Andrea Chiu
No Comments

Growing Old Disgracefully

Decrease Font Size Increase Font Size Text Size Print This Page

In order to fend off the National Post, the Old Lady of Front Street tarted herself up. Should she have bothered?

Edward Greenspon stands in front of a class of 25 journalism students. Dressed in a yellow shirt, striped tie, and jacket, he is dwarfed by the bulky wooden podium before him. It’s late 2004 and he is here to speak about newsroom leadership. Although he is the editor-in-chief of The Globe and Mail, Greenspon seems uncomfortable and awkward. He closes his eyes and pauses frequently to think. “An editor who doesn’t have any sense of mission is going to lack something,” he says slowly as he squints. “You’re going to have a paper that lacks soul.”

 Before the arrival of the National Post, the notion of “soul” mattered little to the Globe. Canada’s national newspaper was known as “The Grey Lady of Front Street.” Preoccupied with matters of Canadian politics and foreign policy, the Lady was the serious newspaper of record. She wasn’t the life of the party, and may have been the only catch in town, but she had a solid relationship with her “high-end, affluent, well-educated, and aspirational readership,” according to Phillip Crawley, Globe publisher and CEO. Then Conrad Black’sPost came along in 1998, and this new suitor threatened the love affair with Canadian readers that the Grey Lady thought would never die.The Globe became a different newspaper. It countered its competitor’s wide cast of characters with personalities of its own. It upped the tabloid quotient. It ramped up its crime coverage. The Grey Lady started seeing beyond the fog of white males on Parliament Hill and began reflecting the cultural diversity of Canada. The paper is more stylish and glitzier than it was 10 years ago, but has it sacrificed Greenspon’s key ingredient – its soul?

Jan Wong thinks so. The Globe reporter was surprised at how initially charming her rival was. “The Post was very startling,” she says. “It set us off on this soul search, and we asked, ‘What kind of newspaper should we be?’ We were quite arrogant and settled in our ways before. Now we have this identity crisis. What it is, I’m not sure.” If the Globe was the plain and serious wife to Canadian newspaper readers, the Post was the tempting young mistress. The wife was about Ottawa politics, while the mistress was about columnists, celebrities, and sex. The Globe‘s Jeffrey Simpson wrote about people in Parliament, while the Post‘s Rebecca Eckler wrote about people in bed.

Even before Black was known as Lord Black of Crossharbour, he was a newspaper tycoon clearly influenced by all things British. He created the Post with the English newspaper model in mind – sexy in both design and content. Perhaps it was this influence that drove Crawley to hire an Englishman, Richard Addis, to replace William Thorsell as the editor-in-chief. Addis’s ruthlessness was the attitude Crawley needed. He had already been editor of a British tabloid, the Daily Express, and Crawley believed Addis’s experience could lead theGlobe in quelling the upstart.

At the time, Jim Jennings, now editor-in-chief of the Toronto Sun, was a Thompson company executive who oversaw the Globe‘s transition to colour in 1998. He told Chris Cobb, author of Ego and Ink: The Inside Story of Canada’s National Newspaper War, “Nothing was sacred for Richard. He wanted to shuffle the cards, and no matter what you thought about Richard personally, he did a lot of good by getting people to think differently.”

For three years, Addis oversaw significant changes in the Globe‘s content and style. It was an extreme makeover designed to eliminate the Post. He increased the Globe‘s roster of columnists, adding young voices such as Leah McLaren. He created a separate Books section for the weekend edition. And to a degree, it worked. Today, the Post is no longer the threat it once was – but it still lingers in the shadows.

It was mutually understood that Addis had a three-year limit. Fleet Street beckoned and when he was ready to go home in 2002, Crawley appointed Greenspon, who was in many ways the opposite of Addis. As Ottawa bureau chief, he had a strong interest in Canadian politics – something Addis found unutterably boring. His approach to management was also different. “Addis was an agent of change,” explains Cobb. “Greenspon was brought in to steady the troops and steer a good ship through calmer waters.” With the newspaper war subsiding, Greenspon’s tasks were to rally his staff and convince the country that the Globe could indeed live up to the tag it had given itself – “Canada’s National Newspaper.” Maybe not the Grey Lady anymore, but still the Lady for all Canadians.

