Tuesday, 27 March 2007

Jim Jennings e-mail

An e-mail from Jim Jennings, who resigned as editor-in-chief of the Toronto Sun in September and is now at the Globe and Mail:

"Someone on this blog pointed out that the silence from members of the Sun family who have left the building was deafening.

One reason for that could be so many people have put so much of themselves into building the Sun into a great place to work and learn that watching it in its current state is simply too difficult to do.

Benjamin Disraeli said “There are three kinds of lies: "Lies, Damn Lies and Statistics.” With respect to Disraeli, he¹s wrong. There are four kinds of Lies: Lies, Damn Lies, Statistics and Newspaper Numbers.

Several times each year, the folks at NADBank and the Audit Bureau of Circulations (ABC) release data on newspaper performance. The day after this information is released, newspapers go into a spin cycle that would make Maytag proud. The recent NADBank numbers are much like the recent provincial budget - if you look hard enough, you¹ll find something capable of pleasing everybody.

(Let me say at the outset that every newspaper in Canada takes part in the spinning of numbers to their own advantage and the disadvantage of their competitors described below. Failing to point this out would be unfair.)

Glenn Garnett notes that the Toronto Sun readership is up seven percent (6.6, but who¹s counting). He's right. That was one number, which was reported last week. It represents the response of the people who read the paper yesterday.

There are a couple of other numbers that Garnett chose not to mention, however. It is interesting to note, for example, that the readership of the Sunday Sun, the paper he used to tout his numbers, was down 5.4 percent. Or the fact that the five-day cume (the total number of readers over the Monday-­Friday period) was off 1.4 percent as well.

The most interesting fact, which was ignored by every media outlet that reported any number from the report, is that most of them were deemed “NS,” or not significant by the group releasing the report. That¹s right . . . irrelevant because of small sample size, margin of error or both. This is not to say the numbers are worthless - they're not. Rather, one should not take any one number in isolation and build a case around it.

It's unfortunate that as journalists we feel obligated to report on all of this. It¹s inside baseball. The advertisers know the game and readers don¹t care. It might be a good idea however, before we declare the patient healthy, to do a full examination, or at least ask for a second opinion.

A better indicator of a newspaper's success is circulation. At least these numbers are audited. ABC numbers are not, however, free from some degree of interpretation (read spinning).

Garnett observed that the Toronto Sun¹s paid circulation was up 16 percent last fall. That¹s accurate . . . well, sort of. Some part of “paid” circulation was up that amount.

The question is, which part? Was it the "paid" at over 50 percent of cover price? Was it the "paid" regardless of relation to cover price? In other words, did it include deeply discounted home subscriptions, “sponsored” bulk sold for pennies a copy, etc.? That¹s a question that has gone unanswered.

I would argue that the only real barometer of a newspaper¹s performance in this area is the fully "paid" number. This is especially true of a single copy paper, such as the Toronto Sun, where the readers provide the editor daily feedback by dropping their quarters into the box or their 53-cents on the shopkeepers' counters.

This is a number that isn't being touted. I wonder why? They are reported internally on a daily basis. My days as EIC always began with a review of the production runs, followed by a conversation with circulation.

Could it be that overall performance continues to decline? You can argue, if you go back to using the NADBank numbers that Garnett selected, that overall readership of the Toronto Sun is off 30-plus percent since Quebecor took over. Paid circulation is off significantly over the period as well.

.I wonder what effect the decrease in the number of journalists in the newsroom has had on these numbers? It would be interesting to overlay investment in content (i.e. journalists, news hole, etc.) with readership and circulation figures. My guess is the resulting graph could be used as a blueprint for the downhill ski run for the Vancouver Olympics.

I realize that there are times where adjustments in newsroom staffing levels are not only needed, but also required. That is a part of the evolutionary cycle of our business. Removing resources by replacing local content with mass produced generic content is hardly a recipe for growing the business.

