The Interview

David Skok in conversation with Steve Paikin on the future of journalism

Steve Paikin, host of TVO's "The Agenda," and David Skok, editor-in-chief of The Logic Nick Iwanyshyn/The Logic

At The Logic’s launch event last week, editor-in-chief David Skok sat down with Steve Paikin, host of TVO’s “The Agenda.” They discussed the future of journalism, the transition to a knowledge-based economy, and how Skok reports on entrepreneurs as an entrepreneur himself, in front of a crowd of over 100 at Toronto’s Eastside Brewing Co. What follows is a lightly-edited transcript of their conversation.

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SP: The media business—as I think everybody in this room knows—is a crazy business nowadays. We are going through an age of anxiety. There is digital disruption like never before. So the first question may be fairly obvious: Are you crazy?

DS: Yes, I am crazy. It comes from this belief that journalism is more than a profession, it’s a calling. Ultimately, no matter what disruption is taking place, if you tell really good stories and you have a really high-quality, smart team looking into real issues, and you retain your independence, people will read it.

SP: The terror around all that is—and I checked the numbers this morning—I think about 10 years ago, the Toronto Star shares on the Toronto Stock Exchange were trading at about 150 bucks apiece. They’re 85 cents apiece right now. [Ed note: $1.01 was the low point for the stock trading this day.] People do not know the jeopardy legacy media are in today. What do you say to that?

DS: We are embracing the technological disruption that those other organizations are really struggling with, in that, we don’t have their cost structure. It’s very simple: your subscription dollars, when you subscribe to The Logic, 80 cents of every dollar that you put in goes straight to our reporting team to do their work. Whereas, at a place like the Star or The New York Times, with The Globe and Mail or others, you’d be lucky if 35 cents of that dollar is going toward reporters. And so that gives us a huge advantage over them. In terms of distribution costs, we don’t have to worry about that; in terms of printing costs, we don’t worry about that. And ultimately, we get to focus on the product, which is the great work that people do.

SP: They do have a 150-year headstart on you, though. How helpful is that?

DS: I thought it was going to be a bigger challenge for us. But in some of the reporting that we’ve done early on, and I think the editing process that we put in place—we have a fantastic copy editor, whom you’ll meet later on, named Hanna Lee—we’re building that trust every day. And I can tell you firsthand, because I hear from them, we’ve upset a lot of companies and a lot of people with our coverage being fair, that they weren’t used to. And I think every day, you just have to work to earn that trust.

SP: You’ve chosen to plant your flag on the innovation economy—how come?

DS: Well, I think Canada is the innovation economy. Our future rests on it. How we transform our economy from a resource-based economy to a knowledge-based economy is the story of our times. Even if you look at the [SNC-Lavalin] story in Ottawa this month, a lot of it rests on that challenge of, you know, we’re losing foreign direct investment from our oil- and resource-extraction world. How do we generate new revenues for this country? Is it bringing Big Tech onto our shores—whether it’s through boosting up or propping up existing Canadian, large companies, or whether it’s through starting and fostering the innovation economy? This is big. If you care about the future of Canada, you should be reading The Logic, because ultimately, what we report on is about the future of the country.

SP: They often say people who get into journalism do so because they like to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted. Who are the comfortable that you are afflicting in doing this work?

DS: Complacency. The assumption that the way we’ve always done things is how it’ll always be in the future. Part of that comes from my own experience: 20 years in journalism, working in an institution, trying to transform from within. Looking at my own arc, I’ve always fought against that complacency. I would say that our voice is one of that—it’s a pushing-back against the idea of complacency.

SP: Let me follow up on that, because, yes, 20 years in journalism, but you’re not just a journalist anymore. You’re trying to be an innovator. You’re trying to be an entrepreneur. How different are these roles now from what you’re used to?

DS: Operationally, they’re identical. There’s very little that we do that isn’t part of what we’ve always done. So I think if there’s anything about the quality of the work, you’re seeing the same principles that The Globe and Mail, The Boston Globe and The New York Times have had for over 150 years. So that hasn’t changed. But certainly the fundraising piece of it, the being-a-publisher is a little bit new. What’s really been interesting about that is being an entrepreneur covering entrepreneurs has given me a very unique lens on that world, and also a far better sense of what it takes for someone like Dave, who runs the bar, to run a business. When we’re out there reporting, and trying to get these stories, I hope it comes through in our coverage that we’re in on this with you.

