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Former CMG member tells the century-old story of our country’s news agency

By Colin Perkel

Author Gene Allen signs copies of his book Making National News
Author Gene Allen signs copies of his book Making National News

One of the most profound influences in the formation of the Canadian identity has been the country’s largely unknown and unsung national news agency, according to a just published book.

In his detailed historical account, author Gene Allen traces the American-midwifed birth and first seven decades of Canada’s single most important news supply company, The Canadian Press, familiarly called CP.

“There’s this mental map of Canada and CP populated it with
meaning, every day for decades, almost now for 100 years,” Allen
said in an interview.

“CP is a hugely important institution in the history of Canada that people don’t know very much about. People don’t realize that most of the news that most Canadians got — certainly for most of the 20th century — came from CP in one way or another.”

The book, “Making National News: A History of Canadian Press,” spans a period from the early 1900s to 1970 — when new-fangled multiplex telephone systems rendered the telegraph as the primary news-distribution network essentially obsolete.

The academic tome is far from a keyboard level account. There are no “Sweetheart, get me rewrite” moments, although there is a charming reference to “girl copy boys” and a
fascinating glimpse of CP’s legendary war correspondent Ross Munro, minutes after landing on Normandy Beach, pounding on the typewriter perched on his knees as it jumped “like a live thing from the concussion from Canadian artillery.”

Instead, the book offers a rare, top-level overview of the haggling, self-interest and occasional altruism among the country’s newspaper publishers, who were forced to band together to create and support CP as a co-operative.

“Publishers tend to get delusions of grandeur: They think they’re geniuses and they can impose their own particular views on the world,” Allen said. “The thing about CP, with all these different owners to satisfy, that didn’t happen.”

One surprise turned up by his deep dive into the archives is the critical role played by the Associated Press — now the world’s largest news agency — which was struggling to assert itself as a dominant player in the global news business at the turn of the last

It was at AP’s insistence in 1914 that Canada’s newspaper publishers formed an alliance to receive and distribute its American and international news flowing over telegraph lines from New York to Toronto — but also to ensure Canadian news flowed promptly south to AP.

“At first they didn’t want to. They all hated each other. They were all competing,” said  Allen, a historian by training. The fledgling organization, a non-profit co-operative modelled after the AP, formally began in September 1917 with 117 newspapers
as members, who shared news and the costs of moving it by telegraph.
From the get-go, the internecine struggles that infused CP mirrored those of the growing country.

Big city dailies, with bigger budgets and staff, faced off against small town papers who relied more heavily on CP. Regional tensions. English and French tensions. Tensions over the appropriateness of government subsidies to defray the costs of
telegraph lines strung across the country.

The diversity of publisher interests and views reared its head time and again — and became a key news agency strength. To succeed, CP had to satisfy the various demands on a shoestring budget, and adopt a scrupulously facts-based non-partisan stance — one it maintains to this day.

“CP had to serve newspapers of all different political stripes and in all different parts of the country. That impartiality was very important,” Allen said.

And it became a national organization by gathering news from every corner of the country, and sending it back to every other corner long before — and after — CBC had its own newsgathering operation.

Through its exclusive link to AP — with some augmenting from Reuters for “Imperial” news — the world came to Canada, and Canada was reflected back to the world.

Allen insists his book is not a hagiography. Some of the darker moments it recounts include the ugly crushing of a unionization bid in the 1950s — at the behest of the publishers who feared the union cancer would metastasize to their shops if CP
became infected. So virulent was the antipathy, they would have been quite content
to destroy the agency rather than allow editorial staff to unionize, Allen writes.

The result was a scorched-earth attack of firings from which it took years to recover. It would be 20 years before CP’s editorial staff unionized, another 25 for labour relations to become cordial. In a foreshadowing of the challenges posed by the Internet, Allen
traces the emergence of radio in the 1930s, and the insistence of publishers that the new “entertainment” medium could not be allowed to scoop their news through Canadian Press. It would take 20 years before they realized that selling news to radio — and later television — would be hugely lucrative for CP, and therefore — to the chagrin of broadcasters — lower the fees they paid into the co-operative.
“It’s a complete fool’s errand to try to prevent a new technology from doing things,” Allen said.
The book ends in 1970, in part because that’s when the remarkably stable decades of the telegraph era ended, in part because the archival documentation “gets a lot thinner,” Allen explained. “There’s certainly a lot more to be said about CP’s history.”
“Making National News: A History of Canadian Press,” by Gene
Allen, is published by University of Toronto Press.

Colin Perkel is a CMG member abd a reporter at CP, where this story was first published

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