After years of declining circulation and morale The Vancouver Sun has gained a stronger voice and vision under the guidance of editor-in-chief John Cruickshank. He has new reporters, new section heads, and a new designalmost everything he needs to make the paper great. So why is it only good?
John Cruickshank,The Vancouver Sun‘s editor of three and a half years, would like to forget the legacy of the paper he came to in 1995. He is sitting at a small conference table in his office, which is decorated more for function than form. Copies of The New York Times and The Globe and Mail litter the tabletop. A couple of healthy tropical plants gather what feeble winter light they can from the window (it’s been raining for three days straight) and a Haida carving lends some character to a tidy desk that runs along on wall. The office is on the periphery of the newsroom, separated from it by a glass wall. The newsroom itself is unremarkable but for its view. Oversized floor-to-ceiling windows offer sweeping vistas of the barges and bridges in Burrard Inlet and the snowcapped mountains beyond.
Cruickshank’s not taking notice of the view now, though. He’s nursing a case of sinusitis that has forced him to forgo his daily run. As he sips coffee from a mug his daughter hand-painted for him (“Happy Father’s Day!”), he perks up while he talks about the changes he’s brought to the Sun. He’s pursuing breaking news in Vancouver’s growing municipalities; he’s hired sharp new reporters and section heads; under him the Sun‘s waning circulation has rebounded.
Then I ask him about the old Sun. Cruickshank has been polite and professional during the interview process, but I sense that he grows irritable at the mention of this topic. For him, it is as tiresome as the unrelenting weather. Journalists who write at any length about Cruickshank’s new job can’t help dredging up the pre-Cruickshank past, even if it’s just for a little bit. And no wonder-he had a lot to fix when he came to the Sun. It was stuck in a rut for a decade, and nobody could pull it out. It lacked stable management, the reporting lacked brevity, and the look lacked focus. The newsroom was famous for its sharp division between unionized staff and management.
Cruickshank had wanted to start fresh when he came to the paper. “I was completely uninterested in the past,” he tells me impatiently. “There was nothing we could learn from it. And I didn’t want to be part of that culture.”
It wasn’t an easy decision for him to come to the Sun, says David Olive, Cruickshank’s friend and colleague from The Globe and Mail (now a writer for the National Post). Cruickshank and his wife, Maclean‘s business writer Jennifer Hunter, liked Vancouver and knew the Sun well. But the move meant leaving friends and colleagues at a paper Cruickshank loved. “He had an institutional affection for The Globe that was very powerful,” says Olive, “and he had a personal friendship with journalists at the Globe. I think he felt he was disappointing them by leaving.”
While he was the Globe‘s managing editor, there was talk that Cruickshank was heir to the editor-in-chief’s job there. But Cruickshank saw a challenge in Vancouver: to save an ailing paper and leave his mark on Canadian journalism. Within a year of being at the Sun he had changed the paper’s design, moved a few reporters off their beats (“I felt they’d been at it too long”), and spent long days personally overseeing the quality of writing at the paper.
Cruickshank can take credit for many things. He pushed for more analytical reporting and in-depth coverage of the suburbs. Under his direction, the Sun has gained back the respect that it lost 10 years ago and has become a good metropolitan daily.
But not a great one. There is a larger problem at the Sun that’s not immediately visible to the newcomer. As I walk through the maze of desks, I see a normal workplace. A couple of reporters laugh and joke with each other, a few others cluster around a television set, discussing the latest missile strikes on Baghdad. But sit down with one of them for an interview and you’ll likely hear a sardonic I suppose you’ve heard about the culture of theSun ….
What culture? When people describe it to me, their shoulders slump, their faces wince, their mouths turn down with resignation or curl up at the edges with a cynical smirk. I get the feeling it is something like a misty West Coast rainfall on an overcast day. It blankets your surroundings, gets under your skin, dampens your spirits. It’s a culture of discontent, left over from years of unstable management, and a staff with memories of the Sun‘s darker days, when its circulation and reputation sank steadily. “It’s the kind of thing that acts as a drag, whether on a junior reporter or John Cruickshank,” says a local editor. Now Cruickshank-still the new kid on the block in Sun years-is trying to move the Sun past all that. But, although the reporters I spoke to respect him, he’s still a manager. He’s still on the other side.