Wong takes the image one step further – she thinks of the Globe as an older woman dressed in sexy clothing unsuitable for a woman her age. “Instead of growing old gracefully, they’re trying to dress it up in stuff that’s not appropriate,” she says. “Like a lot of crime, a lot of sex – those are the fishnet stockings that don’t fit. We don’t have to be dowdy, but we don’t have to dress like a slut either.”

Geoffrey Stevens, the Globe‘s former managing editor, agrees that even now, under the leadership of Greenspon, the newspaper is less respectable than it was 10 years ago. “The Globe went down-market trying to popularize itself through shorter stories with less detail, less substance,” Stevens says. “Greenspon wasn’t the editor at that time, but I don’t think he’s done anything to reverse it.”

“There is a lot more of what I call ‘me journalism,'” continues Stevens, “columns and articles by people writing about themselves in an attempt to prevent hemorrhaging readers to the Post, which had a livelier and more personal form of journalism than the Globe had.”

It is debatable just how much of the identity crisis can be blamed on an increase in “me journalism.” Black introduced a large lineup of columnists in the fashion of British newspapers. Robert Fulford, who has written for both newspapers and is currently a columnist at the Post, says the Globe followed the Post‘s idea of putting columnists on the front page. “No one in Canada did that regularly until the Post came along,” he says. “It began a new era in journalism, a different kind of journalism. The main event in many Globe stories is the columnist’s opinion. It’s an attempt to be entertaining.”

No one can blame Old Lady Grey for wanting to have a little more fun. In an attempt to match the youthful energy flaunted in the Post by columnists like Eckler, the Globe hired McLaren, who now writes film reviews as well as a column in the Saturday Style section. McLaren calls her writing a form of “almost creative nonfiction.” She defends her self-absorbed content as being part of a well-rounded newspaper. “My theory is a good paper that’s a good read for a broad readership needs all kinds of voices. So what I do, I guess it’s sort of like entertainment, but that makes it sound lighter than what it is,” McLaren says, after discussing the topic of this week’s column: how annoying it is for her to get mistaken for Renée Zellweger.

Another celebrity-obsessed columnist, Lynn Crosbie, describes her own writing as a “critical examination of pop phenomena.” While McLaren writes about herself and how people, places, and things relate to her, Crosbie says, “I’ll write about Mary Kate and Ashley Olson to talk about bulimia – that’s what I mean by using a pop event to speak critically about social issues.”

According to Russell Smith, the Globe‘s arts and culture critic, the increase in personal journalism is a reaction to broadcast news. Television and radio are great for instant information but usually don’t offer the analysis a newspaper can. “Newspapers can provide explanation, context, analysis, background – TV can’t give you that. Current thinking is that readers react better to personality than they do to objective reporting,” he says. “People are more interested in certain characters and that’s what newspapers can do.”

Longtime columnist Margaret Wente provides the Globe with plenty of character, repeatedly crossing the line between the serious and the irreverent. “I have a wonderful assignment – to attract and retain readers to the paper,” she says. “I’m one of the few columnists who doesn’t have a beat or a specialized area. I write about whatever I want to write about.” She argues that while columnists are important, they are not what make the newspaper. “The truth is – although they don’t like to think this – columnists are a draw for a paper, but they’re just one of many. If a columnist switches papers, they don’t take readers with them. People will not follow columnists from one paper to another.”

That’s not what the Globe believed when it snatched up one of the superstars the Post used to boast about in its early advertising campaigns. Christie Blatchford is without doubt another high-profile character, and her court and crime reporting columns can sometimes dominate the pages of the paper. “Quite a long time ago,Globe tradition was to be the rock-solid paper of record,” Fulford says. “It did not make a big, big thing about crime coverage. The theory was that crime news was not very consequential, not something people should care too much about.”

In 1991, crime coverage was rarely found on the Globe‘s front page. When Kayla Klaudusz, a three-year-old girl from Toronto, went missing on July 10 of that year, the story of her disappearance didn’t appear in theGlobe until two days later. “Police hunt door-to-door for missing 3-year-old girl” read the headline, under the fold of the front page. A small, column-wide photograph of Kayla accompanied the lone article on the missing girl. The day’s lead story told readers that Ottawa planned to carefully watch the probe of the Nationair jet crash that killed at least 261 people.

