Paper Hanging

Two accounts of the sweeping change in Canada’s newspaper industry.

Early in 2013, the directors of The Globe and Mail convened in search of a strategy for extricating the newspaper from the financial wreckage of the last few years. Digital networks and information platforms had shattered the framework of commercial news production and the advertising models that supported it. Privately owned newspapers like the Globe, Canada’s leading national daily, were no longer the prime generators and sellers of news in the industrialized world. Their subscribers were melting away, empowered by the internet, cheap computing devices and a culture of aggressive information “sharing”—or thievery, depending on where you stood.

As readers fled, so did advertisers. Newspapers sought to hold their audiences by shovelling their contents onto the World Wide Web and making them available without charge. But it was impossible to pretend to companies with products or services to sell that a person glancing briefly at free news on a screen was as valuable a prospect as one who had paid for the ability to peruse a printed product at leisure. Ads could be sold on the web, but at a fraction of the price they commanded in print. Digital subscriptions too could be sold, but also at a heavy discount. In his close-to-real-time memoir, Mass Disruption: Thirty Years on the Front Lines of a Media Revolution, former editor-in-chief John Stackhouse writes that the Globe took a $40 million revenue hit between 2008 and 2013. As Stackhouse tells it, when the board’s 55-year-old chair began to speak, it was not to ask how the business model might be tweaked. “We don’t need to cut to the bone,” said David Kenneth Roy Thomson, 3rd Baron Thomson of Fleet. “We need to cut through the bone. It is time to amputate.”

Stackhouse and other Globe managers left the meeting with orders to cut $25 million in spending by the end of July. The physical size of the paper had already been reduced with a redesign in 2010. Now its national ambitions would also have to be trimmed—the physical product would no longer be sent to Newfoundland, northwestern Ontario or parts of major cities. More than 60 staff would be cut, including 30 in the newsroom, among them specialist reporters who had played vital roles in building the paper’s brand. The outsourcing of copy editing would accelerate. At the same time, Stackhouse and his editorial team would keep trying to put out a paper that contained ground-breaking journalism that people might want to read—even though that was harder to pinpoint than ever, despite the reams of data becoming available showing which visitors to the paper’s website were clicking on what, and how long they were lingering.

The challenge was formidable, but perhaps not beyond Stackhouse’s reach. The son of Reginald Stackhouse, an Anglican minister and former Progressive Conservative member of Parliament, he had had an outstanding career at the Globe since joining the paper in 1989. Despite his background as a business writer, he won the respect of liberal foreign-aid advocates during seven years as a New Delhi–based correspondent, roaming through Africa and Asia to report on “development issues.” He followed that with a series about hitchhiking across Canada (turned into a book, Timbit Nation: A Hitchhiker’s View of Canada) and a controversial series based on a week spent among Toronto’s street dwellers. He became the paper’s foreign editor in 2001 (September 11 was his second day in that post), then national editor, business editor and finally editor-in-chief in 2009 after the surprise ouster of Edward Greenspon by the paper’s publisher, Phillip Crawley.

At that stage, the devastating impact of the digital upheaval had yet to be felt. The Thomsons and their partners in ownership had grand plans for developing the land around the Globe’s headquarters on downtown Toronto’s western fringe. Three years later, it was not even clear that a newspaper actually needed a newsroom, and at least one member of the Thomson family was wondering aloud whether there was any need for the printed product. Charged with slashing a path to digital supremacy, Stackhouse set about persuading the staff that a lot of what they were accustomed to doing no longer held much value for readers. With so much available elsewhere, fewer turned to the Globe for reports of baseball games or film reviews. The basic challenge, as he saw it, was this: “Publications and their staffs needed to deal with the fact that they no longer controlled the reading experience.”

Deal with it they did, for better or worse—and a year later Stackhouse was no longer employed by the Globe. His successor was David Walmsley, a former managing editor who had left the paper three years earlier for the CBC. You will not find much about this in Mass Disruption. “I was replaced as editor of the Globe and left the paper, as the owners continued to seek a more viable model for its journalism” is all the author has to say, and that merely to explain why he had time to finish the book. But Crawley, in his announcement of the change, hinted strongly at one of the reasons: Walmsley, he said, was known for his “open style of leadership.”

