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‘You’ve given us a gift’: Rudyard Griffiths and Sean Speer reflect on the year that was at The Hub

Podcast & Video

This episode of Hub dialogues features Rudyard Griffiths, The Hub’s executive director, and Sean Speer, editor-at-large, discussing The Hub‘s progress in 2023, the opportunities and challenges that lie ahead next year, and why they’re grateful to be involved in such a rewarding project.

You can listen to this episode of Hub Dialogues on AcastAmazonAppleGoogle, and Spotify. The episodes are generously supported by The Ira Gluskin And Maxine Granovsky Gluskin Charitable Foundation and The Linda Frum & Howard Sokolowski Charitable Foundation.

RUDYARD GRIFFITHS: Hello, Hub listeners. Rudyard Griffiths here, the Executive Director of The Hub. Normally on this, The Hub Dialogues, you would be hearing Sean Speer interviewing someone interesting about some new book, idea, philosophy, but today we’re going to take a little bit of a departure as the year winds down. We’re going to repeat something we did a year ago, which is to look at the last 12 months of The Hub, for Sean Speer to join me for a conversation to try to fill you in, our valuable listeners and readers, on what The Hub is all about, what’s happened in the last 12 months, where we hope to take this thing, the role that you’re playing in our ongoing success.

Sean, let me come to you with a first question, a scene setter, because I think it’s important. It’s something we try to come back to a lot at The Hub. What the heck is The Hub for?

SEAN SPEER: Oh, so you started with a metaphysical question. We launched The Hub now nearly three years ago because we had a hypothesis, and the hypothesis looks something like this. We thought that there was a market gap, that the media industry wasn’t providing thoughtful, dispassionate analysis and commentary on what we see as the big issues shaping Canada’s future. Economic stagnation is one that we’ve spent a lot of time on the past couple of years. State capacity, another subject that we’ve really focused on. The future of conservative politics and the need to protect Canadian conservatism from some of the trends that we’re seeing occurring within conservative movements elsewhere around the world. We really saw ourselves as bringing new ideas and perspectives to bear, but almost as importantly, modelling a different type of news and commentary, one that, to sound a bit self-important, stood athwart the trend towards clickbait, and the dumbing down of public commentary.

At its core, that’s what motivated me, when you first brought this idea to me, and I think what motivated you. How would you respond to that question, Rudyard?

RUDYARD GRIFFITHS: I think it was well said. We’re going to remember; we thought this thing up in 2020. We launched in April 2021. We’ve been at it two and a half years, three years next April. We’re still in the early innings, so to speak. I think the only thing I’d add to your summary is, at least for me, I think there was an idea that part of what The Hub might be able to do was to contribute to civility and substance when it came to center-right thinking and ideas in Canada, that there was a trend going on in Canada, maybe following the United States paralleling, I don’t know the staging exactly, where the right thinking movements and ideas and people were increasingly becoming captivated by outrage. The quality, the tenor, the tone, the substance of the conversation to the center-right of the spectrum, to me, was looking like genuinely less and less attractive as an intuitively conservative person.

I think part of what The Hub, I don’t want it to sound too grandiose because lots of other people are contributing to this effort too, is to ensure that in Canada, one of the great philosophical and political traditions remains rooted in the real concerns and issues of the country and Canadians, and can express those concerns and issues in a sophisticated, dare I say, even inclusive way that might interest and inform people who are not necessarily proponents of a center-right way of thinking about the world but are open to well-argued, fact-based, substantive reasoning.

I think that, to me, was one of the big things that compelled the creation of it. I think what we’ve seen, Sean, over the last year is some continuing growth, which suggests promisingly that there is an audience out there that is open to this content, both maybe some who would identify as center-right, but also others who I think are adjacent and curious.

What are you seeing in terms of the growth of the last 12 months, Sean, that maybe makes you optimistic that, and again, it’s not just The Hub, but there is this constituency of Canadians that want this type of content, that are friendly to markets, that like the ideas associated with personal, responsibility and individual autonomy. Give us a sense of where you’re seeing some of that growth that you think is positive in terms of the future of The Hub.

