In December 2018, the Guardian published a story about Toronto’s ecology—its unusual landscape of steep hills and wetlands that are part of a complex ravine network. The article, titled, “‘There’s no major city like it’: Toronto’s unique ravine system under threat,” took readers into a world that occupies 20 percent of the city’s land, and faces challenges from urbanization and the overgrowth of invasive species. Leyland Cecco, the freelancer who wrote the story, is a Toronto native, trail runner, and a regular visitor to the ravines. “We try to be objective when we’re journalists, but we also get these stories that touch us close to the heart. And this is one of them where it was an absolute pleasure to write about something that I’ve grown to love about the city,” Cecco says. His familiarity with the landscape was clear and his descriptions of the peerless “steep, voluminous corridors of woodlands,” impassioned.
But attentive readers must have wondered: Why was a British newspaper like the Guardian (a publication with its head office in London, United Kingdom, and the bulk of its audience over 5,000 kilometres away) investing in a 1,500-word piece on a local Canadian story? The reasoning, in Cecco’s telling, is twofold: First, the story’s attraction lay in its singularity—experts quoted on the ravines juxtapose them against other cities with defining natural features, like San Francisco’s hills, the River Thames in London, and the canals of Venice. Second, explains Cecco, an experienced foreign and domestic freelancer, there’s been a shift in editorial and consumption practices based on “a significantly increased appetite for articles about Canada” in foreign news circles. “The ravine story would have had a steeper hill to climb to be accepted 10 or 15 years ago,” he says over the phone from his Toronto home.
Over the last half-decade or so, foreign news outlets have significantly increased their presence in Canada, with some launching new bureaus. Since 2016, the New York Times has quadrupled its permanent reporter presence, the BBC has opened an editorial bureau in Toronto, the Guardian has hired a full time reporter, and Al Jazeera Arabic works consistently with a Toronto-based freelancer, reporting on Canada. These moves stand in sharp contrast to the history of foreign coverage of Canada, which is better characterized by an ebb and flow of attention rather than a consistent focus. With global interest in North America trained on the more powerful and economically relevant United States, Canada struggled to generate international headlines by virtue of its existence alone, spending a fair share of time midway down news bulletins.
What makes recent investments in Canada notable is they’re playing out against a backdrop of industry-wide cutbacks here and elsewhere. In 2010, the University of Oxford’s Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism identified a “downward spiral in the quantity of international news,” the result, it stated, of serious economic pressures on big publications. Corporate ownership groups had little choice but to pay more attention to the bottom line than the public interest amid sharp declines in advertising revenue. American and British outlets with reporters on international assignment curtailed their foreign presence. Reporters who used to live in-country, developing sources and connections, were being sent in on parachute expeditions, but only when absolutely necessary. So the shift towards cultivating audiences in foreign lands like Canada has a side benefit: Richer, more compelling coverage of Canada, which attracts new readership domestically and presents opportunities for more detailed and accurate journalism, moving far beyond the stereotypes.
Ian Austen began covering Canada for the New York Times over 15 years ago. Back then, he says, it wasn’t as if Canada was peripheral to United States media coverage, but the level of full-time, Canada-wide coverage today is “without precedent.” After all, Austen says, in the late nineties one of his predecessors, James Brooke, covered Canada—all nine million square kilometres of it—from his outpost in Colorado.
So, why now? What about Canada (if anything) has changed to make us attractive to these publications? Is it our Rolling Stone-cover-gracing, self-proclaimed feminist prime minister? Is it the ground-breaking legalization of cannabis? Or do major news outfits from around the world see covering Canada as a way to bump up market share at a time when local publications are flagging?
Historically, Canada has not been top-of-mind for editors at foreign publications. Daniel Lak, Al Jazeera English’s Canadian correspondent and former BBC correspondent for South Asia for more than a decade, remembers both American and British editors’ dismissive attitudes toward Canadian stories. Canadian news wasn’t important or relevant enough for them. Lak also recalls the experience of a fellow Canadian journalist’s first day of work for an American broadcast network. The journalist’s new editor told him straight off the bat: “We’ve got other Canadians working here too, but I tell you, your country is not going to get on my bulletin.”
Still, several Canadian stories did sneak past the gatekeepers and into the headlines of the foreign press, drawing global attention to the country.
