Phillip Crawley: “Advertising isn’t going to be your life-saver”

The Globe publisher admits that times are complicated – but there are ways to future-proof beyond advertising.

The Industry Wish List is back. MiC is looking at the issues and trends of 2019 with some of the brightest minds in the business, discussing how the industry has changed in the last 365 days, what challenges lie ahead and how brands, media companies and agencies are adjusting.

Phillip Crawley does not pretend it’s been an easy year.

He also doesn’t pretend it’s going to get any easier.

The longtime CEO and publisher of The Globe and Mail has watched before him as the journalism industry in Canada and beyond seemingly crumbles before his eyes. In some offices, newsrooms are shadows of what they used to be. This year, MiC has covered roughly one round of layoffs in print, TV or digital per month – including the Globe, which announced in May a voluntary buyout program in an effort to save $10 million.

Crawley admits it isn’t easy, but the ever-pragmatic publisher isn’t rolling over and giving up without a fight. As he chats with MiC for this year’s Industry Wish List, Crawley says he wants to balance the desire to build a great editorial product that fulfills its societal need – keeping the public informed – and depends less and less on advertising, which he says won’t always be there the way it has been. At the same time, he expresses a desire for Canadian advertisers to step up and support quality, and for the government to move forward on key decisions.

This interview has been condensed for clarity and length.

This year was another turbulent year for newsrooms. Do you see the pendulum swinging back at all in 2020?

I don’t think it’s going to get easier, because it hasn’t for a long time, and I think everyone is just accustomed to the fact that disruption is the way of life. You deal with disruption. Some do better than others, but I don’t think anyone assumes that things are going to settle down certainly. There is no sign, in the last 10 years, that there has been any period where that has happened. Not just newspapers – it’s TV, it’s magazines, it’s digital. But there are certain underlying trends that you believe are going to continue, and you build your business around those assumptions.

So how are you building The Globe around those assumptions?

The last five years has been a transformative period for the Globe because we’ve moved pretty rapidly through those years. We’ve always done good journalism, but we haven’t always had good technology. We haven’t always had brilliant data scientists. What we now have is much better technology platforms, and we have some of the best data science capabilities in the world. It lets us know what our customers, users and readers like, how much time they spend, what they come back for. The newsroom has just undergone its second round of change, the second in five years. As a credit to the newsroom, they’ve believed in [our tech platform], they’ve utilized it, and that’s what’s driven the growth in our digital subscription each year.

The government finally came through with its $600 million journalism fund this year, and there are a few things still in the air, like the digital sales tax for foreign companies. Do you think this is enough to make a difference?

The government is limited in what it can do to provide great journalism. If you’re not doing that, you don’t have a subscription model that’s going to pay for it. You can’t depend on advertising to be your future. If [other outlets] are not able to monetize that through subscriptions, then they’re in trouble, because advertising isn’t going to be your life-saver. With regards to the platforms, that’s something that the industry at large has been saying for quite some time, that it was right and fair to level the playing field, that platforms shouldn’t be getting away with no sales tax, when clearly Canadian players were subject to a sales tax. So that seemed to be just a matter of fairness.

You say advertising isn’t going to be your life-saver, but is there a responsibility on the part of Canadian agencies and advertisers to maintain a healthy media ecosystem in Canada?

Obviously, it’s a big issue for everybody who plays in this advertising world. The agencies are going through a huge amount of change and consolidation themselves. We would like them to value quality content as an environment. You can sell ads on all kinds of platforms, but if you care about the quality of the content, but if you care about it being Canadian content from a Canadian perspective… quality journalism costs money to produce. Those bureaus are expensive. I’d like advertisers and agencies to understand that that’s an environment they should be supporting. Are they simply taking instructions from New York or London or wherever HQ is, or is there a Canadian point-of-view?

If you could get the entire media industry to make a collective resolution for 2020, what would it be?

I would like them to understand that democracy works best when there is information clearly explained [and] clearly presented, and when there democratic debate. That’s what Canadian media does, and Canadians value that. If media in Canada declines to the point where there is an absence of journalism in particular areas, then the whole country is worse off.