Print isn’t dead, but maybe it’s elite: Globe publisher Phillip Crawley

Print isn’t dead, but it may become a status symbol for the affluent elite, Globe and Mail publisher and CEO Phillip Crawley told a panel of newspaper heavyweights at a forum about the future of news.

Crawley, Toronto Star publisher John Cruickshank and National Post president Gordon Fisher talked shop at an event hosted by the Empire Club of Canada. “The irony has not escaped us that the future of media includes four old white guys sitting in leather club chairs,” opened moderator Doug Knight, president of St. Joseph Media (publisher of Toronto Life and Fashion magazines), “so let’s just get over that right now.”

Knight’s first question cut to the chase: “Print has seen close to a billion dollars disappear, while digital has grown by $100 million”, how will newspapers make up the difference?

“It can be hard to remember, but we are in the greatest media renaissance in history,” Cruickshank said, with opportunities the industry couldn’t have imagined just years ago. The National Post will turn a profit in 2011, Fisher promised, which would be a first in its 12-year life span. He says that print is still the big revenue draw but digital revenue, while minor comparatively, will continue to grow exponentially and eventually eclipse print altogether. (Crawley mentioned that mobile growth is up 500% at the Globe). Fisher puts the value of the digital universe at $21 billion, which includes “36% advertising”–proof that someone’s figured out how to make money with online ads. So why not newspapers?

As the digital creep continues, the print landscape will be “dramatically different,” Fisher says, with fewer titles taking the dead-tree route. “Newspapers that don’t have quality content will disappear.” We’ve already seen the shift, Fisher says: launching digital properties has become less expensive (and as such, less risky) than launching a new print product. “You can’t just take the newspaper and slap it onto the net or a cell phone;” newsrooms must develop new ways to package content, Fisher said, “As Marshall Mcluhan said, ‘the medium is the message.’”

All the speakers agreed that broadsheets are going to decrease in number steadily over the next decade, although Crawley quotes Twain (“reports of death have been greatly exaggerated”) in support of his company’s 18-year investment in print. “You don’t compromise your principles,” he says, referring to the paper’s dedication to journalism, “that’s a given.” The Globe and Mail’s new “all singing all dancing design” is part of the strategy, a way to distinguish itself from “the sheer amount of crap that gets put onto blogs and the rubbish that passes itself off as journalism.” (Globe and Mail editor-in-chief John Stackhouse will be speaking about his and other papers’ development at a CJF event on Thursday).

The face of the competition is changing: there’s never been a newspaper war, as far as Fisher is concerned: rather, this battle is global. Media outlets have to compete with the rush-to-be-first, 24-hour news cycle that has risen with the onslaught of connectivity.

Knight wonders what will happen to Toronto’s newspaper microcosm, which includes four major dailies, myriad community papers, several weeklies and three free metro dailies (Metro, 24 and the recently launched evening paper t.o.night).

Free newspapers “devalue the currency of journalism”, Crawley said. He thinks they cannibalize print revenue and contain little of value. “[Free dailies] are the equivalent of elevator music. That’s not creating great journalism, and it’s not a good model during an advertising recession.” Cruickshank disagreed: he thinks free dailies serve an “important public service” and employ a viable business model that may yet surprise us (The Star’s parent company, Torstar Corp., has a stake in Metro, which is published in six Canadian cities including Ottawa, Vancouver and Calgary.)

Asked where they see their papers in five years, the trio agreed that above all, they will focus on producing great journalism. “The demographics say that we’re going to have a great public interest in serious journalism [and] investigative work, especially local journalism, for a long, long time,” Cruickshank said. He remembers the period of post-recession stagflation in the early 90s, where business growth became standstill. “It’s harder to sell subscriptions after a recession.” He also predicts that the Toronto Sun might amalgamate 24 and become a free weekday daily that only charges for weekend editions. (He jokes that the Globe might be similarly absorbed.) “There will continue to be very powerful disruptions [in the industry], but we have an opportunity to create great business models that will support great journalism.”

When asked about the importance of readership demographics and the absence of readers in their 20s and 30s, Cruickshank offered up some telling stats: A Canadian that is 77 is 77% likely to read a daily newspaper. 50-year-olds are 50% likely, while amongst 25-year-olds the likelihood is only 8%. “You 50-year olds are a big part of the problem” Cruickshank told the audience. “It’s a business problem: if you lose 77-year-olds–and if you’re not careful, you will–who will your readers be? We have to find new levels of engagement.”

Fisher didn’t agree. “I can’t be as earnest as the Star,” he joked. “We shouldn’t be trying to force young people to read papers. People come to newspapers in different ways.” Attracting young readers has been a long-time conundrum, but not one that particularly affects newspapers, he says. “It’s not a burning issue. The National Post is a specialty channel, a niche carved out with a loyal readership base. Content consumption is going up. Reading is still a passion in this country–we’re different than the U.S.”

Fisher admits that while “we will all produce a lot less newspapers in 10 years,” he sees broadsheets continuing to print with a greatly reduced circulation, becoming a “enviable status symbol.” Crawley agreed, saying that the Globe isn’t interested in capturing young eyeballs, rather, its readers are “very well-educated and very affluent” and able to purchase the luxury cars, clothing and trips the Globe advertises. “Our target audience isn’t young people with no money to spend,” he said, “If you want [a newspaper in the future], you’re going to have to pay for it.”