This episode of Hub Dialogues features host Sean Speer in conversation with The Hub’s executive director, Rudyard Griffiths, about the experience of launching The Hub over the past two years, including how we’re doing, what we’ve learned, and what to expect in 2023.
You can listen to this episode of Hub Dialogues on Acast, Amazon, Apple, Google, Spotify, or YouTube. The episodes are generously supported by The Ira Gluskin And Maxine Granovsky Gluskin Charitable Foundation.
SEAN SPEER: Welcome to Hub Dialogues. I’m your host, Sean Speer, editor-at-large at The Hub. I’m honoured to be joined today by Rudyard Griffiths, The Hub’s executive director. I thought it would be a good idea to wrap up 2022 with a conversation about The Hub at 20 months, including how we’re doing, what we’ve learned, and what might be new in 2023. Rudyard, thanks for joining us at Hub Dialogues.
RUDYARD GRIFFITHS: Hey, Sean. I’m honoured to make it on the program. What is this? Like 160, 170 episodes, and finally, you’re scraping the bottom of the barrel. You’ve got the executive director on. You guys must have really run out of content by the end of the year.
SEAN SPEER: Well, I have my mind on my Christmas bonus, which I hope is in front of you somewhere. You’re right, though, Rudyard. One of our major developments in the second year at The Hub has been the launch of Hub Dialogues, which has really benefited from the hard work and dedication of our producer, Amal Attar-Guzman. Because of that, I think this episode will be something like the 165th.
RUDYARD GRIFFITHS: Congratulations.
SEAN SPEER: Yes, thank you very much. We finally got to you and I’m grateful to be able to draw on your insights and thoughts about our work at The Hub.
RUDYARD GRIFFITHS: Well, this is what I thought we could do for the benefit of listeners because we always trying to put ourselves into service of our listeners. Instead of blowing our horn and running around the block with pots and pans in arm saying how great The Hub is—we think it’s pretty special and a lot of you seem to enjoy it too, which is great—I thought it might be more interesting, Sean, just to talk about the good, the bad, and the ugly, to invoke one of my favorite Clint Eastwood movies, and just how this year has been an incredible year of learning.
To discuss the different platforms that we’ve rolled out to engage with our readers, our listeners, our consumers of The Hub, from our website to our podcast platform, to our YouTube channel, to a whole complicated social media strategy, and not all of it was seamless. Not all of it was A to B to C to D. I think it’d be fun maybe to get into some of that, and maybe too, over the course of the show, let’s give out our email. There are some people out there who are listening to us thinking, “Guys, you’re really not thinking about that the right way.” Send us an email.
Let’s start with the podcast, Sean, because in some ways, this is something you’ve been really involved with over the last year. I’ve got to say it’s been a pleasant surprise that this podcast has delivered a significant audience now almost 12 months since its launch. It’s started to become a source of revenue for The Hub, indirectly, in that we now have a foundation, The Maxine and Ira Gluskin Granovsky Charitable Foundation, that’s supporting our podcast. What happened there, Sean? Why do you think this worked for us? Because we can talk about some of the things that didn’t work, but this certainly did and I still can’t quite figure out what it is.
Is it just simply that the means of talking and sharing information for the podcast is in sync with what our audience likes? Is it that simple?
SEAN SPEER: I think that’s a big part of it. I also think it’s been something of a virtuous cycle. Rudyard, as you know, and listeners will know, a major target for us as guests has been people who are out promoting books, who’ve written books and want to talk about them. If there’s anything we like here at Hub Dialogues, it is talking about big ideas and interesting topics. I think the reason it’s become a virtuous cycle is we’ve been able to demonstrate to authors and publishers that our conversations are substantive, that they are about elevating the ideas and analysis of the authors. They’re not about gotcha politics, and it produces a solid listenership.
That kind of mix, I think, has enabled us to get some just really extraordinary guests. I think of someone like Francis Fukuyama, for instance, or John Ikenberry, or Ross Douthat the New York Times columnist, and on and on and on. I think we’ve hit something of our stride. I wouldn’t go back and listen to those initial episodes. I think my hosting remains a work in progress, but the extent to which it’s been successful, it’s because of the quality of our guests.
