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book review

John Stackhouse, former editor-in-chief of The Globe and Mail, says he hopes people can learn from his case study in his book Mass Disruption: Thirty Years on the Front Lines of a Media Revolution.Galit Rodan/The Globe and Mail

Are you checking out The Globe and Mail online today? Then the odds are high that you won't read this review.

How do I know that? Because we have the data, my friend, and they are sobering. As former Globe editor-in-chief John Stackhouse reports in his new book, when the paper analyzed its online traffic, they found that fully 40 per cent of the paper is read by fewer than 1,000 people. This benighted, much-ignored category includes "baseball, tennis and theatre reviews" – basically, a lot of arts and culture coverage. Including, probably, this book review. So for those of you here with me: Thank you.

Why is this cultural category so ill-read? There are a lot of factors at work, but it's partly because the Internet is abrim with commentary, some of it extremely good, and possibly better than what you're reading here right now. Publishing used to be incredibly hard; it is now ridiculously easy. For nearly two centuries, newspapers had a monopoly on issuing daily news and commentary, and it's gone.

This has led to a huge collapse in advertising revenue for newspapers, because there are so many other ways to reach readers now. Indeed, advertisers used to be craven supplicants, as Stackhouse notes: "Veteran advertisers recall having to plead for a way into a fat weekend paper, or call in favours to get their ad near the front of a section, or pay exorbitant rates to get their message in print." In those predigital times, it was impossible to tell how many people read an individual story and print publications could make claims about the the size of their readerships that ranged from brazen to hallucinatory. (The Hockey News claimed that each individual copy was read by 19 people.)

Once it became possible for advertisers to track viewerships online and target precisely the readers they wanted, the jig was up. The demolition of advertising models for papers was rapid. Back in the late eighties, I worked for two summers in the Toronto Star's classified department, a division that – as at all papers – flooded the building waist-deep in cash. Profits on classified ads were 90 per cent, which is about the same as crystal meth. But that monopoly vanished, too, once advertisers could go to Craigslist or LinkedIn. When Canadian papers lost $480-million in ad revenue between 2007 and 2012, 80 per cent of the loss was classified ads. The New York Times figures its classified-ad losses equal half the cost of its entire newsroom.

How will newspapers survive? Certainly, daily news gathering is crucial to civic life and democracy. As Stackhouse notes, studies have found that the about two-thirds of the people doing journalism (in the early 2000s, at any rate) are employed at newspapers. For decades, newspapers were the ones breaking the most stories, and they still are. Indeed, one of the most fun parts of Mass Disruption is when Stackhouse tells dishy, behind-the-scenes tales of his time as a reporter and editor: interviewing a dentist in the slums of India, playing pickup hockey with Vladimir Putin and hosting an incoherent Rob Ford in The Globe and Mail's editorial board room. Shoe-leather reporting, as Stackhouse reminds us, isn't cheap. He figures The Globe spent more than $100,000 on its coverage of Rob Ford's drug-addled past.

As Stackhouse describes The Globe's attempts to adapt to its new financial straits, the picture that emerges is morbidly interesting and depressing. They lay off staff; they try to improve their use of social media, even as they discover that online ad rates are a tiny fraction of offline ones.

But the deep problem, he admits, is that newspapers – The Globe and Mail included – basically wasted their chance to adapt to the future. Profits in the seventies and eighties were handsome double-digits; he tells of foreign correspondents having their entire wardrobes dry-cleaned ("underwear included"), limousines stocked with champagne and millions spent on office renovations and redesigns of the print newspaper. In the nineties, when Conrad Black launched the National Post, Toronto's newspapers frantically poured money into fighting each other at the newsstand. They produced some absolutely top-notch writing; competition works! But it was a traditional print war precisely at the time they should have been fighting a digital war.

And it's not like newspapers weren't warned. Back in 1992, Bob Kaiser – a storied Washington Post writer – visited Apple and saw in an instant the coming digital world. He wrote a memo telling the Post they needed to do two things immediately: Create an electronic classified business and publish an electronic edition. "Both ideas," Stackhouse notes, "were ignored." Newspapers were filled with smart people whose job it was to report on the world, yet they ignored trends that were pretty obvious, even back in the mid-nineties. Indeed, despite newspaper executives' insistence that the digital world has evolved at bullet-train pace – How can we keep up? – the changes have taken place pretty gradually, over two decades.

The irony is that newspapers were, in their time, the inventive upstarts. As Stackhouse points out, you might mock today's cat-meme-bedecked and service listicles, but newspapers had for decades lured people with lightweight material and "service": crossword puzzles, weather, comics, sports scores. In the seventies, Globe librarian David Rhydwen created a digitally searchable archive of the paper, which turned out to be a profitable business. In essence, as Stackhouse notes, The Globe invented a search engine. Within each newspaper, individuals saw the future – but the higher-ups couldn't grasp it.

It's a classic innovator's dilemma. Newspapers had enormous sunk costs: Buildings, unionized work forces, massive shipping departments. They were focused on retaining their fat profits instead of investing in crazy new areas. "Survival instincts had trumped creative instincts," Stackhouse writes. And while I'm being a bit caustic here, I have sympathy with their plight. Adapting multimillion-dollar firms on the fly is hard. Very few industries attempt it until it's forced on them.

Today, it's being forced on them. The new generation of journalism upstarts – such as BuzzFeed or Vox – are competitive precisely because they don't have those huge sunk costs. They could design their wares for the markets where new readers were emerging, from mobile phones to Facebook, because they had no legacy readers to tend. (In contrast, when The Globe tried merely to end its bridge column, subscribers were so livid that the paper reinstated it.)

Stackhouse has relatively few pieces of solid advice for today's journalism. He suggests, reasonably, that Canada should amend its tax law to make it easier to set up non-profits that do reporting; down in the United States, non-profits such as ProPublica and the Marshall Project are winning Pulitzer Prizes with investigative journalism, and the non-profit model makes sense for serious, challenging reporting. Stackhouse also suggests news organizations aim for one of two sizes: Huge or small. Truly massive publications, with mass traffic, can survive. So can devoutly small ones that pick a niche and own it, becoming so indispensable in a community that they can charge significant ad rates – such as the new, online-only Texas Tribune.

It's also possible, I suspect, that today's upstarts will drift toward doing more and more Globe-like reporting. Jonah Peretti's BuzzFeed spent years publishing evanescent posts such as "35 People Who Just Realized That Seth MacFarlane Is Actually Hot." But in recent years it has greatly expanded its original reporting, and now has a 17-person investigative team and eight foreign bureaus in places ranging from Mexico City to Nairobi and London. When Michael Brown was shot in Ferguson, Mo., and police cracked down brutally on protesters, BuzzFeed's correspondents flooded the area, producing updates better than many I was getting from mainstream newspapers. This is, as Andrew Pettegree documented in The Invention of News – his brilliant academic history of the evolution of newspapers – precisely how today's journals began 200 years ago: beginning with factually dubious stuff often stolen from other places, then gradually consolidating into mainstream publications that took their mandate seriously.

Maybe, then, this cycle will rinse and repeat, too. What tectonic shifts will unsettle media in the next 30 years? Maybe we'll be reading a mournful book by Jonah Peretti, meditating on how BuzzFeed's business was destroyed by trends he couldn't foresee. As Lou Reed put it, "I don't like nostalgia unless it's mine."

Clive Thompson is the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology Is Changing Our Minds for the Better.

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