COVER/MEDIA

Goosing the Glebe

The 'great, grey lady' is trying to change old habits

Anthony Wilson-Smith March 30 1998
COVER/MEDIA

Goosing the Glebe

The 'great, grey lady' is trying to change old habits

Anthony Wilson-Smith March 30 1998

Goosing the Glebe

The 'great, grey lady' is trying to change old habits

ANTHONY WILSON-SMITH

For the estimated 300,000 Canadians who get The Globe and Mail every day, one dear sign of a newspaper in transition came in a message from editor-in-chief William Thorsell that appeared on page 2 last September. He wrote that the next week would see “a set of changes made in the conviction, again, that we are not selling newspapers; we are buying your time.” The changes included adding a new daily Politics page in the front section, enhancing the existing Middle Kingdom page, which emphasized stories on sometimes esoteric topics, gossipy columns called Buzz that would appear in all sections of the paper, and a change in writers and subjects for many columns. Thorsell concluded by asking readers to “please let us know what you think.”

The idea, it appeared, was to rejuvenate the newspaper in the face of potential national competition from Conrad Black’s Southam Inc. But it turned out there was little time for readers—or anyone else—to react. Within two months, many of the changes had disappeared. Six months later, those that remain have been reduced or altered in scope. And other longstanding features have been dropped—including the column of the newspaper’s resident iconoclast, Michael Valpy, whose work Thorsell described in the same September piece as “eloquent.” Asked about the changes in a recent Maclean’s interview, Thorsell said simply: “They were not working.”

Instead, say angry, anxious staffers, the Globe—long considered the “great, grey lady” and newspaper of record in Canadian journalism—is trying a different tack to build readership and discourage Southam. “Thorsell used to tell us to challenge readers to step up intellectually,” says one veteran Globe reporter. “Now, we’re told the paper is boring, and we should dumb it down.” That is one way to describe the process in the works: the other comes from senior management. “I’m not sure I’ve called the paper boring, but I’ve certainly said it lacks élan,” says Stuart Garner, president and chief executive officer of Thomson Newspapers. And, adds Garner, who has played a key role in suggesting changes: “Just what does ‘dumbing-down’ mean? If it suggests fewer academic essays and more stories about real people, that’s what we’re doing.” A favorite Garner maxim: “Journalists have no right to bore the pants off people.”

Whatever the words describing the process, the end result is the same: a Globe and Mail in evolution, already different from what it was six months ago. As Thorsell acknowledges, stories are shorter, there is a conscious effort to make headlines “snappier,” and less emphasis is given to federal politics and international coverage outside North America. Changes will continue: on June 1, the Globe will begin using color photographs, accompanied by a redesign of the newspaper.

Whether all that is for the good depends on who is telling the story. There are two different versions—the one told by management figures such as Thorsell, Garner and publisher Roger Parkinson, and the one told by journalists. The common lament these days among the newspaper’s editors and reporters is: “Why fix what’s not broken?” To that, Parkinson responds: “The surest guarantee of failure can be past success.”

Either way, the Globe has succeeded critically and financially in recent years. Operating results for 1997, which were released to the staff in January, showed that the newspaper made a profit of $37.4 million on revenues of $245.2 million. That was $8.4 million more than planned—and $13.2 million better than the previous year. As well, its readership is an advertisers’ dream: affluent, well-educated, in the top income tier. And the newspaper claims that weekday circuit lation last year increased—in a time of general 2 shrinkage—by 3,000 daily to an average of I 321,000. But that figure cannot be substantig ated, because the Globe does not belong to the sii national Audit Bureau of Circulations, the o body that monitors circulation claims, filie acg counting firm Peat Marwick Thorne has indi° cated that when copies sold at bulk discount prices and distributed free by airlines and hotels are subtracted, the circulation number is closer to 266,000.)

At the same time, the Globe has won acclaim in journalistic circles as not just the country’s best daily, but also one of the better newspapers in the English-speaking world. Twice in recent years it has been cited as “the world’s best-designed newspaper” by the international Society of Newspaper Design. A media studies centre at New York City’s Columbia University has called the Globe “one of the world’s top 20 newspapers.” That enthusiasm is shared within Canada. “There has been a sense of weight and substance to the Globe that you don’t find elsewhere,” says Christopher Dornan, the director of journalism at Ottawa’s Carleton University.