The one thing I’m really excited about is we’ve turned our minds to 2023. Amal is already working hard to secure guests for next year. We have some really exciting names on that list and intend to keep going, providing in-depth conversations on big issues facing Canada and really the world.
RUDYARD GRIFFITHS: I think one of the interesting things to me about the podcast is that it also exists on the website as a transcript, which then is valuable to some people. They seem to like the transcript. But more importantly, Google likes the transcript. It becomes a way for people to discover us through the website in terms of the guests we host. I guess that to me has been one of the learnings of this year: that for content to succeed, and ultimately for The Hub to succeed as a provider of content, it’s really about finding types of media and then repurposing them into different formats, because different audiences are going to reach you through different formats and then you get this multiplier effect.
It seems to—not with everything we do, to be honest about it, but with some things we do—you get into this great feeling of a virtuous circle where one thing is feeding off something else, and that in turn, the website is feeding back into the podcast and vice versa. We’re going to try to do a lot more with the podcast because the numbers are great and growing fast, and we’re going to try to see if we can’t turn that virtuous circle into a full-blown flywheel and really try to move the podcast audience onto the website and the website audience onto the podcast and vice versa.
Thank you, guys. It’s a different strategy and I think maybe that’s what might interest some of our listeners. What is the methodological madness that Sean has been following here? Instead of producing one podcast every week, which would give you 50 episodes, not 165, we went for volume and the notion of the long tail, that there would be certain episodes that would really pop. What’s really cool about podcasting is that there are these people out there called “completionists” who once they find your feed, they’re driven to listen to Sean’s dulcet tones not for one, two, or three episodes, but for 165. We thank the completionists that are listening to Hub Dialogues.
SEAN SPEER: Indeed. I hope they’re still listening to this episode. One thing that we’ve experimented a bit with our podcast, and we intend to do more in 2023, is a broader range of voices and subjects than you might find on the website typically. I think it’s fair to say that The Hub’s issue set is principally economic and foreign policy issues with a particular focus on Canada. I think what we’ve sought to do through the podcast is cover a wider range of issues and topics. That’s been one of the most rewarding things for me, Rudyard.
If I look back at some of the feedback we’ve received, it’s the episode on bugs, or the episode we did on love and grief, which was terrific. Or the episode with Tareq Hadhad, the Syrian refugee behind the Peace with Chocolate business in Antigonish, Nova Scotia, which has really taken off. I hope what the podcast does in part is expose a wider audience to The Hub than those who would necessarily be drawn to the typical content on the site. I’ve been grateful for Amal who is dogged in chasing down prospective guests, even if at the face of it it seems like a bit of a crazy proposition.
RUDYARD GRIFFITHS: Some legitimate laurel resting that you can do, Sean, at the end of the year on your 160-plus episodes. Let’s go to an area which has been a bigger challenge, frankly, which has been trying to figure out how to fundraise off our audience. We have spent a lot of time trying to think on what is the process by which to first attract people to us as a source for information where hopefully they see value in what they hear and read, and then try to create a relationship with them where they understand that that value is the reflection of a series of costs. There are salaries to be paid, there’s infrastructure that has to happen to underwrite the production of that content.
Then when they understand that, hopefully, they become a donor, because we are a charity, and we have an ability to provide a charitable tax receipt. I’ve been a little surprised and at times as you know, Sean, a bit frustrated at the extent to which it seems hard to make those connections. The easy thing to say is, “Oh, well, the content’s not there. The content isn’t valuable enough for people to perceive that and therefore to understand that donating is what makes that content possible.” I think our reader surveys and other things we’ve done with people who are visiting us and consuming us shows there’s a lot of satisfaction in what we produce.
Curious as to what your thoughts are: is it just the inundation of everyone with everything that it works against us? Is it just how small the Canadian market is at the end of the day? You can talk about this, Sean. We did look and kick the tires of some American analogs to The Hub. Many of which I look at enviously in terms of how they’ve been able to create legions of small donors who are then funding their operations and sustaining the type of community that they’re all about.
SEAN SPEER: It’s a great question because in a way the people are voting with their eyeballs in the sense that we’ve seen a significant increase in traffic on the site year over year in our second year of operations, but they haven’t yet started to vote with their wallets as you say. Part of our work at The Hub is to figure out that gap, the gulf between the two. I think there probably are a number of factors behind that gulf. You mentioned a few.
