Paul Godfrey guides Postmedia to a digital-first future

The following interview with Paul Godfrey originally appeared in the September/October 2010 edition of The Publisher.

When asked which is more fun to run, a baseball club or a newspaper chain, the answer comes quickly and easily from Paul Godfrey.

“Depends on whether you are winning or losing.”

Godfrey is optimistic about both the team he used to run, the Blue Jays, and still closely follows with a fan’s passion, and the newspaper company he now heads, Postmedia Network Inc. But it’s the latter that occupies his professional attention.

Improving the fortunes of an organization is an ongoing, step-by-step process, and steering the traditional media through the turbulent waters of digital content and competition and into a new era of profitability is proving to be a particularly difficult assignment for the industry.

It has been said the task in front of Godfrey may well be the toughest of his media career.

“Yeah, I would agree with that. When I left Sun Media back in 2000, the word Internet was not part of the general public nomenclature, although it was sure popping its head up … even prior to 2000, when we began to hear that in the not-to-distance future people would be carrying a handheld computer with them, in their pocket or on their hip, and you’d be able to read (content on them).

“I think a lot of us were scratching our heads and saying, ‘oh yeah, that’s for sure … can’t believe that.’”

Godfrey is CEO of Postmedia Network, a national chain of 11 dailies, 35 community papers, and associated websites that rose from the ashes of the former CanWest group of newspapers. The newest player on the media landscape paid $1.1 billion for the properties to become the largest-circulation chain in the country.

The chain has editions in the country’s biggest markets, including Vancouver, Montreal, and Toronto, from where it operates the National Post; Godfrey became CEO and president of that paper in January 2009.

In the years since leaving Sun Media, where he was CEO, the delivery of content has undergone a revolutionary shift, with digital cutting into territory once exclusively owned by traditional media.

“Newspapers have been challenged over the years by radio and television, and it’s a little surprising that it’s only the Internet that has caused newspapers to sit up and express concern about places like Google taking their content. Radio and television have been taking content from newspapers for several decades, and there has never been a whimper about that.”

It’s the multitude of new websites, most of which are competing for revenue, that’s keeping newspaper executives awake at night. Despite the challenges, Godfrey says the chain was worth the $1.1 billion, and represents a solid investment.

“These brands … are the largest newspapers in the country, in just about every major market in Canada.

“The brands are strong. They have unbelievable tenure in their communities. When people buy newspapers or visit their websites, they know they are going to get the best local news they can get anywhere.”

Being an insider provides one with particular insight into how a company might fare in the future, and how economic forces have impacted it in the past.

“I know how, and I’m not going to quote actual numbers, much money they made in 08. I know what the recession did in 09, and I’m fairly certain of how much the fall off of bottom-line profitability has basically been caused by the recession and how much is structural and change … to the Internet.

“I also know what we can do going forward based upon just being here, and being able to speak