Tag Archives: J. Patrick O’Callaghan

J. Patrick O’Callaghan: Maverick publisher

J. Pat O'Callaghan 1925 – 1996

J. Pat O’Callaghan
1925 – 1996

I worked for seven publishers during my three decades in Canadian daily journalism. Pat O’Callaghan was my favourite. I liked him best because he supported independent reporting and refused to kowtow to politicians or business leaders. He even refused to be beholden to his own bosses. During his three decades in Canadian journalism, this Irish-born renegade ran chain papers in Red Deer, Windsor, Edmonton and Calgary, all the time “cheerfully overlooking that the newspapers were owned by others.”

We knew him by reputation long before he arrived in Calgary. In Red Deer and Windsor he had written editorials on the front page under his own byline, reminding readers that a member of their community – not an absentee landlord – was running the day-to-day operations of the paper. In Edmonton, he  transformed the Journal into an extension of his professional Irish persona, colouring the masthead shamrock green, promoting the paper on green-painted billboards, and selling it from green street boxes. What would he do in Calgary? We couldn’t wait to see.

He arrived in July 1982 to replace the retiring Frank Swanson, who had overseen the paper’s move from downtown Calgary to a $70 million plant on a hill overlooking the intersection of Deerfoot and Memorial. We would always refer to this red-brick structure as “the new building,” even after we’d been in there for 20 years. Today the building is up for sale and some of us are still calling it “the new building.” Old habits die hard.

O’Callaghan introduced a succession of changes at the Herald – some whimsical, some farsighted – aimed at making readers (and staff) sit up and take notice.

Among the whimsical was his decision to strike “The” from the masthead of this paper that had been known variously throughout its 100-year existence as The Calgary Herald, The Calgary Daily Herald or, simply, The Herald. O’Callaghan claimed to have a historical justification for his decision to rename it Calgary Herald, but no one could ever find the evidence. The illuminated sign on the west side of the red-brick building kept the design of the old masthead. O’Callaghan couldn’t convince his Southam bosses to spend the money on replacing it.

Among O’Callaghan’s farsighted decisions, applauded by Herald employees with preschool children, was to make the Herald the first paper in Canada with a day-care centre on the premises. O’Callaghan also added Sunday to the paper’s publication schedule (“because we live in a seven-day world”) and switched the Herald from afternoon to morning delivery so that “a minor daily paper in Calgary” would not have the breakfast market all to itself. Herald readers still had the option of saving the paper for afternoon reading, he said.

O’Callaghan banned black-and-white-pictures from the Herald’s front page at a time when the paper’s library of colour photos was much like Old Mother Hubbard’s cupboard. He emboldened his columnists to make their work reflect his philosophy that a newspaper should “never be bland, colourless or gutless.” He launched a Sunday magazine that came with the Herald for six years, and won a few national and regional awards along the way. And all the time, he worked to make the Herald the voice of Alberta. “Politically, we’ve never had a voice,” he said. “How can we when we only have 21 MPs who are swamped in Parliament, and a Senate that’s a joke at best? The only weapon we have is our voice.”

His independence made O’Callaghan a loner. He got no support from the Herald’s Toronto owners when he thundered in print against the National Energy Program. He alienated the Alberta politicians and business leaders who could have become his closest allies. “In this job, sooner or later, someone wants a favour or special treatment,” he said. “So I’ve avoided terribly close friendships.”

His eastern bosses eventually tired of his independence, especially when it started costing them money. They recalled him to Toronto at the end of 1988, when Calgary’s auto dealers started pulling their ads from the Herald to protest a series of stories, written by our great consumer reporter Brock Ketcham, listing suggested retail prices of new vehicles. “A typical swan song for a career that has been studded with a certain amount of controversy,” noted O’Callaghan with a certain pride.

He was then 63. Instead of settling into quiet retirement, he took his typewriter with him to Aurora, Ont. where over the next seven years he churned out a steady stream of freelance columns on Canadian unity, freedom of the press, and other subjects.

