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A conversation with Patricia Pearson
July 21, 2014
Standard Interviews: Les Murray, president of Toronto’s Festival of Beer
July 17, 2014
Do Make Say Think (July 18-20)
How a Toronto company is helping the world’s creatives showcase their work
Wente and the Wall
It's tough to convince people to pay for something when it's been free for years -- even tougher when the stuff you're charging for may not be entirely yours

Yesterday, the Globe and Mail started trying to get paid.

What a mess.

It’s not the Globe‘s fault, or at least, not just their fault, that the concept of a pay wall sounds so foreign and controversial and has already failed so many times with so many different papers (including the Globe).

I remember reading a story, possibly in Rolling Stone, that looked back at the early days of CDs. There was concern at the time — not much, apparently, but some — that the industry was making a big mistake digitizing its music, which was tantamount, in some people’s minds, to giving away the masters, the source material from which all the products, and all the profits, flowed.

Newspapers did the same thing, about 15 years later. They started giving away the news for free. It’s tough to convince people to pay for something, no matter how valuable, when you’ve been offering it to them free for years. As Ed Keenan has noticed at The Grid, the Globe may not have unique or popular enough content to justify paying for it when others, like the Star (and the Post and the Guardian, etc., etc.) are still giving it away. (You can read the report he’s referring to here.)

It’s even tougher when the stuff you’re charging for may not be entirely yours.

Things have quieted down about Margaret Wente since the late September storm that brought Carol Wainio into the public consciousness, along with her blog on which she’d been more or less quietly documenting the misdeeds and perceived misdeeds of various journalists at the Globe and elsewhere since 2010.

The last we heard from the Globe, Wente had been subjected to some secret form of discipline, which seems to have turned out to be a brief leave of absence from which she’s since returned.

I wondered in this space, back when everyone was publically wondering about one thing or another related to this infuriating case, about the Globe‘s response and suggested that, as time passed, it was the paper’s handling of the affair that was increasingly becoming the issue. It’s bad enough, of course, if a paper’s figurehead columnist is caught out pretending to expertise she doesn’t possess, to words that aren’t hers, and casually getting basic but important facts wrong on a regular basis. But a paper that doesn’t take this seriously enough to seek to do everything in its power to reassure its readership at the very time that readership is fleeing in droves, and just a couple of weeks before they are going to ask those retreating readers to pay for stuff they’ve been getting for free since the 90s?

They could be stupid, but I’d like to think they’re not. They could think we’re stupid, or at least lazy and forgetful, which is never a bad bet. But I’d prefer to imagine them as optimistic. I like to think they’re merely hopeful that Wente is not as big a problem as she seems to be. Maybe they think the other writers in the paper, actual stars like Doug Saunders and Stephanie Nolen, are enough to make up for what Wente has, let’s face it, certainly done (unless there’s an assistant writing chunks of her work that she’s not yet identified and who is the actual phantom quotation-mark-juggler and fact-misrememberer).

Or perhaps they’re just scared. They announced their paywall months ago, and their current business model depends on the money they hope it will bring in. It would be a mistake, I think, to underestimate the degree of abysmal fear felt in the executive meetings and board rooms of many print publications these days. The ball has been in their end of the court for more than a decade, and they have done nothing but drop it, repeatedly, occasionally tripping on it in the process. They have to put on their best faces right now, these papers going cap in hand asking for people’s trust in the form of pay wall dollars. They have to be all Josh Wingrove and his long-researched, acutely observed and well edited story on a brain-injured 15-year-old bus-crash survivor, and no Wente-mess anywhere.

Except it’s exactly columnists like Wente that are most likely to inspire people to pay papers like the Globe. It’s columnists and personalities that papers can truly own. The news, as we’ve seen, belongs to anyone with a smart phone. Except now, the Globe‘s biggest personality, the one who drives the most conversation and, in a paywalled world, would probably drive the most cash Globe-wards, has now been shown to be, not the evil pilfering bitch she’s been made to seem in online barstool discussions, but simply someone who has been having difficulty coming up with enough material for three columns a week. As a very frequent columnist, she’s past her best-before date, falling behind, making do, trying to keep her head above water and, more than occasionally, failing.

What to do?

The answer’s obvious: Put her on leave until the Global powers have determined to their satisfaction the extent and nature of her habitual contravention of some of the most basic forms of journalistic ethics and then, with as much transparency as they can muster, do one of two things.

The dramatic and symbolic thing to do would be to fire her, losing a liability and gaining brave-ethical-stance kudos from all and sundry. And then they could replace her. Imagine what someone who can handle the pace — and it’s a tough one to maintain, coming up with that many ideas, that many original words every week — might be able to do with that real estate.

The more staid course of action for someone who has played such a large role in the Globe‘s fortunes for so many decades would be to acknowledge that she is writing too many columns. She’s proven that she can drive readership, and the power of her voice is beyond question. Her only problem now is volume. A weekly column might be more up her alley for the moment. This wouldn’t satisfy the haters, but it would be a moderate move for a mostly moderate paper.

What have they done? They’ve put her back in her thrice-weekly space and let her do what she does, chastened perhaps, disgruntled certainly, maybe hoping that the lower-level controversies she generates, the sort she’s built her columnist reputation on, will overshadow all the stuff that anonymous blogger alleged/proved-with-side-by-side-textual-comparisons.

There is talk around the Globe offices that one of the reasons, perhaps the major reason, the paper has been so hushed on the subject of Wente and her idiosyncratic reporting methods is that there are union and legal issues afoot, things that are preventing the otherwise transparent administration from coming clean with its readership.

There are no union rules, nothing in the collective agreement, that would have any effect on whether the Globe said anything about any of this to us.

According to Bert Bruser, the Star‘s long-time legal bulldog, there are some potential legal concerns, however. While wanting to be sure I made it clear that he has no specific knowledge of the Wente matter, he said there could be copyright claims made by those from whom Wente allegedly stole, and that Wente herself could threaten legal action for defamation had they said anything more specific than they did without first having built their own solid case. Law suits at newspapers, as Bruser would be the first to tell you, are not an uncommon or even necessarily an unwelcome thing.

So, put that on one side of the scale. On the other, put its readers’ trust and goodwill, the only things other than habit that separate the Globe, in business terms, from heyreadmethisisnewsjusttrustme.com, and the thing they’re relying on most to generate that pay wall cash they hope will rescue them from being dumped by their heretofore beneficent and munificent owner, David Thomson.

Things are tough for the newspaper industry right now. Even Clark Kent’s decided to move on to safer turf. There’s not a lot of margin for error. I hope the Globe is still within its own.

For the record, I wanted to speak with Sylvia Stead, the Globe’s public editor about some of this, but she did not respond to a request for comment.


Bert Archer writes for Toronto Standard. Follow him on Twitter: @bertarcher.

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