By Fernando Belzunce, Editor in Chief, Vocento, Spain
It’s quite difficult to see him working in another business. Northern Irishman David Walmsley, 52, is a well-known and respected journalist on the international circuit. A member of various global organisations, such as the Davos Forum, he has worked in nine outlets in the UK and Canada and has built a great reputation as an investigative journalist. For eight years he has directed the editorial operations of The Globe and Mail, the great Canadian newspaper headquartered in Toronto, with six editions in different time zones. It is printed from Monday to Saturday and can claim to be a sophisticated digital organisation. It has 230 journalists and 350,000 subscribers who are especially interested in the country’s largest offer of economic information.
Report on Business is a traditional and key section of The Globe and Mail. How important is economic news on your website?
It’s vitally important. 50% of all digital subscriptions come to us from people who want business, investing and personal finance news. But that also means a full half comes from everything else. Two years ago we decided to increase the investment in business reporting and the number of journalists who cover this area. And that has proven to be very successful.
The interest in the economy at this time is enormous
The whole world is looking at what 2023 brings in terms of recession or the various pressure points, increased interest rates and other economic performance challenges. We are in a very good place to respond to what is a bad economic story rather than a good one. But it’s because we did invest two years ago, when we increased the number of people involved in personal finance reporting. We also made a very clear position to ensure that we could tell and help navigate personal finance challenges at all stages of life.
What do you mean?
The newspapers generally tend to skew to older audiences. What we wanted to do was get the youngest audience members, like people in their teenage years who are not investing yet but are considering at least opening bank accounts and discussing financial literacy. We are focused too on people in their twenties that are thinking of owning a home or beginning to look at possibly investing if they have got a small amount of money. We have produced a lot of videos on how to help them to understand the various stages. We have a very clear series of stories that we do on video, on podcasts and also in text, which can be on digital or in print.
How do you combine economic coverage with other areas?
If we only did business coverage, we wouldn’t be able to retain the audience. They come to us and become a subscriber for business 50% of the time. But they are not retained by business coverage. They are retained by other materials, like sports coverage, arts coverage, politics and opinion. If you look around the world, in each market there are two news organisations that are rewarded with greater success and subscriptions. Almost all of them, from my experience, are those who have very strong economic or business coverage. It clearly seems to be globally the one area that the audience will pay for news. So if you take real estate, for example, it’s the single largest expenditure a family will make to buy a home. So buying a subscription to a newspaper that could get them an understanding of trends isn’t a big outlay. But if someone has got sports, the news organisation doesn’t have digital rights to the sports coverage. It’s not as reasonable a decision to purchase a subscription.
There have been some politicians in the past that have used the ideas from the newspaper to defend some of their positions. The Minister of Justice of Canada used an editorial published by The Globe and Mail to defend the decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1967. Do you think that the influence of your newspaper is still as strong?
I actually think the influence is greater now. There is no replacement for cogently argued, fact-based information that is fair. The editorial position of The Globe and Mail is a really important area that is separate from the news environment under the design of the Globe and Mail. I hear from very senior politicians that they read the editorials probably earlier in the day. The absence of good policy debate is something I think that is far beyond just Canada. The Globe and Mail represents a safe harbour for the exchange of intellectual capital. It is not about finding a right and a wrong in every single thing. It is about offering up alternatives to the current way the wind is blowing. There is also those moments when you actually stand up and say, this is wrong, and when the Globe does that, it has a much greater influence than if we were saying that each and every day, 365 days a year, which is where those news organisations, or maybe opinion organisations, are. There are very important connections between the news files being unimpeachable, following the facts, and then the editorial opinion being commensurate, having perspective and only really shining very lightly when there is that moment to do it.
You are an expert in investigative journalism. How do you push it in your newsroom?
Deadlines don’t exist. We try to control the story. The story doesn’t control us in the sense of when it is ready. If the deadline doesn’t exist, the discussion becomes: When is the story ready? And that discussion in the newsroom was a challenging one. The story may seem to be ready by the journalist because they spent a week on it, which to them is a long time. But I want them to go and get more information because when we go with the story publicly, we want to have layer upon layer, and it’s going to go for days and days. And that’s very hard for journalists. I did that with a reporter, and I said to her: “Keep pushing, keep pushing”. It took 20 months. She went along with that and was prepared to wait.
You spent 17 years investigating the crash of a British military helicopter that caused 29 deaths in 1994. What motivated you to follow the story for so long?
