John Stackhouse’s “Mass Disruption” asks whether journalism will ever be the same

Former Globe and Mail editor’s book takes a hard look at journalism but doesn’t address the survival of the big media companies. John Stackhouse, Mass Disruption: Thirty Years on the Front Lines of a Media Revolution (Random House Canada). Hardcover, $32.00. By Marc Weisblott The economic turmoil of the newspaper industry continues to be accompanied by a…

Former Globe and Mail editor’s book takes a hard look at journalism but doesn’t address the survival of the big media companies.

John Stackhouse, Mass Disruption: Thirty Years on the Front Lines of a Media Revolution (Random House Canada). Hardcover, $32.00.

By Marc Weisblott

The economic turmoil of the newspaper industry continues to be accompanied by a familiar rhetorical refrain, mostly transmitted through Twitter: Who allowed all of this to happen? Why are there certain faces attached to opinion pieces? And—invariably accompanying the disdain toward the old business model and its audience—why don’t they ever ask me?

Whatever skills are needed to reach the top of a masthead, chances are shooting spitballs aimed at the status quo—often with no concept of how it existed before practically every article ever written could be read in the palm of your hand for free—isn’t a part of the skill set. The notion that the few remaining lifers at big-time broadsheets are blind to the ongoing upheaval and wish things were still run like it was 1985 seems to be more useful than not.

After all, it keeps enrolment up at journalism schools, where students are told they may never get a job (which they were also told 30 years ago); content farmhands believing that their byline might be noticed if attached to enough well-shared stories (not going to happen) and the assumption that a perfunctory social media like (or love) from someone who gets a picture next to their printed words is somehow tantamount to being anointed as their successor any minute now, even if those roles will most likely be retired once they are.

John Stackhouse may have been replaced at the Globe and Mail in 2014 after a five-year run as editor-in-chief, but he never denies the power of the platform in Mass Disruption, even as he recounts the process of having to inform a few egos that the daily page count could no longer accommodate them.

Rex Murphy balked at the prospect of being shuffled from Saturday to Monday and turned up the following week in the National Post; Rick Salutin was deemed redundant, then apparently rallied over 150 of his fans (some somewhat famous) to argue that they were stifling a voice from the left, although he landed at the Toronto Star; and Jeffrey Simpson, presented with the prospect of moving from four print columns a week to three, pointed to the soup named after him in the bureau food court and balked at the notion that he take his act to social media. “‘Twitter!’ he exclaimed, his face reddening,” describes Stackhouse at the end of a paragraph that the @globeandmail winkingly retweeted my screenshot of.

Stackhouse has a few other good yarns from his half-decade in charge, from overseeing a special edition on Africa guest edited by Bono and Bob Geldof, to playing shinny against Vladimir Putin, to being dragged before the Ontario Press Council kangaroo court to defend the feature alleging Doug Ford sold hash long before Rob smoked crack.

The trials and tribulations of trying to get the fraying Globe house in some kind of digital order are detailed, too, with tales of trying to get the paywall to pay for itself, and making a point to the old guard by putting digital developers in the middle of the newsroom (only to find the seating area disparagingly dubbed the “Gaza Strip”) and struggling to wind back office hours to get staffers to produce fresh content for a ravenous online audience at the start of their workday.

Some of the online commenters inclined to falling most out of line during this time are revealed to have been doctors, lawyers and oilmen—lest you think Globe publisher Phillip Crawley was wrong in saying they were targeting the product to Canadians who earned the most money.

The road to Stackhouse’s installation as editor-in-chief includes lively recollections of how they got in this pickle, arguably starting with the failure to steadily build upon the Globe Online database founded in November 1977 (while neglecting to mention that it initiated a lengthy legal skirmish over copyright issues), the newspaper war declared by Conrad Black (while Stackhouse was one of those approached by the Post, he was a loyal soldier and did his part by living the life of a homeless guy for a week) and the unholy convergence-era alliance of Bell Globemedia (“Can’t you get John Doyle to stop being so critical of CTV?” recalls Stackhouse of an inquiry made at a Masonic Temple strategy session).

Of course, Mass Disruption isn’t the work of a guy who became the Globe editor-in-chief by accident. Stackhouse earned enough stripes by his early 30s to be sent to New Delhi for much of the ’90s, as development issues correspondent, and is under no delusion that a similar ascent through the ranks would be possible today.

As the convergence era was in its most drunken state, digital ideas were taking shape through a combination of startup culture and creative eccentricities that weren’t too welcome at the brick bomb shelter at 444 Front Street West. (I know this first-hand, having been invited to do a free-form blog for the Globe about the 2006 Toronto election, an exhilarating pre-social media experience that had no follow-through).

The prevailing sentiment is that we’ve now reached a stage where any corporate behemoth—like, say, the Royal Bank, where Stackhouse is now a senior vice-president—thinks it can leverage all of its legacy advantages in new ways because no one will ever be able to rival that old-stock Canadian clout where it counts.

Now, this could well prove true, and Stackhouse’s amiability about it earned the book three half-print-pages of coverage in the Globe just for being published. But the suggestions of where to find signals of where things are at already seem stale: Google’s interest in the news ecosystem has lapsed, the Huffington Post was never and never will be AOL’s “news brand for Millennials” (alas, Stackhouse tried his hand at feeding its faded blog rail) and much-lauded business site Quartz, along with its parent The Atlantic, seems to have fallen into a swamp where even the snarky stories read like sponsored ones.

Meanwhile, BuzzFeed is mentioned more times in the index than the Globe, even if its influence exists entirely in the abstract.

And since Stackhouse’s departure, of course, his ex-employer has followed suit with branded content schemes, most recently throwing a debauched-looking party that involved a money-blowing machine—the kind of event the newspaper used to write about with hopes of attracting media buyer bucks, so a sign of progress that they’re throwing one of their own.

Mass Disruption rolled off the presses in a different era from the one it was written in a year or so ago. Watching how the mainstream media is spun through social media this fall has been a crash course in delusions—while few seemed to care what columnists were fixated upon during the election, and none of the nitpicking about candidate indiscretions seemed to stick, it was open season on the irrelevant ritual of editorial board endorsements.

With that comes the harping on the view that newspapers and their websites reflect a narrow worldview and have an obligation to do better, perhaps because it’s easier than dismissing their influence altogether. As a result, the young agitators against the Globe (or Postmedia or Torstar) don’t realize how out of touch they actually are. Fact is, the next wave of social media opinionating won’t consider newspapers at all—and those hammering away at need for a different point of view may think Twitter is as outdated a delivery system as the newspaper that lands on a welcome mat.

Still, it’s fun to imagine that there remains a lifetime job to be had in just spouting off about whatever you think about what you see. The Globe and Mail did get away with it for at least 150 years. Whether it deserves one more is now something it has to work for.

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H.G. Watson was J-Source's managing editor from 2015 to 2018. She is a journalist based in Toronto. You can learn more about her at hgwatson.com.