No strangers to stress, reporters and editors nevertheless tend to respond poorly to pressure that is poorly framed. In particular, tolerance for challenges to their legitimacy is likely to have strict limits. I worked under Stackhouse for several years; I succeeded him as foreign editor in 2004 and left the Globe the following year. I cannot remember an uncivil moment passing between us. But I do recall him as cerebral, at times enigmatic—as if holding something back—and struggling to hide his disappointment when others failed to match the high standards he set for himself. Walmsley is reportedly no slouch at driving a team to succeed, but when colleagues speak of the relief they felt when he took over—the feeling that work might actually be fun again—I am not surprised.

Stackhouse has a score or two to settle as well. The Globe stood to shrink significantly in the 2010 redesign. As a result, it would become impossible to make space for young diverse voices in the opinion pages without trimming the existing roster of columnists—all white and in late middle age. Stackhouse’s solution was to sack the lone left-winger, Rick Salutin, and the right-wing Rex Murphy, and cut the frequency of columns by Ottawa veteran Jeffrey Simpson. The plan required a day trip to the capital for a Simpson sitdown. According to Stackhouse, the columnist suggested a bite to eat in a basement food court where, perhaps not entirely coincidentally, one of the dishes on offer was “Jeffrey Simpson soup.” Unfazed, he laid out the scenario: Simpson would write three columns a week instead of four, freeing up time for longer features and profiles. He might also try sticking his fingers into the live sockets of social media and see if he liked the result. The columnist was unimpressed, and the lunch from hell ended, in Stackhouse’s retelling, with Simpson harrumphing “Twitter!” as he left. (Simpson says this account is “inaccurate in important respects,” but declines to elaborate for the record. Walmsley restored his fourth column last June.) By contrast, Mass Disruption has nothing to say about the controversy surrounding columnist Margaret Wente in 2012, in which mounting reader concerns finally pushed Stackhouse to acknowledge what he described at the time as Wente’s deficiencies in “sourcing, use of quotation marks and reasonable credit for the work of others.” The silence squares poorly with his conviction that tomorrow’s journalists “will have to be much more comfortable working with readers to assemble information, dig and explore.”

Editing a legacy news organization in these times must be wearing work. There is no road map; no one with a shred of honesty can claim to know where the digital revolution—more properly characterized right now as a mobile revolution—will lead. Even less certain is how to keep viable the journalism a free and democratic society requires: what Stackhouse calls “the discipline of newspaper journalism, of precise, written language, of assertions held up to legal scrutiny, of measured debate, and most importantly, of a collective of readers who don’t just pay for information and ideas but pay attention, serious attention, to those facts and arguments.” It is a relief when Mass Disruption steps onto firmer ground, dealing with actual coverage of actual events. Stackhouse posits Toronto’s police-fomented G20 pandemonium in 2010 as a watershed in recognition of the power of social media to shape a story, and acknowledges that the Globe’s initial editorial position on kettling was “unduly tepid.” He details the rivalry between the Globe and the Toronto Star on the appalling story of Rob Ford, and the tortuous saga of the Globe’s investigation of the Toronto mayor’s brother Doug. Further relief, mostly comic, comes when he travels to Russia as one of a select group of editors invited to dinner with Vladimir Putin and ends up taking part in the prime minister’s weekly pickup hockey game. He wins the first faceoff against Putin—“my first mistake,” he notes drily—and scores on a penalty shot late in the game.

