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John Stackhouse, former Globe and Mail editor, on mass digital disruption

Former Globe and Mail editor John Stackhouse probes the future of serious journalism in the digital era in his new book Mass Disruption: Thirty Years on the Front Lines of a Media Revolution.

'Is serious journalism still possible?' asks Stackhouse in his new book

(The Lavin Agency)

Former Globe and Mail editor John Stackhouse probes the future of serious journalism in the digital era in his new book Mass Disruption: Thirty Years on the Front Lines of a Media Revolution.

He sat down with CBC's Stephen Quinn on The Early Edition to talk about how newspapers can survive in a world where smartphones rule.

When you took over at the Globe in 2009, the Apple 3GS had just come out. Why do you think news leaders failed to see what was coming? 

I don't think it was just in the news business. We all knew the smartphone was incredibly popular and powerful, but no sector I think knew how pervasive it was going to become and how we live today with it attached to us and how it dominates our lives. 

Was it denial? 

As often happens with technology, you see it coming and you think it is a small wave, and you don't realize it is a tidal wave that is going to splash over you.

We spend six hours a day on digital media, half of that's on our phone — three hours a day on our phones. That is a gross underestimate. I came across a new study in the U.S. from a consulting firm Activate, that estimates we spend 11 hours on media, on our phones. That includes e-mail, twitter, chat. The human life has changed profoundly in a decade because of the phone. 

We all know what that has done to newspapers financially. What has it done to the essence of what newspapers are? 

Newspaper used to bring communities together. I am not nostalgic for that. I look at the great power that had in society — and not always good — but we organized ourselves as communities and as a country around, to some degree, around newspapers and what they published.

We as readers organized our day around the daily newspaper and evening newscast and that is long gone.Now we are getting more information — that's good — and sharing more information — that's good too — but not doing it in a very organized fashion. We've been sort of shattered into millions of atoms, as the news out there is. 

The influence of that on democracy is significant and something we need to come to grips with. 

I logged onto Facebook this morning. Someone had put up a video of a dog chasing its owner with a hose, spraying water on the owner. You will likely see that, if it's new, on television news at some point today. 

The funnies have always been part of the media, even the great serious newspapers of 50 years ago had the funny pages. When I was delivering papers as a kid — 40, 45 years ago — I often found the best way to get people to pay their bills was to withhold the comics or TV guide. That got their attention.

Even then, it was apparent what drove interests; popular and profound were always a good mix in media. What we have lost is the ability to ensure that the profound — what is important in our society — is as prevalent as presumably a great video of the dog you saw. 

Where is the place for serious journalism? How come New York Times, Guardian can pull it off online, but others do not do as well? 

We are seeing an emergence of global news power houses. Where the great challenge and crisis is, is at the local level. How do local news media ensure their viability?

Advertisers have to come to the table and figure out how they can contribute more to what media are doing. Journalists have to come to grips with the economic model. Owners of local and national media have to understand this is going to be a 10-year project to get this right.

Is local media not in a unique position? 

One of the great challenges is to get people to pay for it. I am a strong advocate for a free and publicly-funded CBC, but there needs to be locally privately-owned media, that people will pay for.

Publishers and editors need to make it compelling enough to go out to readers to say you have to pay a buck a week, or whatever it is, to start to put some money on the table for this thing we call journalism 

You suggest in the book, that the disruption is not over. What happens when the iPhone 7 comes out? 

The great challenge of disruption is it's never over. This is the forever war. Media, journalists, owners, advertisers are  going to continue to have to reinvent what they are doing, year after year, season after season. 

Somehow newspapers will find a business model that allows them to survive? 

The great news is that serious news has never been so popular, despite all the videos we are seeing. When important things happen — we saw this in the last federal election — people are consuming serious news from what we would agree are serious outlets.

That to me is very encouraging that there is huge demand out there. We just have to get the pricing right. 

This interview was condensed and edited. To hear the full interview, click the audio labelled: Former Globe and Mail editor John Stackhouse talks about news in digital era


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