The People’s Papers The rise and fall of the Canadian tabloid

Around the late ’60s tabloid magazines like the National Enquirer found a new home beside supermarket checkout lines. They were cleaned up, so to speak. Their new focus would be on celebrity love triangles and miracle cures instead of charred bodies, decapitated animals and sensational stories about moms boiling their babies. This marked the end of the newsstand era. It would also dramatically shift the focus of the Enquirer’s competitors and eventually change the way by which people had come to know tabloids.

It’s a common misconception to hear the word tabloid and immediately associate it with only the supermarket magazines of today. Canadian tabloids like Joe Tensee’s Tab, first published in 1956, wasn’t all celebrity scandals, home remedies and how to get rich quick stories, it had a different kind of angle. The main difference between Tab and the supermarket magazines of today was its consistent ability to bring a weekly truth and justice angle to its readers. Tab and other Canadian tabloids were closer to present-day indie-culture magazines. Much like indie-culture their mandates focused on an injustice and hypocrisy with the establishment, and alternative lifestyles such as homosexuality.

Tensee followed a tradition of tabloid writing that had become a staple in Canada at the turn of the century that was about giving voice to the voiceless, and its appeal was widespread across the country.

Tab became one of Canada’s longest running weekly tabloids. In its time, it was famous for many things including a weekly column during the ’50s and ’60s called Joe Tensee’s Confidential Diary. The Diary was where Tensee could be found shaking down city hall corruption, brothel crackdowns, government cover-ups and exposing the plot behind a murder-for-hire. Tab was a voice for the workingman, the less fortunate, and the displaced. It was the thing to read if you wanted to be in the know. In fact, Confidential-Flash, published in Toronto, had a very telling slogan that seems to summarize these publications: No Fear, No Favor – the People’s Paper.

An early example of the emergence of the Canadian tabloid was J.R. Rogers’ Jack Canuck, first published in 1911. According to Susan Houston, author of the essay A little steam, a little sizzle and a little sleaze: English-language tabloids in the interwar period, from Papers of the Bibliographical Society of Canada what made Jack Canuck appeal to readers was that it was about bringing social change.

Houston explains that Rogers’ son fell ill with a mild case of diphtheria and was placed in the Isolation Hospital–a compulsory move as his family was staying in a boarding house. The boy was exposed to scarlet fever and measles, while in the care of the hospital, and died of complications. Rogers fought back by making it Jack Canuck’s mandate to bettering the public health system in an urban society.

The response to Jack Canuck, a biweekly, was so promising that as it continued to publish, Rogers would broaden his scope and eventually, upon reforming the public health system in Toronto, go after the Hamilton public health system too. Although he kept the paper true to its mandate of fighting the establishment, Jack Canuck later incorporated word games and comics as readership grew.

“Rogers knew that community response was the best way for a cause to be understood. If the community could be behind the cause there was a chance that change could happen,” says Houston.

Jack Canuck would continue even after Rogers’ death, but eventually ceased publication in 1924 due to the high cost of printing. There were, however, other tabloids that appeared at this time including Thunderer and Thunder, Hush, the Axe in Montreal and later in the ’30s the Week-Ender and Flash. These papers were modeled after a London, England, paper called The Truth, which was popular for its screaming headlines and anti-establishment editorials.

“It was evident at the time that there was a cross-country appeal for them,” says Houston. “These publishers had a particular background, there was an axe to grind, there was something to prompt them to continue to make these newspapers.”

It was that particular “axe to grind” that seemed to appeal to a broad range of people from all over the country. Houston adds that there was evidence that people from affluent neighbourhoods such as Toronto’s Rosedale as well as blue-collar workingmen in Winnipeg were regularly buying these publications.

Yet among them there was a lot of competition: who could get the best story, what would make them stand out among the others and how far some could go with their content. It was a small community, though, as a company called The Sovereign Press at 52 McCaul Street in Toronto printed almost all of them prior to the WWII. The papers and their editors survived on shoestring budgets since most of the advertising was made up of local restaurants and hotels. Years later Tab would run a series of self-promotional campaigns that would exemplify this competitive spirit: “Smart People Prefer Tab” and “East to West Tab is Best.”

Most of the time the tabloids had a special spot at the back of newsstands with their large telling headlines and sexy cover photos. Tab was famous in the ’60s for covers featuring stars like Anita Ekberg and Brigitte Bardot next to stories about Toronto city hall and tax hikes. Some cover stories may have been tipped from area informants and other times mainstream journalists would file stories–usually under a pseudonym–that the big papers wouldn’t touch. It was common practice for papers like Tab to acknowledge and attack the lack of information by the mainstream press. It was a way for them to emphasize the truth-and-justice angle that they were providing.

An example of this came one night in the ’60s when there was a restaurant fire on Jarvis Street in Toronto. A busboy working there was killed after he went back into the fire to save a waitress. At the time, The Toronto Star published a story claiming that the busboy had gone back to save the waitress due to his bosses’ supposed confusion about her whereabouts. But Tab, based on information from area tipsters and other journalists, wrote that the busboy had actually been ordered back in by the owner to retrieve a hidden stash of heroin. Later there was an inquiry into Tab’s version of the story where Tensee took the stand to publicly defend his version and sources.

