Perhaps the most alluring job I ever turned down was an offer to lead newsroom transformation for Canada’s largest newspaper company.
My fondness for Canada is long and deep, and a job that would mean lengthy stays and frequent visits in such beloved cities as Vancouver, Montreal, Ottawa, Calgary, Toronto, Edmonton and Victoria was enticing. I relished the opportunity and challenge of helping metro newspapers retool for digital success. I nearly accepted the job.
I’ll quickly address the national-loyalty issue. Except when my father was assigned to overseas Air Force bases, I’ve happily lived my whole life in the United States. I love this country and wasn’t looking to leave it. But when a Canadian company recruited me, I listened. I love Canada, too.
Mimi’s and my favorite place in the world may be Tofino, a tourist/fishing village on the Pacific coast of Vancouver Island. We’ve visited there several times at different seasons of the year, always enchanted by the crashing waves, the lovely beaches, the bears and whales, the fish tacos and other fine dining.
If she writes a best-selling novel and sells its movie rights for a whopping sum, or if I could make a living writing, consulting and training based there, we would happily live the rest of our lives in a small Tofino home, walking distance from one of our favourite beaches. Those are huge ifs, but we share the fantasy every time we visit.
And Tofino is just one of the many places we’ve loved visiting in Canada. From Cape Breton and the lighthouses along Nova Scotia’s Atlantic coast to the crystal waters of Lake Louise in Banff National Park to golden eagles near Williams Lake, B.C., to a Jeep ride into the Yukon territory, we have enjoyed Canada’s spectacular scenery coast to coast. We’ve enjoyed the museums, restaurants and other cultural offerings of Canada’s great cities.
Most of our travel to Canada was funded by newspapers and other Canadian media organizations. Starting in 2002, I think I visited Canada annually until this year, usually with Mimi coming to help spend my fee from a client on personal travel before or after my conferences or workshops.
Along the way, I made more Canadian friends than I will succeed in naming here. Bryan Cantley, who died a couple years ago, was my most frequent client in the side business of consulting and training that I’ve run for nearly 20 years now. He also was one of my closest friends in journalism and a wonderful ballpark companion at the Rogers Centre (called Skydome when we first watched the Toronto Blue Jays play there).
Two of my favourite collaborators in training and other journalism ventures are also Canadians: Craig Silverman from Montreal and Don Gibb from Toronto. I’ve enjoyed dinners, workshops, collaborations, social media and telephone conversations about journalism with Bill Dunphy, Nick Russell, Mathew Ingram, Judy Sims, Marissa Nelson, Peter Haggert, Kathy Vey, Kim Fox, Rachel Nixon, Saleem Khan, Vivian Smith, Bill Doskoch, Susan Down, Kevin Cavanagh, Raymond Brassard, Mary McGuire, Valerie Casselton, Kirk LaPointe, Roger Gillespie, Gregg McLachlan, Bruno Boutot and other Canadian friends I know I will remember later and add to this list. Some are lasting friendships, some brief encounters, but we’ll resume the friendships immediately the next time our paths cross. Some are mostly or entirely digital friendships, but genuine and personal nonetheless.
I’ve trained and taught journalists in nine of Canada’s 10 provinces (not-so-subtle hint to some journalism leader in Newfoundland and Labrador: I’d like to complete the set, or even add the northern territories).
I’ve detailed Mimi’s and my personal and professional Canadian travels in the map embedded below, but this post isn’t really about that. Our personal history made this offer particularly enticing. But it was professionally attractive, too.
Three executives of Postmedia flew to Washington to woo me in early 2011. They, like much of the news business, had watched the rise and fall of TBD, and they thought my community engagement approach fit their digital-first strategy for Postmedia newsrooms.
I would develop the community engagement plan for their newsrooms, spend a month or so in each major newsroom, and shorter times in smaller ones, changing the workflow and organization to strengthen their community connections.
I was excited about the work itself, and it would have been the best-paying job of my career, even after figuring the exchange rate. It took us a while to work out immigration and consulting issues (I would have had to consult my first year, traveling from my Virginia home, as the company applied to get me a work permit to live and work in Canada as a full-fledged employee).
In the meantime, the Journal Register Co. (which later would become Digital First Media) was finally starting to move on putting together an offer for a role there, also leading community engagement and newsroom transformation.
John Paton (another Canadian friend), the JRC and then DFM CEO, had started recruiting me before Postmedia showed an interest. But he was a Postmedia board member, so he handed the JRC negotiations off to VP Jon Cooper and Jim Brady, my former TBD boss who was consulting for JRC and would eventually become the company’s editor-in-chief.
But JRC seemed to be moving too slowly to make an offer before I’d have to decide about Postmedia, and Mimi and I were warming to the idea of working and traveling across Canada.
I wasn’t sure I would ever become a big hockey fan, but I was going to try. I was already learning new spellings of such words as centre and neighbour and even ready to learn Celsius temperatures (in which 27 degrees is actually quite pleasant). Note my spelling of favourite above. I could have learned to write Canadian pretty easily. (When I learned that Bryan Cantley was a big Petula Clark fan, I asked if “Downtown” became “City Centre” when she performed in Canada.)
We were expecting and anticipating the move to Canada. But as we worked on the details of the job, I saw signs of conflict among Postmedia executives, indications that they were pulling in different directions.
On the day I needed to decide about the Postmedia offer, JRC came through with a similarly attractive offer. JRC was a dicey corporate situation, owned by hedge funds following bankruptcy, but so was Postmedia. I felt more confident in the corporate direction and commitment under Paton and I welcomed another chance to work with Brady.
So I reluctantly turned down my opportunity to make my Canada connection a full-time job. A few times in the first couple months at JRC, as I visited newsrooms mostly in declining industrial communities, I wondered if I should have risked the corporate upheaval I foresaw at Postmedia for the opportunity to return to beloved cities in Canada. (I did get to do some consulting for Postmedia’s Montreal Gazette in 2012 anyway, and CBC.ca brought me to Toronto and Vancouver for some training in late 2011.)
A corporate shakeup less than a year after I turned down the Postmedia job confirmed the concerns that caused me to back off. The executives who had wooed me just months earlier were ousted. My consulting not only would not have turned into a full-fledged job, but almost certainly would have ended after a year.
DFM didn’t have great long-term prospects either. More hedge-fund-driven upheaval resulted in cuts last year that included my job, and those cuts continue. I just read a detailed, depressing account of Postmedia’s decline by Bruce Livesey, including unethical kowtowing to advertisers and corporate censoring of journalists.
I don’t know what the future holds for DFM or Postmedia or the newspaper industries in either of the nations I love. Even after all the cuts, I still have many friends at both companies and fondness for their news organizations and the roles they play in their communities. I hope somehow someone leads either or both of those companies toward a prosperous future producing ethical, quality journalism. Hedge-fund ownership is perilous in either country, with little concern for journalists or the communities they serve.
I hope to return to Canada soon as a tourist or visiting trainer or teacher (or all three). But I’m glad I stayed just a visitor. Until we can afford that home in Tofino.