The foreign press, for instance, took a liking to Pierre Elliott Trudeau, whose flair, style, and attention-grabbing antics made splashes. In a tribute shortly after his death in September 2000, a New York Times piece noted the most impressive of Trudeau’s accomplishments had been “making Canada cool.” Across the Atlantic, in June of 1968, France’s Le Monde began its Canadian election storyline not by describing Trudeau’s policies, but his “bronzed, [and] athletic air. ” the Guardian, in its obituary for Trudeau, recalled the global phenomenon that was “Trudeaumania” and his “supreme act of irreverence,” the “balletic pirouette” that he spun behind Queen Elizabeth in 1977.
But it was Trudeau’s personality—not the country he represented—that helped bring Canada into the limelight.
Another story that garnered worldwide attention dates back to 1934 when the Dionne Quintuplets, the first set of five babies known to survive infancy, were born. A 1978 article in the New York Times reflected on their celebrity, stating, “In an era that produced some of the blackest headlines of the century—from Bruno Hauptmann to Hitler and Mussolini—the Quints made the biggest news of all,” soothing a generation that “needed desperately to believe in fairy tales.” Even from as far away (geographically and culturally) as Estonia, the news of the Canadian Quints made its way into the press: “Who are these Dionne Quintuplets?” reads the Waba Maa. Stories such as this one sent ripples around the news world for decades, placing Canada on the map through sheer novelty, with Canadian relevance incidental.
There is also the disaster–story narrative that has turned the spotlight on Canada, such as the 1985 Air India bombing that killed more than 300 people (the majority of whom were Canadian), or the 2016 Fort McMurray wildfire that caused nearly $9 billion in damages. For the most part, though, there has been inconsistent foreign coverage of Canada.
“Canada, in different ways, with its present government, is making waves in the world”–New York Times CEO Mark Thompson
At a December 2018 subscriber event for the New York Times held at the University of Toronto, Canada’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Chrystia Freeland, was in conversation with Mark Thompson, president and CEO of the New York Times, and the paper’s chief White House correspondent, Peter Baker.
The evening’s dialogue touched on what’s made Canada more prominent in global headlines over the last half-decade. The trio touched on the country’s firm commitment to a rule-of-law-based international order and its progressive political stance. They spoke of Canada’s role in a world where fellow liberal democracies—the United Kingdom (Brexit), Germany (ascendant far-right politics)— are struggling to keep their bearings. Freeland singled Canada out as the strongest liberal democracy in the world— a claim neither Thompson nor Baker challenged.
Afterward, Thompson told the Ryerson Review of Journalism: “Canada is the most important market for the New York Times outside the U.S. That’s both about introducing Canadians to the journalism we do about the U.S. and the rest of the world, but it’s also about doing a better job covering Canada—and we’ve invested in that.” One reason for the shift, he says, is the country’s growing news profile. “Canada is in the news. Partly because of the flow of stories, partly because Canada, in different ways, with its present government, is making waves in the world…It’s been an incredibly busy news period, and the New York Times is a story-driven journalism shop.”
Indeed, major publications are upping their offerings here because they see a significant, previously underserved audience who, if they’re going to read a foreign publication’s content, demand good, unique journalism. Of course, the impetus for this expansion is driven by business concerns.
Editorially, Canada’s ability to hold a headline may be tied to how its leadership— Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Freeland, for example—frame its global counterparts on topics like human rights. Progressive refugee policies, multilateralism, and vocal support of human rights aren’t as ordinary as they used to be as the global political landscape careens right-ward. Lak, the Al Jazeera correspondent, says that in a Trudeau versus Trump paradigm, Canada gets perceived internationally like “an island of stability and sanity…A sort of anchor of multilateralism.” Omar Al Saleh, freelance writer for Al Jazeera Arabic, supports that view. People in the Arabic world, Al Saleh says, “see [Trudeau’s] charisma, how nice he is, and always sense that he tries to accommodate all…That resonates with people in that part of the world. He’s a popular man.” Even in culture-oriented publications like Rolling Stone, Trudeau is being highlighted because in many ways he’s the antithesis of a leader like Trump. Canadian comparisons to the United States, which in the past might have taken away from the country’s caché by making the smaller nation appear even less significant, are now a key to attracting foreign attention.
There’s also international interest in what’s going on in Canada domestically. Canada’s legalization of recreational cannabis is a global second, following Uruguay’s decision. What are the social, medical, and legal implications? The taboo nature of drug legalization makes it newsworthy, too, and given the fact that the outcomes of such an endeavour will be difficult to decipher until years down the road, interest in Canada’s adaptation to a post-criminalized world is long-term.
