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Collateral Damage: Battle of titans at Toronto Star took down former Record publisher

Updated: May 24, 2023

Sometimes bigger is not always better. Just ask Fred Kuntz. His five years as publisher of the Waterloo Region Record, from 2001-2006, were some of the happiest of his time in the journalism business. "Honestly, I want to say it was the most fun I had in my newspaper career."

Sadly, the same can't be said of his stint as editor in chief of the much larger Toronto Star, a position that immediately followed his gig as publisher of the Record. He's proud of the work he did at the Star. He boosted the paper’s foreign coverage and its investigative team, lured several marquee editors back to the paper, hired future journalism superstars such as Daniel Dale and Robyn Doolittle and launched a bold redesign emphasizing local content in the paper’s first section. Yet despite these positive innovations he was fired at the end of 2008, barely 26 months into the job.

How did it happen? How did he go from one of Torstar's brightest talents, a publisher lured to the Star because of his impressive work in Kitchener, to someone who was kicked to the curb before his best laid plains came to fruition? "I was collateral damage in a battle of two titans," is the way he sums it up. The two titans were John Honderich, the former editor and publisher of the Star, and Robert Prichard, the CEO of Torstar, the larger corporation that ran the Star along with its other publishing holdings.

"I don't like to think of the editor in chief as being a bit player but there was a titanic battle going on at the highest levels for control of the paper and its heart and soul."

A version of Kuntz’s surprising downfall was recently recounted in the latter pages of Above The Fold: A Personal History of the Toronto Star, a memoir by John Honderich. Published in 2022 just after his sudden death of a heart attack at the age of 75, the book chronicles Honderich’s years at Canada’s largest newspaper along with those of his father, Beland, who rocketed from lowly paper boy at the Kitchener Daily Record to ace reporter, foreign correspondent and ultimately publisher of the Star.

For the most part, it’s a page-turning read, one that Kuntz thoroughly enjoyed. Great material abounds on the heyday of print journalism, Honderich’s relationship with his father, his battles for control of the paper with Prichard, the newspaper wars of the early 2000s with Conrad Black and the newsroom culture at the Star. “John had a front row seat to all of that. It’s a fantastic book," Kuntz said. Even so, he has major misgivings about how he is portrayed in Above The Fold. His work at the Star is portrayed almost like a train wreck, as if he could do nothing right. The problem with any memoir, Kuntz says, is that it is the author’s version of the truth, a narrative that may not correspond to how other participants saw it. In his view, Honderich himself reveals the perils of memoir early in the book when he urges his father to write his autobiography. “It wouldn’t be the truth,” Beland protests. “But it will be your truth,” Honderich replies.

Enter The Men From Metroland

The Star was the last thing on Kuntz’s mind when two officials from Torstar paid a surprise visit to Kitchener in the fall of 2006. They were Murray Skinner and Ian Oliver, two high-ranking managers from Metroland, the division that ran a chain of weeklies` and community newspapers at Torstar.

As they settled into Kuntz’s office, the pair got right to the point. "We're taking over here," they said in so many words.“Metroland is going to be running the Record now.” Before the Record publisher had time to process this surprising news, they offered something to soften the blow. He should go and talk to Jagoda Pike, recently appointed publisher of the Toronto Star, about another job awaiting him at the company. At first, Kuntz didn’t know what to think. On the one hand he was offended that two executives who ran a bunch of weekly newspapers were suddenly telling him, the boss at one of Torstar’s biggest dailies, what to do.

“That was a splash of cold water because I was certainly enjoying myself at the Record. To be told by Metroland that I was out of there felt like rough play a little bit.” Still, he was intrigued about what might be coming next. His five years at the helm of the Record were the longest he had stayed in any one job in his newspaper career. In over 20 years at Star, which included stints as business editor, city editor, deputy managing editor and Saturday editor, he had moved every few years.

It was Pike, in a previous role as senior vice-president of regional dailies at Torstar, who had recruited him to come to the Record in the first place. As publisher, he would also run smaller dailies in Cambridge and Guelph. “He’s strategic, he has vision and he’s very good at driving an agenda,” she told the Record when Kuntz’s appointment was announced in 2001.

Kuntz had plenty of experience on the news side of the business, but none in other departments of the paper including advertising, finance, circulation and production. Yet he was eager to learn new skills and felt confident he was up to the task of running the smaller Kitchener-based paper. “I have a natural interest in business and finance,” he says. The son of a printer and commercial artist, he took economics courses at university in Toronto and completed the Canadian Securities course while business editor at the Star.

