By H.G. Watson, Managing Editor
Outside an auditorium in the Rotman School of Management on University of Toronto’s campus, a group of young people shriek every time someone climbs up a nearby staircase or pops out of the adjacent elevator banks. They are anticipating the arrival of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who, in a few short minutes, will sit down with the New York Times for a public Q&A about Canadian-American relations.
At the June 22 event hosted by the Times, the newspaper’s managing editor Joseph Kahn introduces all the speakers, noting in his speech that coverage in Canada is a top priority. It certainly feels like the New York Times is pulling out all the stops. Interviewing Trudeau is Catherine Porter, the Times’s Toronto bureau chief who left the Toronto Star for the job in January, and Peter Baker, the newspaper’s chief White House correspondent.
It’s all part of the New York Times’ efforts to expand its global footprint. Since the Times’ announced plans to invest $US50 million in global expansion in 2016, they’ve added three new Canadian correspondents, including Porter; started a weekly Canada-focused newsletter, written by long-time correspondent Ian Austen; launched a Canadian landing page on nytimes.com; and produced a number of well received feature news stories. It has paid dividends so far — in the last year, New York Times subscriptions have doubled in Canada, and 6.5 million Canadians visited nytimes.com in April.
Jodi Rudoren, the editorial director of NYT Global, is co-leading the cross-functional team overseeing this expansion. Before the Times’ event with Trudeau, she spoke with J-Source about the challenges of covering a large country and how Canadians are reacting to the New York Times’ coverage. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
J-Source: When J-Source spoke to you in January, you had said you were aware of the challenge of covering such a big country. So I am curious — six months later, how do you feel that is going?
Jodi Rudoren: I actually was talking to Catherine about it, because we were doing her bio for a page on the site. She talks about how she’d love to live abroad. Now she is living so close to where she grew up, but she’s seeing more of the country than she’s ever seen before, because she’s sort of acting like a foreign correspondent in her own country.
She’s going to all sorts of places she hasn’t spent much time. She did a huge, wonderful narrative about the new (assisted) death law out in British Columbia and she just got back from Winnipeg for a story that is going to publish soon.
Similarly the other correspondents are like up in the Arctic, and Dan Levin has done a lot out in British Columbia.
It’s certainly a big country. I’m a fan of covering it more thematically than geographically. I think that finding the stories that resonate across this country and across the world is more important.
J-Source: What themes do you think are emerging from the reporting that you’ve been doing?
J.R.: Well, first of all there is a big driving news story now, which is emanating out from the big massive story in Washington.
The question of the Trump administration and the president’s effect on global geopolitics, global business, global climate, global foreign policy, is more acute here than anywhere else — or equally as acute. The integration of our two economies and culture is considerable that I think watching how the Trudeau administration handles its relationship with Trump, and how Trump’s policies affects everything from steel and dairy to climate and refugee policy is a huge, massive story for Canadian media and for us.
Climate, I think broadly is a big theme. We’ve been focused with the 150th, as I think a lot of other people have been, on the situation around Indigenous Canadians, and the identity struggles and the demography of this place and how it is changing, and the push-pull on changing power structures.
Real estate is a huge story here that I think we are going to try do more on in the future. I think those stories are really resonant and they connect.
J-Source: When you’re thinking about these stories and what you are going to pursue, who are you writing them for? Because I know the New York Times has a huge audience in Canada, but you’ve also got your American core readership.
J.R.: It’s a huge complicated question that we are deeply engaged in studying and thinking about and experimenting with. The original New York Times foreign correspondent — and we called them foreign correspondents, we now mostly call them international correspondents — was going to all far flung corners of the Earth and essentially writing letters back home. They were really writing for a New York audience. I would say there were two aspects of that: they were writing a lot about American foreign policy, and they said they were writing about things that really were happening in those places. They were trying to explain what would be relevant or important to an American or New York audience.
That’s totally not true anymore. That’s not how we think about it. We now think about them as international correspondents. We think about them as writing for a global audience. We’ve been struggling a little bit with how to make that balance work — how to write more broadly, how to lessen the import of America. We’ve been struggling with that partly because our audience is still two-thirds to three-quarters American.
