By Ira Basen, Future of News editor
George Brown, who founded The Globe and Mail newspaper in 1844, was no friend of the masses.
He was distrustful of American-style direct democracy and deeply hostile to unions. When printers went on strike against his newspaper in 1872 in support of a nine-hour day, Brown was outraged. “It is utterly ridiculous to talk of the rapacity and despotism of the employer,” he fumed. “The tyranny of the employed over his master would be an infinitely truer version of the case.”
And so it is entirely possible that Brown would be delighted to learn that the current iteration of his newspaper is not particularly interested in appealing to the working stiff. Its target audience is people with household incomes of $125,000, substantially above the $76,000 that the National Household Survey has determined is the median family income in Canada today.
It’s no secret that The Globe and Mail has long seen itself as a paper with an elite readership. But just how elite they are, and how the Globe plans to attract more of them, received some unexpected clarity last week, thanks to remarks delivered by publisher Phillip Crawley to the World Publishing Expo in Berlin.
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Crawley told the group that the Globe was targeting “a high-end market.”
“We are really only interested in readers who earn more than $100,000,” he said on Oct. 8.
Crawley’s remarks stirred up quite a buzz online, so the next day, editor-in-chief John Stackhouse issued a clarification to Globe staff. “Our target is $100,000 household income, not personal income,” Stackhouse wrote, “although if you want to get really into the weeds, it is HHI of $125,000 that is our marketing focus.”
Stackhouse went on to acknowledge that they would never turn away other readers, like retirees who used to have six-figure incomes, or young professionals who aspire to that goal, but “our advertisers, who pay most of our bills,” want a newspaper that attracts high-income readers. And hopefully, they will be between 35 and 55 years old.
Stackhouse refers to these readers as members of the Globe’s “tribe,” although at the moment, the tribe is under-performing. More than half of all Globe readers have average household incomes of under $100,000. And more than half are over 50.
High-income readers buy high-end products, and in 2010, the Globe made a significant investment to attract up-market advertisers when it signed a $1.7-billion contract with the Canadian printing giant Transcontinental to print the paper for the next 18 years. The redesigned paper is a shiny bauble that manages to look cheap and expensive at the same time. It offers rich colour photography and magazine-grade stock that appeals to advertisers of $5,000 watches, $100,000 cars and purveyors of exotic spices and fragrances.
Since that redesign, the search for greater revenue has shifted to the challenge of extracting more money from online readers. The Globe put its content behind a metered paywall a year ago and approximately 100,000 people have signed up, according to publisher Crawley. About a third of those are digital-only subscribers, while the rest also subscribe to the print edition. About a quarter of all digital revenue now comes from subscriptions, and he hopes that will rise to 50 per cent in two years’ time.
And to meet that ambitious goal, the newspaper will need to get a better idea of what the Globe tribe wants to read and how to deliver that content to them.
Trying to figure out what readers are looking for has always been a big part of the publishing business. Until now, it has been an inexact science. Newspapers had to rely heavily on an editor’s “nose for news” to determine what stories found their way into print.
But in an online world, Crawley told the Berlin conference, the key is “predictive analytics.” The Globe now employs data analysts who can determine what kind of content gets read and how “engaged” readers are with that content. They can measure how many page views an article receives, how long a reader spends reading it and many other variables that were simply not possible until recently.
And with much of the guess-work now removed, about 30 Globe editors and managers have been put on notice that they will be expected to generate content that engages audiences, keeps existing subscribers and attracts new ones. They have been offered financial incentives to meet their targets.
“We want the people who drive our content choices to be sharply aware of their ability to attract potential subscribers, lead them to conversions and retain them,” Stackhouse told Marketing. “Digital subscription is the new business model, and journalists have a vested interest to help that model succeed.”
So what does all this mean?
All Canadians should be rooting for the Globe’s success. We all have our complaints with the paper. Its claim to being Canada’s “national newspaper” has grown increasingly tenuous over the years. It does not cover provincial capitals as well as it used to. You can’t even buy the paper anymore in Newfoundland and Labrador, and the recent shrinkage of its weekday arts coverage is a head scratcher.
But the Globe is still an important national institution, and all Canadians would all be worse off if it were to fail. And if predictive analytics is the wave of the future, then let’s hope they get it right. But too much knowledge can sometimes be a bad thing. Globe editors may now know exactly what the tribe wants, but is analyzing audience metrics really the road to building a better newspaper?
What about the more than 50 per cent of Globe readers who don’t fit the tribe’s income and demographic profile? They may feel less at home with a paper that seems increasingly obsessed with stories about food, fashion and fitness and online posts and videos about celebrities that seem to have little purpose other than as click bait, such as “Scarlett Johansson on her first time watching porn.”.
And what about the old notion of journalism’s purpose being “to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted”? The Globe today seems more interested in reflecting and reinforcing the assumptions of its tribe than in challenging them.
There is little diversity of any kind to be found in the pages of today’s Globe and Mail. Of the 30 columnists currently listed on the paper’s webpage, only one, Zarqa Nawaz, is not white and she hasn’t contributed to the paper since September 2012. Only six active columnists are women.
Nor is there much political or ideological diversity to be found. Globe columnists start with the solidly centrist Jeffrey Simpson and tack starboard from there. The paper even employs one of Canada’s last climate change deniers.
The Globe likes to think of itself as Canada’s answer to the New York Times. But the Times, which chases roughly the same readership as the Globe, employs a much more politically diverse stable of columnists. The Globe seems closer to the ideological conformity of the Wall Street Journal or, horror of horrors, the National Post, than it does to the Times.
These are not new complaints about the Globe. They have been around long before the paper decided to make “growing subscriptions” part of the “compensation conversation” with selected editors and reporters. But now that that decision has been made, how likely is it that afflicting the comfort of the tribe will be high on the list of priorities?
“Editors have to be mentally agile enough to understand the needs of subscribers, versus the journalistic ambitions of the organizations,” Stackhouse told Marketing. “Often these go hand-in-hand, but sometimes there are divergences.”
And when those divergences occur, you might not need a data analyst to predict who will come out on top.