Sunday, November 15, 2015
Q&A: JOHN STACKHOUSE
Mass Disruption: Thirty Years on the Front Lines of a Media Revolution by longtime journalist and onetime editor-in-chief of the Globe and Mail, John Stackhouse, offers an immersive look into how newspapers have had to adapt to the cultural, technological, and financial conditions of the digital age. Using his time at the Globe as a narrative pivot, Stackhouse moves between case studies of classic print powerhouses (like the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, & The London Times), and explorations of popular digital models (from BuzzFeed to Facebook to Twitter). Run-ins & sit-downs with Harper, Bono, and Ford make fascinating interludes, while assignments in Russia, Ethiopia, India, & Afghanistan provide a global heft. Through all the sights, diversions, innovations, and inevitable editorial controversies, Stackhouse makes the survival of serious journalism his business. Only, he argues, by balancing flexible fiscal and digital models with factual, well-written, accountable (often long-form) stories will the fourth estate remain a reliable source of democratic disputation.
- Brad de Roo, who would often get the urge to yell ‘Stop the Presses!’ as he passed by his local paper in production, not knowing that in his lifetime he might be better received if he texted ‘Delete the Posts!’
Was it at all strange to apply journalistic practices to a book about journalism?
Any book about journalism, by a journalist, faces a few inherent challenges. First, and this is pretty obvious, there should be no pretense of objectivity. I tried to say, up front and actually in the title, that this book is a single person's perspective. I set out to write the book because I felt I had been given a ringside seat to a critical moment in journalism's history, and had both an obligation and desire to share that with current and future readers and producers of journalism. There were more nuanced challenges, though, stemming from various topics that aren't central to journalism, or at least weren't until recently. Digital reading habits, mobile advertising, technology platforms – these forces are reshaping journalism in profound ways, and I wanted to understand them, as a journalist and as a user. For some of those questions, I put on my reporter's hat and explored new fields and other companies. But again, it had to be woven into a narrative structure that was both chronological and first-person.
What are the biggest challenges ahead of newspapers?
The biggest challenge is advertising. The controlled model of advertising that dominated media when I entered the business in the 1980s has been shattered. Newspapers, magazines and broadcasters simply cannot guarantee the sort of consistent audience that they once were able to deliver to advertisers. Ironically, most media have bigger audiences than ever, in raw numbers, but most of us spend fraction of the time each day with a particular news source - and so, advertisers won't pay the big dollars that media used to charge for access to those audiences. I'm a paying subscriber to the Economist, for instance, and I love it. But instead of an isolated hour of immersive reading that I used to spend with the magazine, I now visit its mobile app and email feeds every morning for 5 minutes or so. So they still have me; they just don't have as much of my attention.
Throughout Mass Disruption, you note that many big newspapers almost willfully ignored the digital changes and challenges to come. Is there something inherently careful about the newspaper industry?
The Harvard management guru Clayton Christensen wrote The Innovators Dilemma in the 1990s, and it holds true today. In any industry, established firms - the so-called legacy operators - find it very challenging, perhaps impossible, to disrupt themselves. They're usually making good money off the old model, and therefore have a strong incentive not to blow it up. That's been absolutely true for newspapers. Perhaps a few papers, entering the 21st century, might have said, 'Look, it's obvious we're moving to a purely digital media world. Let's catapult ourselves into the future. Shut down the paper. Go all digital.' But we were all making money off the newspapers, and not off our websites, at least back then. Thus, the innovator's dilemma. There's also a mindset. Newspaper operators - owners, publishers, editors - tend to have ink-stained fingers. It's harder for them to become digital pioneers than, say, for a 25-year-old with a new concept and some venture capital to play with. And then there's the question of caution, which is raised pointedly in the question. Yes, newspapers tend to be cautious. I've wrestled with that question for years, because on one level newspapers - and their journalists - take heroic risks every day. They go to war zones. They print stories that may incite lawsuits. They run columns that infuriate loyal subscribers. That all takes courage. And yet, they stick to the same format, most of them at least, year-in, year-out. Most subscribers and advertisers want that predictability. Perhaps it's because the daily newspaper is one of the last constants in a widely variable world. And as a result, a lot of newsrooms tended to stay close to home in the early days of digital disruption.
What do newspapers offer readers that new media formats like Buzz Feed, Huff-Post, and Vice do not? Do newspapers increasingly run the risk of becoming what they are trying to differentiate themselves from? How will newspapers attract the younger audiences that these outlets boast?
The book explores a few case studies of newspaper journalism - lively ones like the Rob and Doug Ford stories - to show some of what is required to produce significant journalism. These kinds of stories take a team: reporters, of course, but also handling editors, lawyers and, most critically, sources who trust the newsroom. Purely digital outlets can do this, and a lot of them are. But most serious journalism still comes from traditional outlets, newspapers in particular. Despite their challenges, they have the newsrooms, the trained, professional reporters and legal resources to carry out and defend critical work. There's a lot that new media outlets can learn and borrow from that model. This is not all about the old adopting the new; there's a great need for the new to adopt a bit of the old, too.
You mention the growing role that social media companies like YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook have had in shaping, reporting, and disseminating stories. How would stories like the G20 protests, the Parliament Hill shooting, and the Ghomeshi affair have been covered differently had they happened when you entered journalism?
