Yesterday’s News: a look behind this week’s Globe and Mail redesign

Yesterday’s News: a look behind this week’s Globe and Mail redesign

Phillip Crawley, the publisher of the Globe and Mail, is gambling $1.7 billion on a redesign that could revolutionize the industry. The flubs, the firings and the ticking doomsday clock at our national newspaper

(Illustration: Kagan McLeod)

About four months ago, I cancelled my Globe subscription. I admit I felt a little guilty about the decision; I have several friends who work at the paper or write for it—I myself have written for it frequently—and really, as a journalist and concerned citizen, shouldn’t I be a faithful supporter, or at least a diligent reader, of what is supposedly our foremost national newspaper? But I didn’t feel that guilty. On my charitable days, I think of the Globe as more of a nuisance than a necessity, a compendium of warmed-over wire copy, ham-fisted charticles and increasingly irrelevant or insipid columnists. And, like all newspapers these days, it’s less comprehensive, an emaciated version of its once robust self (an editor once described her section to me as being “skinnier than a Puerto Rican street dog”). This isn’t entirely the Globe’s fault. No one with an Internet connection needs to read a newspaper to feel completely informed; by the time the Globe lands on my doorstep, I’m already thoroughly immersed in the events of the day, having checked my Facebook, Google Reader and Yahoo accounts, scoured a half-dozen news Web sites and dipped into Twitter, where the Globe writers whose work I do admire often provide a stream of entertaining invective, observations and links that is just as valuable as the stories they produce for the paper—sometimes more so. The very notion of information being gathered and analyzed by a few people and the results of that analysis printed on paper that is then trucked, over great distance and at great expense, to homes, offices, newsstands, convenience stores and metal boxes that sit on the street now seems almost absurdly antiquated. How much more efficient, logical and environmentally sustainable (arguably) for us to get that same information transmitted to the devices that most of us now interact with every moment of the day?

The Toronto newspaper industry, as it competes with the Internet and sees its advertisers disappear, is in a state of dramatic upheaval the likes of which it hasn’t experienced since 1998, when Conrad Black, with enormous fanfare, launched the National Post. The last newspaper war was theatrical and expensive, and we’ll probably never see another of its kind. It thoroughly upended the industry and, for a time, anyway, made both the Globe and Post required reading. The Globe was then entirely owned by the eccentric and extravagantly wealthy Thomson family, who hired British-born Phillip Crawley to defend their beloved franchise against Black’s cheeky, Fleet Street–inspired upstart. Crawley was cut from the same flamboyant cloth, a career newspaperman who’d held several executive and editorial positions in England, New Zealand and Hong Kong. He’d spent only two weeks in Canada before the Thomsons installed him as publisher and CEO.

Crawley won’t give up newsprint until it’s pried from his cold, dead hands

Short and lean, Crawley recently turned 66 years old. Staff are fond of using military metaphors to describe him. “He’s a general you’d follow into battle,” one staffer said to me. He’s an admirer of Churchill and cultivates an image of a strategic, hardened warrior, capable of considerable charm but also great cunning and imperiousness. “He’s tough as nails, and he is a businessman,” says one editor. “There’s not a lot of lovability there.” In an indelible scene in Ego and Ink, Chris Cobb’s 2004 book about the newspaper war, Crawley gave a presentation to his new staff in which he sardonically informed them, in his distinctive Geordie lilt, that treason would be punished by hanging.

His prickly, pugnacious temperament served him well in that particular war. Even with the Post’s much-ballyhooed purchase in May by its president, Paul Godfrey, and a group of unsecured creditors, the paper will never threaten the Globe’s hegemony again. The threat today is no single newspaper, but rather the much more fearsome and unpredictable reinvention of the newspaper industry itself. Even in such a perilous climate, Crawley continues to counter-punch. Two years ago, he committed the Globe to an 18-year extension of its contract with Montreal-based Transcontinental Printing—a deal worth $1.7 billion. The paper also embarked on an expensive, three-year redesign to be revealed this month. Crawley promises that the new Globe will be one of the most lavish and ambitious newspapers ever produced.

While other media companies sink huge sums into sophisticated Web sites and apps, the Globe is betting on the dead-tree business. The question is, Will anyone read it?

(Illustration: Kagan McLeod)

In the middle of April, three large digital clocks were installed in the Globe’s offices on Front Street. The clocks were plugged in and began to count down, to the hour, until the unveiling of the redesigned paper. Crawley’s message was clear: the pressure was on.

