What's behind the shake up at 'Canada's newspaper of record'?

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The media community was buzzing last week over the departure of the Globe and Mail’s Chief Editor Ed Greenspon, replaced by the highly-decorated John Stackhouse, who most recently whipped the Globe’s bastion of free enterprise thinking -- The Report on Business (RoB) -- into shape.

Within hours of the Globe upheaval, David Akin of CanWest News Service in Ottawa Tweeted that the “gossip” was that Greenspon had been forced out because he refused to agree to a new round of staff cuts. But others speculate that it’s possible Greenspon was fired or resigned on the spot following a dispute with Globe Publisher Phillip Crawley over a number of issues. Greenspon had spent a long six years as Editor-in-Chief and either he or Crawley, or both of them, may have felt his time was up.

Stackhouse may have gotten close to the truth when he said on the Globe website that, while he and Greenspon have “similar visions of what quality journalism is,” he would be better than Greenspon at cooperating with other divisions at the Globe as well as with outside organizations with which the paper needs to build partnerships. 

New Editor rose through the ranks

The position of Editor-in-Chief of the Globe is an important one because of the political tone the person sets for the paper and the impact he (historically always a man) has on the nature of journalism at what is the country’s most influential media institution.

Stackhouse is probably the only Globe journalist, other than Greenspon, whom one might have expected to come up through the Globe ranks to become Editor-in-Chief. Both have had great accomplishments in mainstream journalism. Greenspon had been a top-notch reporter in Ottawa, a published author, and, like Stackhouse, head of the RoB. Just three days before Greenspon disappeared from the Globe, the paper won six of 22 top national newspaper awards.

Stackhouse, 46, who lacks managerial experience, may be arriving in the post before he is fully equipped to take it on. Nevertheless, his track record is impressive: a winner of a record five National Newspaper Awards, he is remembered for his six years of groundbreaking reporting overseas as Canada’s sole development journalist, and  for a controversial series of stories he wrote after spending a week living amid poverty in downtown Toronto. While head of the RoB, he humanized the publication by adding new features and columnists.

Stackhouse, who likely focuses better on the task at hand and who is a better ‘team player’ than Greenspon, is likely to bring new changes to the paper -- but we’ll have to wait to see which will be in the public interest and which will simply serve the Globe’s corporate interests. Once Stackhouse has worked his way into the job, he could strengthen the Globe in a number of ways. Even though the paper is strapped for cash, Stackhouse, who knows the importance and impact of big stories, might be able to fight to maintain a budget for investigative and in-depth journalism of the nature that won the Globe its six awards last year.

Big business perspective favoured too often

Additionally, Stackhouse could implement newsroom policies that would bring more balance to their stories. Too often stories are skewed in favour of big business or government with opposing views buried at the bottom of the story or totally omitted. He would have the authority to correct one of Greenspon’s sins, by reducing the obsessive coverage of Ottawa and federal politics.

But it’s unlikely he’ll be able to increase the size of the Globe’s news hole, or to reinstate full Focus and Books sections in the Saturday Globe. And will he want to -- or be able to -- reduce the Globe’s preoccupation with crime stories, which the higher ups probably feel need to appear in the paper to help them fend off the likes of The Sun papers across the country.

No matter who occupies the post, the Editor-in-Chief will almost certainly never be able to change some of the most fundamental restrictions and repressive policies that exist at the Globe. Publisher/CEO Crawley and the behind-the-scenes faceless “higher-ups” who call the shots make sure that anyone in a position of authority at the paper accepts the values of the mainstream media.

The Globe is a formidable partner in and supporter of Canada’s corporate culture, and this role takes precedence over and, indeed, shapes the paper’s approach to news and information. As a result, no new editor-in-chief is likely to tackle these fundamental problems with the Globe:

• While the paper is greatly valued by tens-of-thousands of Canadians for its excellent coverage in areas such as the environment, justice, public-interest investigations, foreign features and the arts, when it comes to the all-important area of national politics, its reporting too often favors small-c conservative positions and its editorials tend to have a neo-liberal flavour. Using an approach taken by most media in today’s right-wing dominated society, the paper tends to provide much of its coverage based on the power and influence of the Right. Its political coverage would be much improved, and of greater value to Canadians, if more stories focused on serving the public interest and discussing alternative political ideas.