Above all, what he brought to the Record was youth, vitality and a big-city perspective. His immediate predecessors, Sandy Baird and Wayne MacDonald, had been in their 50s when they took the job. Both had largely risen up through the ranks at the Record. It was their last stop on the career ladder. Kuntz was 44, but seemed younger. With an athletic build, shaved head, trimmed goatee and glasses, he looked like a bookish Bruce Willis. The Record wasn’t going to be his last gig.

An Impressive Record at the Record

Kuntz may have been a rookie publisher but he had someone to model himself after. Prior to joining the Record, he had spent two years as associate editor at the Globe and Mail. He was particularly struck by Globe publisher Phillip Crawley.

A journalist and copy editor in Britain before joining the Globe, Crawley would stroll through the newsroom and engage with employees on topics of the day including the newspaper war raging in Toronto with the National Post, headed by Conrad Black. “He was kind of an inspiring presence,” Kuntz said of Crawley. “He really got the editorial culture.”

Among the things Crawley did was hold regular town hall meetings with Globe staff members. Circulation figures and financial results from the previous quarter would be presented to employees who would have an opportunity to ask questions. Town hall meetings had never been held at the Record before but Kuntz thought it was time to break the mold. Not only would he answer questions, but department heads would face the music as well. “It just seemed natural to me. We’re in the communications business,” he said.

It was a welcome addition for many staff members, including myself who was assistant city editor at the time. For the first time, we had a better idea of how the paper was doing financially and we even learned the meaning of such fuzzy accounting terms as EBITDA (earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization), a way to measure profitability.

But Kuntz was just getting started.

He engineered a smooth transition to morning delivery of the paper in 2002. He launched two glossy bi-monthly magazines. The first, a lifestyles magazine called Grand, is still published today. The second, a business publication called Rex, did not survive the economic downturn of 2009, but Kuntz earned kudos for making the effort. He beefed up the editorial budget at the Guelph Mercury. He got involved in local issues and spoke out in favour of amalgamation to make local government more efficient.

The struggling Cambridge Reporter presented a unique dilemma. Crippled by a lengthy strike and boycott in the early 1990s that drove away readers and ad dollars, it was losing $300,000 a year. To stanch the bleeding, Kuntz converted it to a free, twice-weekly paper in 2002, wiping out most of the losses. But when Torstar bought the Cambridge Times a year later, it didn’t make sense to run two weeklies in the same market. Still in the red, the Reporter had to go after 157 years in business. Twenty-seven people lost their jobs. “Making the announcement was the most difficult day in my three decades in newspapers,” said Kuntz.

When the Record outsourced printing and shut down its press on Fairway Road in 2000, a move to a smaller office for the paper’s roughly 300 employees became inevitable. After a search of potential locations, Kuntz announced internally that a preferred site had been found at Highways 401 and 24 in Cambridge. The suburban location held many advantages including convenient highway access for trucks delivering newspapers from the Torstar press in Toronto. The site also had the potential to lure more subscribers from Cambridge, long a weak spot in Record readership.

But many on staff felt another short-listed site at the Market Square Mall in downtown Kitchener was a better location. Newspaper offices traditionally occupied city cores, close to city hall, courts, and social services, and accessible to walk-in traffic. The City of Kitchener was also keen on the Record helping to revive a struggling downtown. When a newsroom petition urged the Market Square site, Kuntz showed a willingness to compromise, opting for downtown Kitchener.

Once the site was chosen, Kuntz went all out to add style and pizzazz. He hired an interior design firm to create a showpiece office. Clocks announced time zones in major cities around the world. Framed front pages proclaimed major events in local history. Reporters of the past stared down from photos in the newsroom. A huge linotype machine from hot lead days loomed over the lobby and the final pages from the hot lead era ending in 1976 gleamed under glass in the newsroom. Displays in the food court told the Record’s history. It was like walking into a stylish museum.

On the business side of the ledger, Kuntz successfully navigated the Record through choppy waters. Net income rose from $4.5 million a year when he arrived to more than $10 million when he left. At a time when newspapers were slumping, he expanded staff and grew profits. “I was super proud of the business outcome, but also proud of the content,” he said, noting that the Record won national awards for its news coverage.

My Dinner with Honderich

The steak was delicious but the words were hard to swallow. As Kuntz sat in John Honderich’s dining room in the fall of 2006 enjoying a welcome meal as the new editor in chief of the Toronto Star, he couldn’t help but feel lucky that he had landed on his feet after so abruptly losing his job at the Record. Moreover, he felt nothing but admiration and gratitude for Honderich who told him he had pushed for Kuntz to be hired in the first place. The pair knew each other well, having worked together for many years in the Star newsroom. But when Honderich suggested more private meetings from time to time to discuss newsroom strategy. Kuntz began to tense up.