The new Globe, at 12 inches wide by 21 inches deep, will be tighter and smaller, a bit narrower and shorter than a traditional broadsheet, though not quite as small as a Berliner. To handle the new format, Transcontinental installed four high-tech German printers across the country, including two in a purpose-built plant in Vaughan. The paper will be printed on a blend of stocks, including traditional newsprint, but also glossy and matte paper and, possibly, a bright white stock. “People haven’t seen anything like it in North America,” Crawley says. Pages will often be devoted to a single news story, adorned with several ads. “Really uncluttered,” in the opinion of one reporter. “Exactly the opposite of the New York Times.” A presentation given to staff last December, based on information derived from focus groups in Toronto and Vancouver, maintained that readers wanted the paper to have a “friendlier” look. Friendlier apparently meant more white space, shorter stories, grabbier graphics and a lot more colour.

One editor told me that the obvious goal of the redesign was to produce something less disposable, a print product that subscribers would happily display on their coffee tables. In short, something closer to a newsmagazine—imagine The Economist grafted onto USA Today. This same editor was concerned that this transformation wouldn’t necessarily guarantee a boost in readership: “It’ll just pile up like the New Yorker, and you’ll start to hate it.” Other editors were more generous, describing it as “scarily ambitious,” while noting that radical change is absolutely imperative. Some focus group participants said the new design was “tabloid-looking.”

Now anyone with a netbook and laundry money can produce a newspaper

The Globe isn’t the only newspaper attempting to reinvent itself. The Observer, the world’s oldest Sunday newspaper, recently relaunched as an elegant hybrid of newspaper and magazine. The San Francisco Chronicle revamped two years ago with glossy stock and a fetching front page on which text is usually subordinate to bold, vivid images. The Chronicle, like the Globe, signed a long-term printing contract with Transcontinental, and the printer opened a state-of-the-art plant in the Bay Area. It’s difficult to tell what difference this has so far made to the Chronicle: the paper’s bottom line has grown—a fact generally attributed to measures including an increase in cover price from 75 cents to $1 a copy—but its circulation continues to decline. (The Globe has no immediate plans to raise its price.)

The presses that will print the Globe, which cost Transcontinental $50 million each, will be even more sophisticated than the ones in the Bay Area plant. They can print 80,000 to 90,000 copies an hour, and in full colour. For the first time, the Globe will print colour on every page, something that might not enhance its journalism but will permit glossy, magazine-quality advertising while also letting readers know exactly what shade Margaret Wente has dyed her hair.

After signing the Transcontinental deal, Crawley made his next major move. On the morning of May 25, 2009, he strolled into Edward Greenspon’s office and fired him. Greenspon had been the paper’s editor since 2002. In his last year, he had unveiled a redesigned and cleaned up at the National Newspaper Awards gala in Montreal, where the paper won six awards. But Crawley wanted an eager new editor to produce his improved paper. Greenspon, by all accounts, didn’t see it coming. As he made his way out of the building, his belongings in a box, he passed stunned employees. His assistant trailed behind him, carrying a second box and weeping. He bumped into Christie Blatchford, the paper’s venerable columnist and a notoriously prickly employee. She gave Greenspon a hug and watched him walk away.

Greenspon’s replacement was John Stackhouse, who had been the editor of the paper’s Report on Business section since 2004. The 47-year-old Stackhouse had had his eye on the top job for much longer. After school at UCC and Queen’s, where he received a commerce degree, most of his career has been at the Globe. In 1989, he joined Report on Business magazine as a senior writer, and in 1991, he became the paper’s first “development issues correspondent,” covering global poverty from a base in New Delhi. Returning to Toronto in 1999, he steadily and confidently ascended the editorial ladder, from foreign editor to national editor and, finally, in 2004, to editor of the business pages, where he oversaw the section’s retooling. Stackhouse published two books derived from his reporting: Out of Poverty: And Into Something More Comfortable, about the world’s poorest people; and Timbit Nation, an earnest chronicle of a hitchhiking trip across Canada.

He immediately shook up the newsroom, demoting the old guard and appointing his loyalists to key positions. The newsroom was consolidated into three main content groups—news, features and business—each headed by a senior editor who would report only to the new boss. Stackhouse is more demanding than Greenspon, prone to tearing up the paper at the 11th hour to alter story configurations and expecting his staff to keep up. He’s also the living embodiment of the paper’s establishment gravitas. “If you’re looking for a barrel of laughs,” says one reporter, “you don’t walk into John’s office.” (One notable exception: after the staff Christmas party at Marben last year, Stackhouse surprised everyone by carrying on, with several of his employees, to a karaoke bar above Clinton’s Tavern, where he joined in on a rendition of Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies.”)

