The Globe and Mail’s $1.7-billion gamble

In the October issue of Toronto Life, Jason McBride’s feature “Yesterday’s News” opens with a Kagan McLeod illustration of a frantic Globe and Mail newsroom: papers flying, reporters sweating and a giant clock clicking down the seconds to the launch of the Globe redesign
on Oct. 1st. (The paper installed three clocks in the newsroom that
have the sole purpose of counting down to the launch.)

The story’s dek: “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.”

Last month Maclean’s wrote about the so-called newspaper war brewing in Toronto, as Canada’s four largest media companies gear up to fight for ads and eyeballs with a variety of strategies.

Both writers say that a war this big hasn’t been fought since Conrad Black launched the National Post in 1998. But this time, the battle goes beyond the usual suspects: the industry must compete amongst ever-evolving and undefinable competitors, websites and apps and all the unknown on the verge of invention.

McBride writes: “While other media companies sink huge sums into sophisticated websites and apps, the Globe is betting on the dead-tree business. The question is, Will anyone read it?”

The strategy in question is the Globe‘s $1.7-billion gamble: a three-year redesign and an 18-year print contract with Transcontinental.

Transcontinental has installed four high-tech printers in Canada, including two in Vaughan, that can print 90,000 full-colour copies an hour. McBride writes: “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.”

He writes that the new Globe will be “tighter and smaller, a bit narrower and shorter than a traditional broadsheet…” It will be printed on a range of different paper stock, including newsprint, glossy, matte and bright white. News stories will sometimes fill entire pages for a less cluttered look. He adds that the Globe wanted a “friendlier” look, and “Friendlier apparently meant more white space, shorter stories, grabbier graphics and a lot more colour.” He says the daily will more closely resemble a news magazine: “Imagine The Economist grafted onto USA Today.”

Crawley hopes the new Globe will be “one of the most lavish and ambitious newspapers ever produced.”

McBride interviews a series of employees and editors working at the Globe as well as former employees and outside analysts and media experts. While some people seem to have a firm opinion about the future of journalism, most admit they’re waiting to see what happens.

McBride writes: “The reality of editing a daily print newspaper in 2010 also means that [Globe editor-in-chief John] Stackhouse has become an unlikely proponent of the lighter, more digestible alternative story format, non-narrative treatments that combine text with illustration and photography. Many writers are told to conceive stories as charticles and infographics — formats more common to the front sections of magazines, and not always so popular with serious journalists accustomed to exploring their subjects in straightforward, linear prose.”

Stackhouse tells McBride that while the written word is still the Globe‘s “core strength”, the paper will continue to spread them amongst charts, stats, Q&As and photos. McBride notes that there is potential value in this graphic style (“The Post did (and does) them better, the Times can do them extremely well, and most magazines, with more luxurious production schedules, do them best.”)

One editor McBride interviewed worries about how time-consuming the production of these types of stories can be. Another veteran tells him “[The Globe] used to be a writer’s paper, then it became an editor’s paper, and now it’s a designer’s paper.” (McBride suggests that the Globe should strive to be a “reader’s paper”: he himself admits he cancelled his Globe subscription four months ago. He writes: “A significant Globe constituency, myself included, mourns the erosion of substantial, riskier, more original and well-reported reads.”)

He notes that the redesign’s real value isn’t delivering news so much as delivering advertising: With full colour, glossy pages, the Globe hopes to appeal to the traditionally magazine-only big spenders (food, alcohol and beauty products).

While the dead tree business is surely on the rocks, McBride says that iPads can’t possible convert today’s entire newspaper audience. He writes:

“If boomers remain the Globe‘s most loyal customers, [Crawley’s] gamble makes some sense. The duration of the Transcontinental contract conveniently mirrors the probable remaining lifespan of many Globe readers. Telling Crawley to get out of print would be like telling the Stones to stop touring. If boomers are still buying tickets, why quit?”