On August 31, a little more than 11 years after her byline first appeared in The Globe and Mail, Tabatha Southey was summarily fired. This was not the first time it had happened to the freelance columnist — her 2010 canning by the same paper was quickly reversed following public outcry — but it was the first time it had happened via email, through a form letter sent by editor-in-chief David Walmsley to Southey and fellow columnist Leah McLaren and apparently no one else.
But while McLaren immediately snapped back with a biting response, Southey has largely held her tongue concerning the unceremonious adieu, except for bits scattered here and there while promoting her book of Collected Tarts.
Now, however, Southey has found a new home at Maclean’s — where her column will run weekly on their site and in each monthly print edition — and so decided it was finally time to tie up some loose ends.
This interview, conducted via Facebook, has been only slightly edited:
So how will your Maclean’s column be similar to or different from what you were doing for The Globe?
Maclean’s emailed me very, very shortly after the news broke that The Globe had ended my column, and basically said, “We’d love it if you could bring your column here, let’s meet.” And that’s what I’m going to do. “Tart” but in a different venue.
“Reverend Mother always says when the Lord closes a door, somewhere he opens a window,” or so Maria said, and I feel like this is more a nice set of French doors, with beveled glass, leading to a beer garden. I’m very happy to be going to Maclean’s.
You’re one of very few news columnists for whom the sound of language is just as important as its appearance on the page. I think I once read — or perhaps you once told me — that The Globe was kind enough to give you a sort of final edit over your columns, letting you review them to make sure that their intended rhythm and cadence remained intact. How did you obtain and maintain that level of control in one of the country’s largest dailies?
Because humour is more like a poem than a news story — in that the entire meaning of a sentence, or its reason for being, can be lost if the wrong word is used — I asked for and pretty much was always given the right to sign off on the final edit. I should say that from the start at The Globe, I was lucky enough to work with keen-eyed, smart-as-hell editors. Edits seldom took long at all. I tried to remain entirely open and available to my editors, and for the most part we had fun, and I’ll miss those fine people.
How did you feel when you got the email from Walmsley? Did you reply?
I was rather surprised, as the column seemed to be doing well. The Globe had been teasing it on the front page over the summer a fair bit, givin]
‘Ignore. My puppy pressed send.
I was rather surprised, as the column seemed to be doing well, and The Globe had been teasing it on the front page over the summer a fair bit and giving me a lot of space. But I was also not surprised, because, it’s The Globe, and they’d killed the column before, and I’m sometimes somewhat confused by their choices.
I can’t say I wasn’t sad and worried. This is my livelihood. I support two children with it, as well as myself, and I’d worked very hard for the paper. Also, Walmsley’s email came in about two hours before I was due to file, meaning, that after more than 10 years’ service, The Globe managed to ensure I worked my last week for them for free. No, I didn’t answer.
What do you make of Walmsley’s statement in the email that the “the [freelance] review considered overall gaps and strengths in our current and future coverage plans and overall budget priorities”? What do you think they were looking for that they didn’t feel they were getting from you — or, conversely, what do you think you were giving them that they no longer apparently wanted?
I don’t know. I do know that I was not approached to take time off, file less often, or asked to accept a reduction in pay. While it’s no secret that the paper is facing grave financial difficulties, any of these options might have gone some way towards addressing a budgeting issue, had I agreed to them.
As for what I was giving “them”? I honestly mostly thought about the column in terms of what I was giving readers, and I sincerely tried not to waste their precious Saturday morning time.
I know that The Globe‘s own metrics show that I was very well read (much clicked upon), and all the way through (many minutes engaged), and I was read on a lot of cellphones. Mobile readership indicates a younger audience. This, as I’m sure you know, is a demographic that advertisers want newspapers to reach that they are mostly failing to attract. And, regardless of whether a newspaper comes to rely more on subscribers than advertisers for revenue, they’re going to need the kids if they want to remain vital and, ultimately, viable.
Also, I seem to have been driving much of my own traffic. My column was bringing people to The Globe site, and my readers seemed a wonderfully loyal bunch. I talked a few people on the East Coast into, and then through, getting a digital subscription after they wrote to me, sad, because they’d lost the print edition and couldn’t read my column anymore.
So, frankly, I’m not sure what that bit up there’s about, and I’m not going to waste a lot of time trying to figure it out, but my footprint would appear to have been been going in the right direction.