But when 9-year-old Cecilia Zhang was abducted from her home on October 20, 2003, the Globe ran two articles on the front page the following day – one written by Blatchford. Whereas Kayla’s story was reduced to a blurb in the Toronto in Brief section within a week of her abduction, Zhang’s disappearance remained a front-section story for months. The Globe‘s deputy editor Sylvia Stead can’t explain the increase in crime coverage. “We all know crime isn’t going up, so why are we interested in it?” she wonders. “I don’t know.”

Stevens believes it represents a change in the economics of media. “It’s the same as television – local news is basically flashing lights and sirens,” he says. “It’s easy to do and it’s cheap. It’s a lot cheaper to send a reporter to a crime scene in Toronto and have them take pictures of the yellow police tape stretched around than it is to have a person out in the Middle East trying to figure out what’s happening in the wake of the death of Yasser Arafat.” Blatchford doesn’t deny the sensationalized nature of crime, but doesn’t believe she has to justify writing about it either. “You’re dealing with things that are unpleasant, stark, and gripping, but does that mean you should stick to the dull, nuanced world of politics? I don’t think so.”

While Blatchford sits in the courtroom, Wong is on the Chinatown beat. Today, she’s at Congee Queen restaurant in North York. Across from her sits Cheuck Kwan, a documentary filmmaker and the subject of her next column. Over a lunch of noodles, congee, shrimp dumplings, and vegetables, the two discuss his films and the Chinese diaspora. Wong has her notebook to the left of her bowl, just the way she did when she interviewed subjects for the old “Lunch With” column. Back then, she also used a tape recorder to protect herself against lawsuits. She has nothing to worry about today – she’s writing her “Chinatown” column, which examines the lives and culture of Chinese-Torontonians. “It wasn’t my idea,” Wong says about her column. “I was appalled when I heard about it. I think it’s racist – would they get a Jewish reporter to write about Jewish issues and Jewish people?”

Wong was one of nine reporters sent to China for the Globe‘s impressive Sino-themed issue, published October 23, 2004. Her editor, Cathrin Bradbury, had asked her to write a column about the Chinese community before, but she refused. “I don’t mind doing it, but all the time? Every column?” Bradbury persisted and eventually they agreed on an 11-part series, which ran from last fall to Chinese New Year in February.

The Globe‘s focus on China and Chinese-Canadians looks like a sincere attempt to diversify coverage, but its newsroom still lacks colour. With 59 regular columnists listed on its website, Wong and Ken Wiwa are its only visible minorities. “Who says diversity is not important? White people,” Wong says. “It’s important. Every time they say, ‘Well, you’re the only one who can do this,’ I say, ‘Well, hire some more people who speak Chinese.’ We’re in a city of four million people with 400,000 Chinese and I’m the only one who speaks Chinese?” At least Wong represents them; most of Canada’s ethnic groups have no voice at all in mainstream newsrooms. “For example,” she continues, “we tend to write these stories about Muslims. It’s the end of the feast day, and we write an end-of-the-feast-day story. It’s such a superficial way to write about the community. You take a big monster picture of everyone on their knees in the mosque, instead of telling an interesting story about this community.”

Wong has been worried about her paper’s identity crisis, but by winter she starts to see promising signs of improvement. And Stead sees an evolving personality. “There is no one constant personality or way of doing things,” she says. “The way in which we are going to stay alive is by constantly challenging ourselves, and that means never saying, ‘Oh, that’s not the way we do things.'”

Crawley says it has been his goal since becoming president of the Globe in 1998 to change the Grey Lady into something more colourful. The mission, adopted by Greenspon, is to produce a paper read for more than just the business news or the political news. “It wasn’t sufficiently broad- based to reach out to families as a whole,” he says. “Our audience is still the same kind of audience we had six years ago. What the paper does a better job of is touching more parts of their lives.”

Crawley vows that as long as he leads the Globe, readers should expect change. It will never return to theGlobe it was before the Post, and if he has his way, we’ll even forget the Lady was ever considered Old or Grey.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

thirteen − thirteen =