SP: You’ve achieved a hell of a lot in journalism, both here and in Boston, where—do we share a love of a certain baseball team?

DS: We do not. In fact, I indoctrinated my son, so that when we were living in Boston, we were fortunate enough to go to Fenway Park a lot and we would only take our son to games when the Blue Jays were playing just so he couldn’t become a Red Sox fan.

SP: But I’ve got to think about the things that I might have been able to do in this business that you have not. It’s a very short list.

DS: Oh, come on.

SP: No, seriously. I think the only thing that I’ve done that you haven’t is interview [Sidewalk Labs CEO] Dan Doctoroff. That wasn’t meant as a shot! That was meant as a joke.

DS: I invited him here; we welcomed him to the stage. He did not take me up on it.

SP: How surprising. In all seriousness, [Sidewalk Labs] has become a very big story for you guys. What’s fascinating to you about that story?

DS: It really is a microcosm for all those issues that we’ve been talking about. It’s not just about what does Canada want to be—do we want to be a branch plant or do we want to foster our own economy? But it’s also in the weeds, if you start looking at data and IP and governance. And then you look at the governance: three levels of government with a parcel of land downtown, working for foreign direct investment in this country—it encapsulates pretty much everything that this country is trying to deal with, I think. We stumbled on that story. Amanda Roth, she started out just looking at lobbying records and saw a few things that were interesting to her and then, like all the best stories do, the layers of the onion just kept being peeled. That was actually by accident. It was not a story that we were really focusing on when we launched.

SP: Editorially, do you have a view on what you think Sidewalk Labs either ought to or ought not to be?

DS: No.

SP: You’re just going to follow the puck?

DS: Follow the puck and make sure others can see where the puck is and where it’s going.

SP: Let me ask you about how you guys are doing so far. You’ve been in business eight and a half months—how’s it going?

DS: It’s going incredibly well. And I say that with a little bit of surprise. When you first launch a product, any product, you want to prove a minimum viable product. Is there something here that people will pay for? I think we can answer definitively, if you look around this room, the answer is yes. So then it becomes a question of how do you get more people to figure out that it exists, and how do you get more people to read it?

SP: Do you know what the answer to those questions is yet?

DS: We’re constantly figuring it out as we go, and I think that’s, again, part of what makes this project so exciting for me and hopefully for our readers—all of you—is that you’re on this journey with us. And so we’re constantly navigating that.

SP: The initial goal obviously was to get up and rolling. You’ve done that. What’s the intermediate goal, and then what’s the long-range goal?

DS: Intermediate goal would be sustainability. I’m not saying anything out of turn by telling you that, because I said the same thing at The Boston Globe. How do you find and produce a sustainable news organization in 2019 when journalism is where it is? So that is goal no. 1. And then, of course, I believe that we can grow this into a very healthy long-term use of innovation that maybe lasts 150, 175 years.

SP: Well that was sort of the next question, because, your experience with The Boston Globe—they’re owned by a billionaire. So their chances seem pretty good: if they want to hang in there, they can sustain losses for a long time. How do you make the comparison for what you’re working on right now?

DS: We’re independent. And I think that holds a lot of cards, to me, at least. When I hear from people who are upset or happy with our coverage and they think we’re supporting one side or favouring one side or another, the very simple answer that we can give them is: we’re a bootstrapped startup that is independently reporting on this work. And I think that gives us more credibility in the short term. We’re building trust by continuing to do things that way, and it’s stuff that—and I do want to single out Kevin Newman, my longtime friend and mentor who’s here, what he taught me a long time ago, that journalism, you rely on the principles and you build the long-term business, a viable business through that trust.

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SP: You’re going to have a million people telling you that this won’t work. What do you say to them?

DS: I’ve always preferred to think actions speak louder than words, and I just think every day we’ll keep showing them. And I think we are to a large extent already. I see the way others are reacting to our work, where they’re marshalling their resources. And that tells me we’re doing something right.

SP: Why is it called “The Logic?”

DS: I was looking for something that could speak to innovation. And the first machine-learning language for computer programming was logic. And it was kind of speaking to machine learning,  and Geoffrey Hinton and all these founding godfathers of AI in our country. That’s it. So The Logic came from that, and then it had a whole bunch of other double meanings: in a time of post-truth—or whatever you want to call this era—to actually have logical, fact-based reporting is an important message to send.

Video by Helen Mak for The Logic