Stackhouse on the future of print media

In the second installment of the series, the Globe and Mail’s Editor in Chief sat down with the Journal’s editorial board to talk about the state of the newspaper industry

Image by: Justin Tang

Late last week, the Journal editorial board jammed into our offices to hear one of this newspaper’s most prominent alumni speak.

John Stackhouse, Comm ’85, spent almost two hours of his morning answering our questions about the future of journalism, breaking into the industry and day-to-day struggles one encounters while running one of the largest newspapers in Canada.

He also spoke about his connection to Queen’s and how it influences his journalism. A Journal staff member asked Stackhouse about the Globe’s interest in covering Queen’s University.

In September, leading up to Fauxcoming, the Globe ran a story entitled “Crackdown on partying at Queen’s threatens university’s raucus reputation” where the writer attempted to tie together Queen’s party culture, the Aberdeen Street party and non-academic discipline.

Many felt that the article’s mention of expensive cars on Aberdeen St. and the death of Cameron Bruce was a show of bias against Queen’s.

“I’ve got three nieces here and they all tore a strip off me for it,” Stackhouse said. “I’m sure there was a BMW on the street, I’m sure he didn’t make that up. That piece dove into clichés and ran with them more than it should have.”

However, he said the Globe’s coverage of issues like Homecoming reflect its readership.

“Queen’s wears a certain reputation, justified or not. It’s seen as an elite and elitist place and it’s envied by many,” he said. “This place has a wonderful spirit that no place in the country has. That spirit has to be contained, but also nurtured. It’s one of the reasons why smart people come here.”

Stackhouse said he attended Fauxcoming this year to celebrate the 25th anniversary of his graduation.

“One of my colleagues [and] his daughter, they were together at the football game,” he said. “You can’t buy that.”

Stackhouse was Editor in Chief of the Journal for its 113th volume, from 1983-1984, overseeing the redesign of the paper from a shorter, stout compact to its current tabloid format.

During his time at Queen’s, Stackhouse also worked at the Kingston Whig-Standard as a copy editor. He said it doesn’t matter where a budding journalist is working, but what editor they’re working for.

“My best experiences were at the Whig-Standard,” he said. “Every day I was counselled on the art of newspapering. I worked along side a crazy old editor named Norris McDonald. I was a copy editor and I effectively became his assistant.”

From there he went on to a summer job at the Toronto Star and the London Free Press and even considered making his exit from journalism before he began writing for the Financial Times.

“I had a few jobs where I wasn’t learning a lot and then I got lucky and got hired at the Financial Times,” he said. “Suddenly I was back with fantastic editors who were keen on teaching me … They were merciless, but I learned more in 18 months than I could have in years.”

In 1991, Stackhouse joined the Globe and Mail and worked for eight years as a foreign correspondent in India. He also covered East Timor’s struggle for independence from Indonesia, for which he won an Amnesty International Award.

He said he stayed with the locals, partnering with a local journalist and exploring the countryside.

“You just sleep where there’s shelter. I’ve stayed in barns, in huts, in fields,” he said. “You rely on the courtesy of strangers. And you actually get better stories that way, staying with locals.

Stackhouse said the disparity between rhetoric from government officials and what he experienced in the countryside taught him a valuable lesson.

“[I learned to] test assumptions. When you hear someone say something as fact, is it fact or is it an assumption?”

Back in Canada Stackhouse rose to Editor in Chief and begun the process of re-thinking the Globe. He said that in many markets, especially the UK, there’s a “race to free” between the major papers who are minimizing their expenses and lowering their costs to achieve financial stability.

“We decided to go against the grain and invest in a higher quality publication,” he said. “Our focus is primarily 35 to 50 year-olds. We think they want to keep reading in print.”

Stackhouse redesigned and rethought the newspaper to target a higher-class audience. The Globe signed a $1.7 billion, 18-year contract with their printer Transcontinental, so that they could buy the presses required to print the new Globe.

Physically, the paper is slightly narrower and two inches shorter, but the most striking attribute is the cover, printed on bright white and glossy stock.

Stackhouse envisions a “daily pause” when readers will turn away from their distractions and make sense of “everything that has blown by them through digital media.”

“We need to really emphasise what print can do well,” he said. “Let’s move up the quality, rather than down and charge more for it.

It appears to be working. The Globe has since seen an increase in subscribers and at a session later that day in the JDUC, an audience member said that the redesign had “saved the Globe” for their family.

But Stackhouse is also seeing readers flocking to the Globe’s digital sources. He said the Globe may see mobile readership reach 100 million pageviews by the end of 2011, up from only a few hundred thousand a few years ago—before smart-phones were a commodity.

Today the Globe struggles with

readers’ 24-hour thirst for new information as much as any paper. Stackhouse said that in designing their new website they published a less-polished iteration and solicited feedback on how to improve it.

“One of the big challenges of digital media is that it’s imperfect for journalists,” he said. “We live in an age now where you launch, then perfect. In digital media you need to take a more chaotic approach, we all need to be more willing to take risks.”

In addition to the redesign, Stackhouse said he’s planning on adding a new Globe headquarters to these risks.

“I’ve been thinking about the newsroom,” he said. “We’re making a bet that there will still be a demand for writers and editors sitting together.”

Currently the Globe staff are spread across two floors of a squat set of buildings west of Toronto’s downtown core. Stackhouse said he wants to squeeze his staff into a smaller space to encourage more collaboration.

“It’s a challenge in every newspaper and you get these silos of sections,” he said. “For the new building I hope we can have half the space and cram everyone in.”

Engagement is a struggle for any newspaper. Stackhouse said that some of the newer mediums are providing ways to engage more readers.

“I encourage our journalists to find the channels that work best for them and their readers,” he said. “Some reporters are great at social media but they feel that they have to legitimize themselves in the newspaper. Maybe the newspaper isn’t the best place for them.”

He said he foresees the rise of the “super-freelancer” in journalism, where a reporter’s story is a product sold to multiple media outlets. But for Stackhouse, being a successful journalist stems from two skills that can’t be taught: curiosity and hunger.

“I’m not convinced that journalism schools are great value,” he said. “I don’t have an hour of journalism training. I don’t say that boastfully.”

Stackhouse said that the Globe hires 20 to 30 people into the newsroom each year, but they can’t find enough valuable candidates.

“It’s unfortunate that J-school is still the go-to place for hiring,” he said. “My editors pick up the phone and call Ryerson.

“There’s limited downside because there’s more pre-selection … I look to know more about people’s upbringing, their parents than their schooling.

“You can’t teach curiosity and you really can’t teach hunger.”

That hunger is what makes the difference between someone who gets the story and someone who loses it in the news cycle, he said.

“What we do in some ways is no different than selling insurance,” Stackhouse said. “You make 100 phone calls to get two people to talk. One of them is going to give you the gold.”

He also encouraged writers to ask “dumb questions,” consider different perspectives and to develop people skills that will help get the dirt.

“The person on the other side of the tape recorder, they don’t owe you anything,” he said. “They don’t have to tell you the truth. One of the arts of reporting is to get people to tell you what they don’t want to.”

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