Conrad Moffat Black

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Conrad Moffat Black

Canadian-born Conrad Moffat Black (born 1944) gained fame as an international press baron whose newspapers' daily circulation of 4.5 million was a total surpassed only by Rupert Murdoch and the US Gannett chain.

Born in 1944 to George Montegu Black, Jr. and Jean Elizabeth (Riley) Black, Conrad was named after his mother's father. His paternal grandfather, George Montegu Black, Sr., owned Western Breweries of Winnipeg. His father, George Montegu Black, Jr., ran Canadian Breweries (which had absorbed his father's firm) as a cornerstone of the famous Argus empire under E.P. Taylor. Black became the chairman and chief executive officer of Argus, as well as director of such famous companies as the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce, Confederation Life Insurance, and Eaton's of Canada—placing him at the center of Canadian business. Black was notorious for his outspokenly conservative views, while respected for his intellectual talents. He was born into the right circles and attended the top private boys' schools, Upper Canada College and Trinity College School—managing to get himself expelled from both. Before the age of 10 he was already knowledgeable about the life and times of Napoleon Bonaparte, an interest which provided a motif for his career. Some said there was a physical resemblance, others only a behavioral one.

Black's interest in acquiring newspapers began during his college years. Noted for his outspoken views and his love of Napoleon Bonaparte, he enrolled in 1962 at Ottawa's Carleton University. He went on to earn a law degree from Quebec's Laval University in 1970 and a master's degree in history from McGill University in 1973. His controversial master's thesis on Maurice Duplessis, the tyrannical provincial premier of Quebec, was eventually published as Duplessis (1977). Yet in other ways he remained a child of privilege, receiving a life membership in the prestigious Toronto club for his 21st birthday.

Unlike many of his more quietly powerful corporate friends, Conrad Black became an outspoken right-wing intellectual, a friend of Canadian prime minister Brian Mulroney, and admired by British prime minister Margaret Thatcher. He was a member of such important ideological organizations as the Canadian Centre for Arms Control and Disarmament, the Cultural Council of the Americas Society, and the Trilateral Commission. It is this desire to have his views heard that explains his business practices. In 1969, at the age of 25, when many are just beginning to read newspapers, he began purchasing them. He gained hands-on experience by running an ad sheet in Quebec called The Eastern Townships Advisor for which he sold advertising and wrote most of the copy. When Black sold this publication in the late 1960s, he used part of the proceeds to form the Sterling chain (which he still owned in 1990). Not until he wrestled control of Argus was he able to realize his grandiose vision. In 1978, building upon the 22.4 percent block of Argus shares from his father's inheritance, and following the death of Bud McDougald (one of Argus' founders), Black marshaled sufficient stock from the founders' heirs to gain control of the famous holding company. At the time he was only 33 years old. From these heights of power he was able to realize his dreams.

In 1978, soon after taking control, Black sold many of Argus' traditional holdings and began constructing Hollinger Inc., his media holding empire. The Argus name was put to rest and Hollinger Inc. became a conglomerate. Black purchased Quebec City's Le Soleil and Ottawa's Le Droit, some 182 small US newspapers, the Jerusalem Post, the Cayman Free Press, a 15 percent interest in Financial Post and Saturday Night magazine. He made his business the media, becoming a world-scale press baron. Less than a quarter of his operating company's revenues came from Canada in 1989. He owned newspapers and magazines in five countries. His most important purchase was London's prestigious Daily Telegraph, bought in 1985.

The cash flow generated from the Telegraph's powerful success enabled Black to purchase major newspapers world-wide at rock bottom prices, since much of his competition was facing flagging sales and bankruptcy, due to the increasing impact of radio and television.

Conrad Black had an eye to history, as reflected in his academic training and fascination with Napoleon. He also had a strong sense of family irony. Robert Thomas Riley (1851-1944) was the son of one of Fleet Street's Daily Telegraphowners. He moved to Canada and founded Great-West Assurance Company. His second son, Conrad Stephenson Riley (1875-1960), expanded the business. Conrad Riley's daughter, Jean Elizabeth (1913-1976), married George Montegu Black, Jr. (1911-1976) and became the mother of Conrad Black. His purchase of the Daily Telegraph completed the family circle.

With the purchase of the Telegraph, Hollinger Inc. increased its ownership to 91 daily newspapers in the US, Canada, the UK, and Israel. In December of 1991, Black successfully acquired the bankrupt John Fairfax Group Pty. Ltd., Australia's second-largest newspaper group. He was able to accomplish this despite strong opposition from Australian journalists who feared the impact of Black's conservatism.

In 1992 Black purchased the Toronto Star for $259 million and thus acquired a 23% interest in Southam Inc., the owner of Canada's largest string of daily newspapers. By 1996 he had acquired a controlling interest in Southam and struck fear into the Canadian newspaper industry by threatening to pull Southam out of the indispensable Canadian Press, the country's only national and bilingual news-gathering agency, in order to cut costs. In the meantime, Black planned to expand Southam's own news-gathering service and thus reduce its dependence upon the Canadian Press. Fortunately for Canada's major newspaper companies, Black revoked his plans when Hollinger Inc. purchased Southam outright and became its president. He now controlled 50% of Canada's daily newspapers.

Forced to sell his 24.9% interest in John Fairfax Holdings Ltd. (Black's Australian conglomerate) because of its stringent foreign ownership rules, Black's Hollinger International controlled 137 newspapers in the UK, Canada, the US, and Israel—with a combined circulation of more than four million. Black's world-wide readership was surpassed only by Rupert Murdoch's empire and the US Gannett chain.

Further Reading

Conrad Black is listed in Canadian Who's Who; The Canadian Encyclopedia; and Debrett's Illustrated Guide to the Canadian Establishment (1983). A full-length biography by Peter C. Newman, Canada's pre-eminent chronicler of the rich and famous, is titled The Establishment Man: A Portrait of Power (1982). Black himself has written an autobiography titled Conrad Black: A Life in Progress (1993). □