BORN: Montreal, Quebec • 25 August 1944
As TELEVISION SIGNALS ZIP AROUND THE GLOBE AT the speed of light and the internet brings the world to millions in seconds, the venerable newspaper seems like yesterday’s news—in more ways than one.
People are reading less, the received wisdom goes, and the inky, bulky daily newspaper is destined to disappear altogether. It seems a little odd, therefore, that every time Conrad Black adds to his collection of newspapers in Canada, the hue and cry is deafening.
In gambling that the received wisdom is absolutely wrong, Black has spent the last dozen years assembling a newspaper empire with few rivals around the world. As a result, what Black thinks influences millions of people here and around the world.
He started by influencing only a handful of English- speakers just outside Montreal in Knowlton, Quebec. The Eastern Townships Advertiser did not seem like the beginning of a media empire in the late 1960s, but Black, a bright student frustrated with formal education by his early twen¬ ties, wanted to be the boss. With a few partners, he began building a modest chain of small dailies and weeklies in Quebec in the 1970s.
The turning point for the still precocious capitalist came in 1978, when a generous inheritance, some crafty lawyering, and brilliant tactics won him control of Argus Corporation, a blue-chip Canadian holding company. The thirty-four year old was thrust into the spotlight for the first time, and his penchant for empire-building became apparent: Black liqui¬ dated most of Argus’ assets and poured his newfound wealth into newspapers.
In 1985 good timing and fat pockets allowed Black to seize control of London’s Daily Telegraph, the largest-circulation quality daily in Britain. A thorough streamlining helped him recoup his investment in a few years, and he embarked on paper-buying sprees in Australia and the United States.
The role of newspaper proprietor fit Black like a glove.To all appearances, he was born to be a press lord: he leapt at every opportunity to weigh in on public issues, and he collected high-flying friends as he did newspapers. Margaret Thatcher, Black was proud to admit, was a particularly close acquaintance.
For Canadians, the chickens cable home to roost in 1996, when Black acquired control of Southam Inc., a chain of major Canadian dailies. Combined with his previous hold¬ ings, Black overnight became the most important news provider in the country.
In 1997 the statistics are breathtaking: worldwide, he owns more than 500 newspapers. He is personally worth several hundred million dollars. He controls an absolute majority of English-speaking papers in Canada and about 40 per cent of daily circulation. He owns a handful of French dailies in Quebec and the influential Saturday Night maga¬ zine, based in Toronto.
At a time when newspapers around the world are showing sluggish profits and declining reader- ships, Black keeps building and building. Usually, he announces his acquisitions with a spate of firings and layoffs, but nobody, anywhere, is as bullish about newspapers as he is.
It all sounds like a Canadian success story, but Black has always been far too outspoken to win many friends among those who read his papers. Nor has he ever been afraid to bash in print those who disagree with him.
His legendary willingness to sue those who write about him means that his detractors have had to choose their words very carefully. One certainty is that as long as people are reading news¬ papers, Conrad Black will be the one Canadian whose opinion will not be ignored.