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

(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.”)