When Irene Gentle was named editor of the Toronto Star, a group of 17 women — all leaders in their respective newsrooms — banded together to send Gentle flowers and a note of congratulations.
The Star has not been without prominent female leaders — Gentle points to Mary Deanne Shears, managing editor of the Star from 1997 to 2004, as an example. However, Gentle is the first female editor to lead the paper in its 126-year history. She takes the helm as the Toronto Star undergoes a massive shift. Recovering from the shuttering of its tablet app, Star Touch, the paper has introduced a digital subscription model and has expanded nationally with the rebranding of the commuter papers Metro as StarMetro. (J-Source spoke with Gentle before Torstar announced it was laying off 21 staff total at StarMetro in Toronto.).
J-Source spoke to Gentle about what it means to be a historic first, and where she wants to see the Star go from here. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
J-Source: I saw on Twitter the flowers that you got, and the note from all the other women across Canada, which was really cool. I was wondering how you felt to get that recognition, especially as the first female editor of the Toronto Star in 126 years?
Irene Gentle: It’s been a bit overwhelming, the response to the job period, but the response to the fact that I am a woman. It’s not like I didn’t know this, but it really hits home how important that is as a symbol and as something for other people, for other young women in particular or young girls, to be able to see someone in a leadership position and actually see themselves in it.
Goosebumped all day because this incredible band of powerful media women banded together to send this card, with spectacular flowers. What incredible kindness and thoughtfulness. What a great way to show how women support women. That is true strength. Many thanks. 💪🏻♥️🙏🏻 pic.twitter.com/UNhdJgLfRQ
— Irene Gentle (@IreneGentle) June 22, 2018
I said on Twitter that day that I was goosebumped all day thinking of (the card) — pretty teary actually. I’m still goosebumped now when you bring it up again. It was the most incredible gesture. It really was the most incredible thoughtful, powerful gesture and, and it sort of flies in the face of the old, and I mean this quite old, notion of women don’t support each other and women are kind of out for themselves. But this incredible, powerful bunch of women all got together and thought to do something as amazing as that. It truly was amazing.
J-Source: I think something I myself hadn’t even realized until I saw that list of names, but just the fact that right now in Canada there are so many women leaders in newsrooms all at the same time.
I.G.: That’s right. It’s like, it sort of creeps up on you, which is good.
It is sort of nice to see this thing that’s been happening without anyone really noticing.
J-Source: Steve Maich, who used to work at Rogers, wrote an op-ed responding to people who have said that women in all these newsroom positions right now could be some sort of glass cliff. He sees it as the future is bright. I’m curious — how do you feel about that?
I.G.: I did read it. I thought that it was a very well thought out piece.
There is a thing, at least in our perception — whether it’s true or not, I’m not sure, but I can’t imagine a better time to be leading a news organization than right now. It’s sort of easy to lead when everything’s great.
I don’t think it’s the experience of almost anyone who’s been in media for the last, well probably 20 years even, but, but certainly the last 10 years. There are two things going on. One is, it’s never been more important societally to put out a really strong, credible, trusted brand and try to find a way to cut through the noise of the many areas of misinformation. There’s a lot of information coming from all over. It’s hard for people to sort through it. So to be in a position where you can be part of trying to find a solution to that, trying to find a way through the noise I think is incredibly important right now.
We’ve been getting more tools than ever. We know who our customers are, who our readers are more than we’ve ever been able to. Before, a truck would go out and the papers wind up at houses and, and again, everything was okay. But now we’ve got more ways of knowing what people want and why they’re reading us, what we both believe in. We’ve got an opportunity to reach out much more directly than we’ve been able to do before, and I think that’s also a really terrific opportunity.
J-Source: How do you feel like this job has changed since even Michael Cooke took it over?
I.G.: It would be hard for me to quantify how much it’s changed, although I know I would say it has changed dramatically. The reason it’s hard to quantify is because it changes sort of subtly under your feet every single day. At some point you look back and realize that it has actually been quite seismic. If you liken it to the first smartphones that were not very long ago, and how dramatically different our life is now 10 years or so in from that. No one necessarily thought that it was going to have such a seismic change on relationships, how people meet each other, how they get information, all of that. It’s similar perhaps on a lesser scale that it changes all the time to the point where it’s probably unrecognizable from now versus nine years ago.
J-Source: We’ve already seen several national stories go live that have included all the papers across Canada as well as the Toronto Star. How much are you going to be also working with the StarMetros and working on these big nationwide projects?
I.G.: One of the great things is that we have this footprint and we have doubled down on local reporting in Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton. We have reporters in Halifax, so it absolutely increases our muscle, right? It increases our reporting muscle clearly.
It really absolutely to me increases the mic and the message. The idea is not to make everything a broad national story because I think what the shrinking of media has done more than anything. It’s actually hurt local reporting. The local reporting is really important to Toronto and also Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton and Halifax.
J-Source: A year from now, where do you really want to see the Toronto Star and the Star brand across Canada?
I.G.: We’ve got really great recognition in Ontario, so I think one of the goals is to increase our recognition in the areas where we’ve put local reporting. It’s not just like an adjunct of the Toronto Star, but there are actual reporters who live and work there and are telling those very individual, very local stories. Increasing that awareness would be a pretty big thing.
We are in not just the kind of industry-wide existential threat in terms of the business, but we’re in a far larger than Canadian-wide fight for relevance and for trust and credibility. So I think those three things are really, really important to me.
I think we need to fight against that, that sense of ‘does media matter?’ Yeah, media really deeply matters and here’s why. So then we want to be trusted and credible media. So let us show you all the ways how and let us try to cut through the noise. So those three things to me are really important.
And making sure that we really, really have a good relationship with those people because we’re asking things of them, right? I mean, news never used to be free. Newspapers were a subscription business — they were paid. A lot of us have forgotten that over the time, when they became free. We have to be of value.
So the next year will be really trying to make sure that we are that value, that we provide that value, that people feel good about paying for it.
Editor’s note, July 5, 2018, 11:42 a.m.: A previous version of this story erroneously stated that Gentle was also leading StarMetro across Canada. Cathrin Bradbury is the editor-in-chief of StarMetro. We apologize for the error.