Rocking the Globe

Star-struck senior staff let Bono and Bob Geldof edit the Globe and Mail

Kevin Van Paassen / Globe and Mail

Despite an edict by Globe and Mail editor-in-chief John Stackhouse, designed to limit gawking, that newsroom staff “only come in to the building if you must be on-site,” several senior managers, including Stackhouse himself, brought their kids in on Saturday to watch as the Globe’s guest editors—Bono and Sir Bob Geldof, pop stars from, respectively, U2 and the Boomtown Rats—stitched together the Monday edition.

In a move one might have never imagined for Canada’s grey paper of record, the celebrity duo took control, producing an edition devoted to Africa and labelled “The African Century.” Suddenly, here was Zooropa, black and white and read all over, rather than the dreary Mop and Pail. “I think people were excited to get their picture taken with them,” says an editor. The carnival atmosphere afforded many at the Globe a first glimpse of co-worker offspring in a newsroom not known for conviviality. “Preteens, kind of thing,” says a staffer. “People who probably didn’t know who Bono was. Do you really need to do that? Like—you’re kind of here to work.” Says a reporter: “It just felt like another generation’s rock star. And the editors who are old—like, who are in their 40s—they got really excited about it. This was really their show.”

And it was a show. Greeted on the sidewalk outside the Globe offices at 444 Front Street West in Toronto by Stackhouse and Globe publisher Phillip Crawley at noon Saturday—Bono’s schedule wouldn’t permit his presence on Sunday, when the Monday paper is usually assembled—Bono and Sir Bob and half a dozen handlers followed their Canadian hosts into a newsroom crammed with between 30 and 40 people—“more than needed to be there,” says a staffer (Globe editors and reporters spoke to Maclean’s on the basis of anonymity). “It seemed like a little kids’ soccer game—like, wherever the ball goes, all the kids go,” an editor says. “Wherever Bono and Geldof went, everybody followed—in a crowd.”

The newsroom tables and counters stood draped with tablecloths commemorating the merger, in 1936, of the Globe and the Mail and Empire, a special touch. In what some described as yet another Globe first—after Bono and Sir Bob ceased quibbling over which words and which colours to include on the wallpaper-like textual front page, after the catered sandwiches, some three hours after their arrival—beer was served: Harp Lager, from Bono and Sir Bob’s native Ireland, and Molson Canadian. (Unfortunately, Bono’s stay was too tightly scripted to permit him a libation; his people whisked him away to New York and a surprise 50th birthday party.) “Honestly, it doesn’t take much for people to break out of their shell at the Globe when you’ve got a couple of rock stars in the building,” says an editor. “It’s a pretty staid place on the best of days. To have people smiling and laughing and actually talking in the newsroom is a victory in a way.”

Arrangements between the Globe, Bono and Sir Bob, and ONE, the advocacy group the pair helped establish to fight against extreme poverty, were months in the making, according to a Stackhouse column on Monday. Yet senior editors didn’t hear of it until four weeks or so in advance, and were asked to keep it quiet. This was nothing like the Globe’s 2004 “China Rising” special edition: planned far in advance and wholly consumed with the emergence of a new China, it pulled together the reporting of 10 on-the-ground journalists and two dozen more staffers in Canada. “Get ready for China’s century,” the Globe said then. Yet it now has another contender for dominance—“The African Century,” as A1 put it on Monday. Last week, announcing the Bono-Sir Bob coup by general email, Stackhouse added something of a justification, writing that Monday’s edition would be “a kickoff for two months of coverage around the G8-G20 summit in southern Ontario in late June.”

Predictably, Globe-brand angst ensued, as did debate over the benefits of handing the paper’s editorial reins over to an advocacy group. “It was pretty unprecedented,” says an editor. “Star power aside, we’re turning the editorial direction of the paper over to a charity, to a non-profit. People had to swallow hard.” He adds: “The fact it’s such a one-off made it easier to take.” Others were more passionate. “It violates journalistic principles,” says a staffer. “We could have interviewed them and stayed in total control. But we’re not. Rock stars? Would we have given it to a diplomat or even a Nobel Prize winner who had accomplished as much in Africa? No.” Who’s next, wondered another: “Can Lady Gaga be far behind?”

