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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?

  • SM

    Super interesting article, great work! And, I found it/read it online, not in the magazine…

  • Cat

    Excellent! I’m also reading this online, from Hong Kong, where I work for an online news site and watch local papers – Chinese and English – struggle to find a sustainable revenue model…

  • CEE

    Great article. See, I”m reading it online and not through the Toronto Life hardcopy magazine. How ironic you decided to write this article about the Globe and include the print vs digital debate.

    Strange indeed but guess what ? I cancelled my Toronto Life subscription and save myself the $24 annually to read and comment on all your stories for FREE !

  • Leo

    Jason, You hit the nail on the head regarding online v. paper. Though the biggest problem The Globe will have, I think, is the older audience still reading the print edition finding the redesign hard to handle.

    This audience doesn’t want to read shorter points-based articles (they get that watching the nightly news on TV), they want the in-depth coverage real reporting and writing brings to a newspaper, and that which can only be done with more than a few hundred words.

    It seems like the reduced word count is a product of a younger Stackhouse’s vision and the expensive redesign the vision of the older Crawley’s. And with a little backing and forthing, this final product is the result of compromise between those two visions. Unfortunately, if that’s the case, that older core base of paper-based readers, who just want their damn good journalism, are going to switch to another newspaper to get it.

    This isn’t rocket science. What a waste of money and good journalism this will eventually turn out to be. Just like the Globe’s Life section.

  • GJ

    The dead tree vs. online debate is old hat. Most in news biz know the model will be a mix since online is booming with younger readers, but print ads still remain (by far) the chief revenue driver.

    Too bad we didn’t learn anything here of how Crawley /Stackhouse imagine their paper redesign working in concert with website or the future of making a go of newspapering. They will have given all this much thought. Expected better reporting from T.O. Life.

  • TO GUY

    I will cancel my subscription if the rumour about Salutin being replaced by Manji and no “great” design will make change my mind.

  • Skep Tic

    Your subhed is misleading. The redesign won’t cost $1.7 billion; that’s the printing bill. And if the point is that whole enterprise is dependent on the success of the new look, well, the money risked is a hell of a lot more than 1.7 bill.

  • Kafka

    If there’s any print publication that has become irrelvant, it’s Toronto Life, not the Globe. This article is typical of the sneering rubbish that’s written only for people in your west end dinner party set. The Globe is investing a lot of money in something creative and daring – when did Toronto Life spend a cent on anything other than publishing your old J-school mates’ overpriced wankery? You write the same snide rubbish every time the Globe gets a new editor or does something different. Reason? If any of you could write or edit, you’d be qualified to work at the Globe yourself.

  • klikme

    Perhaps newspaper readers are not aware of how unfriendly newspaper industry is to the environment. For a news company to sustain an overpaid staff of 100 to 500, cut down about 10 to 15 mature trees daily and contribute massively to landfills to bring your news is now ridiculous in the digital age. This is what Apple missed when they launched IPad. People will embrace better the device if it helps end the dependence on old growth Boreal forests in bringing us prints. People who are sentimental about the feel newsprint gives to good old fashion breakfast, perhaps should start letting go, and get used to what came (digital media), just for the above reason alone. And where do news companies get their enormous funds from? Those humongous ads that bombard your mind daily. To think that reporters and news writers adhere to the spirit of free speech is naive. What is the difference between a media giant and a car manufacturer? Not much. They are both corporations that exist solely to please their stockholders and investors, and are both run by CEOs that maintain the same corrupt corporate values and office politics. In the end it’s an inefficient way of bringing news, much like buying a rolex to tell time, a $20 digital wristwatch does.

  • WKK

    @CEE, it may not be long before it becomes the norm to have to pay to access a lot of online content. For example, the Times of London is now only available by a £2/wk subscription, or one day’s access costs £1. Online advertising may not bring in enough to pay the writers, who after all can’t write for free

    I agree with @Leo. Newspapers are now better suited to longer pieces that are more comfortable to read on paper than on screen. The Globe’s print edition did need to do something about their previously appalling layout but most of all the Globe needs to improve the quality of its output. I hope they will focus on in-depth investigative pieces, feature articles and essays. I spend much time reading material online via twitter etc, but I still buy dailies and I’m dreading moving back to Canada because of the dearth of satisfying print journalism. I will miss the many outstanding and entertaining print dailies on offer in the UK. And guess what, I’m at least 30 years younger than a babyboomer.

    Perhaps its sentimental but I do wish Canada had a national newspaper that was equivalent to the New York Times, or the Guardian/Times/Telegraph/Observer. I have my fingers crossed for miracles from the Globe and Mail.

  • Fraser

    I will be cancelling my subscription as well.I have never been stored more by a columnist than Rick Salutin. Where he goes I will follow.

  • Jon Arnold

    I realize I’m late to the party, but if you’re still paying attention, you’ll enjoy this too. I’m late because I’m old school, and only saw this article while working out at the gym! I’ve actually followed TL since the 70′s and the Globe for longer. Your article was on target, but I also like the comments here too. It’s a big subject for sure, and I think you did a great job here, Jason.

    Here’s my two cents. I’m a telecom/tech analyst here in Toronto, and have been writing about disruptive technology for a while. The Globe re-design caught my eye, and I see strong parallels here to what the telecom sector is going through. I’m big on lessons learned from other businesses, you if that speaks to you, you’ll probably enjoy a couple of my recent columns, starting here: Comments are welcome on either side of the debate!