Reality starts to bite at the Globe and Mail

The Globe and Mail has announced some fairly serious changes in the last week, and it’s hard not to see them as part of a much larger strategic shift at the paper. If so, it’s been a long time coming: compared to the big strategic bets at Postmedia and at the Star (and at La Presse as well, in Quebec), the Globe has had a quieter time of it. There have been layoffs and cuts, and obvious changes to the product but on the for-profit media side, the Globe and Mail seems to have been more insulated than anyone else to the wrenching transformation and revenue decline affecting the news biz.

The changes at the Globe include the cancellation of the print edition in the Atlantic region (so no paper Globe east of Quebec); the cutting of standalone arts, sports, and life sections during the week (so going to basically a two-section paper focused on news and business); and the end of two long-time (and quite popular) columnists, Leah McLaren and Tabatha Southey.

These changes have led to renewed concerns about the health of journalism in Canada and proposals for state intervention, while the dismissal of McLaren and Southey has raised questions about the Globe’s alleged sexist culture, about the editor’s judgment, and about the business strategy of the paper.

Applying the principle of charity as forcefully as I can, here’s what I think is going on:

1. The G&M is no more immune from what is going on in the news biz than is the Star, Postmedia, or anyone else. It just has had more runway in the form of a better capital and ownership structure.

2. That said, the rumours are that the Globe is losing as much as half a million dollars a week. If it is really losing in the ballpark of $20 million or more a year, that’s a lot of money even for billionaires to float. It’s one thing to break even or eat a small loss, but $20 million is real money, especially if the lines on the chart are pointing the wrong way.

3. And so the Globe is probably going to start going through a number of iterative cycles: strategic innovation, followed by retrenchment and tweaking, some further cuts or new changes, further strategic changes, repeat as necessary until success or failure.

4. It seems clear now that the Globe’s strategy is going to be largely based on paid content; that is, it is going to try to get subscribers to pay for news, New York Times-style. This contrasts with the Postmedia 2.0 strategy and the Star’s tablet strategy, which were both about selling an audience on different technological platforms. It is also distinct from what appears to be the current strategy at Maclean’s, which seems to be about raw page views.

These strategies are different in important ways. Most crucially, while the Postmedia, Star, and Maclean’s strategies were neutral with respect to quality, the Globe’s strategy hinges on monetizing quality journalism.

It’s worth stating that again: The digital revenue strategies at the major legacy print news outlets in Canada do not hinge on producing and selling quality journalism. The Globe and Mail is (probably) unique in betting its future on asking readers to pay for quality.

UPDATE: I could have been clearer on this: the question isn’t whether quality can be compatible with page-view driven journalism, or whether you can use quality to drive page views or to gather an audience. It’s that what is being sold isn’t the quality, what’s being sold are the page views or the audience. How the those page views are obtained, or how the audience is gathered isn’t really relevant. On the Globe’s strategy, the journalism itself is actually what is being paid for.

5. That is why it is very important to pay attention to how the product is evolving at the Globe, because it is crucial to its success that it continue to be seen as a high-quality product by the targeted subscriber base. This is where the laying off of Southey and McLaren becomes relevant. (Disclosure: I count both Tabatha and Leah as friends, and I’m really sad to see them lose their gigs. I even tried to hire Tabatha away from the Globe back when I was at the Citizen and the Globe was treating her badly. I also think the way they were let go is bad management.)

6. The twitterverse complaints about the axing of Southey and McLaren seem to come in three types: a) It’s bad business, because they are both really popular columnists. b) It’s bad journalism, because Southey and McLaren are both excellent columnists, while serial plagiarist Margaret Wente remains employed; c) it’s just sexism, because two women were let go while no-name or useless male columnists remain employed.

7. Ignoring the incompatibility of b) and c): Regarding c), my understanding is that a number of freelancers were let go, with Southey and McLaren just the highest profile. I don’t know the gender or content mix of the other ditched freelancers — if anyone has the full list, please post it in the comments.

8. Regarding a) and b), it’s true that both writers, Southey especially, are very popular in my realm of the twitterverse, while Wente is decidedly unpopular. But here’s a quick story about Margaret Wente: When Joe and I were doing our book tour for The Rebel Sell (a long time ago now) we were following Margaret Wente, who was touring her own collection of essays called An Accidental Canadian, with the same publisher. Every stop on the tour the story from our publicist was the same: Good turnout guys, but you should have seen crowd that came out last night for Wente. Like it or not, she’s enormously popular amongst a segment of the population most of my Twitter cohort don’t know, and probably wouldn’t like if they did.

9. And so it’s worth keeping in mind that Twitter is not a representative sample of Globe and Mail readers. More to the point: It’s probably not a representative sample of the Globe’s target market for their evolving strategy. I personally think it sucks that Tabatha and Leah aren’t welcome at the Globe anymore. But the downside of developing an actual strategy for paid content, as opposed to simply spraying and praying for clicks, is that you need to make hard decisions about who you actually want as a reader, and who you probably don’t.

10. Notwithstanding all of this, the Globe remains the best hope for for-profit quality journalism in Canada. I hope they succeed, and I also hope that Tabatha and Leah find other outlets for their writing very soon.