The official report was published 15 months later and it said that the pilots did it. I reported at that point that, you know, even in death, the two pilots couldn’t be excused for what they had done, because it never crossed my mind as a young reporter that the Air Force or the Defence Department would say anything other than the truth. I was a really young journalist, a naive guy. I was contacted by a couple of people who said there was a contradiction in that report. So I promised myself that I would never stop the story until I could get to the truth. We cleared the pilots’ names 17 years later. We, me and other people, didn’t solve the crash, but I’m also quite attracted in journalism to the idea that things are grey. I don’t need the clarity of black and white. That accident happened and the evidence did not allow the government to say the pilots did it. But I don’t know what happened. I am also okay with that. Journalism takes us to the line, but not over the edge.
You have published very risky investigative reports about some politicians who are said to work for the Chinese government
The stories that we’ve published are accurate. One of the people have launched a lawsuit which continues against us, but we have not gone to court yet. We stand by those stories. Many people thought in 2015, when we published the first one, that I was racist or that The Globe and Mail had lost its mind. And I think what you discover over the next seven years is that there have been no stories that have gone in another direction, and more Canadian news organisations have actually reached a point where they have done other work that has supported our original work. I think, from my own point of view, that was very risky. There have been two or three occasions where I’ve gone with really big stories. If I get it wrong, I’ve lost my job.
Are the most difficult decisions the ones that cannot be seen?
My most sophisticated decisions are the ones you’ll never see. If we have to withhold a story because it doesn’t meet our standards, that is as important as the big stories that we do publish.
Part of the advertising that is distributed through algorithms on the Internet avoids appearing on pages with content considered negative. Is there any risk for journalistic companies?
If you care about data science and audience-based denominators to control your judgement, then you’re no longer in journalism. The journalistic judgement has to override everything.
Is the subscription model the way to promote journalism?
Undoubtedly. If they don’t pay for your work it’s because it has no value. You’ll die unless you get a government handout and I don’t think that government handouts are the healthiest ecosystem for the press.
You are the creator of The World News Day, a global day of action explaining the impact of important journalism. Do you think that journalism needs to explain itself?
It’s necessary. The idea is to take a break for a day and reflect on what the world would be like if we didn’t have journalism. We don’t do enough to tell journalistic experiences that have been vital to other people. We must make it known.
You belong to many international groups and associations. Do you think that in these times, there’s a need to have a global point of view?
I travel more than I would like to, but it’s important to get out there and understand. You’ve got to hear and listen to other people and their perspectives. Newsrooms that are only prepared to speak to certain people because they agree with them are committing one of the great sins of journalism. That maybe comes from my original grounding when I trained as a reporter in Belfast. I would go from seeing one side of the community in the morning and the other side of the community in the afternoon, from loyalist to republican leadership and saying what a privilege for me to be able to travel between both when most groups see with only one side of them.
That period marked by terrorism would be key for your career?
It was the best possible beginning because it taught me, although it sounds old-fashioned, that I was never to be the story, but I happened to be in the middle of everything. The people I worked with, the people who taught me were amongst the most skilful people I’ve ever met. They are humble and they’re fact-based. And they took risks and they told stories that most of Western Europe would not have a clue how to deal with, except in Spain, maybe, because of the situation of ETA in the Basque Country. Another extraordinary example.
You have worked in different British and Canadian media. What are the main differences between American and British journalism?
British journalists do not take themselves too seriously and that is an advantage. The North American model, on the other hand, is a different one and it has been turned into something very academic. The journalists and the established people have gone to great universities, they have master’s degrees as opposed to the 17-year-old who has just rolled up their sleeves and worked at their local paper. Everyone debates the craft, which is a problem. You hire the people who are like you and diversity gets lost. Journalism is on the street. I take some pride in my newsroom. There are all sorts of characters in there who probably wouldn’t fit in outside of journalism. And that’s kind of the test of success for me. I don’t want everyone to look the same or be the same. That requires a change in culture. We are hiring people that 15 years ago we would not have even interviewed.
You are now working with Professor Anthony Feinstein from the University of Toronto to create the world’s first moral injury scale for journalists. What is this?
Moral injury is something that is well recognised in the military and is not recognised elsewhere. A journalist can be exposed to harmful situations too. This is the case of war correspondents and other reporters covering serious events. Sometimes they don’t realise that, over time, they will be affected. The idea is to create an official scale with a statistically secure checklist to apply the appropriate questions to the journalists and ensure that their mental health is fine, which allows prevention, for example, if that journalist is not exposed for a while. Being morally injured is not itself a mental illness, but it can be the gateway to substance abuse, depression, or post-traumatic stress. I have spent 25 years working with journalists who suffer from mental health problems. As editor many times they don’t tell me their situations. This scale is a tool to help newsrooms to establish a protocol, prepare an adequate report, create a space for dialogue and prevent.
The author, Fernando Belzunce, Editor in Chief of Vocento Group, is a Board Member of the World Editors Forum.
Image by Galit Rodan