Q&A with CJF Lifetime Achievement Award winner Jack Sigvaldason
Jack ‘Sig’ Sigvaldason is this year’s Canadian Journalism Foundation’s Lifetime Achievement Award winner. Belinda Alzner caught up with the Northern News Service publisher to talk about the award, why their online paywalls have worked and how things have changed in northern journalism over the last 40 years.
Jack Sigvaldason accepts the CJF Lifetime Achievement Award at the 15th annual awards gala from presenter and past Lifetime winner Sally Armstrong (Photo: Kaz Ehara/CNW)
J-Source: You’ve been running Northern News Services for 40 years now. What is the biggest change you’ve seen in terms of news environment, culture and technology in that time? How has that helped or hurt the journalism that your newspapers do?
Jack 'Sig' Sigvaldason: It’s 40 years this year with Northern News Services, and I was with News of the North for three years before that, so it’s been 43 years of northern exposure. Last Friday was my birthday and also marked 60 years to the day that I started at the Winnipeg Free Press and 43 years to the day that I started at News of the North. That gives me 60 years in the business.
I’ve gone through all the processes from letter press to offset and the various technologies in offset. We bought our first desktop computer in 1974 — I think we bought the first desktop computer in the Northwest Territories, actually, so we’ve always been fairly far ahead of the game. We were also one of the first to really to put up our work on a webpage. But yes, there’s been tremendous changes in technology.
On the other hand sometimes you can fall back. We had a situation where we were having trouble getting good colour on the new press and all of a sudden I thought back to the days of copper plates – the technology of 40 years previous – and how you cut back on the black to get better colour. So, we did the same thing in Photoshop – and it worked!
J-Source: Old solutions for new problems?
Sig: It’s still ink and paper!
J-Source: But what about the impact of technology on the reporting process?
Sig: I think the Internet is the biggest factor. You can gather so much information so quickly with the Internet. The only danger is that sometimes there’s a tendency to seek all of your information on the Internet and not bother to get out on the streets and talk to people face-to-face.
That has been the biggest single change. That and communication, generally. It’s a little bit different in the North.
When I went north, of the 62 communities [to cover], only 9 of them had telephone service — I had to cover them by illegal hand radio. So it made it a little bit complex. There were many ways of transmitting information – some legal and some illegal.
because we cover 62 communities, the Internet has made a tremendous difference. We move virtually everything via email and it’s a lot different than the days that it used to cost me a dollar a minute to phone the community and also it used to be to go from Yellowknife to Iqaluit was $2,800 round-trip. Things have changed a lot.
J-Source: Let’s talk about paywalls. Northern News Service has one on its newspapers’ websites, and it’s been cited as an example in this country that has had success. Why does it work for you? Do you face a set of unique circumstances that allows you to have a successful paywall, or is this something that could work everywhere?
Sig: Well, I think we have the same kind of special situation that the majority of newspapers will have in five years – they’ll get smart enough to realize that their content is worth something.
Now, in our case, we did have one advantage: we have to move papers by air, sometimes by dog team, fishing boat, etc., and sometimes papers wouldn’t arrive for three or four days after date of issue – sometimes a week after date of issue in a small community. As Internet became available in small communities, it provided immediacy. This probably helped the situation on a paid site.
I’ve thought from the very beginning that while we can provide a certain amount of information free, our content was worth something. And it’s worked well for us.
J-Source: Right. I know when Brunswick News recently decided to put a paywall on their sites, a J-Source commenter cited Northern News Services’ as a similar example that has done well.
Sig: People will pay, if they get good information. It’s that simple.
J-Source: So you think that in five years, everyone will catch on and everyone will do this?
Sig: I think so. I believe that. It just doesn’t make sense not to, in my opinion.
I would sooner charge for the site and then be able to afford to spend some money on the site to update it. There’s a heavy cost in maintaining a site and updating it every few minutes, every time a story breaks, which is what we’re targeting to do. That’s the tradeoff.
