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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?