After the demise of Jack Canuck a new tabloid appeared in 1927 called Hush, edited by Strathearn Boyd Thomson. “The funny thing about Thomson was that he came from the upper crust of society,” says Houston. “He was related to the lieutenant governor, married into a prominent family, and spent most of his time raising horses. Yet he published a paper making fun of that very same class.”

Hush became an instant success, at the time, publishing very personal stories, exposés, government corruption and, even, stock tips. A lot of the papers, like Hush, would try an assortment of different stories to see what worked best. On any given week there might be sports or theatre reviews, but these weren’t mainstays. Thomson’s particular axe to grind, however, would be with the hypocrisy demonstrated by the class of people that he spent his time with.

“Whether it would be poking jabs at Lady Eaton, Rosedale gossip, Granite Club finances, and society divorces, Hush was what people read to find out who was with who and what was happening,” says Houston.

Hush was a hit with readers across the country. It was also the first time that there was evidence that a varied group of classes reading and buying it. The most famous example of this cross class readership was exemplified with a group of Winnipeg firefighters. Houston explains: “During a trial of mistaken identity that involved a Winnipeg firefighter, one of his colleagues admitted that it was his job to go out each week and purchase Hush for the boys at the fire hall,” says Houston. “This is significant because it showed that readers weren’t just the upper class, but were, in fact, from all different backgrounds. It also showed that a newspaper originating in Toronto was being sought after across the country.”

Other papers took on different battles. For Patrick Sullivan who published Thunderer and Thunder, the Ambrose Small disappearance in 1919 became an obsessive focus. Small was a theatre tycoon who mysteriously vanished in Toronto after receiving, and depositing, one million dollars. It was a famous disappearance at the time and even referenced in Michael Ondaatje’s novel In the Skin of the Lion. The Small case became a heyday for speculation and rumours to his whereabouts with many reported cover-ups. It was the perfect kind of injustice angle for a Canadian tabloid.

By the inaugural issue of Tensee’s Tab in 1956 most of these early papers had disappeared, Hush would fold and re-launch and then eventually last until the ’70s under the name the Hush Free Press. The Sovereign Press gang brought back Jack Canuck in the mid ‘30s, but others like Thunderer and Thunder faded away. After the second World War a lot changed in the Canadian tabloid press. The early publications had paved the way for a spirited overhaul of the system, but after the war the tabloid industry became much more competitive. No longer was it just the papers battling along McCaul Street in Toronto. Now they were appearing all over North America including a tiny publication in New York called The National Enquirer.

Professor William Straw, author of Cyanide and Sin: Visualizing Crime in ’50s America, says: “You’ll find that they (tabloids) were pretty sleazy pre-war, but there’s no question that celebrity coverage since the 1950s has been more sensationalistic.”

Around the same time that Tab was reviving the people’s paper mandate, Joe Azaria and John Vadar in Montreal were putting out a sex and gore tabloid called Midnight. Midnight would eventually become direct competition to Generoso Pope’s National Enquirer. It was one of the first papers to really push the boundaries in terms of what a tabloid was capable of doing. Their covers constantly portrayed pictures of dead and maimed bodies and stories centred on murder and rape. Midnight became Canada’s most financially successful tabloid. It changed its name to Globe Magazine in the ’70s and was soon bought by American Media Inc.–the same owners of the Enquirer.

In the early days of Midnight, Vadar claims that they modelled their first issues after the papers coming out of Toronto like Tab. He says that they would look at what they were doing and then do it better. Midnight did better financially, at least. As well they built up a type of urban myth around the life of a sleazy sensational tabloid editor. John Vadar recalls the old tabloid days: “We often used to end up in the office, and when we were there we worked. It didn’t really matter what time it was. If there was a party or somebody felt like going out for a drink or somebody had a new broad to screw, I mean we just went there and when we got back we went to bed. When we woke up…well that was when the best ideas came.”

Celebrity and sensationalistic pictures became the main focus for Midnight through the ’50s and ’60s. Each week’s cover was unpredictable and often considered tasteless. For Tab, on the other hand, their stories would often use court transcripts about a child molesting scout leader as their lead story. Other times it might be about big business ripping off the little guy with inflated prices. Tensee knew that these stories worked. Prior to Tab he edited Flash–a weekly launched by Louis Ruby in the late 1930s to rival Hush, which was faltering under Thomson’s successors. Unfortunately for Tensee, the old ways were showing signs of faltering as papers like Midnight and the Enquirer were becoming more and more popular with other copycat magazines popping up regularly.

Straw claims that there are a number of reasons for the popularity of the celebrity coverage with tabloids like Midnight. He says that the typical reason was the decline in Hollywood studios being able to control what the actors were doing: “Once stars were free agents, they were also sitting ducks, in a sense, without the studio publicity machines to protect them.”

