The Globe and Mail parachuted a new local section into Vancouver to boost circulation, and residents responded with disdain. They should look closer- it's putting out some of the best reporting in town
“Sorry…Regina confirmed,” she says stonily. “Go with it?”
“Oh, okay. Go with it. Did they confirm the HIV angle?
“Okay, ’cause that’s the sexy angle.”
Fong replies with a curt “I know” before rushing back to her desk. She’s a small flurry of activity in the otherwise empty cubicles of the Globe‘s surprisingly large downtown Vancouver newsroom.
For most of the twelve Globe staffers based in British Columbia, their day at the office is long over. The time difference between the West Coast and head office in Toronto means the Vancouver bureau works with early deadlines. But there’s been a report that Trevis Smith of the Saskatchewan Roughriders has been arrested for aggravated sexual assault on a woman in the Vancouver suburb of Surrey. Fong is scrambling to put a story together for tomorrow’s paper – it’s 5:30 P.M in B.C. but 8:30 P.M. in Toronto, where pages are being laid out.
“The rumour,” says Mickleburgh, “is that he had HIV and had unprotected sex with her, which is why it’s aggravated assault. Potentially a pretty big story.” And it is big. The next morning’s Globe has the story above the fold, with the HIV angle as the lead.
Fong, formerly of the Vancouver Sun, was one of two high-profile acquisitions made by the Globe when it expanded its B.C. bureau last April. The other was Gary Mason, a colleague of Fong’s and a well-known sports columnist. The expansion coincided with the launch of a regional section in Canada’s oldest national newspaper, an unprecedented experiment in local news coverage. The plan was to publish three pages of exclusively West Coast news, every day, in the S section just ahead of sports. This might seem like a relatively small share of the paper overall, but at three pages, Globe British Columbia is larger than the Toronto section. In February, they beefed it up to include three pages of B.C. real estate articles and listings running every Friday.
There’s a lot going on in B.C. right now. The Economist Intelligence Unit, in a survey last year, ranked Vancouver as the best city in the world in terms of livability. To this buzz, add B.C.’s status as host of the 2010 Olympic Games as well as its position as North America’s economic and cultural gateway to the Asia-Pacific region, and you get one of the highest economic growth rates in Canada. It’s also the second largest English-language market in Canada – one dominated by CanWest Global Communications Corp.’s newspapers. When the National Post first appeared on the scene in October 1998, it quickly became the preferred read of the two national dailies in Vancouver. Just over seven years later, it is still widely read – even though it has lost most of its B.C. coverage.
And that’s where the Globe‘s latest strategy comes into play. Executives in Toronto figured it was the right time to try to reach new readers on the coast and felt they had to act fast. “We launched with almost no planning,” says Mickleburgh. “We had only days to go when we decided to go to three pages. We were going to be smaller, but [Globe editor-in-chief Edward] Greenspon said, ‘Well, if we’re going to do it, let’s really do it.'” The plan was to go big right away and hammer out the kinks later.
The gamble is costly, but it’s paying off; in just a few months, the paper’s circulation in B.C. has gone up by more than 2,000 on weekdays and 3,000 on weekends – a gain of about five per cent. Over the same period, national circulation improved by four per cent. No one can say how much of this is a result of the new section, but according to Mickleburgh, reader surveys commissioned by the Globe this year show that in B.C., seventy- three per cent of people read the Globe British Columbia section when reading the paper. This compares to ninety-six per cent for the A section and sixty per cent and below for all other sections. Here, Globe British Columbia is read even more regularly than Report on Business.
These gains, however encouraging, do not signify that the Globe has won over B.C. readers in general. Despite the considerable effort to produce quality daily journalism that speaks directly to West Coast readers, the long-held belief that the Globe – as a Toronto (and, indeed, central Canadian) institution – has no right to arrogantly decide what is best for B.C. is a hard one to shake off.
