Steve Ladurantaye on the media beat
Steve Ladurantaye has a rare job in Canada: He's a media reporter. Here, Eric Mark Do talks with The Globe and Mail journalist about why the media beat matters, why paywalls are the thing to watch in 2013 and how advertorials may affect journalists' and news organizations' credibility.
Steve Ladurantaye has a rare job in Canadian journalism: He's a media reporter. Here, Eric Mark Do talks with The Globe and Mail journalist about why the media beat matters, what trends he has seen in his reporting and how things such as advertorials and paywalls may have an impact on the industry.
J-Source: Why is it important that your job exists?
Steve Ladurantaye: The media sector has undergone an awful lot of change in the last couple years and is in this sort of weird state of existential crisis where we have all these readers who are turning to traditional news sources and non-traditional news sources. But they're turning toward news; they want to read and they want to see things more than they ever have before. There's no trouble on the readership side—of course we have hugely challenging revenue problems particularly in print, but TV is no stranger to difficulties either. And if we're going to understand what's happening and where it's going and how we might make money in the future, then I think it's important that we dedicate some reporting resources to what is one of Canada's biggest industries essentially.
J-Source: Why aren't there more media reporters in Canada?
SL: Yeah, I don't know. I think traditionally whenever you propose doing stories about media, there's a sense that the only people that care about media stories are people in the media. That maybe it's a little navel-gazing. I don't think that's true I think there's a broad appetite for stories about media, and I'm glad that other people aren't covering it because that means there's more for me.
But generally speaking I think there's just a hesitancy to shine too bright a light onto what we're doing and a thought that the broader world didn't care, but I think it does. And even if the broader world doesn't care, I think there's a big enough market in this country of people who are either in the media or somehow linked to the media, who have an appetite for these stories.
J-Source: Do you have full autonomy in your role, for example, when you need to report on a situation at The Globe?
SL: Mmhmm. I'm largely self-assigning—which isn't unique at The Globe really. We're conscious that this is kind of a weird thing. I'm not going to try and do a takedown on The Globe—I think that's understood; I don't think that would be shocking to anyone—but it's also not my role to pump up The Globe either. So it's just a case of being really careful, to stick as close as possible to the facts and navigate in the realm of possibilities.
If there's something that's uncomfortable, my job is to treat The Globe like any other company on my beat. I'll phone the publisher, I'll phone the editor and I'll write a story about it. There've been a few instances where it could get uncomfortable, but my editors in the business section would handle a story that affected another section of the paper for example. So it's not like there's some sort of weird thing where I interview John Stackhouse and John Stackhouse edits my story about John Stackhouse. That would never happen.
J-Source: You touched a bit on the revenue problems in the industry. It’s no secret that print advertising dollars are down in the newspaper industry. In your reporting on the industry, what are the most common challenges that newspapers are facing in terms of their business models and what new and innovative things are they doing to try to overcome them?
SL: The first part of that question is easy. What's the problem? The problem is that companies aren't spending so much on print as they used to. I know that's a huge problem for us because our whole structure is built on having big, profitable full-page ads taken out every day that underwrites the journalism. That's how we pay for things, sort of building digital revenue. And that's fine. But it's not advancing at the same pace. Selling digital ads isn't going to be a complete solution because it just doesn't get you to the same levels that we're at now.
You look at Postmedia, Paul Godfrey, their CEO, has said very clearly that Postmedia of the future isn't the Postmedia that we have today. It's going to be smaller, it's going to have fewer people and it'll be profitable —right now it's losing money. But the newspaper of tomorrow doesn't look like the newspaper of today, I don't think.[node:ad]
So you start to see things like paywalls helping out a little bit, but I don't think paywalls are the ultimate solution. I think they're one of the solutions. I think you look for other revenue streams—you see newspaper companies branching into conferences, you have custom content where we're generating stories that are built around a theme that you sell advertising around—all those sorts of things start to add up if you do it right. And what the papers have that's an advantage are strong brands that people know, which buys them a little bit of time.
J-Source: Do you think that custom content and advertorials will survive in the new business models?*
SL: People confuse those; those are two different things. I worked at the Ottawa Business Journal—this would have been the late 1990s, early 2000s—and every week we had four or eight pages, depending on how much advertising we could sell, that would be a report on something. And at the beginning of every year we'd post a calendar that said what each of those would be every week and the advertising people would go out and sell around those ideas. So if it was a report on aerospace this week, they would go out and sell to Bombardier.
That's not very different than what we're doing now with custom content–it's actually the same thing. That never bothered anyone before but it bothers people now—I'm not sure why. Back then when we did it, the lines were very clear between advertising and editorial. And now it's the same, as far as I can tell.
There is a question about advertorials that look like editorial; stories the companies write themselves and place on a page that look increasingly like news stories. So it's like we're trying to trick people into thinking that this is real content. We put little pads up in the corner that says “special content,” “special reporter,” “information feature,” all those sorts of bullshit terms and the industry is being pretty sneaky about it. I think we've probably pushed that about as far as it's going to go. I don't think people are fooled and I think we need to be a little bit more careful about blowing our integrity on these stories that are not really stories because credibility’s the only thing we have to keep us going.
J-Source: I've noticed that in the U.S. there are more media reporters in your type of role. What stands out for you as a key difference in media watchdogs between Canada and the U.S.?
SL: We don't have much of a culture of media criticism in this country, I don't think, the way that the U.S. does. My job isn't to report on the way the Toronto Star covered a story or the way Maclean's approached something—that's not what my role is at all. My role is to report on the corporate side, the financial side, the business side. Where in the U.S. you have a lot more people whose job is to do that sort of media criticism. They look at ethics, they look at trends a little bit more. They write about the journalism more than I do. My job isn't to probe into the quality of journalism in this country as a media reporter. Sometimes people think that's what I do, and sometimes on Twitter I'll laugh at a headline or make fun of a stupid picture, but that's not my real job. My real job is to break news about the media industry, whereas again in the States, you have more of a culture of criticism.
J-Source: Do you think we need that culture of criticism here?
SL: Yeah I think it'd be great, but I don't see how you could do it in a country so small, effectively. I think it's a real challenge. It's a small country right? So you're dealing with the same people day in and day out and I just don't see how that would really be all that effective here. It does happen — there is this whole blogger world out there that does this too, and that fills a niche for sure.
J-Source: What "future of media" trends are you actively keeping an eye on that perhaps we should all look out for this year?
SL: I'll start on the print side. I think we need to figure out whether paywalls are going to be the solution for a lot of the Canadian papers or not. This is the year of the paywall in Canada—we're all doing it—and whether that's going to be enough to get things back on track or not, I think we'll find out this year. So that's going to be pretty interesting.
Generally speaking, you need to see what happens with the ad market and whether advertisers are going to keep moving their money out of print and into digital. And if they are going to move it into digital, whether they are going to move it to traditional networks like The Globe’s. Also whether newspapers, TV stations, are going to stop relying on telling advertisers how many clicks they get … and starting to rely more on the quality of your audience—being able to say that rich Canadians read our publication and you want to advertise to them, rather than advertising to everyone on the internet. That's why you want to come to newspaper X, Y or Z. I think that's a big question too in a world where it's easy to get your message out to everyone, but it's a little trickier to get it out to the right people. Maybe that's where a lot of media properties can find some opportunity.
*Clarification: This question, and part of the following answer, was originally omitted, having been cut during the editing process. However, for clarity's sake, it has been added.
This interview has been lightly edited for brevity.