Although the New York Times isn’t alone in having invested in Canada, it has arguably engaged in the broadest of the expansions thus far. Canada was one of two countries (along with Australia) targeted for NYT Global, a multifaceted project aimed at expanding the paper’s digital subscriber base outside the United States. On the ground, that’s meant more correspondents in Canada, targeted social-media marketing, subscriber events across the country (like the panel in Toronto), and the creation of content like the Canada Letter—a weekly newsletter that provides curated, Canada-centric stories for the Times’ audience north of the border.
“Yes, it’s news interest,” says Austen, who writes the Canada letter, speaking about what’s driven the Times expansion here. “But the news department has the money to pay my salary in part because we see Canada as an important place to develop more subscribers from.”
The scale of investment by the Times has also led to Canada-centric coverage, such as a story on British Columbia’s political culture. In the piece, reporter Dan Levin exposed the “unabashedly cozy relationship between private interests and government officials.” His investigation detailed a system in which donations were exchanged for political favours and foreign money injected into provincial parties’ coffers in large sums. According to Levin’s article, some of the biggest donors to premier Christy Clark’s Liberal party were China-based real estate developers and Kinder Morgan, the Texas oil company whose Trans Mountain pipeline was approved by her government, which had donated nearly three-quarters-of-a-million dollars to the British Columbia Liberals.
A week after Levin’s article ran, multiple outlets reported that Clak would no longer be receiving her controversially funded party stipend.
And in addition to investing in original, localized reporting, the Times has expanded its focus on cultural writing to discovering Canada for Canadian and international readers. It sent its new Montreal correspondent, Dan Bilefsky, on a ten-day road trip to explore his native province of Quebec. He reported from cafes, factories, First Nations communities, and mosques.
The paper’s combination of better local coverage and top-notch global reporting has attracted a growing local audience. In 2015, the year before the NYT Global initiative began, the Times’ website averaged just over 3.7 million unique visitors in Canada, per month. But by 2018, that number had increased by almost 800,000. Over the same period, the Globe and Mail’s number for online unique visitors per month in Canada also increased by 800,000, from 6.1 to 6.9 million. The Globe’s reach is bound to be larger than a foreign paper’s, but the fact that the Times was able to keep pace with the Globe over three years shows that they are making up ground on Canada’s major domestic paper.
In summer 2018, Harvard’s Nieman Journalism Lab pegged Canada’s share of the Times’ international digital subscriber base at about 27 percent—just shy of 100,000 subscriptions. It’s an impressive number and illustrates the trust that’s been developed between audience and publication. But its significance is even more remarkable when one considers that, according to metrics reported by Nieman Lab, the Times’ paying, digital-subscriber base in Canada (estimated at 94,365 subscriptions) now outstrips that of “any Canadian news organization.”
“Canada is the most important market for the New York Times outside the U.S.”– Mark Thompson
Less grand forays into the Canadian news market are coming from outlets farther afield than the United States. In 2016, BBC pursued a scaled back version of the audience-growth strategy the Times had used by creating a Canadian version of its BBC North America site and placing a small editorial team in Toronto. “We were quite clear—it was obvious from our data—that Canada was our second-biggest market [outside the United Kingdom] after the U.S.,” says Jim Egan, CEO of BBC Global News. According to ComScore data from 2015-16, before the company’s expansion into Canada, BBC’s Canadian audience was already robust: 5.6 million unique visitors a month (considerably larger than the Times’ 3.7 million per month from the same year and nearing the Globe’s tally at the time), along with every major pay-TV platform in the country carrying BBC’s 24/7 world news channel.
Despite that solid foundation, Egan says BBC felt guilty for underserving its Canadian audience prior to expansion. “We feel we have increased both quantity and quality of Canada coverage, and if you look at the Canada tab of BBC.com, there is no day when we have zero stories on Canada, and many days when that goes up to three, four, or five.”
One example of a story that had a strong Canadian angle is a 2016 video feature on the emotional reunion between Lyse Doucet, BBC’s chief international correspondent (who is a Canadian), and a Syrian refugee family in Toronto. Doucet had last seen the family and its young children in 2014 in Damascus, under dramatically different circumstances. The story underscored the human-interest angle that exists within the broader narrative of Canadian acceptance of refugees, but likely would have been missed had BBC not placed a new emphasis on Canadian storytelling.