But recently, adds Dornan, that sense has been missing. “I can’t enunciate all the reasons, but it seems puffier, lighter and less satisfying,” he says. “The writing and story selection seem to be softer than they were.” A year ago, he was commissioned by the Columbia Journalism Review to write a 3,000-word story on the Globe. The thesis, he says, “was that the paper, while increasing its price and challenging its readers to think more, actually increased circulation. It was a great success story.” Dornan filed the piece to

the magazine last summer. But last autumn, disillusioned by the changes he saw in the newspaper, he told the magazine’s editors to kill it because “the thesis no longer applies.” Still, no one can say that the changes are motivated by penny-pinching. In recent years, the Globe has increased newsroom staff from about 250 to more than 300, and increased spending in other key areas. As well as the cost of moving to color, the newspaper has spent more than $1 million buying new office furniture, and is renovating the impossibly cramped, shabby newsroom. That follows previous spending increases: in 1996, the editorial budget grew by $3 million.

Why, then, change the newspaper? For one thing, readership surveys and focus groups indicate that while the core constituency of the newspaper—male, upper-income business executives—remains devoted, other target readers, including women and people under 35, are far less enthusiastic. Previous attempts to appeal to them by altering the mix of stories throughout the newspaper have not been as successful as hoped for. (That consideration may also explain why the Globe ran a large photograph of Leonardo DiCaprio, youthful star of Titanic, on its front page last week to accompany a story about the boom in visits to Halifax graves of those who died in the shipwreck.)

Another change is that coverage of politics is being reduced to reflect the belief that many readers are either hostile to the subject or simply uninterested. The newspaper will carry fewer background analysis pieces and, perhaps, fewer stories from its Ottawa bureau overall— although Thorsell insists: “Politics remains a core coverage area.” Still, spirits have been low in the newspaper’s Ottawa bureau. Globe staffers concede that the bureau, considered the strongest of the dailies in the nation’s capital, was badly beaten recently by its archrival, The Toronto Star, in the quality of coverage of a major story—the Supreme Court hearing on whether Quebec has the right to declare unilateral sovereignty. The Globe's Ottawa bureau chief, Edward Greenspon. acknowledges that “this period of transition has been very disturbing to some people. Some of the rhetoric has been troubling.” Greenspon adds carefully: ‘The Globe functions best when it is a collaboration between engaged editors and turned-on reporters.” Still, Greenspon says that a meeting in early March between bureau members and senior editors produced “encouraging reassurances” that have restored morale and energy in the bureau to their proper levels.

There has also been a steady growth of what is known in the trade as “lite ’n’ brites”—features that contain lashings of sex, scandal and curious facts. One recent Saturday newspaper contained an article about a woman from Sudbury, Ont., who was appearing in Playboy. That appeared on the same day as a story on skilled Canadians emigrating to the United States to work. The Playboy story was given greater prominence, leading to grumbling in the newsroom that it was the first time the Globe had considered “breasts more important than brains.”

Another problem in moving to a more populist emphasis is that Globe staffers—many of whom really do favor horn-rims and tweedy outfits—may be spectacularly ill-suited for the task. “It is,” concedes one reporter, “a bit like asking a nun to tell a dirty joke.” The newspaper’s difficulty in empathizing with ordinary people surfaced in the condescending manner with which it covered the huge storm that hit Quebec and eastern Ontario in January. In the middle of hardship, reporters offered lectures on the good fortune of the afflicted when compared to other parts of the world. One story said snidely that for many people,

“the worst is that their exotic goldfish have died.” A column by another reporter boasted about how the staff had endured much greater hardships on stories elsewhere, and concluded that, the storm “is not hell. It’s barely heck.” That offered no comfort to, among others, the families of at least 25 people who died as a result of the storm. In a mea culpa, Thorsell acknowledged in print that “to many readers the tone was patronizing beyond toleration.”

