Class of 1993
Editor and Publisher, Toronto Star
Joseph E. Atkinson is remembered most notably as the publisher of the Toronto Star, a dying newspaper he resuscitated in 1899 and successfully headed for half a century. Atkinson was also a crusader for the less fortunate, using his money and position to espouse his belief in social justice. Born near Newcastle, Ontario in 1865, Joseph born into a poor family and became an orphan at the age of thirteen. As a young man he was inspired by the works of Tolstoy, who argued for social reform. Atkinson’s difficult childhood also contributed to his career as a social activist.
Joseph had ambitions to become a banker until he joined the Port Hope Times as a clerk at age eighteen. Within two years he was writing the kind of human interest stories that would later make the Toronto Star famous. Soon earning a reputation as one of the best reporters in Toronto, Joseph went on to become the Ottawa correspondent for the Toronto Globe, and later the managing editor of the Montreal Herald.
When a group of Liberals acquired the Toronto Star in 1899, Atkinson was asked to turn the floundering newspaper around, with the expectation that the paper be used to promote the Liberal agenda. Though Joseph was a strong supporter of Liberal social policy, he was adamant that the Star be allowed to operate without interference from political or business interests. On these terms, he set out with great enthusiasm to turn the Star around. By the 1920s, the Toronto Star had joined the ranks of the country’s most successful newspapers.
Atkinson used the editorial page to champion the causes of family allowances, old age pensions, worker’s compensation and unemployment insurance. Social welfare legislation enacted by Prime Minister Mackenzie King occurred largely in response to the prominence these issues attained in Atkinson’s Star. As an avid advocate for the minorities, a number of today’s key social policies resulted in part from Joseph Atkinson’s actions. The Atkinson Charitable Foundation was established in 1942, and has since donated over $55 million to health, economic justice, culture, education and social welfare initiatives.
Atkinson ran the Toronto Star until his death in 1948, at the age of 82. A tribute to him was subsequently published in the Star, written by Prime Minister Mackenzie King and declaring Atkinson to be “a great journalist, a zealous reformer and a true Canadian.”