Let me put one other on the table, which has been a trade-off that we’ve made from day one, but it’s a trade-off that I stand behind. And that is, Rudyard, that we’ve tried to model a type of public discourse and analysis that’s dispassionate, that is respectful, and that eschews the trend in a lot of the media environment towards high volume, by which I mean the decibel is turned up to 10 and what you might call clickbait. I think we probably could see a significant boost in our traffic and our fundraising if we made those trade-offs, but I think we were right not to. It’s not who you and I are as individuals.
I hope that part of the qualitative benefit of The Hub is to model a type of public engagement and public discourse that is desperately needed, here and elsewhere. But as you say that comes with some costs. I hope that over time, people come to recognize the benefit of our approach and want to support it precisely for that reason.
RUDYARD GRIFFITHS: Look, I think that is a critical point. Everyone, hopefully, who’s reading and listening to The Hub understands that we’re not taking the easy route here. There is a proven business model out there. I call them anger factories, where you create content that is purposely designed to elicit engagement first and foremost on social media, and then you use the algorithms, you leverage the algorithms with that content, that then get people to come back to your website to then bring them in, for better or worse, a yelling match or a place where everyone violently agrees with each other about issue X, Y or Z.
We’re trying not to do that, but at times, Sean, it’s tough to be so counter-trend in a way. To try to resist the temptation to sensationalize, to enrage, to provoke. We’re going to keep doing that. This is not to make a donations appeal in the middle of this episode, but it is to say that if people do appreciate that type of content, then guys, this doesn’t just materialize.
SEAN SPEER: It kind of reminds me of—bear with the analogy—but one of my favorite guests on Hub Dialogues over the past 15 months or so has been the dean of American conservatism, George Will. As a younger man, George Will was a writer at National Review, the great American conservative magazine, and he was calling on the resignation of Richard Nixon at the height of Watergate. It cost the National Review a lot of subscriptions, but William F. Buckley Jr., the magazine’s editor, backed Will. And we’ve made some of those choices.
I don’t want to sound like, I have some victim notion of myself or The Hub, but I think for instance of your piece, Rudyard, one of the articles this year that generated the most buzz, calling out the excesses on the Right with regards to the World Economic Forum and the conspiracy theories that have beset parts of Canadian conservatism. I think of the article that I wrote in the aftermath of Jason Kenney’s sacking in Alberta, and the extent to which it reflected what I called a kind of oppositional mindset that has similarly taken over parts of the Canadian Right.
We got some pushback for those articles and we probably lost some subscribers, but it seems to me that’s exactly the kind of stuff that we need in our public discourse in general, and particularly when it comes to the state of Canadian conservatism, which is going through, especially in the COVID era, something of a period of anger and grievance that I think is ultimately unhealthy. Yes, I think you’re right that there are costs and consequences of the choices that we’ve made and hopefully readers come to see value in those choices because I think it’s really important now as frankly as it’s ever been.
RUDYARD GRIFFITHS: Yes, and I think one of the areas to me that these issues come together, at least for me on a day-to-day basis looking at The Hub and how it’s performing, is in social media. And The Hub, like many startups, information startups, has really relied on social media to have people discover us, to find out, “Hey, there is this thing, I’m interested in this article. They’ve served this article up to me.” In some ways, I’m hugely grateful to Facebook and Twitter for providing us with that opportunity to take pieces of our content, to put small ad spends behind them, and then to target that content towards people that we think could be interested in it. That side of social media is just fantastic.
What I find though, or what I’ve learned through this process, is that what comes back often, it doesn’t model the type of discourse that we want to model at The Hub. That there’s an incongruence between the audience that we’re trying to talk to and that’s actually finding us on social media versus the audience that at the end of the day we want to build and that we want to be part of a conversation with us about the ideas and issues that we’re discussing at The Hub.
I don’t know what you think about that, Sean. It’s partly chicken and egg, partly cart and horse, but it is an ongoing quandary for us. Which is how do we find—because we know they’re out there—how do we find the people that are going to really appreciate who we are and acknowledge the fact that many of them are not on Facebook and Twitter at this moment?
