Peter Worthington: 10 facts about the journalist who wrote his own obituary
Peter Worthington, co-founder of the Toronto Sun and a four-time National Newspaper Award winner, died Monday. Worthington wrote in his obituary that he realized “for journalists, reconnaissance can be valuable, and that it’s better to be lucky than good.” J-Source takes a look at the man behind the legend, as he describes himself in his own words.
By Tamara Baluja
“Looking for trouble.”
“The bravest journalist in this business.”
“An editorial scion.”
“A real end of an era.”
These are some of the many tributes that poured in after Peter Worthington, co-founder of the Toronto Sun and a four-time National Newspaper Award winner, died Monday. Worthington wrote in his obituary that he realized “for journalists, reconnaissance can be valuable, and that it’s better to be lucky than good.” J-Source takes a look at the man behind the legend, as he describes himself in his own words.
1/ “If you’re reading this, I am dead.”
A brilliant lead, which Worthington wrote for his own obituary published Tuesday in the Toronto Sun. After attending the funeral of his former colleague George Gross in 2008, Worthington “half-facetiously” told the Sun’s deputy managing editor Al Parker that since no one who he knew from his early days would be around, he should write his own obituary. Parker thought it was “good idea,” Worthington recalled in his obit “with more enthusiasm than [he] appreciated.”
Read his full obituary here.
2/ On serving in the armed forces
Although journalism was far from his mind as a youngster, Worthington craved adventure and dreaded working at a “staid, inside job.” When he turned 18, Worthington enlisted as the “youngest and least competent sub-lieutenant” in the Royal Canadian Navy Volunteer Reserve. He later became a platoon commander during the Korean War.
3/ On failing to get his byline all summer
After graduating from UBC with an arts degree on veteran credits, Worthington applied for a job as a sports writer at The Province. He didn’t get that job but was hired on as news reporter for $35 a month. “I spent the summer of 1954 trying to get a byline and failed, until the city editor, Tom Hazlitt, took pity and rewrote my story with my byline,” Worthington wrote in his obituary. He went back to school and studied journalism in Carleton after leaving The Province.
5/ Talking his way into his first foreign assignment
Shortly after joining the now defunct Toronto Telegram, Worthington asked the newspaper’s managing editor J. Douglas MacFarlane to send him to Gaza to cover the Suez Crisis.[node:ad]
“He refused outright, and said a rookie reporter would never be sent on such an assignment. I replied that I had recently left the army, that I knew many of the soldiers involved, could get exclusive stuff, that I’d go on my holidays, charge no expenses, arrange my own way. Everything free for the Tely. It was an offer MacFarlane couldn’t refuse. I went, and the stories worked out. It set the pattern for my future at the Tely and was an argument for enterprise."
6/ An eyewitness to the killing to JFK’s shooter
Worthington was in the Dallas police station in 1963 when Jack Ruby killed John F. Kennedy’s shooter Lee Harvey Oswald. “I appear briefly [in] TV shots of the killing, but it doesn’t stand out in my memory as a watershed moment,” Worthington wrote.
7/ The toll on his personal life
In the mid-1960s, Worthington became the first Canadian journalist to open a bureau in Moscow when the Tely sent him there. “The endless travel cost me my first marriage, since my job took precedence […] and my wife, Helen, understandably didn’t want an absentee husband.” Worthington later married Tely reporter Yvonne Crittenden.
8/ From the ashes, the little paper that grew
After the Toronto Telegram folded in 1971, Worthington was offered a job at the Toronto Star. He instead decided to take a gamble and co-founded the Toronto Sun along with J. Douglas and Don Hunt, and brought in some 60 former staffers of the Tely. He served as its editor-in-chief for 12 years and continued to write columns regularly even after he stepped down.
9/ On defending freedom of the press
In 1978, Worthington was charged with violating the Official Secrets Act for a column identifying 16 Canadians charged with treason and espionage at a time when “Trudeau insisted the Soviet Union was Canada’s friend.” A year later, the charges were dismissed but Worthington says he “had been looking forward to the trial, which [he] thought was winnable.” He added that during that “tense period,” the Sun’s circulation increased by 30,000 and the newspaper became a “lightning rod for those uneasy about Trudeau, at a time when Trudeaumania was rampant.”
10/ On his love-hate relationship with the paper he co-founded
He was fired in 1984 by publisher Doug Creighton while promoting his book over a misunderstood statement published in the Toronto Star, in which he was quoted saying rival newspapers covered hard news better than the Sun. He was hired a short while back later to help launch the Ottawa Sun, and although he called Creighton’s behavior impetuous, he simply added a chapter to his autobiography, Looking for trouble, to give the ‘real story’ behind his firing.
“There is the Toronto Sun, which was never as good a newspaper as it could have been, but which was always a fun place to work, with good people who seemed to be forever being replaced by other good people. The Sun was always pretty tolerant of me and, I must say, I was pretty tolerant of it from time to time. We both served each other’s purpose.”
*All images snapshots of the Toronto Sun from paper edition from Tuesday May 14, 2013.
Tamara Baluja is an award-winning journalist with CBC Vancouver and the 2018 Michener-Deacon fellow for journalism education. She was the associate editor for J-Source from 2013-2014.