His last column appeared in the Globe and Mail on Canada Day, 1996, just one month before he succumbed to heart problems at age 70. The stated subject was Southam’s announced decision to establish its own national news service as an alternative to Canadian Press. The real subject, however, was something close to O’Callaghan’s independent heart.

Recalling that the Southam publishers of his time had always been free to back the political party of their choice, O’Callaghan expressed hope the proposed news service would not result in Southam newspapers singing the same political tune across the land:

“One would like to think than an element of such independence has survived the various crises Southam has passed through in recent years.”

I miss him to this day.

No more Sunday papers

Postmedia Network has scrapped the Sunday editions of the Calgary Herald, Edmonton Journal and Ottawa Citizen, put the National Post’s Monday edition on hiatus for the second summer in a row, and announced plans to stop publishing print editions of the chain’s papers on national holidays. More newsroom jobs will be lost, local news coverage will continue to shrink, and the future of the business will continue to look bleak. Pat O’Callaghan must be turning in his grave.

It seems like only yesterday (it was actually in 1982) that O’Callaghan came to Calgary from Edmonton to become the Herald’s publisher. At the time, the upstart Calgary Sun had a Sunday edition, but not the Herald. “This minor daily paper should not have the Sunday market all to itself,” said O’Callaghan. He announced that the Herald would thenceforth publish its own Sunday edition because “we live in a seven-day world.” Three years later, he added a Sunday magazine to the paper. That supplement appeared for the next six years, and won a few national and regional awards for writing and photography. (Full disclosure: I was one of the magazine’s writers.)

Although the Sunday magazine had its own dedicated staff – two full-time writers, one full-time photographer, two full-time copy editors, and an editor-in-chief – the same did not hold true for the Sunday paper itself. That was a missed opportunity, to my mind. Instead of stretching six days of coverage over seven, Herald management should have put a full-time team of reporters, editors and photographers in place to produce an independent Sunday paper.

Management should also have taken some of those additional Sunday advertising dollars and used them to recruit a rotating roster of guest columnists (Aritha van Herk, Sharon Pollock, Fred Stenson, Sid Marty, Sam Selvon, etc.) to give the Sunday paper its own voice and identity. The resulting publication might not have had the same cachet as the Sunday New York Times, or even the Saturday Globe with its great standalone book review section, now much missed. But at least it would have stood out from the Monday to Saturday editions as a paper with a distinctive style and tone.

By the time Herald management finally got around to remaking the Sunday paper in accordance with reader surveys, it was too little too late. The paper was heavy on cosmetic changes and light on content reimagining. There was little in it for readers who had grown used to living without a local Sunday paper.

What will the Herald lose when the Sunday edition is axed at the end of July? We have yet to hear what sections will move to Saturday and to other days of the week. But I think it’s fair to speculate that books coverage will not be one of them. Book reviews don’t attract advertising and now, more than ever, advertising support is the key to the Herald’s survival. Sad but true.

One section deserves to die. The paper should get rid of the Sunday spreads of photos from the local cocktail party scene that, to my mind, take up an unnecessary amount of valuable space. But Corporate Calgary has to be kept happy, I suppose, so these pretty pictures are undoubtedly here to stay. Atwood will become irrelevant but the Stampede Queen must reign forever.

O’Callaghan was handed a great gig when he became the Herald’s publisher. Not only did he have the freedom to launch a Sunday edition and magazine, but he also had the freedom to make the Herald reflect his philosophy that a newspaper should “never be bland, colourless or gutless.”

Today, there is plenty of bland, precious little colour, and hardly any gutsiness. That’s what happens when you’re owned by a bunch New York hedge funds that care only about profit.

I see no light at the end of this tunnel. The demise of the Sunday editions is just the beginning of the end for Postmedia as a publisher of printed newspapers. I can only echo the wise words of a first-year journalism student who said to me recently, “I feel like we’re being trained to work for a business that will no longer exist by the time we graduate.”