• The paper’s reporting and editorial positions largely accept the business community’s mantra that all policies should be evaluated in the light of their ability to serve ‘the market’ and those who most benefit from it.  Although, in the light of the collapse of the world economy, this position would seem to be indefensible, it remains -- and will continue to remain -- the philosophy of the Globe

• When Greenspon and Stackhouse were at the RoB, neither tackled one of the most serious problems with business journalism. The RoB follows its own business-friendly standards when it comes to journalism. Unethical corporate behavior might be considered ‘newsworthy’ in the front section of the paper. In the RoB, by contrast, where investment and profit are the main measures of newsworthiness, if a Canadian company mining in, say, Indonesia is destroying the environment and paying poverty wages, editors don’t consider these mere details relevant to the story of the company’s ‘success.’

• While the paper is quick to promote national pride around events such as Canada Day, it is strongly opposed to nationalistic public policy positions taken by groups such as the Council of Canadians and various unions. The Globe is much more likely to mock such groups through its conservative columnists than give their positions and efforts the attention and analysis they deserve.

• The Globe seldom, if ever, reports on or editorializes in a positive way about progress being made in radical socialist countries. In fact, it is much more likely it will send a reporter to one of these countries -- for instance one of the Latin American countries turning to socialism -- to prepare a pre-planned critical report, ignoring advances that may have occurred, such as progress in land reform, education or health care. As a result, Canadians who rely on the Globe for their foreign news don't get a balanced view of the world.

Given the Globe’s right-wing biases and its old-school approach to journalism, no one should be surprised that thousands of Canadians -- particularly young people -- prefer to go to the Internet to get their news and information.

Deep pockets at the Globe

There’s some evidence to indicate that CTVglobemedia, of which the Globe is part, is facing less financial stress than most other media companies. The Globe owners are in a strong position to take on short-term debt because they have very deep pockets. The primary owners are BCE Inc., owners of Bell and several other companies, and the Thomsons, one of the richest families in Canada with a net worth last year of more than $18 billion.

Writing on J-Source.ca, journalist Kelly Toughill indicates that CTVglobemedia did fairly well financially last year. Citing difficult-to-access financial figures she uncovered, she says, “CTVglobemedia had an operating profit of 9.7 per cent in 2008, before the cost of interest, taxes and non-cash items like impairment of goodwill,” which is the perceived decline in the value of the company.

In May, Peter Rhamey of BMO Capital Markets Equity Research Group indicated in a report that CTVglobemedia’s major parent company BCE was coping well during the recession. And at least one part of BCE Inc. isn’t broke. In March, Bell Mobility laid out about $150 million ($142 million, according to this article in The Star) to buy controlling interest in The Source, which has some 750 outlets where Bell will now market its telephone and Internet products.

Like other newspapers, the Globe’s most serious challenge ahead will be to try to lessen the bleeding of millions of dollars in advertising revenues to Internet-based companies and to establish its own revenue-generating presence on the Internet. One of the problems is that unless an Internet site has a huge reach, its ads aren’t very lucrative. John Honderich, chair of the Toronto Star, spoke recently of the “10-cent dollar” -- every dollar spent on advertising in a newspaper tends to bring in about 10-cents on the Internet for a similar ad.

Wayne MacPhail, a board member of rabble.ca who has developed on-line content for many major Canadian companies, says the Globe and other newspapers were warned as long as 15 years ago that the Internet would have a significant impact on their businesses. He says there are very few people at the Globe who understand the type of innovation needed for the paper to successfully establish itself on the web. “The problem is, unlike the best web-based organs, the Globe is burdened with the historical, emotional, attitudinal and infrastructure baggage that weighs it down as it plods slowly forward.”

There is speculation that Stackhouse may be more successful than Greenspon in establishing the Globe on the Internet, but the ‘baggage’ that MacPhail refers to will inevitably limit the paper’s changes in this area -- as in so many others.

Nick Fillmore, a former CBC journalist and producer, a human rights activist, and once a regular contributor to The Globe and Mail, is a Toronto-based freelance journalist and a staff member of rabble.ca.

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