Rider on the storm

In the mind of Doug Kelly, the Post of the future will further divide readers and critics. But can a niche audience support a national newspaper? The spring and summer issues of the Ryerson Review of Journalism have finally arrived. J-Source will feature an RRJ article each week. This week we feature Katie Hewitt’s  up-close-and-personal profile of National Post editor-in-chief Doug Kelly.
Ryerson Review of JournalismBetty’s, a downtown Toronto bar, is all warm wood tones and squeaky floors, its seafoam walls barely visible through a collection of framed sports memorabilia. Last October, it was the site of a celebration commemorating the National Post’s 11th anniversary. Once the spoiled child of media baron Conrad Black, the paper had more extravagant parties in its infancy. The first birthday bash in October 1999 was a blur of the owner’s friends, advertisers, free booze and “freaking excess” at the Royal Ontario Museum. As one Post reporter recalls: “The thing was like a Roman circus.” At its second anniversary, half-naked newspaper boys posed for pictures to the delight of Black’s wife, Barbara Amiel.

Tonight’s event is considerably more low-key. Betty’s has 30 beers on tap and an open mic night every Wednesday. A dozen reporters and editors share an evening of laughs and a few pints. But there’s a half-empty glass of dark ale warming where the editor-in-chief should be sitting. Doug Kelly is on the sidewalk under a street light—smoking, pacing, scribbling notes and fiddling with his BlackBerry.

The guy running one of the country’s most troubled newspapers is fielding calls from corporate executives. The Post will transfer from its holding company, Canwest CMI (which filed for creditor protection), to the subsidiary Canwest LP (which is in a forbearance agreement with its lenders). In retrospect, this is the first sign of a seismic change. (The move will ensure that Canwest’s broadcast and newspaper assets are sold separately.) Other newspapers bank Post obituaries—and one headline on The New York Times website declares, “Canada’s Cheeky Conservative Paper May Close.” Kelly retaliates with a front-page editorial and the newspaper that seems to defy Darwinian law lives to see another day, even if that new day will dawn under new ownership.

A few weeks after the party, sitting in his office atop the Post’s three-storey low-rise in suburban Toronto, Kelly looks tired and slightly defeated while he fiddles with an empty Starbucks venti. (Full disclosure: I worked as an unpaid intern at the Post for four weeks in the summer of 2009, but did not meet Kelly until I showed up uninvited at Betty’s to report on this story.) Dressed casually in a Friday uniform of jeans and a black sportcoat, his hair silver at the temples, the pressure of the job shows. One Post columnist describes him as having the look of a second-term president. But if Kelly’s Post were a nation, it would be in a state of unrest.national post

And one with a checkered history. In the late 1990s, Kelly was assistant managing editor at the Financial Post. The weekly tabloid (then owned by Sun Media) struggled to compete with The Globe and Mail’s gold mine, Report on Business. The paper went daily in 1988, and 10 years later was making a modest annual profit of $15 million. Black bought FP in July 1998 to anchor his soon-to-be-launched broadsheet, confirming that his plan for a flagship national paper was more than just an industry rumour. By the time it launched three months later, Black’s paper had inherited a name, a profitable brand and a base of 100,000 national subscribers.

The Post started a newspaper war that cost the industry $1 billion to shore up newsrooms and marketing defences. A fierce competitor, the paper would pursue any story at any cost, sending reporters on the last flight of the Concorde, to India to ride the trains for a week and to Finland to attend a snowball fight. It once bought a plot of land on the moon.

Lunar real estate may have come cheap (at $10 an acre from moon-landregistry.com), but it wasn’t the best investment—the site no longer exists. And it wasn’t the only financial misstep. When Canwest CMI filed for creditor protection last fall, a court-appointed monitor released details of the company’s staggering debt, including that of its flagship national paper. The Post had lost $139 million under Canwest ownership.

Back in 2001, two years after graduating from assistant managing editor at FP to assistant deputy editor at the Post, Kelly became executive editor. It was a modest promotion with a superior sounding title—and one of the worst jobs in journalism. That year, the paper’s losses were $65 million. Canwest had purchased most of Black’s publications, including half of the Post, for $3.2 billion in 2000. In August 2001, Canwest took full ownership. Less than a month later, on “Black Monday,” 120 employees lost their jobs.Canwest

Promoted to editor-in-chief in 2005 (following a purge of upper management and severe downsizing), Kelly is first to admit he was never the heir apparent—it’s not a job he consciously went after. And it wasn’t an enviable position either; the Post had conceded the Toronto newspaper war and morale was dismal. The new editor’s default role would be caregiver.

But after years of hubris-induced debt, Kelly’s pragmatism might be exactly what the paper needs. Distribution has shrunk and the news boxes are almost extinct, but Kelly is after a specific—and intensely loyal—readership. The one-time vanity project is finally running like a business venture and, according to the publisher, is closer to profitability than it’s ever been. Without a rich founder’s money and with the hype of the newspaper war behind it, the Post is defining itself by carving a deeper niche and establishing an identity that even Kelly admits won’t appeal to everyone. And if anyone is going to lead the paper into the black, it could be the dark horse whose appointment caught everyone by surprise. . . . (Read the rest.)