Mass Disruption: Thirty Years on the Front Lines of a Media Revolution
By John Stackhouse. Random House Canada, 320 pp, hardcover
Let's get something out of the way right at the start.
I've never been a big fan of John Stackhouse. It's mainly because he pushed the Globe and Mail farther to the right during his five years as editor from 2009 to 2014.
In his new book Mass Disruption, which is part memoir and part media analysis, Stackhouse claims that he introduced only a "slightly" more conservative editorial stance after replacing Edward Greenspon.
But Stackhouse's hiring of ardently libertarian columnist Neil Reynolds (a Stackhouse mentor), the firing of resident left-wing columnist Rick Salutin, and the Globe and Mail's strong editorial endorsing the reelection of Stephen Harper's government in 2011 suggest that the rightward drift was more extreme than the author lets on.
After all, this is a man who refers to Toronto Sun cofounder and right-wing warrior Peter Worthington as "one of the greatest newsmen of the half-century".
Stackhouse also praises the Harper government for "reorienting its foreign policy to make Canada more relevant again to our biggest allies".
Climate change was downplayed during the Stackhouse era and is barely mentioned in Mass Disruption. He does, however, acknowledge that arts reporting was curtailed to make room for more business coverage.
Perhaps most troubling, Stackhouse kept Margaret Wente writing inflammatory and divisive columns long after she came under fire for a controversial article about Africa. This goes unmentioned in the book, as do the reasons for Stackhouse's departure as editor in 2014.
Stackhouse reflects the libertarian, I'm-all-right-Jack mindset that permeates the male journalistic establishment at Canada's two national newspapers. So if that irritates you, then I wouldn't advise you to pick up his book.
However, if you want a glimpse into major trends reshaping the media, Mass Disruption offers useful insights.
One chapter entitled "The price of journalism" explains in detail why Quebec's largest newspaper, La Presse, has bet the future on the death of printed dailies by 2020.
Another chapter, "Do No Evil", provides an informative look at Google's impact on the newspaper world. It closes with blunt truths about how daily newspapers and magazines play a numbers game to inflate their appeal to advertisers.
I especially enjoyed reading Stackhouse's account of visiting New York City's 55-storey Bloomberg tower, which he characterizes as a "media factory". There, efficiency is the supreme virtue where nobody, not even the bosses, get their own offices. Stackhouse reveals that former editor-in-chief Matt Winkler even banned commas from headlines.
Perhaps the most significant chapter comes near the end where Stackhouse outlines how nimble online outlets have put legacy media companies on the defensive. He notes how click bait has often replaced serious journalism, leaving the public as the loser.
He also describes how corporations like Red Bull, Purina, and Chipotle are producing their own media, reinventing corporate communications in unusual ways.
The author fails to take into account the rise of ad-blocking technology, which is a serious shortcoming in a book that deals with disruptive forces in the media.
This new tool has thrown a curve ball at publishers who thought that simply attracting more eyeballs would ease them into the digital age.
And perhaps because Stackhouse has an inherent mistrust of government, there's no exploration of whether Ottawa should regulate advertorials, a.k.a. native advertising. It's a free-for-all right now.
I've read more compelling and franker books about the Globe and Mail, notably Jan Wong's Out of the Blue and David Hayes's 1992 classic Power and Influence.
However, if you're looking for the middle ground between a journalist sharing colourful stories from the newsroom (and there are some good ones here) and a serious look at the evolution of the media, Mass Disruption passes the test.
Keep in mind that this is no tell-all.
I was curious to learn more about Globe and Mail publisher Phillip Crawley, who's now onto his fifth editor-in-chief. I also wanted to hear about the impact that the billionaire owner, David Thomson, might be having on the paper's editorial stance.
But alas, there was little to chew on.
By the end of Mass Disruption, I discovered more about Richard Addis, who edited the paper from 1999 to 2002, than I ever did about the two men who are truly in charge of the Globe and Mail. Perhaps that's a testament to the "power and influence" that Crawley and Thomson still wield in Canada.