Style over substance?

The Globe’s rock star guest editors: smart journalism or cheesy publicity stunt? Anne McNeilly weighs in on the special Africa edition of The Globe and Mail.

The Globe and Mail special Africa edition

It was hard to miss the fanfare that arose last week when The Globe and Mail was handed over to geezer rock stars Bono and Bob Geldof who were “guest editors” for the May 10 edition.

Unfortunately, Bono wasn’t able to complete the job, Globe editor-in-chief John Stackhouse gushed in his column that day, because he had to run off to New York to catch his birthday party. Not to worry, though, because fellow musician Geldof laboured long into Sunday night to make sure the job got done. 

I was reminded of an old story told about Margaret Atwood. She’s at a dinner party and the man seated next to her says: “When I retire I’m going to become a writer.”

“What do you do?” Atwood asks. “I’m a neurosurgeon.” To which Atwood replies. “How interesting. I always thought that when I retire, I’d take up brain surgery.”

Geldof and Bono, Stackhouse says, “sweated” over every headline and took the assignment as seriously as any other editor. I wonder, though. Handing over the paper’s editorial integrity to guest editors with a mission is nothing more than a cheesy publicity stunt to bump up circulation and attract even more attention to two already famous- rich-white guys.

Maybe the next “guest” editor will be Wayne Gretzky (who certainly fills the famous-rich-white guy criteria) who could use the paper as a platform to promote his own worthy cause – handicapped children. Heck, why stop there. There’s enough worthy causes for a year’s worth of editions. How about a couple from Regent Park to “guest edit” the paper to raise awareness about the struggles of new Canadian immigrants. Oops. Strike that. They wouldn’t be rich or famous enough.

So I know newspapers are in trouble and I know they’re seeking innovative approaches to remain relevant, but another problem with the Africa issue, was that it didn’t contain much news about the worthy cause. What did garner attention was the stunt itself – two pages worth in this week’s Maclean’s (critical Globe staffers were promised anonymity), CTV and local news footage, The Guardian in England and a clip on CBC’s The National, where we saw Stackhouse greeting the stars at The Globe’s front door. Africa must have been mentioned in that clip, but I can’t recall. Everyone seemed pretty happy, though.

One of the criteria for news, journalist Walter Lippman once said, is any “departure from the plane of the ordinary.” This stunt in these hard times for newspapers certainly fits that bill. And maybe Globe editors should get some credit for trying something new. Sometimes a dramatic fail is better than sticking with the staid status quo.

Readers certainly noticed. Publisher Phillip Crawley said earlier this week at a Manitou investment dinner that Globe circulation jumped a little on May 10, but visits to the web site increased dramatically and gained international attention.

Crawley, who described “the Globe brand” as synonymous with “integrity” and “authority,” also said that senior editors “hemmed and hawed” about handing over the paper to the two superstars, but he said Geldof and Bono “really knew their stuff. They talked intelligently and we came away impressed. ”

While acknowledging “sneers” from other media, Crawley said those other publications were merely jealous of the Globe’s superstar coup. “The paper needs to surprise people once in a while.”

He also said he believes so strongly in the future of newspapers that $2 billion is being invested over the next 18 years for printing presses which will enable glossier colour on every page of the paper, which is going to be overhauled in September to look more like a magazine.

The two musicians were so interested in the appearance of their May 10 issue that they devoted a full-page spread inside to six possible designs for the front page. Geldof describes (page A13) how difficult it was to choose. “This really is the peak of the graphic designers’ skill and shows how committed and comprehending all of The Globe’s staff have been and how amazing they are.” The cost of this superstar publicity . . . . priceless. But certainly it’s a problem when the publication spends more time on itself and the superstars than the story.

The headline for the story about possible front pages – Dynamic covers for a dynamic continent – suggests the African continent is merely a vehicle to display the real story, that is, the Globe artists’ own innovative designs. A blog post in Britain’s The Guardian says the front page that was chosen after a staff vote flung “A LOAD OF SHOUTY CAPS-LOCKED RANDOM NOUNS AROUND,” which wouldn’t “do anything other than make people run away from news agents ears a-stoppered.”

(Note: If Geldof really were an editor, he would never have allowed the deck or subhead under that Dynamic covers headline to use the word “task” as a verb – Globe designers were “tasked” etc . It may not be wrong, but geez it’s ugly.) 

The front page with all those “SHOUTY-CAP” words in different sizes was also incomprehensible. Words such as CHINA, WOMEN, GAS, EQUALITY, CELLPHONE, SOLAR POWER. Huh? Not sure many Globe readers would recognize these as cloud tags.

Another full-page spread inside was given over to a six-column wide head shot of Geldof and Bono and a verbatim interview with them which included this question. What don’t Canadians realize about Africa? “That it’s strategic,” Geldof says. “That’s it, exactly,” Bono adds. Please, someone, get this page an editor!

Even the editorial cartoon didn’t take this issue too seriously and poked fun at rock musicians in the newsroom rather than anything related to Africa . . . and maybe the point is not to take it as anything more than a publicity stunt.

Adlai Stevenson, former contender for the U.S. presidency, once said “the free press is the mother of all our liberties.” To hand it over in such a cavalier fashion, despite Crawley’s optimistic outlook about the future, suggests increasingly desperate measures to attract readers. (Crawley suggested Stephen Lewis as a future guest editor for an AIDS issue.)

The gimmick wasn’t even that original. Bono has been guest editor of papers in Britain, Germany and Italy. Just last month, actress Penelope Cruz was guest editor of the French edition of Vogue. And Vancouver Sun editors turned that paper over to the Dalai Lama last September so he could use it as a platform to promote peace – another worthy cause.

I never saw that particular edition – but I hope the Dalai Lama didn’t use the word “task” as a verb – ’specially in a headline.  

Anne McNeilly, who worked in newspapers for more than 25 years, teaches journalism at Ryerson University.