Publisher Phillip Crawley told the Canadian Press about you and McLaren that “sometimes you feel the columns are getting tired, repetitive, the columnist is doing other things and perhaps has lost a little bit of the interest in working with The Globe.” Jonathan Kay interpreted that as suggesting that you were playing too much to the Twitter crowd, and I think Andrew Potter said something along the same lines. What do you make of that?
pretty sure he's talking about Southey turning every column into Twitter-friendly applause lines stitched together into paragraphs https://t.co/O0yE6y95fI
— Jonathan Kay (@jonkay) September 7, 2017
she is capable of funny. but her columns became narrowcasted at twitter base
for writers, twitter-love is ultimately worse than twitter hate
— Jonathan Kay (@jonkay) September 7, 2017
What Potter said, as I recall, is that while I was popular in his Twitter circle, and he considers me a friend, I did not speak to his notion of the real Canada, or some such thing. It was an odd position for the guy who wrote The Authenticity Hoax to take, I thought. He went on about how, back when he did a book tour, more people came out for Margaret Wente than for him and his co-author, and people needed to know that.
I think people would not struggle to imagine that as much as he seemed to think they would, to be honest, and there are, thankfully, more accurate measures of readership and the political opinion of Canadians than a book tour that happened 12 years ago. I would have gathered some of that data before pronouncing a writer niche, that’s all.
Which is not to say that a lot of people don’t read and enjoy Wente, of course they do. And Potter’s main point, that The Globe must rely on digital subscriptions if they are to survive, is sound. I’m just not sure why he decided that another, also well-read columnist, such as myself, could not be part of that model.
I believe Kay said I was “turning every column into a series of Twitter-friendly applause lines stitched together,” and all I can say, is, Dude, they’re called “jokes.” And if your idea of a joke is, essentially, “Hey, the people we attempted to brutally exterminate over many generations have asked us to please stop selling what bits of their culture catch our eye for profit, LOL!!!!!” and that bombed, well, I can see you might be feeling upset and confused by the genuine article.
I enjoy Twitter. It is, as my friend Shawn Micallef once told me, “my public notebook. Sometimes people tell me I’m wrong, or add to those notes. It makes me a better writer and thinker.”
I’d say it’s the closest I have come to being in a room full of comics, which is almost how I was raised, and I like it. Mostly, I am there to hear other people’s ideas and get the news. Twitter is a water-cooler, where you get to read the newswire. Then you go to your desk and work.
Yes, jokes are tossed out and built upon, and yes, sometimes, jokes I make on Twitter get put into a column. Just as jokes I make in conversation might be put into a column. It’s part of recognizing that there’s precious little overlap between Twitter followers and newspaper readers. Sometimes people enjoy my tweets and share them, and that’s fun, but the notion, as Kay also tweeted, that my “columns became narrowcasted at twitter base for writers, twitter-love is ultimately worse than twitter hate” is creeping up to crazy.
This really does seem to be a case of “Man who sucks at Twitter comforts himself that not sucking at Twitter is the actual problem.” Man might need to spend less time thinking about Twitter.
I’m not sure what Crawley was on about. You’d have to ask him. “Tired” of course is a subjective judgment, and this was all management’s call to make, but I’d be curious to hear what exactly I did that he interpreted as disloyal to The Globe and Mail.
There was also a belief that Globe management may have been irked by the rare tweets of yours that critically alluded to others at the paper. Which raises the question: If you hadn’t been with The Globe, what sort of things might you have said or written about Margaret Wente’s columns?
Well, I guess you can all find out now! Yes, I very rarely alluded to Wente on Twitter, and I would like to think that a newspaper would recognize the value of a little good cop/bad cop on this front. As in, “Yes, I know, I saw that too, but I am still with the paper, please join me.”
Perhaps not. Who knows? It does seem strange that they have made her so much the brand.
I was a freelancer, not a staff writer, and making fun of Wente on Twitter is a national pastime, so it’s a bit, “Sure, you can work for us sometimes, but you can’t watch hockey.”
It’s almost the nature of being affiliated with a large institution that occasionally it will do things or take positions with which you strongly disagree — but about which you’re discouraged from publicly expressing displeasure. What advice would you have for other people, in media or elsewhere, trying to reconcile their own values with their place in a sometimes objectionable apparatus?
Obviously you don’t want to undermine your employer or imply that a large portion of your colleagues are biologically incapable of doing their jobs, but I don’t think many newspapers ever suffered for showing they were home to a variety of opinions and weren’t afraid of a lively in-house debate.
For the most part, as most waiters know, and not-bizarrely-defensive-or-mismanaged dining establishments recognize, it doesn’t do any harm to say, “I personally recommend the fried chicken over the veal,” and it might even win the joint some repeat customers.
Unless of course it turns out you work at “The House of VEAL, VEAL, VEAL, No, Really, we don’t even care if it turns out that some of the veal was lifted without adequate accreditation!” In which case I hope you have savings.
Original photo of Tabatha Southey and Cherry by Basil Southey.