Q&A: Anne Marie Owens, the first woman to helm a Canadian national daily newspaper

Q&A: Anne Marie Owens, the first woman to helm a Canadian national daily newspaper

(Image: Claire Foster)

Anne Marie Owens was on staff as a reporter at the National Post when it launched in 1998; in June, she came back to run it. After starting at the paper all those years ago, she rose steadily up the ranks, eventually working as news features editor and then, finally, managing editor. In 2011, she left to become the deputy editor of Maclean’s, where she helped redesign the magazine’s website and tablet edition—helpful work experience, especially now that she’s heading up a newspaper at a time when the entire medium’s extinction often seems imminent. We talked with Owens about her new job, being the first female editor of a Canadian national daily and how she plans to ensure her paper’s survival.

A lot of people make a big deal about the fact that you’re the first female editor of a Canadian national newspaper. Is it a big deal for you?
It is a big deal. These things are in a large way symbolic, but the symbolism is important to me. I began in journalism in ’88, and it was a different time for women in newsrooms. So the notion of being the first is important. It should have happened years ago.

What do you make of Jill Abramson’s firing at the New York Times? Do you feel that it’s difficult to be a female boss in this industry?
I’m not sure what to make of it. So much of it is how leadership styles are characterized. Personally, I don’t feel like I’ve been denied opportunities in terms of advancement. When I had kids, I was able to get a flexible schedule to keep my career on an upward trajectory. But when you read all the coverage about Jill Abramson, and the characterizations of her leadership style, there were descriptors that were gender-based that you would probably not read about a man. Those things take a long time to change.

The Grid just folded; the Globe just recently avoided a strike; revenues are down everywhere. What made you decide to take on this job at this time?
It sounds cliché, but in a way, with this tumult that’s all around us, what we need is to rethink and reevaluate everything we do. Not just the platforms we use, but everything. So the flip side of the despair is opportunity. Journalists are like many people; we don’t change things. We like what we do, and we need to force change. For me, part of what made me think about going back to the Post is that they were right in the middle of launching Postmedia 2.0, a four-platform strategy. And that, to me, is a big, bold step. None of us know if that big, bold step will work, but I like the boldness of the venture.

Postmedia 2.0 means customizing the presentation of content for every way that people use to access the news—newspaper, smartphone, PC and tablet—correct?
Right. You’re talking about almost every market in Canada. Again, our thinking about what works and what doesn’t on these platforms is changing all the time. The challenge is that we’re not getting four times the amount of resources, or four times the number of writers. You actually have to think about that strategy with multiple layers of your brain. So it’s a crazy, huge challenge, but that’s what excites me about this moment.

Speaking of resources, you must feel hamstrung sometimes, and forced to do more with less.
We have to do a better job of figuring out what we’re not going to do. We haven’t been good at saying, “Maybe we’re not going to cover every single thing that happens every single day.” And that’s hard, but that’s the moment we’re in now. I started at the Post at the beginning of June, and I made it clear that I wasn’t going to come in and say, “OK, this is my plan for the Post.” I’ve spent my summer talking to a lot of people inside about the way we do things, and what they think we should do and what we shouldn’t do. And that’s where I am now.

What was the job application process like for you? You must have had to reveal a plan of some sort.
It wasn’t so much, “Here’s my 10-step prescription for what the Post needs.” Largely it was revealing my observations from the outside. I’ve been an insider at the Post—I was there from day one—and I’ve come back in as an outsider. It was important for my bosses to know where my head was at and how I felt in terms of sharing content. We are going to develop a tablet app, and relatively quickly. So we’re figuring out a national tablet. Not a replica of the National Post, but we’ll be building a new thing that will engage a new audience, and it will be national.

So we’re looking at a new publication, basically.
It will be a National Post tablet, and it will use National Post content, but it will be its own entity, as opposed to looking at the content that everyone is generating and picking what works best for the tablet. We have to do it the other way around. If I were to build a replica tablet, I’d pretty much know what to do. I’d design it for what I think of as the existing National Post reader, and that would work if what you’re about is trying to convert print readers to tablet ones. But the tablet that we want to create is going to be an engine and a vehicle for drawing in a new audience. It will have to look and feel different.

As a newspaper, will the National Post change much?
I’m focusing my efforts on the tablet and web. We could always change the print product, but the product does well. It has its audience, and it looks beautiful. Our greatest inroads in terms of building revenue for the Post are going to be made digitally. It’s not 1998; we’re not in that world anymore. So we might tweak the paper, but doing an overhaul or a giant redesign isn’t where we should spend our energy.

You were talking about doing things the other way around, that instead of recycling print content into digital content, you create content designed for digital platforms. How do you do that?
We’re building the models wrong if every single thing we produce lives on all platforms. Some stories should have a natural home. Breaking news coverage should have a natural home on the web, where people want to read it. Does it have to run a life span in this imagined tablet universe? Maybe not. We have to be thinking about the universe we want to live in two years from now, and the truth is, nobody knows what that universe is going to look like.

When will the new tablet edition launch?
I hope to have my tablet team in place by the early fall. We haven’t set a specific launch date. It depends on the complexity of the vision.

It’s crazy, because you could spend all this time developing an amazing tablet platform, and then five years down the road some new device comes along.
That’s why we can’t just develop content for a single platform. Going down this road is as much about seeing these different platforms as it is about fundamentally changing our structure and organization. Far too often, our days and weeks are defined by feeding that print copy. I’ve been looking at the mastheads of different organizations to look at the titles of the staff, seeing how they’ve been playing around with the notion of rebuilding.

It must seem odd to you that a paper like the Globe would heavily invest in its print product, like it did with the glossy pages a few years ago.
They invested heavily, money-wise, thinking that that would be the future. At that moment in time, it maybe wasn’t a crazy bet: they were thinking that there were people who wanted to pay a premium price for a premium product. But the rate at which people have picked up on tablets has been faster than most people expected. I certainly wouldn’t want to say, though, “No print edition as of next year,” because our subscribers haven’t yet made the transition. We’re not getting enough revenue yet from those other sources.

How do you generate revenue from a tablet edition? Will it be subscription-based?
I think so. We need to identify the target audience and figure out what sort of advertising support there is for that model. When the Post  launched, it was like, “Wow, look at this thing. It’s completely different.” And I think the tablet is an opportunity to do that again, and not just in Canada, but beyond. It has to get buzz, and visually, it has to be a thing that gets people to stop.

So are newspapers just going to fizzle out?
Probably. But whenever someone asks me how long we’ll have a print product, I don’t know.