It is very easy to view Pierre Karl Peladeau as some sort of Darth Vader character intent only on inflicting damage to the property. I believe that would be not only inaccurate, but also unfair. Pierre Karl is a very intelligent individual, who is receiving (and following) poorly conceived advice. (This is nothing new. Remember when the Sun raised its cover price by 50 percent in the middle of the NHL lockout?)

Pierre Karl is correct in saying that newspapers must change if they are to survive. Everyone in the industry knows that. But change need not require wholesale elimination of the core of the newspaper. The things that make up the essence of the brand . . . its voice . . . its attitude . . . its local-ness, to name a few.

Pierre Karl is correct. Convergence is a cornerstone of the future of our business. I could care less if our readers get our information from ink on dead trees, online, on their cell phone or a device to be invented next week. All I care about is that they use us to get their information.

We must interact with our readers, providing them with engaging, relevant and compelling content that warrants the investment of their time (and money) to get it. I said that at my first staff meeting on King Street in September of 2004. We must be prepared to provide our readers with the information when, where and how they want to receive it.

But convergence is more than a buzzword. It requires a seismic shift in editorial thinking. It requires an investment in both time and training. It requires an adjustment in the organization of the newsroom. It requires the trust and buy-in from those expected to converge, which means the message must be well communicated.

Most important, it requires staying-power . . . a commitment to the process, which experts in the online world say generally agree is a minimum of 18-24 months before the success or failure of a product can be determined. Instant gratification is a non-starter here.

I applaud the introduction of some of the concepts that are being introduced at King Street East. It's the execution and the nature of the content itself that gives me pause.

It's too bad that the meaning of relevant and compelling seems to have been lost in translation, with routine and generic being inserted in their place. Pierre Karl has given lip service to the need to move away from commodity news. Yet, a look at the current incarnation of the paper would seem to carry more CP and "common" content than ever before, coming at the expense of solid local reporting. The fact that there are fewer and fewer local reporters may play into this. I don¹t know.

Some of this content even appears in identical form in 24 hours. (Quebecor's) Luc Lavoie has been quoted as saying the amount of overlap between the two papers could reach as much as 20 percent.

Garnett is correct. It is a “terrific time to be the Sun¹s editor-in-chief.” There are difficult and challenging times ahead. Today, more than anytime in its history, the paper needs an insightful, strong willed, visionary sitting in the editor¹s chair. I wish him well."

Jim Jennings

Thank you for your e-mail, Jim.


  1. There is NO ONE better placed to observe and comment on what was and could be - at 333 King E. Thank you Jim, for your, as always, straightforward and cogent commentary. You are sorely missed.

    Four more Sun people out the door this week. . . and it's only Tuesday.

  2. Insightful, spot on and n'eer a truer word spoken on this.

    It's all spin but the reality is the trend.

    Everyone knowns it but the leadership at Quebecor seems bent on cramming their ideas down people's throats instead of graciously building a winning team and getting the players to buy into the concept and forge foward.

    The message is that change is inevitable. The sad part is the way the change is being implemented and the suspect thinking in that change.

    Well said Mr. Jennings.

  3. With two more general assignment reporters out the door at the end of this week, my count is 13 as the TOTAL number of news reporters left working at the Toronto Sun (not counting columnists). Does that sound right, everyone? I count one Queen's Park reporter, one at city hall, one at courts, three on the police beat and seven general assignment reporters. 13 news reporters for a big city daily! My guess is the Sun's competitors in Toronto each have that many employees working on their websites alone. Qubecor has clearly and deliberatley dug the grave for the Sun, regardless of its boasts about the latest numbers. You don't need a degree from business school to realize a 13-reporter newsroom in one of North America's most competitive media markets is doomed. Pity the poor sod who has to schedule 13 reporters to cover off a seven-day work week from 9 a.m. to after midnight every day. Jim Jennings has nailed it in his e-mail. Good on him for breaking the silence.