Publisher panel explores the future of media

Toronto’s three major newspaper publishers believe the future of their businesses will be influenced by both digital devices and demands of readers.

On Oct. 14, the Empire Club of Canada staged a luncheon panel discussion about “the Future of Media” at Toronto’s Sheraton Hotel. The club invited Philip Crawley, CEO and publisher of the Globe and Mail, John Cruickshank, publisher for the Toronto Star and Gordon Fisher, president of the National Post.

Crawley recognized Apple’s iPad as an example of a revolutionary device in the delivery of information.

“It’s a great way of turning pages and reading content, but the question (is)… is this just a toy or is it a tool?” he said. “Is it something that people are going to use in a business sense or are most of those apps being downloaded to play games with.”

The Post’s Fisher briefly referred to prospective revenue percentages going into American digital properties. He said more than half of those figures had nothing to do with journalism.

“I read something this morning, I think it was an American number, but $21 billion of revenue flowed to digital properties over the last six or 10 months,” he said. “And 46 per cent of that was in (Internet) search, 36 per cent of that was in display advertising, which everybody said doesn’t work digitally.”

The Star’s Cruickshank felt that the discussion didn’t necessarily deal with a media outlet’s main attraction, the readers. He recalled his time at the Globe and Mail during an economic downturn.

“It’s really expensive to get new people to come (and subscribe) and we became aware, for the first time, that it was a real problem,” he said. “What happened was that, after that recession, money came back in; advertising came back in; we found ways of moving a lot of costs out of the operation and we ignored it again.”

He added that an obligation to the reader is something that can’t change regardless of how fast everything else is moving. He focused on the positives of digitalization for readers.

“What we’re talking about is how much are people actually engaged in their world?” he said. “We have an enormous focus at this point on figuring out how digital news, digitalization across many platforms, can achieve new levels of engagement with folks who are now not engaged.”

Cruickshank, however, didn’t blame the level of engagement on the public. In fact, he put it on the shoulders of the older generation of journalists.

“Does it matter whether a third or half of the population is not engaged in news? Surely it does,” he said. “I think the most severe indictment you can make of our generation of journalists is that we turned our backs on a generation that was no longer engaged with us.”

Fisher said that engaging a younger audience is very important, however, he doesn’t feel pushing the newspaper into their everyday lives is the way to go.

“I don’t think we should force young people to read newspapers …. Young people come to newspapers in different ways,” he said. “They often come through the sports pages or the entertainment sections and I think increasingly they’re finding a different way to find that information.”

Whether they go online to attain information or pick up a daily paper every morning, Cruickshank believes youth’s focus is not on the outlet, but what the outlet offers.

“The core of our response to all the disruptive technology has to be the focus on great content. That doesn’t mean focus on great newsprint content or anything in particular, just the focus on (generating) great content,” he said.

Both of Cruickshank’s panelist colleagues were quick to agree.

“For the Globe, we know that people want to access our content in multiple ways,” Crawley said. “It’s not an either or… The issue for me is whether we should be more like cable companies or telephone companies who do a better job than we do of bundling our offerings – a package of things which you pay for on one bill.”

The Post’s Fisher echoed the focus on content.

“The issue will be differentiating your content, making it rich, valuable and something you can’t get anywhere else,” he said.

As for predicting anything concrete down the road, Cruickshank saw it this way.

“If we look (ahead) a year we’re already into speculation. If we look at five years we’re into science fiction,” he said.