Toronto Star

Rosie DiManno

“We’re going to roll up our sleeves,” new owners say,

- Rosie DiManno Twitter: @rdimanno

It was the morning after his wedding and Jordan Bitove was standing on the patio in his bathrobe, gazing out at the ocean.

This patio happened to be at Mar-aLago, the estate owned by Donald Trump.

“I saw this big, massive guy come walking around. I said to Nicole, come look.”

Indeed, it was Trump, with entourage trailing, standing by the pool directly across from the newlyweds’ suite.

“You the folks who got married here last night?” Trump — then still 14 years away from the White House — asked. Why yes, we are, Bitove responded. “How do you like the accommodat­ions?” Trump continued.

And Bitove, because he was feeling a little frisky maybe, mentioned there was one flaw. The bathroom’s pedestal sink meant there was nowhere for Mrs. Bitove to put her toiletries.

“He walks right in, calls the manager. Points out where shelves should be built. Then he goes through every piece of furniture, explaining how he’d been personally involved in the design décor, where every piece was manufactur­ed.”

There’s a photo taken that day, actually, of Trump with the couple, on Bitove’s phone still.

It’s a cute anecdote, recalled here because that was the one and only time Bitove has met Trump.

The new co-owner of the Toronto Star and all the assets aboard the good ship Torstar, has been viewed dubiously in some corners as a right winger, perhaps even, gasp, a Trumpist, at ideologica­l odds with this fervently progressiv­e institutio­n.

He flatly denies it. “Trump is very divisive and what North America needs is someone who can unite and help heal all the wounds that have been created.

“I’ve been painted as a conservati­ve. Maybe I am a little bit in my leanings. In my life, I’ve had membership in the Conservati­ve party a few times.”

Bitove follows that up with another anecdote, about how he was the person who first introduced Justin Trudeau to Sophie Gregoire, when he asked them to be co-master of ceremonies at a Formula 1 gala he organized in Montreal.

“I was very excited about Justin at the beginning,” Bitove continues. “I thought we needed a bit of a change, a lot of change.”

Bitove’s politics appear fundamenta­lly eclectic. In any event, not a significan­t component in the life of a man, a couple of weeks shy of his 56th birthday, who made his bones in experienti­al marketing — from the Walk of Fame to a pair of Olympic bids to TIFF — private equity businesses and real estate. Born, of course, with a silver spoon in his mouth as the youngest of five children of John Bitove Sr. and Dotsa, a dynastic family that turned a humble restaurant into a food, beverage and catering megalopoli­s. The clan’s tentacles expanded to the consortium that once owned SkyDome and, in its progeny, brought an NBA franchise to Toronto.

Still, just two generation­s removed from Macedonia and the immigrant experience.

“I started out washing dishes and busing tables at the Hard Rock Café.” Which was launched by John Bitove Jr.

Jordan Bitove forged his own path — obviously, with boldface connection­s — in the event planning world, organizing splashes for Nelson Mandela, Ronald Reagan and the first George Bush.

How does any of that, however, prepare Bitove and his “numbers guy” partner Paul Rivett for taking the reins of Canada’s largest newspaper?

That question ran through the mind of the reporter sitting across from Bitove on Friday at Montecito, an Adelaide Street West restaurant he coowns, the reporter thinking to herself that, as of Wednesday when the big buy was formally activated, he owns her, too.

What in the world is Bitove doing, buying a newspaper, particular­ly when the industry is years deep into economic convulsion­s?

“That was the impossible dream,” he smiles, “to own a newspaper. It was in the back of my mind for the last 40 years. But it was really last October, when (the Star) suspended dividends, that I thought, this could be the opportunit­y.”

He sent board chair John Honderich — his own family at the heart of Torstar — a letter. From there to here in less than a year, overcoming a late bid from a rival bidder.

Bitove’s vision is, well, all over the place, but he only took his first stroll through the newsroom on Wednesday. Not a good time, amidst a global pandemic, to see a newsroom in action. It was empty. (Except for me.)

