Canada has lost a passionate advocate for excellence in journalism. John Honderich former publisher and editor of the Toronto Star died Saturday, February 5. John was larger than life — both in stature and aspiration for the Star and his journalists.
During his tenure, the Star won four Michener Awards and 21 citations of merit for telling stories that improved the lives of people and changed public policy. In an interview in October 2019 he described the Michener Award as “its own Academy Awards.” He said it was not a successful year journalistically if the Star didn’t get a nomination.
“It’s the highest-level journalism award in the country, so it’s almost natural to aspire to be nominated,” Honderich said. “The goal is to bring about a high level of investigative public service journalism with a view of informing your readers and carrying out your responsibility.”
He served on the Michener Awards Foundation Board for 26 years.
The two Michener Awards John loved to talk about were the 2013 exposé of Toronto mayor Rob Ford and the investigation into race and crime in 2002.
The work of Jim Rankin “in effect broke the back of those who say racial profiling does not exist,” Honderich said. “After that no police force or no one anywhere could ever say there’s no such thing as racial profiling because here you had the entire database… It was an unbelievable victory.”
After being shut out at the National Newspaper Awards, the Michener win for the Rob Ford coverage was vindication. At the ceremony in the ballroom at Rideau Hall, when the winner was announced John leaped out of his seat, threw his arms up and with a classic Honderich smile, bellowed, “Yes.”
The Rob Ford story “was probably one of the greatest threats to the paper because they wanted to launch a full boycott of advertisers and readers,” Honderich recalled. “But the moral corruption and behaviour was so egregious that to let it sit there unchallenged would have been awful.” The Star’s coverage helped to defeat Rob Ford and bring in a new council in Toronto.
John had his dark moments about the future of journalism in Canada, but always finished on a note of optimism. “There is always going to be a need for quality journalism and story telling and it will probably come out in one way or the other.” I am going to miss John – his wide smile, generous laugh, iconic bow tie, wise but difficult advice, and cheerleading.
Kim Kierans is a Michener Foundation board member and is writing a book about the Michener Awards and public service journalism.