J-Source: Do all 62 communities you cover have Internet access?
Sig: Now, yes. It’s sometimes a little bit marginal, but the North was probably one of the first places to get strong Internet access because it was so critical for communication. Because communications tend to be limited and when you’re talking about the area I cover, you’re talking about a third of Canada.
J-Source: Which sort of speaks to my next question. The population of the Northwest Territories and Nunavut is so diverse and spread across such a vast area. How do you manage your news resources in order to cover these communities adequately?
Sig: Well, we maintain a bureau in Iqaluit and Kivalliq as well in Nunavut, but we have people on the scene in two larger communities and they field stuff back to the head office for copy editing and editing and page assembly and we print it in Yellowknife. In the west, we have bureaus in Inuvik, Fort Simpson, Hay River and Yellowknife so that they can cover those regions. It’s not an impossible situation, but the only way to work, because the communities range from 500 to a couple of thousand – of course, Iqaluit and Yellowknife are a little bit bigger.
J-Source: Moving away from the business questions now: What made you decide to settle down and invest your career in journalism in the far north of Canada?
Sig: Well, I was in the ad agency business and I had done everything … I was kind of half-looking for a change. Then television came along, and that was a brand new toy and I had fun with that. But I felt that after 17 years on the ad side, I wanted to make a move and I’d always done some journalism.
The story I usually tell is that our agency handled the tourism for the Northwest Territories and we did such a good job that they sold me. But, in actual fact, my sister married a bush pilot, and he and I were looking at going north to do a tv documentary, and I started getting more and more into the North.
I met the publisher of News of the North and he asked me if I could recommend a good editor, so I recommended myself — at about 25 per cent of my previous paycheck. My wife went along with it, and it’s worked out alright.
The north has always had an appeal for me, and once I got there I realized that I was where I wanted to be. I was a good northern editor at the time: I smoked a pipe, I had a beard, and I was growly. Sometimes you do play the role a little bit.
J-Source: A lifetime achievement award is a pretty big deal – and the one you’re receiving tonight is very clearly recognizing a lifelong commitment to journalism. I mean, you’ve seen and done it all: You’ve been an ad guy, a reporter, an editor, and finally, on the management side. What’s next?
Sig: I’m not spending all of my time up there now — my wife has a disease which makes her cold-sensitive, so we’ve moved and I’m commuting. Again, with the Internet, I know everything that’s going on!
So, actually, because I’m not spending enough time on the office work in the paper, I’ve got myself into the stock market. I find it fascinating. I’m not making a ton of money at it, nor do I really care that much – you know, I don’t want to lose money – but it’s fascinating because it’s another learning experience. It kind of keeps the mind turning over, because I’m certainly not ready to vegetate.
J-Source: Anything else you would like to talk about?
Sig: I would like to comment on the award: Initially I was not only surprised but perhaps a little bit embarrassed at being named in such company – there’s some pretty important players and journalists [who have previously received the Lifetime Achievement Award].
Then I decided that really, the award is far more on behalf of Northern News Services and what has happened in the 40 years that I’ve been a reporter, editor and publisher.
I’ve seen tremendous changes. When I went there it was a colony; our government was totally appointed by Ottawa. We now have an elected government. The change has just been incredible. No place else in Canada – and very few other places in the world – have seen the number of changes we’ve seen in the last 40 years in the North. So I think that the award is probably in recognition of Northern News and what they’ve achieved in 40 years. I was just in the right place at the right time.
The other thing is we’ve had some tremendous staff over the years and in most daily newspapers in Canada, you’ll find members of our staff. Last night, I had visitors from The Globe and Mail, the Toronto Star, even some people from the [Toronto] Sun, and two or three freelance journalists who all worked with us over the years – that’s typical.
J-Source: You sound very modest?
Sig: Well, no, I don’t think I’m modest. I worked hard and I made some sacrifices for it. But there are a lot of other people who did lots of things. You don’t have to be modest to recognize that other people were a factor.
This Q&A has been edited for brevity.