Head of Globe Content Studio, Globe and Mail
Interview by Daniela Olariu, (RSJ ’17)
Sean Stanleigh, (RSJ ’95), is Head of the Globe Content Studio
What year did you graduate from the Ryerson School of Journalism? Undergraduate, Graduate or Advanced Standing Program?
My two years at Ryerson wrapped up in 1995. It was a graduate program, and the degree at the time was a Bachelor of Applied Arts in Journalism. Now it’s a Master of Journalism program, which is totally unfair, haha.
What did you originally see yourself doing when you first enrolled in journalism school?
My plan was to become a foreign correspondent and combine work with my love of travel. Never happened, which is probably a good thing. It wouldn’t have played to my strengths.
How did that vision change as the years went by?
I was honest with myself. Did I want to be an editor, in charge of overseeing coverage, or did I want to be a reporter, at the mercy of editors and their unpredictable whims? I knew it was definitely the former. It was the right decision. I also set out to be a different kind of editor. Someone who worked with reporters collaboratively, not adversarially. You’d have to roll up some testimonials for confirmation, but I like to think I stayed true to my commitment.
Thinking back to your first year self, how do you think they would react to where you are now?
What the hell happened? (More on that later.)
What do you think the RSJ experience offers that you can’t get anywhere else?
First and foremost, it got me the credentials I needed to get a foot in the job-market door. I’m the first to admit I wouldn’t have succeeded without my degree. It was worth it. Ryerson has a great reputation in the market.
Second, the breadth of formats on which to experiment, including TV, web, radio, newspaper and magazine.
Third, the downtown Toronto location, where something was always happening.
And I still keep in touch with a number of my former classmates, who are not only my friends but, on occasion, my sounding boards. Our connections have transcended life changes and geography.
To avoid getting in trouble, I also need to point out that Ryerson is where I fell in love with the woman who is now my wife.
What have you done since graduating/how did you arrive at your current position?
I started my career in Toronto at The Globe and Mail as an intern, a copy editor in Report on Business. In addition to my journalism degree, I had an economics degree from the University of Western Ontario. That combination made me a rare beast at the time. When the National Post was emerging on the scene, launching the country into its final newspaper war, the Toronto Star snapped me up by offering a sweet gig as deputy editor of the Entertainment department. I desperately wanted out of business journalism. As one of my former colleagues said at the time, I was a cool guy trapped in a boring job. The Star gave me a lot of opportunities: deputy city editor, chair of a full-scale redesign, and deputy head of a combined national and foreign department.
The Globe lured me back as deputy national editor.
Then the gale-force digital winds started blowing and the newspaper industry was getting slammed by disruption. I honed my digital chops as The Globe’s home-page editor, where I experimented like crazy with some of the most talented people in the business, launching social channels, hosting live chats, working on video and multimedia projects. It was an interesting time to be in that position. The web was increasingly important to our audience, but not yet important at the highest levels of the newsroom. I had full control of the website for eight hours a day, with almost no oversight, and it enabled me to learn what works, and doesn’t work, in the digital environment. I was operating in a test-and-try environment, doubling down on successes and ditching failures.
Then my career trajectory changed.
I moved into what I’d call my business-development phase.
Step one was a stint as the editor of Report on Small Business, which was primarily a monthly magazine. The Globe’s editor-in-chief at the time gave me carte blanche to transition away from print and into digital, however I saw fit. I rebranded and relaunched the microsite and launched new social channels, while continuing to operate the magazine for a few months. As I began the move to a fully digital property I learned a lesson that had been pretty much taboo for editors in the newsroom: working with the advertising department led to sponsorship dollars, which led to the funding that enabled me to pay freelancers for more content.
More revenue for Report on Small Business also enabled me to take on more staff to expand the brand, and I started adding elements such as events as branding and marketing opportunities. I absorbed a lot from the hundreds of entrepreneurs I met along the way. Most importantly, they inspired me to think bigger.
I moved into a more formal ‘hybrid’ job, working with advertising while still keeping a foot in the newsroom, as the product manager for Report on Small Business, Globe Drive, and Globe Careers. I became both the content manager and the business manager for those properties.
Which led to where I am today: Head of Globe Content Studio, the content-marketing division at The Globe. I oversee two teams, one in the Revenue department and one in the newsroom, working on editorial projects that have advertising adjacency, and on sponsor content with client integration and approvals. I think of myself as a bridge between editorial and advertising, helping the business make money (thereby helping fund our great journalism) and great content, while maintaining trust with our readers through rigid process and transparency.
How has your journalism degree and what you learned in school prepared you for your current career?
How to work well with others. I walked into Ryerson with an attitude problem. I’d worked at the school newspaper at Western and I thought I knew everything. Which of course I didn’t. Two years in a team-based environment shaved off some of the edges, a required skill for a young punk aiming to get a job in a mature newsroom. (Admittedly it didn’t shave off all of the edges.)
It also taught me that there’s a lot of talent out there, and you need to do whatever you can to stand out and get a leg up. In my second year I launched a zine called Shapeshifter that I produced with other students, which stretched my journalistic thinking and flexed my entrepreneurial muscles. When I interviewed with The Globe for an internship, the hiring managers asked about Shapeshifter more than any other work I’d done to that point.
Can you talk about one of the biggest:
1) accomplishments you’ve made?
The opportunity to work for, and to influence, the operations at what I consider two of the most important journalistic institutions in Canada: The Globe and the Star.
2) challenges you’ve faced as a journalist?
Dealing with older colleagues early on in my career who had no interest in change, and definitely had neither the time nor the patience for a young journalist who wanted to shake things up. I’ll remember the people who blocked my efforts (often aggressively) as much as the ones who encouraged me. I won’t name the bad actors, but I would definitely like to acknowledge some of the good ones: Colin MacKenzie, John King, Greg O’Neill, Gordon Pitts, John Ferri, Vian Ewart, David Walmsley and Jim Sheppard. I name them because they enabled my ideas rather than rejecting them, they provided support and cover when necessary, and they shaped my managerial outlook. Everyone needs mentors and champions.
What’s one of your favourite memories from j-school?
My broadcast instructor, Suanne Kelman, once told me: “Sean, you have a voice for newspapers.”
Lo and behold, a newspaper is precisely where I landed as an intern. I guess she had good instincts.
Her point was, ‘you’re moderately talented but broadcast ain’t your thing.’
I’m good with blunt talk.
Any memorable RSJ professors during your time at Ryerson?
Suanne, of course, and Lynn Cunningham, one of my magazine instructors. They hadn’t forgotten what it was like to do journalism in the real world. They were smart, they were patient, and they were great storytellers.
What advice would you give to current journalism students?
Your skills can be applied to any business that creates content. Companies of all sizes have either started, or are starting, storytelling divisions, and in the current media environment, with its shrinking job prospects, you need to consider non-traditional employment avenues.
If you find that prospect discouraging because traditional journalism is your passion, great, I applaud you. The world needs journalists now, more than ever. Talent is one thing, work ethic is another. If you’ve got both, get in the ring, and make sure you have the broad skill set required in today’s media environment to succeed. You have to out hustle everyone else.
Learn to write. Edit. Take photos. Shoot video. Build web pages. Promote yourself and your work on social media.
Lastly, follow your instincts. If your Spidey sense is tingling, don’t ignore it.