When I first met with him at the Globe’s office, it was Super Bowl Sunday, and though a good number of people were hunched over desks, the dreary, second-floor newsroom was about as lively as an insurance office. Stackhouse’s Globe is even more tightly controlled, process-driven, cautious and corporate than Greenspon’s, though the mood is as much a by-product of an anxious industry as it is of the editor’s restrained temperament. “Everyone’s freaked out and worried about the future,” one reporter said to me. Stackhouse is physically unimposing and boyish—his full, slightly tousled hair is free of grey, his face remarkably unlined. Dressed for the weekend, he has the utilitarian fashion sense of a grad student circa 1998: shapeless jeans, black V-neck wool sweater, tan Blundstones. If Greenspon resembled a nerdy chipmunk, Stackhouse looks something like a nerdy squirrel—particularly when he breaks into a slightly pained, ingratiating smile, which he does frequently.

He never deviates from the paper’s party line that print journalism is still vital, and the Globe is the finest exemplar of it in the country. He finds it amusing that his own profession, which, according to him, thrives on uncertainty, is now so beset by the uncertainty of its own survival.

Stackhouse himself doesn’t seem so beset—or, at least, he masks his anxiety well. “I believe in the future of journalism,” he says, after little deliberation. “What we do—which is basically finding out stuff and explaining stuff—is an ancient tradition, and there’s a natural human appetite for it, and that will always be the case.” He’s fond of saying that the Globe offers readers a 20- to 30-minute “daily pause” at the beginning of the day, a respite from the maelstrom of information in which we all now live but also a unique and unhurried tool to contemplate, contextualize and reflect on that information.

The Globe’s staff were told that treason was a hanging offence

His reputation, as both writer and editor, rests on lengthy, complex narratives: his own 1999 features on homelessness, for example, or Jacquie McNish’s 2006 Inco report, which Stackhouse edited and proudly calls, at 19,000 words, the longest story in Globe history. But he’s now in a position where he encourages writers to turn in shorter stories. “The big danger in the redesign is that it will be difficult to do stories of any complexity,” says Martin Mittelstaedt, formerly the Globe’s environmental reporter and now in the Report on Business section. Asked about this, Stackhouse is dismissive. “It’s fine for a typical news story to be 600 to 800 words,” he says. “Most readers aren’t going to read more than that.”

The reality of editing a daily print newspaper in 2010 also means that Stackhouse has become an unlikely proponent of the lighter, more digestible alternative story format, non-narrative treatments that combine text with illustration and photography. Many writers are told to conceive of stories as charticles and infographics—formats more common to the front sections of magazines, and not always so popular with serious journalists accustomed to exploring their subjects in straightforward, linear prose. “Reading habits have changed in the past five years,” Stackhouse says. “We have to present information differently in print to reflect that.” While he claims the paper’s core strength is still the written word, many of those words are more and more dispersed across a patchwork of Q&As, lists, charts, stats and text-and-picture combos. Which is not to say these don’t have value or can’t be executed well: the Post did (and does) them better, the Times can do them extremely well, and most magazines, with more luxurious production schedules, do them best.

The Globe hasn’t had as much success. “Few people understand how time-consuming these stories are to produce,” says one editor. “It’s a huge amount of time that’s not evident on the page.” Generally, the paper’s attempts, including a weekly matrix that rates news events in Saturday’s Focus section, are awkward and self-defeating, trying to emulate the Web’s collage-like fragmentation, but without reproducing—how can it?—the interactivity of that medium. It’s like a regional theatre company trying to compete with the movies by putting on a live performance of Avatar. “This used to be a writer’s paper,” says one veteran jour­nalist, “then it became an editor’s paper, and now it’s a designer’s paper.”