The man who recruited Cruickshank was Donald Babick, COO for Southam Inc. and publisher of The Vancouver Sun, The Province, and the National Post. Babick posted the position within the chain, sticking with the company practice of promoting from within, but says no Southam candidate fit the bill. “I still want the best person at the end of the day.”
What was it that made “The ‘Shank,” as some staff call him, that person? Or as Babick puts it, the person to “give the paper a bit more oomph“? Cruickshank was no stranger to Southam-he had begun his career as a reporter at the Montreal Gazette. But he demonstrated his ambition and enthusiasm for the news by working his way through the ranks at the Globe. He started as education beat reporter in 1981 and moved on to become a legislative reporter and then bureau chief at Queen’s Park. Beginning in 1985, he became theGlobe‘s Vancouver bureau chief for the next three years. By the early nineties, Cruickshank had moved into management. As associate editor under William Thorsell he had been responsible for executing the Facts & Arguments page. This back page feature with its personal essay, factoids, and a single, eloquent obituary has easily become the most distinctive page in Canadian newspapers.
There is another thing. Cruickshank’s reputation as a highbrow precedes him. He is, after all, from the William Thorsell school of editing, which decrees that a newspaper is not simply a collection of daily events but a tool to inform debate. He begins each morning with a half-hour read of poetry, philosophy, or theology, “because it gives me context,” he says. When Cruickshank was selected to cohost Imprint, the TVOntario literary talk show, with Marni Jackson, in 1995 (a job he eventually turned down when he took the Sun editorship), The Toronto Star called him “a closet intellectual whose idea of a good time is reading Michel Foucault or Jacques Derrida.”
Stephen Ward, a professor at the University of British Columbia’s new Sing Tao School of Journalism, says, “He’s a reflective journalist who thinks a lot about what the role of a paper should be in the community.”
Back in his office, Cruickshank is talking about what he wants the Sun to be-a paper that takes pride in itself and in the city it reflects, and one that maintains a strong regional focus without being parochial. He keeps looking through the glass wall as he talks about the kind of morale he wants among the staff. He scans the newsroom, perhaps wondering how to eradicate that damned divide between the Pacific Press union members and managers that just won’t die. He envisions a “collegial newsroom”; one that banishes the “us and them” notions of previous years. Without a newsroom in which reporters, deskers, and editors-union and nonunion-work together, he says, you don’t get that “intense collaborative effort” to make a great newspaper. “I’m just not part of the PacPress [legacy] that you hate the union and they hate you,” says Cruickshank earnestly. “I differ dramatically on how I see a newsroom functioning from a bunch of our guildsters.”
Is his vision of the collegial newsroom becoming reality? Slowly. He has fans and followers, but he has at least a few dissidents. There are those who criticize his editorial style for being too dry, and others who say his managerial style is too controlling. Cruickshank himself is worried about the deskers, who “feel that they’re not valued in the way that they should be,” he says. One of the grievances on file at the Sun is that the senior editors supervise headlines too closely, sometimes changing their meaning. This issue has also been on file before, however, which makes it hard to say whether the Sun‘s famously strong union is grieving against Cruickshank or against the office of the editor-in-chief in general. Whatever the case, Cruickshank’s journalistic and managerial credentials make it “pretty hard for people to challenge him on those grounds,” says Babick. “He can hold his own with his knowledge level. That goes a long way to quieting the rank-and-file.”
Cruickshank knows about union/management issues. He was a shop steward at the Gazette. But try as he might to ignore the PacPress split, it still exists. Perhaps it’s reflective of B.C.’s political environment. Provincial politics have traditionally broken into two camps: extreme left and right. In an economy that still depends heavily on natural resources, labour matters have historically split into individual wealth-seekers and those who work for them. The Province has been home to some of the country’s most militant unions-and tyrannical bosses. This is the political environment into which the Sun was born in 1910, and it’s the history the paper has lived with ever since. “People talk about ‘working on the floor’ here,” says one senior editor. “They use trade unionist language.”