SEAN SPEER: Yes, I think that’s right. I’ve come to think of some of the people that you’re describing who find us via social media but then don’t stick around because our content isn’t giving them the kind of dopamine hit or biased affirmation that they want, I’ve come to call them “low-calorie readers” or “low-calorie listeners.” We’ve put a lot of work into them and then they don’t provide the sustenance, and as you say, we’re in the search for high-calorie readers and listeners, people who are going to see value in what we’re doing and keep coming back. That’s hard because we know how to attract those low-calorie ones. You put a photo of Justin Trudeau or Pierre Poilievre or Donald Trump or something like that in front of them and gin them up and they’ll sign up. At least they’ll check out the site.
As you say, there’s an incongruity between what brought them there and what we’re actually delivering. I think that again is the work that we’ve been doing to find readers and listeners who are really going to see value in The Hub’s ethos and approach. I think we’ve made some progress in the past several months.
Let me just put a couple of things that I’m proud of on the table. We’ve recently done a partnership with the National Post on a series of deep dives on the state of Canadian health care that just wrapped up this week, the week of December 12th. Those articles, which are meaty 2,000, 3,000, 4,000 words each, lot of interviews behind them, data analysis, and they’ve really performed well both on our site and the National Post site, which is a sign, it seems to me, that there is a marketplace for the insights and analysis that we’re focused on. What do you think of the partnership model? Is that something maybe we might pursue more of in 2023?
RUDYARD GRIFFITHS: Yes, a couple things to take away here from the year that was. One is that, as you say, once you do put this type of content that, in some ways is increasingly rare—it’s certainly less abundant than it used to be because, in the current media and information landscape that’s under a lot of pressure financially—there’s just no reason for a company to assign a writer like our Stuart Thomson, our editor-in-chief, who used to be a journalist in the National Post, to write 3,000, 4,000 words on health care wait times.
You can get as many clicks and as much engagement and what’s called a CPM, or price per thousand impressions, with a whole bunch of other content that’s a lot shorter, that’s maybe more celebrity-driven, again, maybe more anger, emotion laden. I do think there’s something positive that suggests we’re onto something and just maybe a longer path, a longer climb to summit or to reach our goal, because that stuff demonstrably works on our site. It’s some of the best-performing content that we have.
The other really cool stat that I take away from the last year, which seems to suggest we’re heading in the right direction, is that we’ve seen steady growth of our traffic, doubling now year over year, but returning users doubling. What’s interesting is we’re growing audience but then that audience is coming back. I think what I would really worry about is, let’s say we were at this point and we’d quadrupled audience, but our returning users were declining. Then to me, that would really be mission failure. I think there’s something here where we’re doing something right because they are coming back and the total size of the pie that we’re baking week in and week out, month after month, is growing and growing steadily.
SEAN SPEER: Can I ask a related but separate question that I get asked sometimes by members of The Hub community that I must say I was involved in but you really had an integral insight at the outside of this project? That was a decision to build our own site, which obviously, it was more costly than using pre-fabricated models like Substack which have been popular with other upstart media organizations. One of the major upsides has been just this empirical treasure trove that we own. That as I like to tell people sometimes, Rudyard, if you’re a competitive person like I am, can make you a bit crazy.
Every week you can know, as you say, not just how many people were on the site and what stories or articles they were reading, but how frequently they’ve been back and how they’ve come to us. You can start to go down a bit of a rabbit hole thinking about, did we use the right headline. Did we use the right image? Did it run on the right date, and so on? Setting aside some of those questions, which we could talk about forever, why don’t you just talk about what your insight was to make the initial investment to build a site that I think is looking really terrific these days.
RUDYARD GRIFFITHS: Listeners, know that Sean is brutal when it comes to looking at the performance of his own pieces on The Hub. If you knew how this can just crush him when he’s not in the top three pieces for the week, you would be clicking and reading Sean Speer a lot more. Why didn’t we go the Substack route? We launched The Hub, remember this was back in April of 2020, peak pandemic, not our choice, but we’d been planning it the previous year in 2019 and Substack really was becoming all the rage. I certainly was tempted because in a sense the cost structure for launch goes down almost to zero because you just end up sharing subscription revenue with Substack.
