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Joseph E. Atkinson – A Superman of the Canadian Newspaper Industry

For the week of Monday May 29, 2006

On June 1, 1938, Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel launched the Superman comic book. Five years earlier, Superman had begun as a daily installment in Canadian newspapers, including the Toronto Daily Star. The Daily Star was so widely read that Shuster and Siegel based the comic book's Daily Star, the newspaper where Superman worked, on the Toronto newspaper. This influence resulted from the efforts of Joseph E. Atkinson, who made the Daily Star one of Canada’s most successful newspapers.

Joseph E. Atkinson
Joseph E. Atkinson
© The Toronto Star
Joseph was born to British immigrants, John and Hannah Atkinson on December 23, 1865. After his father’s death, the family moved to Newcastle, Ontario, to run a boarding house that catered primarily to factory workers. Joseph felt an uncaring society had abandoned his widowed mother, forcing her into backbreaking labour to provide for her eight children. With his mother’s death, Joseph quit school to work at age 14.

Atkinson entered the newspaper business at age 18, working to collect outstanding accounts for the Port Hope Times. He later worked at the Toronto World and the Globe as a reporter, and at the Montreal Herald as managing editor. In 1899, he became manager and editor of the Toronto Evening Star, renamed the Daily Star after 1900. Atkinson managed the Daily Star until 1948.

As editor, Atkinson worked to make the Daily Star, “A Paper for the People.” Atkinson’s humble roots fostered his advocacy for social reform. The power he gained by becoming the paper’s principal owner in 1913 enabled him to use the newspaper as an instrument of reform, promoting old-age pensions, unemployment insurance and family allowances. But his newspaper’s involvement in politics stopped there. Throughout, Atkinson ensured it was non-partisan.

The Toronto Star Building on King Street, Toronto (circa 1920).
The Toronto Star Building on King Street, Toronto (circa 1920).
© Archives of Ontario / F 4436-0-0-0-202 F4436
The newspaper also provided a platform for Atkinson’s charitable work. He and his wife established the paper’s two major charities: The Star Fresh Air Fund, to help underprivileged children escape the city; and The Star’s Santa Claus Fund, which ensured that no child was overlooked at Christmas.

The quality of writing in his newspaper contributed to its success. In the 1920s and 1930s, the paper attracted some of North America’s best writers, including Morley Callaghan and Ernest Hemingway.

By 1948, the Daily Star was one of Canada’s largest and most successful newspapers. Joseph E. Atkinson was designated a National Historic Person in 1986 for his work as philanthropic owner and editor of the Toronto Daily Star.

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