Stackhouse and Brian Gorman, author of Crash to Paywall: Canadian Newspapers and the Great Disruption, would agree that the captains of the newspaper industry botched their initial encounter with digital technology. But for Gorman, the seeds of disaster were planted much earlier, in the 1970s and ’80s, when corporate owners seeking outsized profits began stripping newspapers of their journalistic resources. By the 1990s, he writes, newsrooms were characterized by “a constant search for a no-risk editorial panacea and an obsession with managing expenses.” Mergers and capital expenditures left many of them groaning under the weight of debt when the digital tsunami struck. Profit holidays were out of the question, so round after round of cost cutting was the only possible response to declining circulation and advertising revenue. The inevitable result—less good journalism—left audiences no reason to stay loyal. Compounding the difficulty was a ham-fisted approach to charging for content—publishers veered between giving their news away on the internet and erecting impenetrable paywalls. Neither strategy worked, but Gorman argues that this is not evidence of a decline in readers’ appetite for informative, trustworthy news. In any case, many newspapers remained profitable—just not as profitable as their owners would have liked. “It’s as if an entire industry decided that the gods had turned against it,” Gorman writes, “and the only way to salvation was to have a bonfire of the vanities and walk naked, innocent and penniless into the future.”

This is not an unfamiliar argument. It was made in detail about the U.S. industry by Marc Edge in Greatly Exaggerated: The Myth of the Death of Newspapers, reviewed last year in the LRC by Christopher Waddell. Gorman’s book is billed as focusing on the newspaper situation in Canada, and it would have been useful to tease out any differences that exist between the two countries, since so much of what is written about the future of news emanates from the United States. Unfortunately, there is no such focus. A back-page blurb says Gorman “makes a strong case for the need for federal regulation of the industry.” It might have been a much better book if it had set out to do this, despite the considerable philosophical, political and technical obstacles. But the closest he comes is to introduce, on the second-last page, the idea of a government fund providing short-term seed money for start-up journalistic enterprises, on the condition that they move quickly to muster sizeable crowdfunded audience support. This would be worth exploring in greater detail, since young Canadian journalists are actually eager to experiment with forms that might make up for the deficiencies in our legacy media.

Like many critics of the mainstream media, Gorman—who spent many years at newspapers such as the Toronto Star, Ottawa Sun and Victoria Times-Colonist—is resolutely blind to their successes. He ridicules the Star for its at-times-­obsessive focus on Toronto, but the fact is that the paper remains Canada’s largest daily while maintaining a liberal editorial policy and regularly producing investigations based on shoe-leather reporting that hold the powerful to account and call attention to the plight of the weak. It is also far from clear that large-scale text-driven journalism—the “factory” or “industrial” model—is on its deathbed. Many newspapers are in big trouble, and newsprint as a medium is obviously seriously threatened. But as news systems are reshaped globally there is plenty of evidence that large-scale operations will survive. Titles with global reach—Britain’s Guardian, Financial Times and Daily Mail; The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal—are rising to the digital challenge. The news agencies that supply much of the world’s international reporting have never been in greater demand. Companies such as Vice and Buzzfeed, whose origins are far from the mainstream, are moving rapidly to gain credibility as large-scale newsgatherers and presenters, and creating jobs as they expand into Canada and elsewhere. I know some of the tough young journalism graduates they have hired; they are flesh-and-blood refutations of Gorman’s contention that Canadian journalism schools are too busy churning out “cannon fodder for establishment media.”

In Mass Disruption, the narrative of John Stack­house’s editorship begins to fade several months before he is replaced. In the final pages he takes us into meetings of news executives from around the world, where he argues that editors must be more open to collaboration with their sales forces and advertisers. Along with others, he believes part of journalism’s salvation may lie in embracing “sponsored content”—stuff that reads like a reporter’s copy and appeals to the same sensibilities that draw audiences to a particular news product, while remaining, at least nominally, separately branded.

As Stackhouse notes, “advertorial” material has deep historical roots in the news business. But on screen devices, the lines between straight-up reporting and paid content are much more easily blurred. In January 2015 Stackhouse became a senior vice-president at the Royal Bank of Canada, where, among other things, he “creates and disseminates thought leadership and intellectual capital for the bank and its clients.” In a way, the challenge for the news media he has left behind is to secure space for the same activity, on behalf of public rather than private interests.