Regardless of politics, the Sun has always had its share of noted writers, including two who became national celebrities: Allan Fotheringham and Pierre Berton. By the time Fotheringham was writing columns at the Sun, in the late 1960s, Vancouver was beginning to lose its reputation as a city with two rival dailies. The Sun and the Southam-owned Province had entered a publishing partnership a decade earlier. The partnership strengthened over the years until finally, in 1980, Southam acquired the Sun and both papers became part of Pacific Press Ltd., a Southam subsidiary.
This arrangement allowed the papers to share all resources-advertising and sales, circulation, presses, an office building, a library, and, by 1992, a publisher. Two years ago, the seven unions at Pacific Press also amalgamated. Despite the shared resources, editorial staff at the sister papers say they are fiercely competitive with each other. Many media critics, however, argue that the arrangement is too cozy for independence.
The Sun‘s reputation began its slide several years after Southam acquired it. By the early nineties the design was chaotic, and often one could not distinguish the top stories of the day. Typos in 28-point headlines or in a columnist’s byline were not uncommon. Colour photos were blurry and stories were often verbose for a newspaper. Yet the newsroom was full of hardworking, and in some cases award-winning, reporters.
What was the problem? The paper had no sense of identity. Daphne Bramham arrived at the Sun in 1989 as a city hall reporter. She describes the changes in management between her arrival and Cruickshank’s appointment in 1996 as a “constant revolving door of people.” During this period, several business editors, city editors, entertainment editors, and managing editors came and went, not to mention two editors-in-chief. At times there was no publisher at all, or no editor-in-chief.
Meanwhile, an influx of immigrants from Pacific Rim countries had morphed the city from an outpost for alternative lifestyles to a globally connected metropolis. Its inhabitants were wealthy and racially diverse. Vancouver was thriving, but the Sun wasn’t thriving with it. “It certainly hadn’t kept pace with Vancouver’s growth,” Donald Babick says. “It went through stages of schizophrenia with editors. One decided he wanted to make it The New York Times of Canada, and another made it lightweight populist.” These approaches had little effect, it seems. From 1985 to 1991 the Sun lost 43,000 subscribers and it operated in the red until 1994, when it made a small profit.
The turnaround since Cruickshank’s arrival has been dramatic. Today’s Sun is Southam’s largest circulation metropolitan daily. And while circulation is still not up to 1985 levels, it’s getting there. The weekend Sun, the most popular edition, sells up to 255,000 copies. But to credit the boom in circulation solely to Cruickshank is shortsighted. Southam stepped in with a $180-million investment that paid for the German-engineered, high-speed MAN Roland presses (“the fastest in North America,” adds Babick proudly). Some of the money also bought a new building for PacPress to house the Sun and Province. The concrete high-rise sits at the head of Granville Street, and from the outside has a dull and functional look, though more professional than the old, scruffy digs fArther south on Granville.
But inside, Sun staff, old and new, take advantage of a near-new newsroom with those delightful views. Many of the new staff are section heads-a result of Cruickshank’s top-down approach to managing a newsroom. He handpicked each one carefully to impress the readers that the sections cater to. City has the quick and practical John Drabble, who came from CBC Winnipeg, where he was the executive producer of the documentary show about rural Canada, Country Canada. His experience breaking news in the backwoods will be an asset-part of his new job is to coordinate news-gathering in Vancouver’s suburbs. Charles Campbell, former managing editor of Vancouver’s alternative weekly The Georgia Straight, is the new entertainment editor. He brings his extensive knowledge of the Vancouver cultural scene to the section. He also runs the Thursday entertainment supplement, Queue, a slim tabloid looks similar to the Straight.