The thing with Substack—and Substack has really struggled this year, a lot of writers leaving it, the platform is anything but profitable. I was shocked to read that Substack total revenues were in the order of $9, $10 million. I thought it would be 10x, 100x that. I think its fundamental flaw is that it’s brandless. It’s like walking into a No-Frills, and unless you have some really strong personalities like Matt Taibbi, who we recently featured in the pages of The Hub, or Barry Weiss is another big hit on The Hub, unless you are coming from a large incumbent media organization with a sense of a big installed and really engaged readership going into that no-frills environment I think is just a sure way for you just to lose what little identity you might have.
In our case, we had no identity. I think what the website and all the effort and time we’ve spent on branding, which I hope our readers and listeners enjoy that we do spend time thinking about how we communicate with you, whether it’s obviously in a story, but even down to our of emails and the layout and the logos and the graphics that we use, all of that to me is what is going to create a sense of community identity purpose, intentionality. And boy, don’t I look smart this year because, in fact, Substack, Patreon, they’re all having problems.
Maybe that goes back partly to our conversation about donations and our challenges in getting people to become individual donors, I think this last year for everybody has been tough. I think as interest rates have gone up, it’s disposable income that has come under pressure because of debt servicing.
I think the tip jar, the whole idea of the electronic tip jar, it’s been shaken this year and I think creators generally are finding this is a tough environment to be in because everyone’s under more pressure financially and they’re looking at, “Do I really need a subscription to these six different platforms?” Again, shameless pitch, we can give you a charitable tax receipt. Think about that. Okay, you can support great content and you can also get a charitable tax receipt.
SEAN SPEER: You want to reflect a bit, Rudyard, on the issues that seem to resonate the most with our readers. This is something that we track very carefully, not just through the site, but I think you alluded earlier, have done a survey of our readers. And through this process, there’s been I think an ability to discern the types of issues that seem to really grab our community. Do you want to talk a bit about that?
RUDYARD GRIFFITHS: Yes, I think you have really good insights into this too. I think it’s a mix of what’s topical. You get things like housing, health care, and what I call national affairs. The Conservative leadership campaign or things like that that episodically come along and capture interest. I think scratch beneath those issues in the news, so to speak, and I think what I’m left with is a readership that is really engaged on the big national questions of the day.
It doesn’t surprise me that when we do our audience research that we find the majority readers are like me. I’m 51 going on 52. They’re older and generally civically engaged. Our surveys show they vote in high rates, they’re people who send letters to the editor, God bless them. There are also people who are often in leadership positions in their own organizations. All of this goes back to something I originally thought at the very beginning of this project, that The Hub is more about quality than quantity. We need a certain amount of quantity because we need to create, hopefully, again, that virtuous circle that then becomes the content flywheel of donors funding content, and then that content getting out and satisfying a market failure in the current news and information environment where you don’t get the type of content that The Hub produces because it’s not economically feasible for most commercial entities to produce that.
Or it’s much easier for them to be commercially successful by producing other types of content. I don’t know, Sean, I go back to a community that is not ubiquitous in Canada unfortunately—but maybe it’s like this in every democracy—but it’s a community that we really value. The challenge is finding them, is finding those people that meet that profile of civically engaged leaders in their communities, businesses inclined towards some idea of a national purpose, a national conversation. I think you can hear my voice that I really respect this group.
It’s largely the community, intellectually, that I grew up with, but I’m also not naive enough to think that a lot of the winds in our society are blowing in a different direction towards polarization, radicalization, the local and regional over the national and the international. The Hub, I would say, is slightly an oppositional project, right? Like we’re opposing some of the forces that we see out there, and our success or failure will in some ways be a judgment on whether those forces got the better of us or whether we were able to create some kind of sustainable project in the context of finding and meeting our readers where they are and giving them what they want.
SEAN SPEER: Yes, I think that is especially important, right? This is a balance that we’ve been working through since day one. Because we’re not market-supported, we do have the ability to look beyond the day-to-day machinations of political scandal or the kind of banal performance of Question Period and all of the rest, and look at some issues more fundamentally and deeper. I think, for instance, of Geoff Russ’s recent article for us. Our journalism fellow, Geoff Russ, who’s been a huge boon to The Hub’s insights and analysis, he published a long-form piece for us on some of the underlying issues that are standing in the way of getting public transit projects completed in our major cities.
You could have found something similar somewhere else in the news and information ecosystem that would’ve pointed fingers at different politicians, and all the rest. We have the ability to go a bit deeper, a bit more analytical. But as you say, you don’t want to be so far removed from the day-to-day questions that people are grappling with so as to become a bit out of touch and a bit out of step.