He knew it would be a mistake to meet with his former boss for informal chats. His job was to report to his immediate superior Pike and not Honderich who had resigned as publisher in 2004, but retained a seat on the Torstar board as chair of the voting trust representing the five families that owned the company.

Pike in turn reported to Torstar CEO Robert Prichard who was no fan of John Honderich. Since his hiring in 2001, Prichard had played a major role in Honderich’s decision to step down as publisher. The pair had engaged in a protracted battle over newsroom expenditures, which Prichard felt were not delivering a decent return for shareholders. Honderich, meanwhile, felt the Star was engaged in a fierce newspaper war in Toronto and couldn’t afford to let down its guard.

When Kuntz told Pike and Prichard of his dinner invitation they were not pleased. “Do it once, he’s welcoming you, but you can’t do it again,” Kuntz was told. The only time he could meet with Honderich in future was in the presence of other senior executives, they said. As he dined with Honderich, Kuntz thanked him for the opportunity and said how excited he was to be running the biggest newsroom in the country. But when he told the former publisher this would be their last one-on-one meeting, Honderich’s mood darkened.

Everyone at the Star knew that John had “a network of special friends,” not just in the newsroom, but in other departments as well, said Kuntz. Honderich would meet regularly with these people to get information and intelligence on what was going on. Although tempted, Kuntz was not prepared to be one of these “special friends.”

He could see that disappointing Honderich, still powerful as chair of the voting trust, might not be good for his longevity at the company. With his distinctive bow ties and toothy grin, the affable Honderich was, in the eyes of many, the public face of the Star. And yet Kuntz felt he could not serve two bosses. His first responsibility was to report to Pike. “I had to do what I felt was right.” Even though he was no longer in the newsroom, Honderich still wanted to be the de facto editor in chief, Kuntz said. “I put it to his love of the paper.”

Keeping Your Fingers Out of Your Nose (And Vice Versa)

In a publicly traded company such as Torstar, the board of directors should be guided by a policy of “nose in, fingers out,” he noted. Nose in means setting broad strategy for the corporation, protecting shareholder value and acting as a check on the powers of the chief executive officer. Fingers out means not running the day-to-day operations of the company. Honderich was clearly violating the fingers out rule by meeting with special friends and trying to influence policy from behind the scenes, Kuntz said.

Further clouding matters was the peculiar nature of Star ownership. Members of the public could buy shares on the stock exchange but they were “B” shares, with no voting rights. “A” shares, which carried voting rights, were held by the five families, including the Honderichs, that owned the Star. Because the Star was the flagship product in the company, the five families reserved the right to sign off on whoever was hired as publisher and editor in chief of the paper through the voting trust.

“That’s really unusual in any corporation, whether it’s a hardware industry or high-tech. Usually the board will pick the CEO and the CEO will pick the senior managers,” Kuntz noted.

In his view, Honderich was trying to live up the ideals of his father and ensure that the Atkinson Principles were being followed. Created by Joseph Atkinson, who ran the Star from 1899 until 1948, the principles called for the paper to support welfare, unemployment insurance, old-age pensions and other liberal causes.

In his book, Honderich writes that Kuntz refused to meet with him on a regular basis but doesn’t tell the full story of why such meetings were not possible, Kuntz said. Honderich then goes on to write that Kuntz informed all editorial staff that they should not meet with Honderich under any circumstances. That never happened, Kuntz said. To give such a directive to 400 employees in the newsroom, he would have had to send an email or memo. “There was no memo. You can’t send a memo to 400 people and not have someone have a record of it.” Moreover, sending such a memo would have been crazy, he noted. “I knew many of John’s special friends. I knew I couldn’t stop them from meeting with him.”

Staying Relevant By Going Plum Local

After he settled into the chief editor’s job, Kuntz and his management team embarked on a re-design of the paper. The feeling was palpable that the status quo wasn’t working. Before they began the re-design, Kuntz and Pike went to a conference organized by the World Association of Newspapers. Their biggest takeaway from the conference? The key to saving subscriber-based newspapers was unique content.

“If you go on the web, everybody’s got the war in Ukraine and Trump being arraigned, but where are you going to find out what’s going on at the local hospital board,

the school board or city council?” Kuntz said. “We thought, if we’re going to succeed in an era of free content on the internet, let’s go with our strengths. Let’s give local more of a platform.”

Accordingly, they unveiled a redesign that brought more local news into the first section of the paper, blending it with national news and the top foreign stories. The editorial and op-ed pages were pushed back to section two with more international news in a new World section. On the front page, they reduced the size of the paper’s distinctive blue-ribbon masthead and placed it over a larger black masthead with the words “Toronto Star.” “We wanted to signal that the paper was changing,” noted Kuntz.