The Saturday Review section puzzled readers and Sun reporters alike until recently. Its audience was ill defined and it ran everything from features on Madonna to a book review section that some said was a book in itself. Promising to revitalize the Review and launch it this spring as an “arts and ideas” section, Cruickshank recruited David Beers as its new editor. Beers, originally from Silicone Valley, is a former Vancouver-based freelance writer who has contributed to Vogue and Harper‘s and was an editor at Mother Jones. At the Sun, he worked as a behind-the-scenes editor for special supplements. One reporter describes him as Cruickshank’s protégé. Beers balks at this, describing himself instead as a handpicked member of the editorial team. (He’s done some notable work already. He helped Cruickshank with the Fate of the Strait, an ambitious 52-page, five-part, ad-free supplement that began last June to run over the course of the year. It tackled one of the most pressing issues among residents of the Lower Mainland and Vancouver Island: how to build a sustainable economy and lifestyle in an area that still depends heavily on local resources.)
The business section also has a new editor, Harvey Enchin, who Cruickshank knew from his Globe days. Enchin has spent the bulk of his career writing for the Report on Business. He brings a more ROB-influenced corporate feel to the Sun‘s business section. The old Sun combined business and sports into one section and included a jumble of wire stories from all over the business world. Today’s section, true to Cruickshank’s desire for a more regional focus, pays particular attention to Pacific Rim business. But a Globe-style business section isn’t easy to initiate in a newsroom that pressures you to pick a side. Sun staff talk about how, under Cruickshank, the business section has catered too much to the business community-there’s less room for hard-hitting, watchdog-style reporting.
A recent story on Sheldon Kennedy, the former NHL player who was sexually abused by his junior league coach, is an example. Kennedy set up a foundation and went across Canada on in-line skates to raise $15 million to build a ranch for abused children near Radium, B.C. In the hype surrounding the noble cause, the Canadian media initially ignored the story that David Baines, the Sun‘s veteran business reporter, finally wrote: that Kennedy paid himself a salary of $7,500 per month during his fundraiser and only managed to raise about half a million dollars for the ranch. Kennedy’s skate across Canada had been all over the news. But the piece appeared on an inside page with the soft headline “Kennedy Looks to Corporate Sponsors.” It significantly downplayed the hard-hitting story Baines had, which later appeared in Canadian Business.
When I ask Baines about this, he concedes that “the appetite for my kind of reporting has waned. Cruickshank wants a more positive face on the business section.” Is Cruickshank’s new business section a little too business-friendly? “There’s a definite ‘Don’t rock the corporate boat’ side to him,” says another reporter.
But Cruickshank is not afraid of rocking other boats-almost to the point of tipping them. Last fall he ran a 100-inch story that began on A1 and slammed the NDP for a campaign strategy. B.C. legislation allows a riding to recall its MLA by petition. Last summer, constituents in three ridings tried to recall their NDP MLAs. The NDP responded with an anti-recall campaign that included, among other things, form letters signed by NDP supporters sent to local newspapers as letters to the editor. The Sun called it a “dirty trick”-in 36-point boldface.
The party responded with a libel suit. A host of left-wingers, including former B.C. NDP leader Dave Barrett, accused the paper of bias and political naïveté. Everyone does it, they argued, so why pick on the NDP? One Sun staffer told me that there was doubt in the newsroom as to whether the scoop was actually a scoop. When I ask Cruickshank about it, I immediately sense another storm coming. He vigorously defends the story. With characteristic zeal, he argues that such a practice undermines the democratic forum of the editorial pages. “Yeah, but…” I begin, intending to lob him Barrett’s argument. “Yeah but what?” he cuts in, getting ready for debate. Such a practice is outright deception, he says, and it’s wrong. His morning philosophical musings have perhaps taught him well. He attacks local and provincial politics not only from an intellectual standpoint but also from a moral one.