Still, in an interview this week Stackhouse argued the paper’s partnership with Bono, Sir Bob and ONE gave the paper access to new expertise and opened the doors to a panoply of star contributors. More than that, “their star power draws attention,” he says. “They know that, we know that. It gets people reading and engaged in a subject that they might not otherwise pay attention to.” He adds: “I was very clear going in, that I had a veto over anything they did in the Globe.”

This isn’t the first time the duo has used celebrity clout to shape a mainstream media outlet’s message. In the years since 2005, when the G8 pledged in Gleneagles to write off debts owed by the poorest countries and double aid to Africa by 2010, Bono and Sir Bob have been “trying to put their feet to the fire,” says ONE’s European director, Olly Buston. One tactic has been to approach key newspapers in countries poised to host a G8 summit and offer up Bono and Sir Bob’s services as guest editors. One or the other—or both—men have in this way come to edit the Independent in the U.K., widely considered left-leaning, Italy’s centrist La Stampa, and Germany’s Bild, a populist daily, Vanity Fair and the Asahi Shimbun (“Geldof is one of the best copy editors you’ll find,” Stackhouse told Maclean’s). “It’s about using Bono and Bob’s celebrity to capture media space, which we then invite others to speak into,” Buston says. Referring to Monday’s Globe, he adds: “You wouldn’t usually get that much coverage of Africa in a paper of record.” Buston rejects the notion handing editorial control over to Bono, Sir Bob and ONE undermines editorial integrity. “It’s very transparent, isn’t it?” he says. “All the time we’re all being lobbied and buffeted. I think what this is trying to do is just balance that a little bit—to encourage a debate about Africa at a key moment.”

But some editors at the Globe worried on Sunday, when Sir Bob arrived to put the paper together according to his discussions with Bono and Globe editorial staff the previous day, that his attempts to “rebalance” might push the paper over altogether. Sir Bob “was spouting these figures off the top of his head and saying we should use them,” one editor recalls. The figures would have to be fact- checked, he was told. Later, Geldof, a tall lanky man who wandered around the newsroom clutching a book of stats from the 2005 Gleneagles summit and who had a habit of bending over to reveal a striking case of plumber’s butt, rewrote the headline on page three, above Bono’s interview with U.S. President Barack Obama, to read: “Barack ’n’ Roll.” Those in the newsroom said the headline—a “clanger,” according to one—made Stackhouse uncomfortable. “That’s not a headline the Globe and Mail’s going to write,” says an editor. “I was surprised John was willing to let that go,” says another. But Geldof defended it, going back and forth with four or five editors. “He just wanted to take the Globe out of its comfort zone, to show people that there were a couple of new guys in town and things were different that day.”

Toward the end of the evening, according to an editor close to the process, Stackhouse quietly told a designer to remove a ONE logo that had found its way onto the front page.

Sir Bob spent all Sunday at the Globe, leaving sometime just short of midnight, a 10-hour day. He’d been a passionate advocate and a details-oriented quibbler, even writing a reply to seven-year-old Natalie Hasham, of Mississauga, Ont., in Letters to the Editor (“Dear Natalie, What an amazing girl you are . . . ”). Now, with things winding down, some in the newsroom puzzled over what this Africa edition meant. “It felt a little bit like a souvenir edition,” says one editor.

More urgently, some editors wondered if they might get a chance to raise a pint with the famous Dubliner. Sir Bob, though, was knackered. “By the end of the night, I think he was sort of exhausted and was saying, ‘Is there any place you can get something to eat around here?’ ” says an editor. “And somebody said, ‘Yeah—you can get a sandwich at the Shell next door.’ ”

The show was over.