Lunch with Patricia Graham

A dedicated defender of newspapers, Vancouver Sun editor Patricia Graham ?relishes the challenge of bringing the centuries-old medium into the digital age.

Patricia Graham, Vancouver Sun | BCBusiness

A dedicated defender of newspapers, Vancouver Sun editor Patricia Graham 
relishes the challenge of bringing the centuries-old medium into the digital age.

As a former lawyer, Vancouver Sun editor-in-chief Patricia Graham always knew she was forfeiting a lucrative career for a decidedly more precarious one. “I’ve always led through contraction,” she says, reflecting on her two decades in management at the metropolitan daily, which has seen an undisclosed reduction in staff (“through attrition and buyouts,” she stresses). The industry continues to struggle with less traditional advertising revenue in the digital age. “But I followed my passion; I’ve no regrets,” she adds proudly. “This business is so interesting because everything’s new all of the time.”

New ways of delivering news

Nowadays, of course, the diminutive 62-year-old is not just talking about the news, but how her organization delivers it. While she has one eye firmly on its traditional newspaper audience (daily readership was 499,800 in 2010, according to the Newspaper Audience Databank), part of her role now is responding to what she calls the “transformational culture” of getting the word out digitally – and figuring out how to make money while doing it. To her mind, that means packaging information such as the Sun’s Fatabase (a database listing calories in restaurant meals) into a paid app for the iPad, or perhaps limiting the number of pages readers can view on a newspaper’s site before having to pay. The pilot scheme is being played out at the Montreal Gazette and Victoria’s Times Colonist, both part of the Toronto-headquartered Postmedia Network Inc., which also owns the Sun. “This will start to instill in people the notion that this content has value,” adds the graduate of York University’s Osgoode Hall law school whose journalism career started at the Globe and Mail in her native Toronto.

“Being a journalist is as entrepreneurial as it gets – you have to seek out stories and be self-motivated,” Graham continues over a chicken sandwich at Red Door Pan Asian Grill near her south Granville home. “Now the newsroom has to be entrepreneurial in a very different sense – by thinking of ways to increase revenue so that journalism has a healthy future. It’s been a cultural shift to go digital, but we’re having a blast with new media and finding new ways of telling stories.” Helped greatly, she adds, by having pages from the Sun and other publications in the chain assembled in Ontario, which has freed up journalists to create more digital content.

The tradition of journalism and news

While the mother of two grown-up children, who arrived in B.C. by way of Quadra Island, where her then-husband was teaching for a few years, is adamant that newspapers will last her lifetime, she knows the paper format no longer means as much to society. Journalism and news, however, are sacrosanct: “They have the same value,” she states defiantly, citing reports that around 90 per cent of all original news originates in traditional newspaper newsrooms.

Graham also quickly points out that her newspaper has the most successful digital property within the Postmedia chain, citing as evidence its 1.8 million unique visitors in May. “I might have a quiet personality,” she says with a smile, “but I am competitive as hell.” 

Graham attributes her competitive streak to growing up with two brothers and to figure skating competitively in her childhood, but it’s a side to her personality Graham tries to consign to the newsroom. Outside of work she admits to finding her “therapy” in a local knitting group that practices a mathematical style known as Nihon Vogue. “It’s my creative outlet,” explains Graham, who also takes Mandarin lessons and won last year’s Women’s Executive Network’s award for trailblazers and trendsetters. She adds that the knitting “puts me in touch with people I wouldn’t necessarily come across and it’s a great leveller; we meet as equals free of the demands of our day jobs.”

One of the few women leading daily newspapers in Canada, Graham admits that, as a “private and self-contained person,” much of her role has involved a steep learning curve – especially the socializing and public speaking. “There were plenty of behaviours that did not come naturally,” she says, before concluding with a flash of trademark steeliness, “but I’m pretty good now.”