Above all, it should be a reader’s paper. A significant Globe constituency, myself included, mourns the erosion of substantial, riskier, more original and well-reported reads. For at least the past decade, the Globe has been fairly reactive, with many of its shifts in tone and texture responses to the reportorial and aesthetic goad of the National Post (and, to a lesser extent, the Star), but it has painstakingly held on to its own exaggerated notion of being Canada’s authoritative paper of record, the elite paper of the country’s intelligentsia and influentials. The danger, obviously, is that remaking the print product yet again and largely in reaction to the gyrations and caprices of the Internet can both undermine this brand and alienate the paper’s core readership. Traditional storytelling and strong reporting are the Globe’s bedrock and remain of vital importance to anyone who still reads news­papers—more so than ever. John Fraser, once the Globe’s national editor, a former editor of Saturday Night magazine and now master of Massey College, isn’t impressed by the paper’s steady drift into charts and packages. “I find I’m able to read the paper very fast,” he says. “As an editor, John hasn’t lit my fire. It doesn’t mean he can’t do it. But he doesn’t have a lot of time. I’d say he has about a year left to prove his point.”

All of this—the constant aesthetic shimmying and the move toward a sleeker, magazine-like format—is less about the better delivery of news than the better delivery of print advertising. Crawley can now offer a suitable platform for big-spending advertising categories that have traditionally shunned newsprint in favour of magazines: food, alcohol and beauty products. And he can offer them the flexibility and speed of a daily. The shift can’t happen fast enough for the Globe; Crawley and Stackhouse say advertising is bouncing back post-recession, but you’ll still occasionally find full-pagers for denture services and ancestor registries on the back of the Monday A section—not exactly the paper’s prestige clients.

On-line, the Globe has to compete for ad dollars with everyone, from Google to Foursquare to whatever still-to-be-imagined, game-changing, geo-coded whatsit captures the public’s imagination next season, but in the world of newsprint, it could be, over time, one of the few options available. The Globe’s digital divisions bring in only about 15 per cent of the revenue of the printed paper. “Print is still the larger part of the business,” Crawley says. “Everyone in the newspaper world will tell you that’s the case.” The Web has revolutionized the means of production—anyone with some laundry money and a netbook can now produce and distribute a newspaper-like product. The Globe and its fancy new presses will raise the bar for what a professional print newspaper can look and act like. But will that be enough to sustain it?

While other papers sink huge sums into apps, the Globe is betting on the dead-tree business

At the Canadian Association of Journalists’ Innovate News conference this past January, Microsoft’s Bill Buxton, who gave the closing address, said that in a few years it will be as socially inappropriate to read a printed paper as it is to smoke in a restaurant. Crawley’s devotion to print prompted Mathew Ingram, one of’s editors, to leave last January for a job at the American technology blog GigaOM. Like many Web evangelists, Ingram is persuasive about the massive culture shift that’s currently underway and believes the only way newspapers will survive, let alone grow, is to fully embrace that shift—something the Globe hasn’t done. “It’s like realizing intellectually that you’re fat and agreeing that you’re going to stop eating bad food,” Ingram says. “But then you don’t change your eating habits. Or you change them a bit but not enough. You haven’t admitted that you have to change the entire way you’re living.” Ingram sees the Globe’s imprudent reliance on its print product as a kind of desperate protectionist strategy—and the whim of a generation. “I think people will be reading newspapers as long as I’m still alive,” Ingram says. “But it will primarily be old people.”

People such as Crawley, who won’t give up newsprint until it’s pried from his cold, dead hands. And why should he? If boomers remain the Globe’s most loyal customers, his gamble makes some sense. The duration of the Transcontinental contract conveniently mirrors the probable remaining lifespan of many Globe readers. Telling Crawley to get out of print would be like telling the Stones to stop touring. If boomers are still buying tickets, why quit? No matter how attractive the iPad may be—to readers, content producers and advertisers—the entire print readership is not going to migrate to any kind of digital platform overnight; the shift will be gradual, and for many, it won’t happen at all.

Even if indifference to Crawley’s printed Globe grows and it becomes a money pit, Crawley won’t have to pay for its failure. That’ll be the Thomsons’—and Stackhouse’s or his successor’s—problem. The Thomsons, in the form of Woodbridge, their private holding company that still owns 40 per cent of CTVglobemedia, appear committed to the paper, as long as it continues to bestow upon them a certain prestige. And Stackhouse, for his part, shrugs off any fears for the future: “The daily quality newspaper will still be in demand for a number of years. How many years? I don’t know. Certainly for as long as I need to worry about it.”

In the digital age, stories don’t just have legs; they have tentacles. They have a lifespan far longer than the newsprint they might have first appeared on: posted on-line, they can be commented on by readers, updated and corrected by the writer, tagged, linked to and from dozens of other Web sites and spread virally, potentially forever. The technological turmoil that now characterizes journalism could and should make journalism more efficient, smarter and more valuable. But for now, the Globe and Mail will continue to print yesterday’s news.