That’s something we’re constantly working through. How can we work with our terrific contributors, some of the kind of sharpest minds in the country? We’re always finding new and different voices, which has been really exciting, but make sure it’s rooted in, as you say, the big questions facing the country without becoming too far removed from people’s day-to-day experiences. That’s the sweet spot I think for The Hub and something we continue to work on.
RUDYARD GRIFFITHS: Let’s wrap up and just talk about the year to come. I think our readers and listeners are going to see a lot of continuity. We’re going to have things like obviously the Hub Dialogues and the podcast continuing on. As you say, with people like Geoff Russ and Stuart Thomson you’re going to see as much and hopefully more information-based analysis to balance out the other types of commentary that we provide. I think, Sean, I’m certainly excited about, again, is trying to continue to pick the lock, that’s an analogy we like to use, of membership and trying to figure out how to bring more people into us and then have them understand the value proposition of what we do, and why we need their support.
Also to look at other distribution channels. I think YouTube is something that is increasingly showing depth and platform-like capacity, not just for the frivolous stuff or the useful stuff—I recently fixed my dishwasher with a YouTube video. I just love that, saved an entire repair bill. But I think there’s the potential for us to start to, again, leverage The Hub on top of these other platforms, and then put these platforms and these audiences together and aggregate through different subscription models, some of which may not, in fact, ever be direct subscribers to The Hub.
They may be direct subscribers to a podcast feed or to a YouTube channel or to a newsletter, and put that all together and then hopefully get that cold fusion going where suddenly the sum is sustained by a greater set of parts.
SEAN SPEER: Yes, we called this project The Hub with intentionality. It was that kind of idea that it would be built around a community of people interested in ideas and public policy and governance and they may come to us through different spokes, whether that’s YouTube or a podcast or the website itself. We’ve always had ambitions to create that culture of community. One of the impediments, of course, as you said earlier, Rudyard, was that we launched in the middle of the once-in-a-century pandemic, but I think we’re starting to build that.
Just last month I guess we had something approaching 50 Hub subscribers attend the Munk Debate through a special offering and a partnership between The Hub and the Munk Debates, for which we were tremendously grateful. I think we’d like to do some more of that in 2023. How can we engage our community members in a two-way conversation? Part of that I think is The Hub Roundtable, the Friday podcast, which is a bit less formal, a bit less high-minded at times than Hub Dialogues, our Tuesday and Thursday podcasts. I think we’d like to do some more events in 2023. Things like pub nights, things like. We’ve even talked at times about book clubs.
We will soon have Hub ball caps to offer listeners and readers, so I think we’ve gotten the basic foundations solid after 20 months into this project, and I think what we want to see in 2023 is not just how we grow, but also how we expand the depth of the relationship between The Hub and its community. I think that is a real priority in the coming year.
RUDYARD GRIFFITHS: Excellent. Well, look, any listener, who made it to the end of this podcast is truly one of our most valued, important supporters so I’m going to give the rarest of emails, which you hardly ever disclose, top secret Stuart Thomson’s iPhone email, our editor-in-chief, and it’s [email protected] If you’re so listening to this conversation between Sean and me and you’ve either clued into something we’re doing that we’re doing right and you think we should do more of it, we’d love to have your feedback [email protected]
Or if you think there’s something we’re missing. I love crowdsourcing. I love the wisdom of crowds. If you’re a regular Hub listener and you have ideas for guests that we should have on the Hub Dialogues, or if you have a thought, a suggestion, an idea, or some hard experience on how to crack the membership model for an organization like ours, please send it our way to [email protected]
Sean, Stuart, and I have regular management calls and we are constantly discussing these issues that we’ve gone through with you today from content to delivery to audience identification to audience satisfaction, so your feedback, your advice, and your suggestions to [email protected] would be hugely, hugely appreciated.
SEAN SPEER: Well, and I guess back to me now in my final hosting capacity in 2022. Rudyard Griffiths, executive director of The Hub, I want to thank you for joining us at Hub Dialogues, and I want to thank our listeners for joining us on this journey over the past 12 months. We look forward to catching up with you in 2023 and building and growing Hub Dialogues next year.