TORONTO—“I’ve been in the business for 50 years, and I’ve seen more change in the last three than in any other time. And the biggest difference is data.”
That’s what Phillip Crawley, C.E.O. of The Globe and Mail, Canada’s leading national paper, told me when I caught up with him in Toronto, where I recently addressed the annual National Conference of newspaper publishers.
The latest in this latest three-year push was the launch, announced May 21, is a complete makeover of its mobile apps.
For Crawley, it’s an extension of an effort that’s been intensified since his newspaper erected a metered digital subscription platform, and began to collect data about what converts readers into subscribers.
“Now that we have data, we know that 70 percent of subscriber conversions happen when someone hits the paywall on a financial story,” Crawley told me.
At 70 and as energetic as ever, his colleagues say, Crawley has seen a lot of change in the journalism business. Today, he has served 16 years, one of the longest-standing newspaper company C.E.O.s worldwide, having taken on that job in 1999. Since starting out as editor of The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne in his native England, Crawley’s career stops include both editorial leadership and business leadership roles at quality papers in New Zealand, Hong Kong, U.K. and Canada.
Maybe it’s Canadian understatedness, or maybe it’s the vast experience that Crawley draws on, but the Globe’s relative steadiness stands out.
The Globe and Mail is the main national newspaper of the nation of 36 million, which about matches the size of California. Only the National Post, owned by Post Media, competes for that position, but its paid circulation is only a third of the Globe’s. Post Media’s Financial Post provides national business news competition. In a comparative sense, the Globe strives to be both The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal of Canada, and I asked Crawley how he thinks North Americans to Canada’s south think of the Globe. “I don’t think they think about it all,” he offered drily.
Crawley’s take on digital disruption stands out as both measured and cognizant of newspaper’s uncertain place in the media firmament.
The Globe put a metered paywall into place two and a half years ago. Consequently, readers now contribute 40 percent of its revenue, up from 20 to 25 percent only a decade ago.
Print circulation stands at 302,000 on Saturday, Canada’s big weekend day; daily is at 230,000. Hotel copies make up 25,000 of each total.
Like its peers, the Globe has suffered significant losses in print ad revenue, and though, as a privately owned company doesn’t release financials, has plainly felt the global newspaper turndown, though it has survived that turndown better than many of its Canadian peers.
While Canada survived the global Great Recession among the best of its Western peers, it now rivals the U.S. in print ad loss at its larger papers. Especially over the last half-decade, Canada has seen its own share of digital disruption woes,
Post Media, the company that grew out of the 2009 bankruptcy of Canwest, now consolidates operations, aiming for 15-20 percent cost cutting within three years, and will soon close on its acquisition of the Sun media chain, significantly reducing competition. Like the U.S. chains, it has announced a steady stream of newsroom layoffs over the last several years.
The new apps unveiled this past month offer three editions a day, playing with the idea of a traditional editorial curation and hierarchy, while engaged in a 24/7 news process. This month, version two adds a recommendation engine for all signed up readers.
The Globe has based much of its new strategy on analytics.
The data revelation about readers of financial stories recently prompted a doubling-down of editorial staffing in business. The Globe added 34 people to its business news reporting staff. Most transferred from other departments, though a number of new hires were included.
That’s both an offensive – and defensive – move. The Wall Street Journal reopened a presence in Canada two years ago, but it’s Bloomberg that is making the bigger push. Crawley cites an increase of 30 Bloomberg business staffers recently and the company’s plans to launch a business TV report in the fall. While he sees that initiative as mainly intended to bolster Bloomberg’s core terminal business, the competition for the Canadian business reporter has clearly intensified.
“Sixteen years ago, our main competition was the National Post,” he says. Now, as that competition has faded, the challenge becomes more global.
In many ways, the Globe’s business journey parallels that of U.S. and European publishers. Along that dimension, it displays the universality of contemporary news publishing challenges. Let’s distill the Globe’s journey into the modern digital world in these five points:
Business and politics, politics and business: Of course, The Globe and Mail has long been a daily read for the business elite. Crawley embraces its demographics despite criticism. The Globe now taps the verticals and niches of the digital world. The lead clearly is business, but it’s business intertwined with politics and public policy, a strategy we can see in so many recent strategies from Bloomberg to Politico. Further t14argeting those who want real-time markets data, Globe Investor Gold sells for $20 a month to 10,000 subscribers.
Paywall progress: Crawley says he is so far satisfied with the paywall, which offers 10 free, monthly, metered views. It has pushed 50,000 digital-only readers to subscribe to Globe Unlimited. At $24 a month, a price that reflects a recent $4 a month increase, it would produce about $11 million a year. At 50,000, the Globe would rank among the highest regional dailies in the U.S., for digital only subscribers.
Activating those print readers: The Globe has hit the 50 percent activation mark, an important milestone for dailies. That means that half of its 150,000 print subscribers have registered for digital access. As the Globe sees its well-educated, affluent readership move increasingly digital, it wants to make sure it doesn’t lose those readers. Activation is the first key to that. So while 50 is decent number after 30 months of a paywall, the fact that another 75,000 Globe subscribers only use it in print is an issue to be tackled.
The Globe, unlike some U.S. counterparts, doesn’t charge any additional pricing for digital access, if subscribers take at least five days of print. In addition, like its Canadian peers it has eschewed opt-out pricing, which essentially forces customers to take an affirmative action to block a price increase associated with digital access.
Freedom from quarterly reports: The Globe and Mail is privately owned, essentially by the Canadian Thomson family, through its Woodbridge Company Limited. While the Thomson family – the Thomson of Thomson Reuters – was owned many newspapers, and other media, it smartly sold many at the top of the market; the Globe is its only remaining daily newspaper.
Whatever its reduced revenues and margins, the Globe today maintains a staff of about 300 journalists, down from a height of 370 five years ago, but, Crawley says, holding steady.
Going native: The Globe launched its content marketing business in 2007 – mainly for print-oriented solutions. As native advertising has become au courant, the Globe custom content group has pivoted to it. Strikingly though, it’s a business for elite businesses only.
“Unlike the New York Times, which in my view, has taken on too many clients, “ says Crawley, “we’ve kept a fairly select group of advertisers that we want to deal with because it has to be a good story, there has to be a good story worth reading….. We want to create stuff that people will want to read. Not crap, not junk.
“Some of the people who would like to do content advertising, honestly, there’s not a story that can be easily told. I think that’s the problem the New York Times is finding. Time spent and engagement metrics are not as good as they were. Average it out, not everybody is as interesting as GE.”
Consequently, today, the Globe serves fewer than 10 content marketing customers. Clients have include HSBC, Toyota, Ford and Cisco.
The Globe’s experience points to wider questions of the new native. Advertisers like it, readers click on it and, for publishers, it can be a great business.
“We’re doing margins in our custom content business that we don’t see in any other part of our business, 30% percent margin,” says Crawley.
Given those results and those storytelling requirements, how much can native grow for the Globe and its content marketing-selling publisher peers?
Next up: The Events Business: In addition to the restyled advertising and circulation businesses, Crawley says the Globe will launch an events business next year. It will add still another small, but growing revenue source – all to offset those print ad losses. It’s the same small ball that smarter publishers now invest in. Phillip Crawley puts it in a way familiar to his peers, “It’s a lot of moving parts.