The Globe‘s last attempt to reach out to Western readers didn’t go over so well. In an attempt to appease critics, the paper created the position of western editor in 1998. Paul Sullivan – who, in 1990, had been editor of the Globe‘s short-lived monthly magazine, West – was chosen. Based in Vancouver, Sullivan was responsible for news coverage west of Ontario, including the Arctic. Theoretically, by having a western editor, western views would more likely make their way into the paper. But the position was scrapped after a year.
“I spent four years in China and came back,” says Mickleburgh. “Suddenly, there was this new editor. He had definite assigning power and it didn’t work.” Mickleburgh blames the failed effort on bureaucracy. “You don’t need some artificial decision-maker to say, ‘Oh, I’m interpreting the West.'” Most of the reporters, he says, were westerners already. Current Globe managing editor, news, Colin MacKenzie echoes this sentiment. “We bought a bunch of expensive video-conferencing equipment so Paul could sit in on the meetings,” he says, “but the position just wasn’t institutionally integrated.” Sullivan, who was also once managing editor of the Sun, says the meetings were unworkable, explaining, “I’d have to get up at 5 A.M. to participate.” Despite the start-up problems, he thinks the Globe gave up on the western editor system too soon – union challenges, a new publisher in Toronto and a lack of will killed the experiment.
Eight years later, with Globe British Columbia, MacKenzie is convinced they’ve found the successful formula, calling it “coverage with a local-mouth feel.” This can only happen with a large, Vancouver-based team of veteran journalists, photographers and arts writers. Almost all are westerners, with a mandate to report the news for British Columbians first.
It is April 2005, and the Globe is trying to persuade readers – and, crucially, non-readers – that it isn’t the eastern boogeyman. One move is to lure high-profile Vancouver columnist Mason away from the Sun to become the Globe‘s ambassador. It’s a bold attempt to establish the idea in readers’ minds that the Toronto-based paper is serious about covering the West. To drive the point home, Mason is featured on numerous billboards around Vancouver along with the tagline: “Gary Mason’s Vancouver.” The venerable Georgia Straight, Vancouver’s biggest weekly, in its annual Best of Vancouver edition, gives the ad campaign the award for “Best reason to move to Burnaby.” This is something Mason admits he gets a lot of ribbing about from his buddies.
I catch up with the pleasant, unassuming Mason in October, sipping a latte in a strip mall Starbucks in the town of Tsawwassen, where he lives with his family. This terminal for ferry traffic headed to Victoria and the Gulf Islands is a forty-minute drive – in good traffic – from the Globe‘s Vancouver offices. Mason rarely makes the trip downtown, as he usually works out of his home. His silver hair is combed back and he’s wearing a navy blue, high-necked Nike sweatshirt. When he laughs, he tips his head back. He looks like a junior hockey coach, and if you get him talking about hockey he’ll give you his trademark smile – the same smile that accompanied his Sun sports column for seven years before he was scooped up by the Globe.
Mason considers himself “a local columnist” who just happens to run nationally. In the national edition, his column appears in the A section, but in B.C., it is always in S. He is surprised by the amount of reaction he gets. On October 15, 2005, in the midst of a gut-wrenching, province-wide teachers’ strike, he wrote: “The government will not, cannot, capitulate to the demands of a group that is breaking the law. While Ms. Sims, [head of the British Columbia Teachers’ Federation] who loves to fashion herself as a modern-day Rosa Parks, likes to use the words civil disobedience to characterize what teachers are doing…the fact is teachers are breaking the law.”
The next day Mason’s inbox was flooded with hundreds of angry emails from across the country. “Teachers in Ontario emailed me saying, ‘You don’t understand what being a teacher is like and blah blah blah.'” Because the strike column appeared on a Saturday, when circulation is higher, many readers had not seen his previous columns expressing sympathy for B.C. teachers.