In Above The Fold, Honderich writes that he was alarmed by the re-design because it featured an all-local first section, a step often taken by small-town newspapers, and eliminated the “decades-famous” blue masthead. “When presented with these plans, I raised immediate concerns,” he wrote.

For his part, Kuntz said Honderich was shown the re-design every step of the way and appeared to sign off on it. It was only later that he raised objections. “The book implies he had no role in it,” said Kuntz. Not only was Honderich incorrect in suggesting that A section was all-local, he implied that the blue-ribbon masthead was iconic and untouchable. The Star had many mastheads before the blue-ribbon version, Kuntz said. “When I grew up it was always red.”

Honderich also got his shorts in a knot about a plan to purchase new presses at a cost of $150 million, launch another tabloid even though the Star already published a Metro tab and expand business coverage despite heavy business competition from the Globe and the Post.

Stoking his anger further was Pike’s plan to cut the Star’s budget by $7 million even though it risked triggering a strike. Bargaining issues were not part of Kuntz’s mandate, but the newsroom budget was, and it was trimmed from $44 million to $42 million during his time as editor. Around this time, the Star offered generous buyouts, and 50 people in the newsroom, many of them close to retirement, submitted applications. Kuntz saw an opportunity to bring in fresh troops, and pushed for the addition of 20 new reporters. He ended up getting approval for 13.

“We hired some fantastic people,” including Daniel Dale, who went on to excel at CNN, and Robyn Doolittle, who wrote a bestselling book on Toronto’s troubled mayor Rob Ford.

The book suggests that the Star was no longer interested in hiring marquee talent, but Kuntz said this is simply untrue. “We lured back some heavyweights from the Globe,” including John Quinlan, the best front page editor in Canada, and Doug Cudmore, a highly regarded entertainment editor.

“Staff morale was cratering in all departments,” Honderich wrote, but Kuntz rejects that notion as well. “We hired a bunch of young talent. I think the effect on the newsroom was fantastic. New energy was coming in.”

Finally Honderich had had enough and pushed for the dismissal of Pike and Kuntz, a “shocking” move he admitted as they had been on the job for only two years. When the board rejected his request, he quit the voting trust in protest. Alarmed by his resignation, other members of the trust lured him back and went to the board, urging it to replace Pike and Kuntz.

When the smoke finally cleared, the pair were gone along with Torstar CEO Rob Prichard, who eventually resigned because the board had gone against his wishes to give Pike and Kuntz more time. Looking back on the shocking affair, Kuntz is philosophical. He was there longer than the previous editor, Giles Gherson, who held the job for only 22 months. “It was a real revolving door.”

And after his departure, the real cuts began, fuelled by declining advertising revenues, circulation and the economic downturn of 2009. Over the next seven years, the Star newsroom was slashed from about 400 people to just 170, although some cuts were due to the outsourcing of page production. “I’m glad I wasn’t the next guy because the next guy basically cut the newsroom in half.”

Still, his dismissal was painful at the time. “That was rough handling. I’ve had to terminate people in my career, I’ve been terminated,” he said. “It’s rarely a joyous moment for anybody.”

In an awkward turn of events, Kuntz was fired in a public place. The new publisher John Cruickshank took him to lunch at a restaurant, saying his time was up and that the new regime wanted to focus on “quality,” an odd reason that he still laughs about now. Though Kuntz was devastated, he couldn't help but notice how nervous Cruickshank was. This must be hard for you, Kuntz said. "Oh, thank you, yeah. Phew. I'm glad you understand," Cruickshank said. Kuntz was promised another job at Torstar, but the new position never materialized.

Kuntz was allowed to stay on another six weeks until the end of 2008 to help with the transition. “I wrote a generous farewell column, saying it’s been great, I love the Star, we had some fun,” he noted. “I tried to leave with dignity.” He even met with Honderich to reminisce about his time at the Star and offer some thoughts on how to reduce costs without sacrificing quality. “He wasn’t all warm and huggy towards me.”

After leaving the Star, Kuntz went into public relations and communications first at the Centre for International Governance Innovation in Waterloo and then at Ontario Power Generation in Kincardine, ON. With CIGI, he wrote the think tank’s first strategic plan and attended six different G20 meetings, including live news conferences with Vladimir Putin and Barack Obama. “I saw the whole world,” he said. He is now semi-retired and lives near Port Elgin, ON.

Despite his difficult time at Star, he still admires Honderich for his dedication to his craft. “I saw that play out many times when I was business editor. People would try to pressure us to cover a story this way or that. He stood up to it and protected his newsroom," Kuntz noted. “Nobody’s perfect. He was a giant of journalism and a great man. Even to this day I feel loyal in my heart to John Honderich, despite what happened between us.”

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