The Shags, Whose Con­ser­va­tion Sta­tus Is “Of Least Con­cern”

The Walrus - - CONTENTS - by Karen Solie

What night col­lec­tor con­ve­niently for­got her bag of demons on the neigh­bour’s roof? Cack­ling softly over the stick tool of 4 a.m., loos­en­ing the draw­string with clothy knee and el­bow­ings, they’d pop out shak­ing the dregs from their hack­les, con­sumed by evil laugh­ter, ahis­tor­i­cal croaks, ben­thic creaks, then shrieks and howl­ing un­der­scored by ho­muncu­lar me­dieval ba­bies in sotto voce, decla­ma­tions via voice pros­thetic, robot pet sounds, and I lay there curs­ing them, the whole fam­ily, though I had noth­ing to be up for. On ver­te­bral rock near the Caiplie Caves, like shreds of an out­line or shad­ows freed of their cir­cum­stances, they dry their wings, eyes closed, faces to the sun. Cen­tre of no uni­verse, they have the run of the great an­cil­lary. Though likely they fig­ure quite largely in the imag­i­na­tion of the sand eel whose pe­riph­eries they tor­ment. As their shout­ing did mine, wee hours in the silt of my own habi­tat be­fore the chicks fledged, pre­sum­ably, the par­ents moved on. And I missed them then, as one does the thing loved best when not around.

There’s an­other poster, with a dif­fer­ent proph­esy, taped for all to see on a wall in the Star’s news­room. It’s a vis­ual rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the dig­i­tal read­er­ship, bro­ken into twelve dis­tinct sub­sets of hu­man­ity. Be­side each type is a num­ber in­di­cat­ing its to­tal per­cent­age of the Star’s au­di­ence. And be­side that num­ber is an anal­y­sis of their “dig­i­tal propen­sity to pay.” It’s all part of amar­ket­ing­based strat­egy to train re­porters on what part of the Cana­dian pub­lic their cov­er­age may soon need to cater to. Among the types of hu­mans Star re­porters now un­der­stand to be the de­sired read­er­ship: the “wise el­ders” (older, cul­tur­ally ac­tive, and gen­er­ous with their money), who rep­re­sent 9.7 per­cent of the au­di­ence, and “fu­ture man­agers” (so­cially pro­gres­sive up-and-com­ers with large me­dia ap­petites). Less ap­peal­ing in the mod­ern era are the “lunch at Tim’s” crowd (so­cially con­ser­va­tive bar­gain hunters) or, worse, the “hill­side hob­by­ists” who, at 11per­cent of the Cana­dian au­di­ence, have strong tra­di­tional val­ues, live largely out­side the ur­ban cen­tres, and have al­most no will­ing­ness to pay for any on­line news what­so­ever. But the Star still needs more data to make sure it is pro­duc­ing the type of jour­nal­ism that the al­go­rithms say meets the de­sired read­er­ship’s wants as well as their needs. The Sports and Life pages that once brought in count­less ads for any­thing from soap to hockey skates might soon be gone, re­placed by more con­tent from the likes of Dale and any other re­porters the Star can nur­ture from within its own ranks to repli­cate his suc­cess. Boyn­ton in­sists the Star still ad­heres to the Atkin­son prin­ci­ples, but he speaks with less affin­ity for the jour­nal­ism world — of which he has been a part for just over a year — than he does for the data-driven in­dus­tries in which he spent the last three decades. He says he’s rein­vent­ing Torstar from its core, calls the Star a “hero brand” — a type of com­pany drawn to pow­er­ful con­vic­tions and that mar­kets it­self as inspirational, like Nike — and con­sid­ers Dale one of its many as­sets whose work ap­peals to the cus­tomer whom Boyn­ton places at the cen­tre of the busi­ness. “One of the things on the Star brand that cus­tomers are pas­sion­ate about is pol­i­tics, and US news, and Daniel hap­pens to be in the epi­cen­tre of both.” To hear Boyn­ton talk, it be­comes clear that some read­ers — which he calls an “old-school jour­nal­ism term” — will be left be­hind. “Not every­body’s equal,” he says, as he de­scribes the “hy­per­tar­geted ex­e­cu­tion” the Star is now fol­low­ing. “Name me a com­pany that thinks all peo­ple are cre­ated equal. Name me a com­pany that chases every­body. Name me a suc­cess­ful com­pany that is all things to all peo­ple.” What about “the pa­per for the peo­ple”? The prom­ise ap­peared on the first edi­tion, which now rests in his of­fice, passed down to him from gen­er­a­tions of pub­lish­ers, en­cased and shielded from the sun­light like some copy of the Magna Carta. He laughs. “That’s just a slo­gan,” he says. “That’s not a real busi­ness strat­egy. This is a real busi­ness strat­egy.”

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