These days, there is concern d that, for the first time since ^

Thomson Corp. bought the Globe in 1980, its head office is playing a direct role in the newspaper’s direction. That is in the person of 53-year-old Garner, a charming but steely-eyed expatriate from Great Britain based at the company’s headquarters in Stamford, Conn. Until now, the hands-off tradition has been exemplified by the company’s majority owner, 74-year-old Kenneth Thomson. In fact, national affairs columnist Jeffrey Simpson recently told friends, delightedly, that after more than 20 years at the newspaper, he received his first-ever direct message from Thomson—a voice-mail congratulating him for a column on the woes of Canada’s Olympic hockey team.

But senior figures at the company make no apologies for their recent involvement The Globe is Thomson Corp.’s biggest daily, representing more than 10 per cent of the newspaper division’s overall revenue. Says Garnen “I cannot imagine the arrogance involved in suggesting we have no right to be involved in such a crucial property.”

For his part, Garner faces predictable complaints about the impact of a Briton coming from an American head office to tell Canadians how to run their newspaper. He arouses fears with his unabashed admiration of USA Today—which Garner likes for its easy access and Globe staffers regard as bland and homogenous. But in some ways, he is unfairly cast as villain. Rather than cut costs, he has increased the budget. A veteran of more than 30 years’ involvement in newspapers, he has often improved editorial quality in previous projects, as well as the bottom line—and has the awards to show for it. He has stayed away from the newsroom, he says, to avoid the impression of interference—although he has held private dinners with some section heads and participates in a videoconference session every Monday morning. Says Garner of his role: “I am an enabler—William is the newspaper’s boss.”

How long that remains true is a matter of intense speculation. “These changes reverse everything William has stood for,” says one senior newsroom figure. On the other hand, Thorsell has proven a resilient figure during nine years in one of journalism’s hottest seats—and may be more adaptable than some staff members think. Garner says that last October, after he became concerned that he and Thorsell did not know one another well enough, he invited him to dinner. Thorsell volunteered to come to Stamford, and, in the course of their evening together, Garner said: “I was pleasantly surprised to discover just how much

The new recipe calls for lighter stories, less politics

William and I were on the same wavelength about the needed changes. I wrote him a note the next day to express my delight.” Although Thorsell, 52, is considered aloof and imperious by reporters, he is respected for his energy, intelligence and curiosity. His drawbacks are a lack of experience as a reporter—he was previously an editorial writer—and as a manager. He has made some mistakes: early on Thorsell misread the wishes of his core market by underestimating the appetite of readers for a large sports section. Last fall, the Globe raided several Southam star sports writers and almost doubled the size of the section.

For day-to-day operations, Thorsell has relied over the years on a series of personable, highly experienced managing editors. But in December, he abruptly announced that his second-incommand, Colin MacKenzie, a popular, well-regarded Globe veteran, was being relieved of most of his key responsibilities for a sixmonth period. MacKenzie is now considered likely to leave the paper. He was replaced in fact, but not title, by Margaret (Peggy) Wente, the editor of the paper’s enormously successful Report on Business section. Wente, who now carries the title of news director, is alternately feared and respected—and many people feel that she is more keen than Thorsell to produce the kind of changes planned. Garner says he was “greatly impressed” by Wente’s ideas when she sat next to him at a senior management dinner at Toronto’s Galileo Restaurant in early December. Shortly after, she replaced MacKenzie—although Garner says that was Thorsell’s decision. Of his own future, Thorsell says: “I’m having a ball doing this job and plan to continue. But who ever knows about the future?” Along with the issue of who will lead the Globe is the crucial question of whether the newspaper is changing—or simply, as Thorsell says, “evolving.” Dornan fears the former, saying: “If the goal is to make it like almost every other North American paper, something special is lost.” But, says Thorsell, “If I thought we were treating our readers less respectfully than in the past, I would not be here.” And praise comes from another source. Says the editor of one large Southam Inc. daily who asked to remain anonymous: ‘We worry about the Globe a lot more than we did six months ago: it’s noticeably broadening its appeal.” To be or not to be an elitist newspaper? That’s just the kind of philosophical debate the paper of tomorrow is increasingly unlikely to debate. □