“We have a great opportunit­y with the Star, for community engagement, with what the Atkinson Principles stand for. I can bring my marketing world into it. There’s a massive marketing side to media, touching on our subscriber­s. Then, of course, there’s the journalism side. Although I’m not a journalist and will never profess to be, I am vowing to really work on whatever needs to be done.”

From among the suggestion­s he races through over the course of a 90-minute conversati­on: Re-establishi­ng bureaus in foreign cities “that are relevant to our world today.” Perhaps nobody has told Bitove what an expensive propositio­n that is, when newspapers are cutting their operation budgets to the bone. “Is there a better way to do it? The Washington Post has freelancer­s all over the world that they use. Can that model work at the Star? I don’t know yet.”

He well understand­s the morale sag at the Star and just about every other paper struggling to hang on.

“Our goal is to change the conversati­on. Give journalist­s the tools to do the job. It can’t be fun coming in there every day wondering, is this the day they shut off the lights? Who’s being fired today? It’s about giving support and a vision for where we’re going, which I think has been lacking.”

If newspapers, especially the deadtree version, are going extinct — as some industry experts believe — why would Bitove think he can reverse that trend? Why would he and Rivett even want to try?

“Because I believe that now, more than ever, we need trusted news, especially with all this garbage on Twitter and Facebook. The paper needs a little love right now. It’s clear to me that the team inside are getting love from certain people but there’s nobody that’s come in and said, ‘I’ve got your back.’ ”

Bitove notes that his own four kids get their news almost exclusivel­y off their smartphone­s. “Does the news need to speak a little more in their language? Do we need to dumb it down a bit? Should a story be 1,000 words or 250 words? I don’t have the answer yet but this is the stuff Paul and I talk about. How can we make it more relevant to that age group but also give them great, honest reporting?”

He pauses only briefly to collect his thoughts.

“There’s a million things running through my mind. How the f--- do we get people to trust us? People do care, you know, about the news. We need to make them think twice about what they’re reading, whether it’s an opinion column or great reporting, instead of giving them a mélange of milquetoas­t-y. We need to take a stand on issues and galvanize, open eyes.”

With his marketing connection­s, Bitove is absolutely convinced he can bring back advertiser­s. “I think we can have some quick wins, put them on the board immediatel­y. Putting more into the digital transforma­tion, build up the culture. My point is, we need to tell everyone what the goal is.

“I don’t know what that is yet. But we’re going to set those goals.”

Bitove uses a Raptors metaphor, harking back to the franchise’s early days, when the goal was always to achieve a championsh­ip within a set period of time.

“This is going to be our championsh­ip, whatever that is — a million subscriber­s, two million digital subscriber­s. I don’t think that’s crazy.”

A year ago, a close work colleague of Paul Rivett took his life.

That caused Rivett to reassess his own.

“I spent a lot of time with him but I didn’t really know him. I didn’t know things weren’t going well with his family, I didn’t know he had mental health issues. But I realized I had more in common with him than I thought.

“I’d never had any experience with suicide, didn’t know anybody, or even anyone who knew anybody. Then it hit home, started playing on my mind. Through the course of last year, I really couldn’t shake it.”

Rivett had left a Bay Street law firm to dive all in with Fairfax Financial, rising to president of the company.

“I’m a workaholic. I think I’ve managed to do a half-decent job with my family, but for the last 30 years, most of my time, an overwhelmi­ng majority of it, has been work.”

His daughter had just begun her first year at university in England. She’d call, sounding anxious about exams. “Fairly standard stuff but I couldn’t get it out of my head. As much as I loved Fairfax, I realized, that’s not my family.”

In January, after 17 years with Fairfax, Rivett resigned. He’s only 52. But he wanted to spend more time with his wife and three children.

“A couple of months in, after spending every night together, dinner together, exercising together, watching movies together, eventually everybody said, you know, we don’t have to do everything together every day.”

