would merge then with the Mail and Empire in one of Canada’s best news publications.

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For generations, newspapers were small businesses. The printers, once they learned their trade, left to create their own newspapers. Most towns had at least two newspapers, and some had half a dozen. The printing press was constantly being improved, so there were plenty of inexpensive used machines available in the United States that could be brought across the border. But at the end of the 1800s and the beginning of the new century, Canadians began to expect more from their newspaper than a few pages of advertisements and a few columns of old news and partisan opinion. This was especially true in cities, where competition had become fierce.

The market was oversaturated before World War I, so there was an epidemic of newspaper deaths during the first two decades of the 20th century. Small-scale printers and politicians were forced out of major markets, and deep-pocketed outsiders began to take over newspapers for their value as investments. This market overhaul continued through the Roaring Twenties, and there were more newspaper closures during the Depression. The survivors were hungry for investment capital. Big city newspapers now needed good presses, large staffs and downtown offices. the World could trade on its name, but it was getting worn and worn, a throwback to a city with four major dailies and dozens of other newspapers and magazines. Labor unrest was also brewing: in the summer of 1936, journalists from the World and the Mail and Empire were trying to organize a union.

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But George McCullagh could see the paper’s commercial potential. He probably still made a profit, despite the depression, and could make a lot of money when the economy gets back on its feet. Since World was a private company that did not publish an annual report, he would need to consult the books to be sure. There was certainly more money to be made in the short term, simply by accepting alcohol advertisements and posting horse racing results. And that was before spending a dime to upgrade its stable of reporters and modernize its design to steal readers from the Starthe Telegram and the Mail and Empire. If this was to be McCullagh’s paper, it had to be the best, so he needed better-than-ever reporters, and reporters willing to do more than just cover every religious revivalist who passed through Toronto. It needed a whole new vision of journalism. And presses. And build. And things to make it shine.

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If this was to be McCullagh’s paper, it had to be the best, so he needed better-than-ever reporters, and reporters willing to do more than just cover every religious revivalist who passed through Toronto.

McCullagh knew the Globe’s weaknesses, but he also understood his strength, which would be forgotten by his bean counter owners fifty years later: the newspaper was distributed to every farm and every backwater in Ontario — places like Ripley — and the World appreciated each of its subscribers. McCullagh would make him indispensable to every small town merchant in the province, building contractors, political activists and campaign lawyers. It wouldn’t be, as is often the case now, a trend-spotter only for discerning aspirants. McCullagh’s World would provide the sharpest policy news, the best coverage of business issues, and timely reports on important legal cases. If something big happened in Ontario, it would be mentioned in the pages of the Globe, in articles written by employees and a network of freelancers.

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There were obvious advantages for McCullagh, beyond the financial aspects. Property of the World brought instant power and wide open access to all other power holders. The recent version of World, something a shadow of its glory years, had still given the eldest member of the Jaffray clan (who owned it) the connections and clout to make it a senator. (Before becoming a newspaper publisher, he owned a chain of grocery stores.) Like British newspaper owners, publishers in Canada were notable and honored men. One, Hugh Graham, who published the Montreal Star, had been raised to the British peerage as Lord Atholstan. It could happen to another big publisher. The wartime Nickle Resolution advising King George V to refrain from granting titles and knighthoods in Canada had been relaxed under the government of RB Bennett, and honors were pouring in again. Sir George McCullagh probably had a very nice ring.

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It would be the first big step on the way to greatness. Everyone told him that he would be prime minister one day. Magazines even put it in writing. Of course, there were moments of gloom, moments when he felt rage. But that was the price paid by great men like Abraham Lincoln, William Pitt and Sir Isaac Newton. Winston Churchill spent most of his working day drunk to keep his anxiety and depression at bay, and most of Britain’s political class has it covered. McCullagh had stopped using alcohol to anesthetize the black dog, and so far he was able to keep his depression on a leash. If, and it seems likely, McCullagh was bipolar, he was probably at the peak for most of the Great Depression, before hitting a low in the spring of 1939. He seemed to crash hardest when facing the ‘public humiliation, but life seemed to be going just fine in late 1935 and early 1936. He was married, with young children, had plenty of money and interesting friends, and, with the exception of the death of (millionaire and friend) Percy Parker, no real setbacks.

McCullagh desperately wanted the World, and, judging by his risk-taking, as well as his indiscreet talk during and after negotiations for the paper, he was on a manic swing. The newspaper was an institution. It was high status. Controlling such a thing was beyond the imagination of any thirty-one-year-old working-class man on the wrong side of London, Ontario.


Marc Bourrie is an author, lawyer and former journalist from Ottawa. He received the RBC Charles Taylor Prize in 2020 for his book Bush Runner: Les Aventures de Pierre Radisson.

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