So while we used to think of all international correspondents of now writing for a global audience that’s predominately American, the people here are really trying to do two things: they are trying to engage and grow the audience of Canadians and to cover Canada for a global audience. Sometimes the same stories can do that, and sometimes we really need to think about different things. We do a weekly newsletter on Canada that’s something that’s for Canadians written by a Canadian. The idea is to help guide Canadians through the New York Times, to give them something extra and behind-the-scenes of the Canadian report.
Any Canadian who is interested enough in the news and engaged enough with the news to be interested in what we have to offer is going to need a more local source. We’re not going to break news every day for Canadians or really tell them what they need to know fully for their world. But we want to make sure that everything we write about Canada gives them something that they can’t get anywhere else.
We want there to be some kind of special sauce to everything we do so that a Canadian that already knows the basic backbone of that story would get something out of it. But sometimes we are taking a Canadian story and showing the rest of the world, and other times we are shining a light.
J-Source: In January, when you talked with us, we noted that Canadians seem to find there is a bit of a novelty of having outside sources cover them. Do you still think that’s the case now?
J.R.: I think that’s been true everywhere I’ve worked. When I was bureau chief in the midwest of America that was also true. I’d go Iowa and people would be like, “The New York Times is interested in us?”
I don’t think that writ large it’s a surprise to Canadians that the New York Times has a Canadian team.
We’ve stepped it up with the dedicated team and with other people. ln just the last couple of weeks, our Interpreter columnists were up there. They’ve written three newsletters about Canada. We’ve brought a bunch of culture writers up here for different things. I think we need to keep doing that too. It’s so easy for us. We have this massive newsroom an hour flight away. We can bring people up here and other parts of Canada regularly to infuse the whole report with just a little more Canada.
I think especially with Canada, because everything is so integrated and the issues are so similar, the more we do in Canada, I think the more Canadians will actually will find themselves in the rest of the report.
J-Source: I’m sure you are aware the Canadian media industry itself is having a hard time right now. From a business perspective, how does the Times see its role coming into this market where you have really under resourced local papers and just a lot of fluctuation that is happening in the industry?
J.R.: You know, I’m not a business person. I’m sort of playing one on TV in this role. There are two things going on at the same time in the decline of the local markets here, and also in Australia, and also frankly in California. We do see a business opportunity in this idea that there are news consumers here who are not being served well and who are frustrated at the decline in their local sources and who are therefore looking for other sources. We want to be that source and we want them to subscribe to the New York Times. But we also feel there is there is a mission component — a journalistic mission component — to going into a place where the local journalism industry is in decline or is under resourced.
If the Toronto Star can’t afford to send reporters all over Canada, how great is it that we have Catherine and can send her to these different communities and write stories that Canadians can then read about their own country that they might not get in their local media anymore? I think thats its good for our business, but it is also good for the cause of journalism.
That’s one of the things we were doing with our Latin America project. Mexico is a place where we just wrote a huge story about the pressures on journalists. The government is using cyber and hacking that’s supposed to be designed for terrorists against journalists and human rights activists. They can’t tell that story there — there is nobody in the local media to tell that story. So us telling that story is super important for the mission of holding governments accountable and for journalism’s freedom and independence and the cause of truth. We also hope that it will make Mexicans read our report.
One of the great things about this moment for the New York Times is that our business strategy and our journalistic strategy are aligned and intertwined. The business side is selling journalism that stands apart. That’s what we always wanted to produce, so it’s the one and the same.
J-Source: A year a from now how do you imagine the presence of the New York Times in Canada would look like?
J.R.: I think the initiative I am working on is an audience growth, consumer growth kind of project. So I think we start with the question of how do we grow the audience. More importantly how do we deepen engagement with the audience we have? Six million Canadians looked at us in April. We want to get more and more of them more deeply engaged in our report, and to subscribe. And how do we grow subscriptions? In Canada, subscriptions have grown 98 per cent over the last year. Can we double our subscriptions again in the next year? I don’t know. We’re working right now to have a more concrete set of growth plans. The next job is to then say, okay what is journalism product technology marketing plan to get there?
We’re not going to change our journalistic standards, but we might change how people spend their time. So you know, this newsletter — should the newsletter come out more often? Should it look different? Good questions — I don’t know. We’re going to work on it.
Every week we have new ideas about what we should do.