The Michener Awards Foundation announced it is awarding three of its prestigious Michener-Baxter Awards for exceptional service to Canadian public service journalism. The three winners are: Norman Webster, John Honderich and Journalists for Human Rights.
The Michener-Baxter Award was established in 1983 and is presented at the discretion of the foundation’s board of directors and has only been bestowed on eight Canadians since its creation. In honour of the 50th anniversary of the Michener Awards, this was the first time that the Michener-Baxter Awards accepted nominations from the public.
“This year the Michener Awards Foundation is honoured to recognize two of Canada’s great journalists. Norman Webster and John Honderich both grew up around journalism and understood the privilege they enjoyed. They understood the imperative to serve journalism well and to champion those who came to journalism without the same advantages,” said Pierre-Paul Noreau, Chair of the Michener Awards Foundation. “Our only regret is having to bestow this award posthumously on these two giants of journalism.”
The third award goes to the organization Journalists for Human Rights (JHR). Though the Michener-Baxter has traditionally been awarded to individuals with a history of consistent, exceptional contributions to journalism, JHR is being honoured for its outstanding performance in extraordinary times.
John Honderich left a legacy when he passed away in February 2022. Journalist by day, journalism benefactor by night. Everything he touched was with zest and purpose and for the benefit of those who produced journalism and those who consumed it. Honderich loved news – what could be published first and foremost, but what could only be recounted over a meal as well. He loved to know what was going on. He loved to regale audiences about what was going on – really going on. He loved the often-idiosyncratic people who gathered and edited news. He was diligent in helping them practice the craft, particularly when he could use his stature to lengthen their odds of getting the story. He unflinchingly maintained the progressive values of the Toronto Star in times when progressivism seemed ready to fall out of fashion. His papers won National Newspaper Awards and Michener Awards galore, and he was always enormously proud of the reporters, photographers, designers and editors who gained recognition for their ground-breaking work.
Honderich started out a copy boy at the Ottawa Citizen, and worked as a bureau chief in Ottawa and Washington for the Toronto Star before going on to become an editor, publisher, CEO and executive chairman. He studied politics, economics and law in preparing himself for this great career. He cared about how the pieces fit together, understanding that societies were not the product of random acts but of purposeful ones, and that journalism helped keep people honest and focused on those who lacked the power to demand action themselves. He believed in living his life by the standards of the Atkinson principles his newspaper propounded.
When Canadian Press was foundering, he was there. When tiny J-Source was struggling, he was there. When the Michener Awards Foundation was in financial straits, he was there – rounding up donors and serving on the board for 26 years. He was the force behind the Atkinson Fellowship in Public Policy, one of several vehicles he supported in pursuing a social justice agenda. He was an early patron of the Canadian Nieman Fellowship, joining as a trustee in 2001 and serving on the Selection Committee from 2005.
“John was willing to roll up his sleeves and do the work. He represented journalism at its best, always invested in the public interest and never succumbing to fear,” the Selection Committee noted.
Norman Webster, who died in November 2021, was managing editor of the Montreal Gazette when he joined the Board of the Michener Awards Foundation in 1995 and three years later assumed the role of President. This ascendency to the head of the organization reflected the culmination of a life-long commitment to the field of journalism. His first job was as a summer student at the Globe and Mail, at the time owned by his uncle R. Howard Webster. He started at the Globe’s magazine Weekly for a princely sum of $45 a week, rising through the journalism ranks the old-fashioned way – through hard work and talent. Webster would go on to distinguish himself as the Globe’s bureau chief in China and London and succeed his mentor Richard Doyle as editor-in-chief at the Globe, a position he held from 1983 to 1989.
Even though most of his career was spent working in big media, Webster never lost his Québec and Eastern township roots. As president of the Michener Foundation, he worked hard with directors to engage francophone publishers and smaller newspapers. He saw first-hand how few resources smaller publishers have, during stints as a young reporter at John Bassett’s Sherbrooke Record in the Eastern Townships and at the Winnipeg Free Press with Brigadier Richard Malone as “publisher-in-training.”
“However faithful he was to journalistic codes, he was even more faithful to his sense of duty to the public,” said former Senator Joan Fraser at the virtual book launch in November 2020 of Webster’s book, Newspapering: 50 years of Reporting from Canada and Around the World.
Journalists for Human Rights: Since its founding in 2002, Journalists for Human Rights (JHR) has grown into Canada’s most influential international media development and human rights organization. Over 20 years, JHR has trained more than 19,500 journalists in over 30 countries to report on human rights and governance issues effectively and objectively. It has brought home the knowledge gained through this work and deployed it locally to create conditions for the success of Indigenous journalists and the dissemination of their work. It pivoted during the pandemic to take on the scourge of COVID disinformation.
JHR has been instrumental in helping rescue 2,000 high-risk Afghans, including journalists, fixers, translators and others who worked with Canadian journalism organizations in covering their country for Canadian audiences. They’ve also brought attention to the dangers involved in covering events in Ukraine and to the security and freedom of journalists in places as disparate as Russia, the Philippines and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
“Journalists for Human Rights made its mark by providing journalists in developing countries tools to fight corruption and stand up for human rights. Now it has distinguished itself further in spearheading efforts to save endangered journalists, particularly Afghans who helped us and now need our help,” the Selection Committee noted.
All three Michener-Baxter Awards will be presented at a ceremony taking place this fall, alongside the Michener Award and the Michener Fellowships. Visit michenerawards.ca to find out more about this year’s Michener Award finalists and Fellowship winners.