Not all of Mason’s columns are contentious – in fact, many are banal. On Saturday, January 21, two days before the federal election, the front page of the Globe featured a spectacular photo of snowcapped Rockies with the equally grandiose headline, “The West Comes In.” While page one heralded the culmination of Preston Manning’s legacy, Mason’s column was tucked away on A16. In it, Mason rebutted Don Cherry’s recent remarks lambasting the Canadian athletes who’d passed up the chance to carry the flag at the Olympic ceremonies in Turin. “At the end of the day,” he wrote, “the Canadian flag that is most important to all of them is the one they hope to see flapping in the breeze above the podium after they’ve won a medal.”
With 12.6 million people, Ontario is home to almost forty per cent of Canada’s population – compared to B.C.’s measly thirteen. Since sixty per cent of Globe subscribers are Ontarians, it’s reasonable to assume that the Globe‘s editorial stance might be skewed toward that province. Blaming the Globe‘s central office in Toronto for perpetuating a distorted image of the West – whether on purpose or because of some institutional prejudice – is a convenient crutch for homegrown critics, especially since Globe British Columbia writers are mostly westerners. One brash Toronto import, however, has no trouble inflaming the locals.
Alexandra Gill, the Globe‘s western arts correspondent, picks at her dish of pesto penne. It’s a rare sunny day in October 2005, and we’re sitting on the terrace of the Vancouver Art Gallery’s café, enjoying the weather. The restaurant is full of people dressed in business casual, ordering lunch or indulging in a coffee break between gallery hopping. She’s wearing a dark blazer and a top with a plunging neckline, has a serious expression on her face and talks passionately about her adopted home.
Gill, a former Toronto gossip columnist, covers the West Coast arts scene, but she also writes a weekly food column for the Vancouver edition of the 7 section, the Globe‘s Friday arts supplement. She’s infamous in Vancouver food circles for writing scathing restaurant reviews. One was a thrashing of the newly opened but controversial multimillion- dollar restaurant, Watermark on Kits Beach. She wrote, “On the surface, this new $7-million restaurant is a mind-blowing stunner. But once you taste the crap coming out of the kitchen, the sheer waste of it all makes you want to cry.” This prompted one Vancouver food blogger to write, “I thought the building and food was great – Alexandria [sic], go back to Toronto or wherever you came from.”
The second, more controversial piece delivered an equally caustic verdict to an established outlet, Diva at the Met. Gill wrote, “Ten years ago, when Vancouver was a culinary backwater, the city’s first exhibition kitchen certainly stood out. But now, with some of the city’s best chefs setting lofty new standards at entry-level establishments, it seems absurd that some high-end restaurants are still coasting on their glory days.” She and her dining companion went on to destroy each dish as it arrived at their table. About the veal entrée she wrote, “Thinly sliced medallions sit on a smear of puréed carrots and a sticky sweet glaze. ‘The most disgusting combination I ever ate in my life,'” said her friend. When it came time to pay the bill, “nearly four hours later,” she was annoyed when her server said that it had all been taken care of. About free meals she wrote, “Though it’s common practice in Vancouver for critics to accept them, it is certainly not something I’ll abide. If I don’t pay for a meal, I won’t review it.”
Reception was swift and brutal. On a message board used by food professionals in the city, the discussion ranged from mild disapproval to outright nastiness, with people expressing disbelief that members of the community would be attacked by “The nation’s newspaper.” One poster wrote, “Ms. Gill can consider the pot stirred, but there’s a great deal of distaste at the contents, and it hasn’t raised my opinion of either her or her publication one whit.” Another wrote, “There is some serious venom for Gill right now in Vancouver’s restaurant community. I went out to several restaurants yesterday, and wow…she is about as well-received as a malarial gnat on a gnu’s back…The writing is great, but I take exception at the flippant methodology (especially because there are jobs at stake).”
“They’re really insane, some of those people,” Gill tells me. “It’s like they’ve never read a bad review before.” Vancouver, she says, is one of the top cuisine destinations in the world, but the level of local criticism is soft and boosterish. A decade ago, she says, Vancouver was trying to brand itself as an international culinary hotspot and everyone worked to promote the industry. It’s still a growing city, she says, but it should be able to handle some criticism. “There’s still this provincial attitude, like, ‘Well, let’s not have professional standards in our restaurant reviews.'” She acknowledges that by having this kind of attitude she’s setting herself up for a backlash, but she doesn’t care. “I’m tough-skinned,” she says. “Just sparking all the discussion is a good thing.”