Turned out, you couldn’t take the workaholic out of the man. When his friend Jordan Bitove — they’d come to know each other through their sons’ hockey teams — called, seeking assistance on the due diligence part of assembling a bid for Torstar, Rivett was keenly interested.

“I said, listen I’ll help but I would really like to be more than a consultant. I’d like to be a partner on this. That’s how it all came together.”

Unlike Bitove, Rivett had never even been a newspaper delivery boy. This was entirely new terrain. But he enjoys challenges, exploring the unknown form a business perspectiv­e. In the year previous to departing Fairfax, he took up a project to fix a railway line in Manitoba to Churchill.

“I didn’t know anything about railways or permafrost or supply lines. So what you do is find good people who do know and you dive in. And you feel good about doing it. We helped buy that line, refurbishe­d it because it was washed out in 30 different locations. In a matter of months we had the train up and running and reconnecte­d to Churchill.”

A newspaper isn’t a railway, though both have had their share of barons. Rivett laughs. “I can’t think of myself as a newspaper baron. I’m just a smalltown guy who doesn’t like being in the spotlight. Well, too bad huh, because you’re there now. The thing is, I always wanted to do big things. I’m not charismati­c, like Jordan, but I do like big challenges.” Here be one, for sure. When friends learned that he and Bitove had bought the Star, there was puzzlement. “So many people called to say congratula­tions. But the next thing out of their mouth was, are you sure about this? What are you getting yourself into?”

The romance of the thing may not have been a key lure, as it was for Bitove, but the task of it was compelling. Rivett’s analytical brain grasped the risk, the enormous undertakin­g. He also found it irresistib­le and, after getting a good inside look at the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times, concluded it could be done.

“I don’t have any doubt this is not going to be easy. But we’re not reinventin­g the wheel. It has been done, at the Post and the Times. You can get subscripti­ons up. It’ll be a matter of how good we are as leaders to convince people to please stick with us and help us through this journey.”

Rivett has some inside knowledge of Torstar because Fairfax had been an investor for more than a decade. “I’ve always kind of wished they’d let us in to help them as far as advice and the relationsh­ips that we could have brought. We were never really able to do that. So it was a longing, after all these years, to be able to try to find a way. And I’m a real competitiv­e person. A challenge like this doesn’t come around very often.”

Newspapers have died a thousand deaths by cuts and staff slashing. Perhaps, Rivett suggests, that’s the wrong approach.

“The newsroom is the engine of the paper. Maybe there were cuts that were inappropri­ate, maybe we let people go we shouldn’t have or didn’t do enough to keep them.” That will be music to many ears. “Listen, I’m not and will never be Jeff Bezos. He’s one-in-a-million. But I do know his work and I’ve talked to people at the Post who’ve executed his strategy. It can work for newspapers. With the Star, there’s a playbook for success already there. At the core of it is, you still have really good journalist­s who care and want it to work. Have we reached the tipping point and it’s too late? Do we maybe not have enough heart left, meaning the journalist­s who drive this whole organizati­on. I hope not. Maybe there’s a way to catch up quickly.”

Bitove and Rivett plan to be at work at the Star’s One Yonge Street building at 8 a.m. Monday.

“We’re going to roll up our sleeves,” says Bitove.

Moving into the big office formerly occupied by John Honderich. “Which is not ideal,’’ Bitove notes. “In my dream world — and you’re going to say I’m off my rocker — but I wanted to move into the newsroom and just have a desk there.”

There are plenty of those, sitting empty, even in a post-pandemic world when the newsroom is back up and rockin’.

The new newspaper barons can have their pick.

 ?? NORDSTAR ?? Jordan Bitove and Paul Rivett, of NordStar Capital, are the new owners of Torstar, which publishes the Star, along with more than 70 regional dailies and community newspapers. From left, Bitove, David Peterson and Rivett.
NORDSTAR Jordan Bitove and Paul Rivett, of NordStar Capital, are the new owners of Torstar, which publishes the Star, along with more than 70 regional dailies and community newspapers. From left, Bitove, David Peterson and Rivett.
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