The website also published a multi-media essay, “Black in Canada,” which profiled the experiences of Black Canadians living across the country. “That one really showcases not just the way we are telling stories about all the diversity of life in Canada, but actually doing that in a very innovative, media-rich, photo essay kind of way,” Egan says.
Prior to opening up its Toronto bureau, BBC didn’t have a permanent reporter in Canada and often reported on the country by parachuting journalists in from Washington D.C. or New York. This lacked the “strategic commitment” they have now, Egan says. But with its new permanent reporters, the publication is making a shift in the kind of story it can tell. “It just must be the case that having Canadians cover those stories adds to the authenticity and the credibility of that coverage,” Egan says. “Because those stories are being covered by people who understand the subtleties and the nuances [of life in Canada].”
The Guardian’s growth in Canada is similar to its compatriots’ at the BBC. Chris Michael, an editor at the Guardian, and a Toronto native, says that Canadian readers show a hunger for as much journalism about Canada as they can get, and given the financial struggles that Canadian publications are facing, they’re turning to other reputable sources for their news. “I think that not just the Guardian, but the New York Times and other people are finding that there’s an appetite among Canadian readers for their journalism.”
The Guardian’s funding model is different than that of the Times or BBC and has influenced how it can grow here. The paper places an emphasis on reader revenues, utilizing subscriptions, memberships, and patronages to make money, as well as the Scott Trust (its sole owner), which reinvests profits back into journalism. In 2018, the paper’s editor-in-chief, Katharine Viner, penned an article announcing it had received financial support from more than a million readers around the world. The funding model is oriented around independence, which allows Guardian editors to seek out stories and serve audiences in ways they think are important, not to gain advertising money or to serve an owner’s interests.
The Guardian also has partnerships with philanthropic organizations whose visions align with the paper’s interests, funding stories that might not be able to run under different funding structures. Examples include the Rockefeller Foundation, which provides support to the “Cities” section, allowing stories like Cecco’s feature on Toronto’s ravines to be produced and shifting the way in which editors analyze pitches for stories. The philanthropic relationship is a one-way street, though, according to Michael. “We’re 100 percent editorially independent in every way,” he says. “There’s a report structure because they want to see how their money is being spent, but that’s all handled by the foundation team who sit between us and them as a kind of buffer.”
Canadian audiences can’t seem to get enough of the new options for their journalism consumption. ComScore data shows that since 2015, Canadian unique monthly visitors to the two outlets’ (BBC.com and the Guardian) online sites have increased by roughly 500,000 and 700,000 respectively.
The new model for reporting on Canada—looking for reasons to expand rather than contract—counters an industry-wide trend of shuttering foreign news bureaus. That is to say, recent investments by companies like BBC, the New York Times, the Guardian, and Al Jazeera are noteworthy departures from conventional strategy.
“There has never been four full-time people in the country before,” Austen says about the Times. The paper’s growth isn’t expected to slow down either, according to President and CEO Thompson. He says it’s his hope to increase the company’s presence even more in Canada over the next five to 10 years. “We want to do it judiciously, but yes, that’s our view.”
The struggles faced by domestic Canadian media have created a gap in the news market here. According to Ryerson University’s Local News Research Project, since 2008, publications have shut down at more than double the rate they’ve been created. As that’s taken place, audiences here are still looking for authoritative coverage of their own country and of news around the world.
Although representatives of each publication stated that their goal is not to compete with domestic papers on domestic news (and they couldn’t, given the scale of their investments), collectively, their actions have picked up some slack in the country’s journalism industry. “It’s undeniable that the Guardian isn’t in the same space as the Globe and Mail, but the distinction between foreign and domestic is blurring a little bit,” says Guardian editor Michael.
This new and different coverage is possibly a new chapter in the story of foreign reporting. While many publications are still reeling in their international correspondents, more are heading to Canada to develop connections to the communities they cover and to report with greater authority than the parachute reporters of previous decades. “The classic model of foreign correspondents is changing a little. It survives, but it’s slowly adapting to the modern age,” Michael says. Relatively small teams of reporters, along with freelancers (who are sought out based on their familiarity with the country) are supported in their journalism by measured business expansions, creating news aimed at audiences both in-country and abroad.
And as a benefit to the companies who showed confidence in the Canadian appetite for quality journalism, the country’s news profile has skyrocketed. “We didn’t know any of these things were going to happen in advance,” says the BBC’s Egan, in reference to headline stories like the developing dynamic between Trump and Trudeau. “So there’s been a degree of good fortune for us.”
That’s a modest way of saying that betting on Canada has paid off.