Toronto Star sold to private equity investors: What it means for Canadian media

New owners are donors to Maxime Bernier and the Conservative Party

Late Tuesday evening, the Toronto Star published a short news item noting that their parent company TorStar, which also owns the Hamilton Spectator, five other dailies and around 70 weekly newspapers, was being sold for $52 million and taken private.

The buyers, Jordan Bitove and Paul Rivett, are financial tycoons. Bitove is a partner in a private equity firm, and Rivett retired from his role as president of a large private holding company earlier this year. They and their families wholly own NordStar Capital, the holding company that now owns TorStar.

John Honderich, the chair of TorStar’s board, wrote in an editorial that the new owners had “committed to build on Torstar’s storied legacy and also to adhere to the Atkinson Principles, which have been a cornerstone of the flagship Toronto Star.” Honderich added that the new owners bring “both resources and determination,” and noted that Bitove once worked as a paperboy delivering the Star.

The low price of the sale took many observers by surprise, while others noted that TorStar’s stock price inexplicably surged yesterday — before news of the deal was public.

But perhaps the most consternation on social media was generated by the political profile of the new owners. As Canadaland’s Jonathan Goldsbie first reported on Twitter, Bitove donated the maximum to the Conservative Party of Canada this February, while Rivett has a long history of maximum donations to the Conservative Party of Canada, the last of which was in 2018. Rivett donated the maximum to Maxime Bernier’s leadership campaign in 2017, and donated to Bernier again in 2018 to help clear his debts from the leadership campaign. He has also donated large amounts to the Ontario PC Party and several of its leadership candidates in the past. Bitove donated to both Liberal and Conservative federal riding associations in 2014 and 2015, and to one Ontario PC Party leadership candidate.

For Bitove, politics runs in the family. The Globe and Mail described his father, John Bitove, in his obituary as “a well-connected Conservative and party fundraiser over the years.”

Newspapers are a hot new toy for the super-rich

I don’t want to be pessimistic. I sincerely hope that this all works out well for the many great journalists employed by the Star and the other papers included in this deal. I hope that Bitove and Rivett are in this for the glory, and plan to leave the paper’s operations alone.

But if I was a betting man, I don’t think I’d take that action.

What we know about Bitove and Rivett is that they are wealthy investors who have made small fortunes in private equity. They’re based in Toronto, but it’s unlikely they’re in this as a charitable project. They no doubt have another venture capital-inspired scheme to streamline, optimize and gobbledygook their flim flam — but those haven’t worked out well for media outlets in the past.

Whether this is an investment vehicle or a vanity project, super-rich owners with longstanding ties to the Conservative Party wouldn’t seem to augur well for the Star’s ability to maintain one of the only centre-left editorial positions among Canada’s major newspapers.

With Postmedia’s foreign owners ordering all the papers in the chain to endorse the Conservatives in 2015, and presumably again last election, the Star was one of the only newspapers in the country to endorse a party other than the Conservatives over the last several cycles.

How comfortable will the Star’s editorial board be, under this new ownership, with endorsing something like a wealth tax? It’s backed by 75 per cent of Canadians but never comes up in the corporate media for some reason.

What about cracking down on tax havens? Will the Star be as forceful in its reporting on this subject? Will they continue to dedicate staff to combing through leaks like the Panama Papers?

Perhaps it’s my paranoid nature, but I’m not optimistic that the guy who donated the max to Maxime Bernier is going to uphold the Atkinson Principles.

Corporate media increasingly out of step with Canadians

At a time when polls show Canadians attitudes are shifting markedly to the left on everything from the role of government in the economy to wealth taxes and nationalizing old-age homes, this purchase seems likely to push Canada’s mainstream media ecosystem further to the right.

The Conservatives can probably look forward to a clean sweep of newspaper endorsements next election, even as those endorsements mean less than ever before.

And the ideas that animate younger generations — a Green New Deal, a wealth tax, a more caring and just society — will remain conspicuous by their absence from mainstream outlets.

Thankfully, as the mainstream media implodes, there is a thriving ecosystem of non-profit and crowdfunded outlets doing amazing journalism in this country. Many of them will be honoured at the Canadian Association of Journalists’ annual awards this weekend.

The future of media in this country is in non-profit, public interest journalism backed by the members of the community it serves, not corporate chains owned by U.S. hedge funds and storied outlets sold to rich dilettantes who decided to buy a new toy.

If you’re mad about the Star being sold off to a couple of finance bros who stand for Mad Max, don’t just stew in it. Pick your favourite non-profit media outlet and set up a recurring monthly donation.

Better media is out there, but we have to fund it.

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