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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.”)

  • 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!