Gill may have a point about Vancouver being grown-up enough to take big-city criticism. But she could also be the classic case of a Toronto journalist seeking to impose her will on a non-Toronto audience. Anne Roberts, a silver-haired Langara College journalism instructor, former city councillor and former Globefreelancer, says Globe British Columbia still buys into preconceived notions of the “crazy West.” She thinks the stories don’t reflect reality, relying instead on stereotypes that, unfortunately, play much better to the national audience. “For the Globe to be successful,” she says, “it needs to cover the news for a B.C. audience instead of for – or from the point of view of – the people back east.”
Donna Logan, director of the School of Journalism at the University of British Columbia (UBC), believes theGlobe‘s problem is subtler than stereotyping. She’s quick to point out that the employees of the B.C. bureau “are mostly B.C. people, and to say that they don’t have a B.C. perspective is grossly unfair. It’s not as if they hired a whole bunch of people from Toronto and moved them out here for this launch.” The problem, Logan says, is that all editorial decisions are made in Toronto. “People in Toronto do not see the West the way the West sees itself,” she says. “There’s always this tension between Vancouver and Toronto, where they’re making decisions about what stories are going to get covered and how they’re going to be presented in the paper.”
Logan had to admit, however, that she was awed by the marketing blitz that accompanied the Mason billboard assault. “They were everywhere!” she says. “I couldn’t walk into my local supermarket or anywhere without someone trying to pitch me the Globe. It was very impressive.”
David Beers, editor of Vancouver-based The Tyee, wasn’t so impressed. He says the problem isn’t so much an east-versus-west dialectic, but how the Globe has chosen to market itself. The Tyee founder, whose news website runs stories acclaimed by journalists – including Globe writers – for its original investigative work and innovative techniques in political reporting, is furious about the choice of Mason as the Globe‘s poster boy. As a sportswriter, Beers says, “Mason was never known to be particularly erudite or broadminded in his views.” To get any sort of idea of who Mason is politically, says Beers, “You have to go all the way back to his time as a bureau chief for an extremely conservative Vancouver Sun.”
The ideologically driven, unapologetically pro-business CanWest newspapers smother other media in B.C., Beers says, and many people are turned off by it. “The Globe could have hired anybody, but they hired a CanWest guy. Is this how you compete, by populating your centre-right newspaper with your competition’s writers?” Mason’s reporting during the last B.C. election wasn’t much different from the CanWest point of view, he says. “How is that diversifying the market?” The real kick in the teeth, though, according to Beers, is that the Globe‘s Vancouver bureau was already populated with quality reporters. “They were doing a super-credible brand of journalism, but it’s been undercut by the general package. It was a missed opportunity to contribute something different to the public discussion.”
Not all high-profile Vancouverites in media are quick to dump on the Globe‘s initiatives though. James Craig, former vice-president of marketing and sales for the Straight – and now publisher of its direct competition, theWestEnder – thinks Globe British Columbia is great. “It’s a really good, intelligent read,” he says. Craig thinks it’s ridiculous to bash the Globe because its head office is in Toronto when its competitors, the Sun and The Province are controlled out of Winnipeg: “Are we getting a Winnipeg version of what Vancouver should be, the same way we’re getting a Toronto version?”
New Globe British Columbia reporter Jonathan Woodward, a recent UBC mathematics graduate, says that the Vancouver bureau now functions almost like a “little paper” unto itself, with a commitment to fill the largest local Globe section in the country. Before, the nine-person bureau would wait to see how stories developed before writing longer, more comprehensive pieces for the national edition. This new mandate can cause some unhealthy tension.
