There are still far more questions than answers about this dispute. Does Herald management really want a deal or is this strike, as the union insists, all in furtherance of the company’s larger intent to operate “union-free?” But if management does honestly want to negotiate a contract, has the bitterness this dispute has engendered rendered such a happy ending impossible? Even if the two sides can indeed put aside their differences and come to a deal, will the paper they all claim to love still have enough advertisers to pay their bills, and enough readers to write for?
And then too, of course, there is a larger, though largely symbolic, and completely unanswerable question: what would Graham Dennis really think about what is happening at the newspaper he considered a “scared trust,” and presided over for 57 years?
The union often invokes his name, calling him the “highly respected owner of the Herald,” and suggests he would be “turning over in his grave” if he only knew what his heirs were really up to. For his part, new Herald CEO Mark Lever argued in a pre-strike letter to readers the company was simply following Graham Dennis’s dictum that maintaining the newspaper’s independence was “vitally important [and] he would want all of us at the Chronicle Herald to work toward this goal.”
As for Graham Dennis himself, he isn’t talking.
The first newspapering Dennis was Graham’s great uncle, William Dennis, a displaced “live-wire” Englishman who joined the Halifax Morning Herald in 1875. At the time, there were five competing dailies in Halifax, another five weeklies and even a literary fortnightly. Dennis liked the newspaper business so much he eventually bought the Herald, as well as an afternoon paper, the Evening Mail. When he died in 1920, he instructed his executors that his newspapers “shall be conducted as public utilities for All The People.”
His successor, a nephew named William Dennis was described as “a bullying, aggressive, pushy, smart businessman,” not to mention a flamboyant promoter and crafter of sensational headlines who helped transform the paper into the most read and most important newspaper in the province. By 1949, he had engineered the merger of his last remaining competitor and transformed Halifax into what would become a one-newspaper town for the next 32 years.
Just five years after those mergers, however, William died suddenly, and his son Graham William Dennis, then just 26, officially inherited his father’s mantle and monopoly.
Although the paper was initially run by his father’s friend, Gordon Daley, a prominent Halifax lawyer, Graham, once considered shy and diffident, slowly emerged from the shadows and put his own stamp on the operation.
Described in the Globe and Mail as “an eccentric, formal man, who rarely went out in public without his three-piece suit” and never quite fit the mold of the swaggering newspaper magnate, Graham Dennis became a curious, complex, enigmatic figure.
During the 1970s and eighties, the newspaper business, if not a licence to print money, came close. Annual profits of 20 and 30 per cent were not uncommon in the industry. Given the Herald’s dominance in its local monopoly market, of course, suitors lined up with offers to buy it. Graham rebuffed them all, partly because — like his great uncle — he saw Nova Scotia ownership as a “sacred trust.”
Graham himself spent freely on his newspaper’s journalism, opening bureaus across the country, as well as in London, England, and his reporters and photographers roamed the globe to cover important events from American elections to the famine in Ethiopia. The Herald itself also became a benevolently paternalistic organization where loyal employees facing personal issues could expect a helping hand. Some workers even got interest-free loans to buy their homes. Graham presided benignly over it all from his fourth floor management perch, descending to the third floor newsroom only occasionally, but always just before Christmas when he and his managing editor would personally hand out Christmas cards with bonuses inside to his reporters and editors, and offer his grateful thanks for a job well done.