He continues to explain that the lack of studio interference probably explains the success of celebrity-focused magazine in the ’50s. For the other Canadian tabloids, though, this shift in interest was forcing them to try to attract readers. Many of them started to take on more abstract causes like pitting white against black, conservative against liberal, communism against capitalism. With cover stories like Ex Jail Guard Held in Abortion Death or Sex for Sale in Plush Lord Simcoe Hotel, the tabloids became far different papers than what people had come to know.

In David Churchill’s piece, Mother Goose’s Map Tabloid Geographies and Gay Male Experience in 1950s Toronto, he cites many examples of how some Toronto tabloids, like the Hush Free Press, became a source for gay men to hook up. The papers would use certain code words to allow men “in the know” to read between the lines whereas someone on the outside wouldn’t understand. Strangely a tabloid with these gay friendly pieces would be loaded with homophobic stories about, for example, the dangers of being gay.

There was a feeling that this abrupt change in the nature of the papers came in response to a society that had become much more docile since the end of the war. According to some figures there was a strong focus on family and religion, Houston says. Church attendance in Canada was at its highest percentage per population compared to today, which seems to suggest a value conscious society.

Whether these stats or the end of Hollywood studios were factors in the dramatic shift in content with the tabloids, they still remained hard hitting, in-your-face journalism that would influence a variety of different mediums in the future. They were, after all, still independent from the mainstream publications.

By the late ’60s, newsstands across North America had started to close down. This became a problem for the tabloids because the content of papers like Midnight was far from suitable for the general public. The Enquirer was the first to make this transition by cleaning up their content and installing racks in supermarkets across the country. In Bill Sloan’s book I Watched a Wild Hog Eat my Baby, he writes that The Enquirer’s move to the supermarket and the change in format was a joke to other publishers, but it proved financially successful and the rest followed its lead.

Houston says that at some point the tabloids were just a business and a business needs to do things in order to become successful. Straw echoes this sentiment, “It had to be sold in supermarkets to survive, so blood and guts, which might frighten the children whom housewives took shopping with them, gave way to celebrity gossip and oddities like three headed babies.”

At the same time, Straw says that the decline during the ’60s came for a few other reasons. “Crime magazines declined because retailers didn’t want to put them on display and frighten off customers, advertisers didn’t want to be associated with them because their readerships were lower class people of low income, and most of their readership found what they wanted on television.” For the ones that were able to survive into the supermarket transition, Straw explains that their departure was due mostly to a decline in newspaper reading. “The rise of the glossy gossip magazines came after the success of People, which was the fastest growing magazine in US magazine history. In Touch, US and all the others are just as sensational and juicy as Confidential in the ’50s, and probably just as popular.”

Tensee’s Tab still came out weekly across Canada until the mid-’70s when it moved to a biweekly schedule. Unfortunately the local focus on politics and big business that had made the older Canadian papers popular was no match for the celebrity driven exposés in the supermarket.

Tab tried everything from new typefaces, to different pictures, to story ideas, to unique headlines. Over the years it would completely change its look from one year to the next. During the ’70s Tab even changed its name to Tab International. The International look focused more on sex and singles classifieds than it did on reporting cover-ups and scandals. By the mid-’80s Tab was sold to the Tyrst Media Group, and was re-launched as a swinger and fetish contact magazine. Tyrst Media still kept the name Tab and still has “first published in 1956” in the masthead, but what was once home to Joe Tensee’s Confidential Diary has been replaced with stories that begin: “I never thought it would happen to me.”

In the tabloid Mecca that Toronto had become during the ’40s and ’50s, Tensee was a king. He had a radio show on CKEY Sunday nights from 1946-1954 called the Flash Show, which took the already popular themes of the paper and moved them over to the airwaves. After the sale of Tab, Tensee retired to the west end of Toronto where he died a few years later.

The tabloid industry of the last 25 years has undergone a complete about-face from its beginnings in the early 20th century. Unlike Tab or Jack Canuck, today’s tabloids no longer hold governments accountable, they no longer provide a voice for the downtrodden, the underprivileged or the displaced, and they have stopped covering stories too risqué for the mainstream press.

By exchanging the complex values of social justice for the logic of “profit at all cost,” the tabloids have therefore left behind their original mandate: to serve the interests of the ordinary public.

Moreover, by dumbing down the message, by avoiding matters that deal with the real conflicts, tensions and stresses that makeup the lives of its readers, the tabloid industry has become what, in a period that seems so long ago, it once viewed so skeptically: big business.

We can debate whether or not this is a good thing. We can argue back and forth whether or not the inclusion of celebrity culture does harm to the healthy building of community. However, we must be honest with ourselves and admit that it is somewhat pretentious–not to mention boorish–to moralise about leisure habits like Hollywood gossip.

The fact that tabloid no longer deals with issues of social justice, the fact that it no longer uncovers any real manifestations of counterculture, or even presents to its readers any semblance of cutting edge investigative journalism does provide us with a tragic lesson; for the story of Canadian tabloid journalism teaches us what can happen to a discourse that abandons its sense of self, that turns on its past and tries to cover its roots. The story of tabloid journalism in Canada is a sad story, indeed.