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Review: John Stackhouse’s tour of duty through the ‘disruption’ years for newspapers

John Stackhouse started at the Globe and Mail newspaper in 1989, just as the really flush years of newspapers were ending. A very talented journalist, he rose through the ranks and became the logical heir-apparent when publisher Philip Crawley tired of editor-in-chief Edward Greenspon in the spring of 2009.

Cover of John Stackhouse's "Mass Disruption"By that time, Canada was struggling to emerge from a vicious recession, a whammy that hit the newspaper industry in Canada hard.

But this time, something more menacing was also at play — a historic shift was simultaneously taking place, moving both audiences and advertisers to digital platforms away from print. In other words, mass disruption.

“The need to restructure our business, to meet the challenges of the current economic environment and the rapid changes in media consumption habits, has been our overarching goal during FY09,” Crawley wrote in a memo to Globe staff announcing the Stackhouse-Greenspon management change.

The heart of this book is Stackhouse’s time as editor-in-chief and the challenges he faced both in fighting the fire of a “burning business model,” in the terms of Internet thinker Clay Shirky, and trying to navigate to a new one that hardly sets out an easy path to riches, all while trying to keep serious journalism alive.

If you’ve been following the newspaper disruption story (and if you haven’t, this likely isn’t the book for you), you’ll know that U.S. newspaper revenues had been in steep decline since about 2000 (as Internet penetration started taking off). Canada wasn’t immune either.

In his first meeting as editor-in-chief with Geoff Beattie — a top lieutenant to the Thomson family, which controlled the Globe — “We agreed the Globe’s primary challenges were on the business side, as print advertising continued to shrink while print circulation remained stable at best,” Stackhouse wrote.

By 2010, according to the book, “the proportion of Canadian adults who said they had read a newspaper the previous day was only 47 per cent, down from 56 per cent a decade earlier.” The Internet had gone to 75 per cent from 43 per cent.

From 2007 to 2010, Canadian newspapers saw a $500-million decline in ad revenues — about 18 per cent. The trend of falling print revenue continues to this day, and if you believe the predictions of Postmedia Network, the country’s biggest newspaper chain, the trend will remain for the indefinite future.

While a 2010 redesign of the print edition of the Globe gathered much attention, Stackhouse said, “I harboured a small fear that the enthusiasm for newsprint, and what certainly would be a gorgeous new design, was diverting our attention from the greater challenge ahead.”

Stackhouse said the redesign and various other changes did achieve some success. However, “I wasn’t sure if any of this was enough to keep the physical newspaper going for the life of its 18-year contract …”

Early in December, after Mass Disruption was published, it came out that the Globe paid printing partner Transcontinental $31 million to compensate for a reduced volume of newspapers being printed.

One of the challenges to print that concerned Stackhouse came from a handheld device known as the iPhone, more generally known as the smartphone. It became available in Canada only two years prior to the redesign.

A major problem with mobile platforms such as iPhones is the limited screen size affected advertising dollars. If print dollars converted to website dimes, then that dime was worth about a penny in revenue from a mobile device.

By 2013, things were bad enough on so many fronts that Stackhouse attended a blue-chip global editors’ summit in the English countryside at a historic estate named Ditchley Park called to discuss this question: “Is serious journalism still possible?”

Stackhouse’s Ditchley experience prompted him to tackle his book project on disruption. He “left” the Globe about a year after the summit.

But while Stackhouse saw formidable competition for ad dollars from such global “frenemy” companies such as Facebook and Google, he also saw some “green shoots,” in the phrase of the late New York Times media columnist David Carr.

Unfortunately, those weren’t so much for newspapers as their competitors (successors?). This would include BuzzFeed (which opened a branch plant in Canada this year), the Huffington Post, Vox, Quartz and Business Insider, to name a few.

“The new players have attracted millions of new readers, and engaged them in news the way newspapers never had. On each count, the upstarts have forged a potential path for serious journalism. It is now up to journalists to do something with it.” …

“Unfortunately, this new state of media has not made us any better at discerning the profound from the popular, the consequential from the fleeting and, perhaps most importantly, the proven from the speculative. On each count, serious journalism is needed more than ever, in new forms, new technologies and new business models that are still being developed.”

In general, I liked the book, but would have preferred a bit more Canadian content. While he spent some time talking about the tablet-based vision of La Presse publisher Guy Crevier (on Jan. 1, the paper stopped producing Monday-to-Friday newspapers) why not talk more about emerging (and emerged) online voices in Canada such as rabble.ca, the Tyee, Vice Canada and iPolitics.ca? I counted one paragraph to that effect. To that end, why not talk about the gulf between the number of news startups in the U.S. versus here?

There’s some amusing bar-story fodder for media junkies (Stackhouse trying to sell political columnist Jeffrey Simpson on Twitter as a medium is one), but Stackhouse is very coy about the circumstances under which he left the Globe. Maybe discretion is part of his settlement agreement. Ah well. Always leave them hungry for more.

Other reviews and related reading

Clive Thompson, the Globe and MailReview: In Mass Disruption, John Stackhouse charts the past and future of media

Simon Houpt, the Globe and Mail (interview) – John Stackhouse talks news media as a case study in industry disruption

Anna Maria Tremonti, CBC Radio, The Current (audio interview) – John Stackhouse: Canada needs traditional media in digital era

Marc Weisblott, J-Source – John Stackhouse’s “Mass Disruption” asks whether journalism will ever be the same

Charlie Smith, the Georgia StraightFormer Globe and Mail editor John Stackhouse reveals right-wing proclivities and much more in Mass Disruption

Canadian Journalism Foundation (podcast) – John Stackhouse and Craig Silverman

Kathy English, the Toronto Star (interview) – Can serious journalism survive?: Public Editor

Rod Mickleburgh, Back of the Book, March 20, 2014 – Stacked odds topple Stackhouse 

Fri, January 1 2016 » * Big Picture Stuff, Media