What a great question! In the book, I explore our own coverage of the G20 debacle in Toronto, because it was apparent, in hindsight, that social media played a critical role in shaping the media's coverage and the political consequences of that riotous weekend. We all witnessed the beating of civilians by police - on the grounds of the legislature! - thanks to citizens with smart phones. The story also shifted from a focus on anarchists to one on police tactics in part because that's what millions of people were talking about online. Would that have happened in the 1980s? I think police tactics would have become the story but in a more measured, and perhaps slower, way. Then there's the case of the Parliament Hill shooting, which I explore in the book. Many of us were able to follow that news live via Twitter. I think, in the main, that's good. But there was also a lot of inaccuracies circulated via Twitter that morning, and that's not good. To me, it shows the need for moderating.
Have any of these technological developments improved reporting?
Reporting today, generally, is better than a generation ago. Reporters have access to more information and more sources than ever. And they can work with informed audiences to develop their coverage. Journalists no longer have to work in isolation. Twitter is like having your own newsroom - a cast of many who want to help explore, build and test ideas. Social media also holds us all to account, more effectively than ever. Reporters can't hide behind the walls of a newsroom, nor can editors or publishers barricade themselves behind the printing press. Power has been diffused. For journalism, ultimately that's good.
In your career as a journalist, were there any stories that you had to shelf or couldn’t cover? If so, what about not getting these stories most bothered you?
I always regret, as do a lot of correspondents, not being able to get closer to Osama bin Laden and his training camps in Afghanistan in the late 1990s. I spent a fair bit of time in Pakistan in 1997 and 1998, and developed a pretty good sense of what was in the works, in terms of a jihadist movement. Of course, I had no idea that the movement was as big as it was, or determined as it was to attack the West. I spent some time pursuing the Khadr family, following their tracks to Peshawar, after I met and interviewed the father, Ahmed, in a Pakistani hospital. But I never again found them - they had crossed the border and lived in Jalalabad - and regret that. It had just become too dangerous for journalists in Afghanistan in the late '90s. We soon learned why.
You’ve played hockey with Putin, provoked the sensationalistic ire of Doug and Rob Ford, and lived for a week as a homeless person on the frigid streets of Toronto – has your position as a journalist ever make you fear for your personal safety?
There were times when I feared for my safety, but those were mostly when I lived and worked overseas. I was with group of journalists in Lahore, Pakistan that was attacked by an angry mob following a court decision that favoured a Christian. We had to run for our lives, down some dark alleys, and were saved and sheltered by some very decent Pakistanis. Probably my gravest concern came when the Tamil Tigers killed a friend of mine - the human rights lawyer, Neelan Tiruchelvam - in Colombo, Sri Lanka, in the summer of 1999. I wrote a critical piece about the Tigers following that assassination, and was told by one of their sympathizers to be careful.
In the book, you reflect on being central the Globe and Mail editorial board that endorsed Harper for the 2011 election. What do you make of recent controversies around such endorsements - like the Globe’s support of a Harperless Conservative party this election or Andrew Coyne’s resignation as editor at the Post after he disagreed with their political stance? Considering the results of this election, do such endorsements have much sway these days?
It's intriguing that newspaper editorials continue to ignite so many political passions. Whatever their position, it gives me hope that people see the institutional view of newspapers as important and worthy of debate. It would seem their influence on voting decisions, however, is limited. I don't think that's bad. Editorials should not be seen as a newspaper trying to instruct readers how to vote. I see them as a position - well-argued - against which people can form their own decisions.
What did you think of this election’s coverage, in general?
I thought the coverage was generally quite good. A diversity of professional news outlets covered all three major campaigns from tape to tape, and provided important and valuable fact checking and criticism. If there was a gap in the campaign coverage - and the blame for this rests with the Conservatives - it was in a more thorough exploration of the government's record and platform. There were important policies, from taxation to immigration, that were reduced to divisive sound bites. But I don't blame the media for that; the Conservatives didn't provide a very thoughtful or engaging explanation of their polices, and obviously paid the price. It's a healthy reminder that, whether you're a political party or corporation or citizen movement, you need to engage the mainstream media.
What personal attributes does a journalist need to thrive today?
The most important attribute for journalists continues to be curiosity. No algorithm has yet to supplant the art of questioning. Added to that ancient skill, journalists today need to understand digital audience behaviour - how we all move around the Internet and mobile apps, and how to engage this new world of digital nomads. Social media is a major part of that. And I'd suggest that journalists who understand revenue will have leg up. That doesn't mean selling your soul. It simply means understanding how new revenue sources like events or customized publications can help pay the freight of journalism.
Would you ever consider making a return to the field?
I was incredibly lucky to be a reporter, foreign correspondent and editor during some of the most remarkable moments of our time, from the fall of the Berlin Wall to 9/11 to the Rob Ford phenomena, and to wrestle with how media approached those moments. I'm now lucky to be working for the chief executive of RBC, helping the bank, its clients and, to some extent, the country understand the big social, economic and technological forces around us. And I'm still writing for media, including the Globe, and will continue to write books. So I haven't left the arena; I've just moved seats.