Then and Now: Timmins Daily Press

Here is a quick hit Then-and-Now from my hometown.

The Timmins Daily Press launched the Thomson Media empire.
The Timmins Daily Press (“Thomson Building”): c.1936 and c. 2010

In spite of passionate community opposition, the Timmins Daily Press (Thomson) building was demolished in 1997.

But in Thomson’s world, sentimentality can only be stretched so far. In Timmins, where father Roy got his start, some of the old-timers still fondly remember young Ken from his stint as a reporter in 1947, says Syl Belisle, publisher of the now Hollinger-controlled Timmins Daily Press. Thomson returned in 1984 to donate the old press building as a historic site to the city of Timmins. It later fell into disrepair and was demolished. But The Daily Press is thriving since the Thomsons sold it in 1996, Belisle says. “We’re bigger now. We’re up to 16 pages minimum. We’ve added more staff, new products. We’re even putting out a phone book.” There is still life after the Thomsons move on. [1]

Although the paper survived (and perhaps thrives) without the Thomson family, the physical history of their empire did not.

The words about Timmins were touching, the town and the paper, one would think, corporate icons. But the empire’s origins had already been extinguished by the bottom line.

Susan Goldenberg visited the isolated town in her researches in the ’80s and found the Press, by then a daily, in total disarray, the look of it Dickensian. Blue paint peeled off the newsroom walls, torn pieces of plastic served as window blinds, reporters in a computer age still pounded away at wounded typewriters. In 1996 the Timmins Daily Press passed out of the Thomson fold like a ship in the night, sold quietly with a group of expendables. If the queen of English-language journalism, the Times of London, couldn’t survive Thomson’s bottom-line economics, how could the Daily Press? Emotion paid fewer dividends than front-page sewer stories. The founding paper was dismissed without even a note in the corporation house organ, the Thomson News, which handled the obituary as part of the sale of 14 unnamed Canadian papers “east of Thunder Bay, Ontario.”

“They don’t have an emotional bone in their body,” says Bill Sternberg, Thomson’s former Washington bureau chief who now works at USA Today. Sternberg spent seven years building up the bureau, then saw it gutted in one night over dinner at the J.W. Marriott Hotel, the staff to be told in the morning. The Washington bureau is now down to two reporters, one writing for Thomson’s Arizona papers, the other for the Wisconsin group. “Just look at Timmins. They sure had enough money to have kept the paper for sentimental reasons. But they didn’t. They don’t have sentiment and they don’t have ideology. The ideology is dollars.”

By the time of the bureau upheaval, however, in January 1997, both the overarching Thomson Corp. and Thomson Newspapers had moved into a dramatically new corporate era.

Historically, the newspaper business has been remarkably recession-proof. Fortunes were made off screaming headlines during the Great Depression and, despite constant hand-wringing, the business had a Wall Street reputation for holding up throughout the periodic recessions since the end of the Second World War. The recession of the late `80s and early ’90s was startlingly different. [2]

Doubtlessly, an inglorious end to a building that deserved better.

[1] Sheppard, Robert. 2000. “A License to Print Money.” Maclean’s February 28, 2000.
[2] Prochnau, William. 1998. “In Lord Thompson’s Realm.” American Journalism Review. October 1998, pp. 45-61.