But while Cruickshank is passionate about such issues, the stories in the Sun, critics say, just don’t have thatoomph. “John has the right people. Yet the product doesn’t reflect that,” says Jim Sutherland, editor ofVancouver magazine. He says the Sun is trying too hard to be a paper of record, and has adopted an “intentionally generic” design and reporting style. Could it be that Conrad’s man in Vancouver has done, as lefty local writer Terry Glavin puts it, “as much as a branch plant manager is capable of”? Or is it simply that Cruickshank’s approach to news reporting is “scholarly, restrained, and subdued,” as one reporter told me.
For, despite Cruickshank’s desire to shake up the paper, the Sun still has a conservative, WASPy reputation. But he is aware of it. He knows that his paper needs a greater diversity of voices in its pages-not only in the news section, but in the editorial as well. “I don’t think there’s any doubt,” he says. “We have too many white, middle-aged columnists writing from Ottawa and Toronto. Very good people, lots of them, but we’ve got good people here.” Today’s paper shows evidence of baby steps toward shedding that WASP image. Reporter Kim Bolan has covered Vancouver’s Sikh community extensively. Cruickshank has made some room for voices from the local Chinese community on the editorial pages. Daphne Bramham has developed the Insight page, which includes contributions from community members with expertise in issues of the day.
He talks a lot about how to make the paper appeal to people in the outer reaches of Vancouver-from the farms and wooded trails of Maple Ridge to the huge malls and buffet restaurants in Richmond’s neo-Chinatown. Today, more people live in Vancouver’s surrounding municipalities than in the city centre. And Cruickshank wants his readers to do more than just buy the Sun. He wants them to read it, think about it, and debate the issues inside. He wants them to feel it represents them.
Beginning last spring, Cruickshank targeted those suburban readers by launching zoned editions of the Sun. Four days a week, the municipalities get a Lower Mainland section with copy that covers their community. On Mondays, Richmond gets its edition, Tuesday is South of the Fraser River, Wednesday is Tri-Cities (Maple Ridge and Pitt Meadows) and Thursday, the North Shore. To woo local residents, Cruickshank dispatched 11 senior reporters to break news in the suburbs. Although they agree that the Sun‘s previous coverage of the municipalities was lacking, some reporters complained that the sudden switch from filing daily urban stories to weekly suburban ones amounted to a demotion.
In what some believe was probably a push from Babick to tighten operating costs, four reporters are back in the downtown newsroom and copy often comes from the cheaper Sterling News Service, which is owned by Southam and based in the Fraser Valley. The zoned supplements are a step in the right direction to pump up circulation, say observers, because they cover the other areas in which an educated, middle- to upper-class readership has settled. Reporters say Cruickshank is explicit about building circulation within this socioeconomic group. “He always says, ‘We go fishing where the fish are,'” says retired Sun reporter Robert Sarti.
But Cruickshank’s suburban fish may not get much food for thought in their zoned editions. There are rarely more than two pages of local news. The rest is filled with tidbits that appear in the regular Lower Mainland section, like weather, Traffic Jam Q & A, fishing tips, and Regional Roundup. The latter is a weekly section that lists each of Vancouver’s municipalities and includes a quick one- or two-paragraph story from the area, usually suburban arrests or town meetings. But when the section includes camera club meeting announcements, some say it smacks of tokenism. City editor John Drabble, who is in charge of the supplements, defends them. He says that it’s important for readers to see their community represented in the paper. “Even for camera club meetings?” I ask. “Even for camera club meetings,” Drabble replies firmly.
It’s early afternoon now in Cruickshank’s office. In keeping with his policy, the door has been open for the whole time. Reporters or editors frequently rush in, eager to discuss stories. I think to myself that I should get going and leave him to do his job. But Cruickshank is patient. He awaits the next question, his slim frame slightly slouched in his chair and his face in a boyish, friendly grin. If I asked, he’d probably let me tag along all day. Getting up to leave, I thank him for his time. “Oh, I’ve enjoyed talking about all this,” he says, adding quietly, “It reminds me of just how far we’ve come.” And perhaps how far he still wants to go.
by Raizel Robin
Raizel Robin was an Online Editor for the Spring 1999 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.