Different priorities of the two owners of Torstar, which runs the Toronto Star, one of Canada’s largest newspapers, and a host of smaller papers, became obvious not long after they bought the media giant.
Torstar employees said Jordan Bitove started showing extraordinary emotion at meetings and staff gatherings when speaking of journalism’s mission and responsibility.
He “cries,” said one.
He “chokes up,” said another.
“That’s true,” confirmed a third.
By contrast, Paul Rivett, Bitove’s equal partner in the enterprise, appears less emotional with less focus on journalism, several staff members told National Post, speaking on condition they are not named for fear of retribution from management.
“Paul has always been the more hardnose one in terms of the bottom line,” said a veteran employee. “What Paul does is all about distressed assets and turning them into something. I think Jordan fell in love with the newspaper and I don’t think Paul ever did.”
It makes the feud between these former friends — a clash of titans unveiled Thursday in a lawsuit, filed by Rivett, seeking to dissolve their partnership and sell Torstar, perhaps for parts — as more than a business spat.
It sets it as a battle for the soul of the Star.
It could be that things are so bad they just can’t stand to be near each other
The portrait of competing visions — the value of journalism versus the value of a buck — is compelling, Wall Street meets All the President’s Men, and public statements from both men seem to support it.
“In an intensely competitive media landscape that has and will continue to experience radical transformation, there are two schools of thought on how to be successful,” Bitove said in a written statement.
“The preferred playbook of some investors is to cut costs to the bone, strip the product bare, and shrink newsrooms to extract short-term benefit for shareholders. The approach favoured by those of us who believe in the vital role of the media in a strong and vibrant society is to build a product centred on the trusted journalism that readers demand. And to use that demand to build a sustainable business.”
Bitove said he wants to keep the Star in the game emphasizing “investigative journalism our democracy depends upon.”
“I make no apologies for doing so.”
If Rivett thinks that dichotomy is unfair, he doesn’t show it in his request for a judge to wrap up Nordstar, their mutual holding company that owns Torstar.
“Rivett and Bitove have fundamentally different and irreconcilable views,” his lawsuit alleges. “Bitove has ignored Nordstar’s agreed-to prime objective that Nordstar’s business be carried out in common with a view to profit.”
Several employees said they remain skeptical about what’s really going on behind the scenes.
“I don’t think it’s an easy thing to say yet who’s wearing the black hat and who’s wearing the white hat,” said one. Economic realities haven’t escaped the journalists: “The Star is still a business.”
Said another: “I don’t know what each of their endgames is. Is there anything more to Paul’s vision versus Jordan’s vision?”
Meanwhile, everyone feels caught between two masters.
The public airing of his beef with Bitove didn’t leave Rivett shy around the newspaper.
He worked in the Star’s downtown newsroom Thursday, erect at a stand-up desk near the fashion and beauty section. Some thought it a powerplay, because the chief executive officer is rarely in the newsroom, but it could just as easily be because the Star is moving next month, and workspace is in flux.
“It could also be that things are so bad they just can’t stand to be near each other,” one employee said.
It is more typical to see Bitove in the newsroom, as would be expected for his role as publisher.
While the stakes for Rivett and Bitove are, at minimum, their $60-million investment to buy the company in 2020, the impact of their feud and potential fallout spreads further.
It is perhaps existential for the newspaper.
“I have fears for our members but also fears for the paper and its survival,” said Randy Kitt, the media sector director of Unifor, the national union that represents workers at the Toronto Star, as well as National Post.
Staff were “blindsided” by the acrimonious split, he said. “We’ve been bargaining collective agreements across the chain, and we’ve been promised there would be investments in the papers. We expected stability under the ownership, not chaos.
“The Toronto Star employees have been through 20 years of downsizing and concessions and of course they’re concerned about the direction and the uncertainty. Canadians should also be concerned by the viability of Canada’s progressive voice in the media landscape,” said Kitt.
Is there anything more to Paul’s vision versus Jordan’s vision?
The Star began publishing in 1892, when seven Toronto papers battled for readers. It started as a dissident voice by striking printers and journalists.
For 49 years it was shepherded by legendary editor and publisher Joseph E. Atkinson — nicknamed Holy Joe — as a progressive voice that became the biggest paper in Canada. Atkinson died in 1948. After a brief period as a charitable organization, it was controlled by a family compact of five wealthy Toronto families, all related to Atkinson, who promised to uphold Atkinson’s values.
Torstar grew and at one point was worth billions.
Its circulation and profits nosedived in the internet age, and the power and prestige from ownership diminished — and dividends disappeared — leading the families to set nostalgia aside and sell in 2020.
The buyer was Nordstar, a 50-50 partnership between Rivett and Bitove, who had been friends for more than a decade. Bitove was named the new publisher of Toronto Star, the flagship newspaper, and Rivett as chair of Torstar, the corporate umbrella.
Several people who know Bitove, from both inside and outside the company, said they often hear him speak of the promise he gave the members of the family compact to stay true to Atkinson’s principles.
“He really does believe in the paper as a public trust,” said one. “Jordan found something he felt was important. I think he really believes in it.”
The company spent a lot of time and money assimilating operations of the Star with the company’s other properties. More recently, it has been undoing that, repatriating the Star’s operation, insiders said.
Perhaps that leaves room for the newspaper to stand alone, perhaps as a not-for-profit news company. “Maybe there’s an opportunity for employees of the Star to buy the paper and make a truly independent news outlet,” said Kitt.
None of those ideas are floated in the legal filing.
The lawsuit suggests an inglorious end, essentially an estate sale for a partnership that is dead. The future of the Star might even involve a coin toss.
Under the plan Rivett requests in a court filing, either of the two would get first crack at bidding on the enterprise, or parts of it.
If both parties want any of the same lots there would be an auction. If only one of them wants an asset, the two can haggle, and if they can’t agree on a price, it would go to valuation arbitration, the proposal says.
If both want it all, it would go to a two-man auction, under the proposal. If neither wants to make the first bid, a coin toss will decide and bidding will begin, in writing, with each party having 30 minutes to make a higher bid.
If neither of them wants it, it should go to public auction.
Meanwhile, a newsroom employee said, everyone else keeps working.
“The Star is still the Star I’ve known for years. It’s still tilting at windmills and taking on crusades. The Star hasn’t fundamentally changed at all since the sale of the paper, and I think that’s a good thing.”