A classic example of this tension happened early on. Reporters could only guess whether their Globe British Columbia stories would be judged important enough by Toronto editors to go national – and get yanked from Globe British Columbia. Some days, the top B.C. story appeared somewhere in the middle of the A section – but not in Globe British Columbia – leaving West Coast readers scratching their heads about the Globe‘s news judgement. Now, when a story seems destined to go national, the bureau works up two different-sized stories on the same subject – one for a national audience and a longer one with a local angle for Globe British Columbia. Back in Toronto, MacKenzie admits there were some dissonances: “We try hard now not to put it in the A section if it’s not going to be on the front page in B.C.”
Sorting out the confusion means more work for editors and layout people. The Globe‘s B.C. journalists, especially, have seen their workload increase significantly – and not everyone is happy with the change in focus. Long-time B.C. bureau writer Jane Armstrong left only seven months after the changes. Having spent a decade covering local issues at The Toronto Star, Armstrong jumped at a chance to “graduate” to national news at the Globe. But then, with Globe British Columbia’s relentless regional focus, she found herself back where she started, and has since transferred to the Halifax bureau.
The initial attitude among some readers was, says Armstrong, “If I wanted local news I’d read the Sun or theProvince. I don’t want that in The Globe and Mail. That’s not why I got the Globe.” She’s careful to add, however, that “people who live here are turning to it.”
Last June, just after the launch of the new section, BC Business Magazine criticized the Globe‘s new section. Among other things, it implied that its “long overdue attention” was a greedy attempt to gain B.C. advertising dollars and, judging by past attempts, wouldn’t last long. Unsurprisingly, it found, “The Globe has been well behind the Sun with many stories.” One source in the article was Logan, who, referring to Sullivan (the ill-fated former western editor) was quoted as saying, “We’ve seen this once before, that lasted one or maybe two years and then they pulled the whole thing down.”
It’s a dismissive attack, and as I read the old magazine article aloud, Globe British Columbia bureau chief Mickleburgh, who up until then had been slouching in his office chair with his feet up on the desk, jumps up. His face is red. He waves his arms. He’s a short, bearded guy with quick erratic movements and a hoarse yell. “They didn’t pull anything down,” he barks. “All they did was realize having a western editor didn’t work.”
“Long overdue attention?” he continues, rolling his eyes and letting out a big breath. “The people who say that are the people who don’t read the Globe – that’s what drives me nuts! You know, we did such good work before the B.C. section started. It was considered the best bureau the Globe had anywhere. We were the second biggest after Ottawa with a full-time photographer, review, sports, four full-time reporters, two full-time business people…”
At this point, Mickleburgh is yelling. “And people are going to say, ‘Loooooooonnnng overdue attention.’ It’s people who haven’t read the paper just stereotyping us.”
Mickleburgh isn’t quite fully riled up yet. What really gets him are the comparisons to the Sun. “They’re just wrong.” Pointing to their much larger staff and their ability to cover the suburbs better, he says, “The Sunshould beat us all the time, and they don’t – we have to pick and choose which stories to cover.”
Indeed, the next day’s Sun reprints the Trevis Smith/HIV-positive story from the Regina Leader Post. Their teachers’ strike coverage comes from Canadian Press. The Globe has both stories running in the national edition – written by the Globe British Columbia bureau. The rest of Sun‘s local section, called West Coast, has many outside stories. There are at least two from CP, two from the Victoria Times-Colonist and one from theAlaska Highway News.
While the Sun utilizes CanWest’s corporate infrastructure to shoehorn in stories on the cheap, the Globe now offers its B.C. readers more locally produced news, which is certainly not the cheap way to go. While it’s true that Globe British Columbia journalists report to Toronto and fight off burnout to produce an expensive section day in and day out, they’re achieving the effect most desired by management. According to MacKenzie, the six-month assessment of the experiment was this: “Reporters hate it, editors hate it, the budget people hate it. In fact, the only people who like it are the readers.”
by Aaron Leaf
Aaron Leaf was the Associate Editor for the Spring 2006 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.