After four decades in the industry, Doug Knight will exit the media "management trenches" on July 4 when he retires as president of St. Joseph Media, publisher of titles such as Fashion magazine and Toronto Life.
Parent company St. Joseph Communications – which also offers marketing services and commercial printing operations – announced the departure this week. The media division will report to executive chairman and CEO Tony Gagliano until a successor is chosen.
Mr. Knight began as a producer at CBC before spending 20 years at the Financial Post, including time as publisher and CEO. He was part of a management-led leveraged buyout of Toronto Sun Publishing Corp. from Rogers Communications Inc. in 1996, after which he served as publisher of the Toronto Sun. In 2000 he moved to New York and in 2003 became CEO of Spanish-language newspaper company ImpreMedia. He returned to Canada, to his post at St. Joseph, in 2006.
In an interview this week, Mr. Knight reflected on the challenges facing the industry.
Social media is taking media distribution out of the hands of the people who make the content. What position do you think media companies should take toward those digital and social media giants? Is Facebook friend or foe?
You know that the vast majority of digital advertising dollars goes to Google and Facebook. I don't find it very productive to look at it from a defensive point of view, trying to go back to the way it was. That's not going to happen. Harold Innis wrote a book at the end of his life – he died the year I was born, which is amusing, 1952 – called Empire and Communications. The key insight was, at every point [in history] from [the time of] cuneiform tablets, every time there was a change in the nature of communication, the whole power structure of the planet changed. I think we're in the middle of that right now. You can't change it, you can't rail against it, you can't defend against it. You have to figure out: Where does that place the value that we think we, as journalists, create?
The media business at large is working on razor-thin margins, if the margins are there at all. How is St. Joseph Media doing?
The company's been doing fine compared to everybody else, which is a pretty thin boast. Look, the height of the market was 2007, and as of last year the advertising pages in the magazine industry were down something like 80 per cent. That's a pretty shocking reality to deal with. However, magazines like Toronto Life and Fashion – which are our two largest titles in the legacy media world – are both enormously successful. The readership has stayed very strong. Toronto Life was the first magazine in the country that had a larger digital audience than print audience. Now the social media audience is eclipsing all of that. Fashion magazine has the largest social media following of any magazine in the country. Where it used to be that your advertising would pay the bills and the money would go out to your journalists and to printing and distribution, now you've got multiple layers of things you're doing to convene that community. It's a lot more work. You've got newsletters, social media across multiple platforms, your website, events. That's how you actually build up a sufficient revenue base to pay for what you do.
St. Joseph is working more closely with advertisers, too.
The Strategic Content Labs [a division Mr. Knight launched in 2013] is not so much [about] working more closely with advertisers, although in some cases we do. We were looking at people who had big communications challenges. We did all the content and design for the new National Music Centre in Calgary, and we did it from a journalistic point of view – how to do great storytelling, great graphics. We aren't museum designers, we're storytellers. It was the same thing with the University of Guelph. There was a contest for universities across the country for these very large one-time grants – $77-million – but they had no story, no communications strategy. We sat down with them to figure out the strategy. And they got the grant. The change in communications platforms has opened up all kinds of opportunities that don't really align with the old way of thinking about it – [that] there are journalists, and there are advertisers. There's actually this whole other thing in the middle that is different. It's been cool, and it's growing like crazy.
Your experience goes back to the Maclean-Hunter days with the Financial Post and the Sun papers. What's your view of the state of those papers' current owner, Postmedia, and of the broader newspaper business?
Newspapers saw the disintegration of their revenue way before magazines did. Daily newspapers in individual communities where somebody else is doing better sports coverage online, someone else is covering the weather better online – it's harder for you to stake out that territory of huge value. That's the challenge a Postmedia faces, the Toronto Star with all their newspapers: The revenue is melting down. Where do you plant your stake in the ground and say, "Here's the value we create that people will pay for?" From a newspaper perspective, finding that value proposition is not the same as it used to be, because you've been disintermediated.
You worked alongside Paul Godfrey. Do you think he's doing what needs to be done with that company?
I'm not going to comment. I'm not there, I'm not inside it. I mean, the fact that they're still alive, you have to say that's a remarkable achievement under these circumstances. But I truly don't know enough about what's going on day-to-day.
Is the magazine industry going to get even smaller in Canada?
On the one hand you've got Rogers, which has trimmed down dramatically the titles that they're publishing and trimmed down the frequency of the titles they still publish. Transcontinental sold all their magazines to TVA. At the same time, at Magazines Canada [an industry organization where Mr. Knight is chair] we're seeing our membership grow year after year. People are starting smaller magazines. They're finding niches. It's sometimes easier, frankly, to have a great, standalone magazine than to have 30 magazines with all the infrastructure and all the overheads. There may be a retooling of who runs magazines, who owns magazines. What I don't think there will be is a reduction in readership of magazines. Canadians love Canadian stories. They've never been as important as they are now. That need and that appetite will continue to fuel – however we solve it economically – this appetite for Canadian journalism. The appetite is there. I believe that.
What keeps you up at night?
As we go through these wrenching transformations and newsrooms are being thinned out, people spend a lot of time talking about supporting journalists. But what's missing in my view is editors. Without editors we lose this whole culture of storytelling, finding and nurturing journalists, bringing them along and making what they do better. You learn to be a great editor by working with great editors. And I worry that as the larger companies that could employ a deeper pool of editors and are the places where so many people got trained – that they're thinning out. Even losing one generation of that will affect us.
The Minister of Heritage has put her policy under review. What's your view on what is needed from the policy side?
The question is this: Do you support journalism, and if you do, how do you do it? And how do you answer the question to Canadians: Why should we be doing that? It's important from a public policy point of view, that as the economic models are transformed, we don't lose the ability for Canadian voices to be out there. We need it more than ever.
This interview has been edited and condensed.