Guest Notebook: (2) Local News One Farmer at a Time, The Rise of George McCullagh
by Mark Bourrie
“The main street of Arden; now an unincorporated village of 250 population which may be the centre of a prosperous mining area if present indications are fulfilled,” Toronto Star, September 09, 1936 (Toronto Star Archives/Getty Images)
Read Part One of this post here
On the verge of twenty, a superstar salesman as well as the southwestern Ontario regional circulation manager, wunderkind George McCullagh was sent across the rest of the province to sell subscriptions and advise the managers who used to be his bosses. He made a lot of money, but he wanted more than that. He wanted respect. He wanted the Globe’s managers to praise him, to see that he had gone from being a tall, skinny teenager to a handsome, successful young man who made the paper a lot of money. Instead, when he arrived in Toronto for a meeting with the publisher, William Gladstone Jaffray, McCullagh “got a severe reprimand for a few indiscreet drinks I took in North Bay and a little poker I played on the train.”
He probably could have landed a job on one of the southwestern Ontario dailies, good papers in their day, but he couldn’t afford the pay cut. Still, he was able to talk his way into the press boxes of the London Gardens hockey rink and pretend to be a sportswriter for the Globe, and he filed long stories that were never used. From the box, he gave loud, unsolicited advice to coaches and players. Fairly quickly, he was tossed out by one of the local reporters. He blew off steam by boxing and wore a crooked nose for the rest of his life because of it. He kept applying for other jobs at the Globe, but, as the months went by, it was clear he was far more valuable to the company as a subscription salesman. Finally, Wellington Jeffers, the financial wizard who edited the Globe’s business news pages, hired McCullagh as a cub reporter. He learned basic reporting on the police beat before being transferred to the financial news department.
The finance job connected McCullagh with the men of Bay Street. At the time, the financial district was seething with speculation and hot money. This was the top of the Wall Street boom market of the Roaring Twenties. It was also the era when the big gold veins of northern Ontario were coming into peak production. It took a lot of money to open a mine, and that capital came from big and small investors on Bay Street. The place was full of boiler rooms of people, at various levels of sleaze, peddling dreams. Before lotteries were legal, these mining shares were high-stakes gambling. People would sink their life savings into stories peddled by prospectors and stock hustlers. Stocks shot up even when the “mine” was nothing more than a few acres of staked land in the boreal forest. Writing boilerplate for new stock issues was almost as big, and as profitable, as mining.
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McCullough’s work life, at the Globe and on Bay Street, gave him access to Toronto’s new rich, the men who made fast money financing the great gold boom. He made these men, and their wives, the central players in his social life. It helped that he had wit, a sense of humor, and the ability to tell great stories. People found him charming and smart. He was also, at heart, a shy man who preferred talking to small groups of people rather than lecturing a crowd. He had learned to respect working people as he hiked the flat country of southwestern Ontario, peddling newspaper subscriptions, even if he was determined not to be one of them. He seems to have been a good listener, a skill that would win him friends at the very top of the English-speaking world’s political and business elites.
The newspaper market, meanwhile, had become oversaturated and volatile. For generations, newspapers had been small businesses. Printers, once they learned their trade, went off to start their own papers. Most towns had at least two newspapers, and some had half a dozen. The printing press was always being improved, so there were plenty of cheap used machines available in the United States that could be brought across the border. But in the late 1800s and through the early years of the new century, Canadians started to expect more from their newspaper than just a few pages of ads and some columns of old news and partisan opinion. This was especially true in cities, where competition had become fierce and there were waves of newspaper fatalities. Craft printers and politicians were driven out of the big markets, and outsiders with deep pockets started taking over newspapers for their value as investments. Big-city papers came to need good presses, big staffs, and downtown offices. The Globe could trade on its name, but as McCullagh ascended the ranks it was becoming threadbare and worn, a throwback in a city with four big daily newspapers and scores of other news sheets and magazines. There was also labor trouble brewing: in the next few decades, journalists on the Globe and the Mail and Empire would begin to organize.
McCullagh, though, could see the Globe’s business potential. He knew its weaknesses, but he also understood its strength, which would be forgotten by its bean-counting owners in the decades to come: the paper got out to every farm and every backwater in Ontario—places where McCullagh had spent his early years—and it valued every one of its subscribers. George Brown, the Scot who arrived in Toronto in 1844 to create the Globe, had been a quick adopter of technology. Railways were barely getting started, but Brown could see them coming. The paper went daily just as the network of new rail lines spread out from Toronto to Georgian Bay, Montreal, and the Detroit frontier. The rails that brought farmers’ produce to cities could also carry newspapers out to the sticks and get news into the hands of those farmers on the same day that Toronto subscribers got their papers. The other newspaper publishers were using hand-cranked presses that were cast off by American printers, machines right out of the 1700s, but Brown bought the newest steam-driven rotary presses. It was a big outlay, but the cost per newspaper was now much lower, and Brown’s paper could be out of the newsroom, printed, and loaded onto the trains while the competitors were still trying to set up their presses. Brown could print extras and special editions and flood the streets of Toronto in just a few hours. By wedding the best technology with an almost religious obsession with railway timetables, Brown had a truly national newspaper in the 1850s, when the nation of Canada spanned Quebec City to Windsor to Collingwood. Everyone bought the paper: politicians, businesspeople, farmers, merchants, tradesmen, professionals. It wasn’t just entertainment. They needed the information Brown sold, and by knowing those routes and those readers, George McCullagh would come a hundred years later to dominate not only Canadian journalism, but finance and politics.
Learn more in Big Men Fear Me: The Fast Life and Quick Death of Canada’s Most Powerful Media Mogul, by Mark Bourrie, coming out soon, from which this post is adapted.
Mark Bourrie wrote for the Globe and Mail from 1978 to 1989 and for the Toronto Star from 1989 to 2004. He is the author of thirteen books, including The Fog of War: Censorship of Canada’s Media in The Second World War, and editor of Fighting Words: Canada's Best War Reporting. He is a consultant on propaganda and censorship at the Canadian Forces Public Affairs School.
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