Making history, one page at a time
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 27 October 2008)

On the day the National Post first appeared, it was hard to buy a copy of the damn thing. On the morning of Oct. 27, 1998, in midtown Toronto, I tried five or six stores before I found one where the Post wasn't already sold out. When finally I came upon a storekeeper who still had a supply, four other customers were grabbing copies while I paid for mine.

People understood that history was being made. For the first time in decades, a newspaper had been created -- an ambitious broadsheet newspaper, not a thin tabloid like the Toronto Sun when it appeared in 1971.

I didn't start writing for the Post until 13 months later, so during Year One, I was part of the audience for this spectacle. And what a spectacle! It was at once more serious and more frivolous than any of the papers then existing in English Canada. In its pages, substantial ideas and lighthearted gossip often showed up on the same page, sometimes in the same article.

That first Post was much more readable and much better organized than I had expected. Unaccustomed like everyone else to the birth of newspapers, I had imagined the Post would start slowly and perhaps hesitantly. But the founding editor, Ken Whyte, and the deputy editor, Martin Newland, had been rehearsing their troops in private for this battle. As a result, their first edition was alive with talent and confidence. Whatever else might be said about it, this was a paper made by editors and writers with large ambitions.

Best of all, it made a new noise. It didn't sound or feel like any of the papers I was used to reading.

It seemed anxious to sharpen debate rather than resolve it. In the Post, the process of argument itself seemed as important as the conclusions reached. From the start, exposing the bones of an argument was a Post specialty.

And, of course, the Post was conservative, in a fresh and unembarrassed way. That was one of the central purposes of the paper's founder, Conrad Black. The editors were prepared to think the unthinkable. Eventually they would even challenge, on many occasions, the structure of public health care in Canada.

In 1998 this was radical. At that moment, the national governments of both Canada and the United States were ruled by Liberals, or liberals. In the universities, the professions and even business, just about every articulate voice expressed some variation of liberalism.

People running the Canadian media apparently believed the liberal hegemony was as normal as snow. Those of us who had long since lost our faith in old-fashioned liberalism, and for years had been nourishing conservative instincts, greeted the Post's exuberant new approach with a thank-God-at-last relief.

We no longer had to consider ourselves points of light in the Stygian darkness of the Liberal Age. A newspaper, exhibiting great talent and intelligence, now reflected our misgivings and our hopes. Of course we noticed, sometimes with regret and sometimes with delight, that the Post made many of our friends grind their teeth in rage. There were then, as there are now, people who did not read the Post "on principle."

The kind of thinking that paraded through the Post's pages, while theoretically legal in a society burdened by the principle of free speech, nevertheless seemed (in liberal eyes) close to treasonable, almost American in fact. The Post turned many a once-peaceful dinner party into a shouting match.

Those early days were a happy time for conservatives across most of this continent. Standing outside their national governments, they felt free to assail liberal misuse of power. At that moment, they didn't have to take the blame, even conversationally, for the blunders or betrayals of ruling conservatives. Nowadays, holding conservative views has grown more complicated and less fun.

While the Post was conservative in politics and economics, it showed few signs of social conservatism. I remember being startled, in one of the early issues, by an interviewer who greeted as routine a film director's decision to give a lesbian interpretation to a Jane Austen novel.

As I got to know the Post staff, I realized it was like no other. The journalists were much above the ordinary level in intelligence, much below the ordinary level in age. Though the paper hired some experienced journalists from other papers, it took chances on the talented but untried -- imagining, correctly, that academic achievement might translate into editorial accomplishment. Eventually, a lawyer became one of our most talented copy editors. For quite a while, the two men editing my Saturday column had three university degrees each.

Like all good papers, the Post has employed a sprinkling of eccentrics. A spectacular case was an editor who served the paper for a while, left, and wrote a magazine article detailing the sexual fantasies about male editors that entertained her during story meetings.

Post editors have never lacked for enthusiasm. When they saw what they considered a subject of overwhelming public interest, they sent writers swarming over it, until every possible angle was covered. The death of John F. Kennedy Jr. in 1999 was an early example. The Post treated it as if a giant had left the Earth.

Conservatives are supposed to be rigid, but the Post has from the beginning operated on a flexible management style. The editors set aside the traditional "beat" system by which any given reporter covered one subject and no other. Post reporters were given assignments according to talent rather than their place on a list of specialists. Columnists were encouraged to write in an off-the-cuff confessional style, slanging boyfriends or husbands at will -- an approach that quickly spread to The Globe and Mail, where it became a contagion.

From the beginning, the Post emphasized the voice of the writer. The ideal Post columnist speaks from a personal rather than a corporate position, and the paper assumes the columnist's words deserve typographic celebration, perhaps on the front page. Before 1998, papers such as the Globe and the Toronto Star almost never put a column on page one. Today, this practice is common across the country, one of the Post's most important influences, along with its superb and highly original art direction.

But much of this suggests that the Post is history. In truth, the style created in 1998, suitably modified, is the style of the Post in 2008. To this moment it honours, more than any other newspaper I read, the voices of its writers and their individual talents. It remains open to original thinking, to honest debate and to a truthful account of the currents moving society. It remains attentive, as much as it did in the beginning, to the state of human freedom, whether in the Middle East or at the strangely distorted human rights commissions in Canada. A uniquely unconventional spirit and a unique level of journalistic ambition animated the debut issue that I had so much trouble acquiring a decade ago today. The same spirit and ambition govern our pages today.

Even at this late date, the creation of the Post seems like a kind of miracle. When it seemed that no one in North America would ever again found a newspaper, the Post breathed radical new life into Canadian journalism. A decade later, with predictions of the death of the print media far more widespread, it's just possible that someone, somewhere, is quietly preparing another daily that will refute the pessimists and astonish everyone. Miracles can happen. Every Post reader knows that.

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