SEAN SPEER: I said that we started with a hypothesis. We did do some market research. We studied different comparable models in other Anglo-American countries. It was a somewhat informed hypothesis, but at the same time, we didn’t know what we didn’t know.

RUDYARD GRIFFITHS: Which was a lot.

SEAN SPEER: Remember, we initially conceived of targets for things like users on the website, or viewers, newsletter subscriptions, and social media followers, and all the rest. A lot of those, if you go back and look at some of those original assumptions, at best, they weren’t precisely putting our finger into the wind, but they were, something like that. What keeps me so interested and engaged and committed to the project is the market response.

In our first few years, we’ve significantly outperformed our initial, admittedly conservative assumptions when it came to users’ views and other metrics to measure the audience engagement and reaction to our content, but we continue to grow markedly. This year, our third full year of publication, which launched in April, we’re presently on pace to exceed our outcomes from Year 2 by about 50 percent. Those Year 2 outcomes were 50 percent higher than our Year 1 outcomes. Yes, I think I’m, in a lot of ways, motivated precisely because this hypothesis has, by and large, borne out, that there is a market demand for the type of thoughtful, dispassionate, pragmatic, center-right analysis and commentary that The Hub is producing. That makes it fun and exciting to wake up every morning and do this work.

RUDYARD GRIFFITHS: Yes, look, the purpose here is to give our readers and listeners a peek behind the curtain. Let me put some numbers on what Sean just said. We’re reaching now somewhere in the order of 150,000 to 200,000 engaged users a week. We measure an engaged user by someone who’s engaging with our content on our website, our podcast platform, or our social media feeds. What’s cool about that is that by having a strategy where we’re not just a website, we’re not just a podcast feed, we’re not just a Facebook or a Twitter account, we can aggregate an audience across these different platforms, reach different demographics. This has led to a cool thing that we can share with you for the first time publicly.

This year, just a month or so ago, we commissioned a pollster, who we really like, Heather Bastedo at Public Square Research, to reach out to Leger & Legerto put The Hub on national internet panels. There’s a couple of hundred thousand people that Leger & Legerpolls online. I mentioned online because numbers are going to tell you reflect in a sense the awareness of an online savvy audience, and amongst that group of Canadians, The Hub has an awareness of about one-in-four. One-in-four have said that they’ve listened to and or read The Hub. They’re aware of it. About 1-in-20 said they’re engaged, and they’re regularly consuming our content.

That’s really cool for us because when we put ourselves up against other independent news outlets, I’m not going to name them because we like them all, we don’t see this as a competition, our awareness that one-in-four Canadians who are aware of The Hub as an independent media brand, is about double any one of our competitors.

Sean, let me come back to you because I would love to say this is all because of our amazing insights and leadership at this organization. As you and I have discussed before, something interesting has happened over the last year in terms of The Hub catching up or maybe being ahead of the public for a while, and the national issue set arriving with our editorial POV. Maybe you could explain that theory as to why we think it’s legitimate to say that 1-in-4 internet-savvy Canadians are aware of The Hub, and 1-in-20 are actively consuming our content.

SEAN SPEER: We’re constantly trying to understand our audience, understand the underlying sources of growth, of course, because we want to see more of it. As you say, in the past several months, we’ve seen a step change in the number of users and views at The Hub on a daily and weekly basis. We’ve been racking our brains to try to, in effect, do something of an autopsy, or to deconstruct what’s going on. Obviously, these are multifaceted questions. There’s various things happening. It’s worth noting it’s happening at a time when there’s been a lot of disruption in terms of the different channels that this type of content can reach an audience, and yet the growth has continued unabated.

We’ve, I think on balance, reached the conclusion that a key explanation, and possibly the main explanation, is that in a way, The Hub and its issue set and its point of view is really made for the moment. That is to say, as the Conservative Party and Pierre Poilievre have built this extraordinary lead relative to the government, it’s not a coincidence in our mind that The Hub has similarly seen extraordinary growth in terms of its engagement.

I think what that says is that the same issues that are propelling the Conservatives are the same issues that are drawing people to The Hub’s ideas and perspectives. It bodes well for The Hub, but possibly more importantly, it bodes well for the country if it means that Canadians are seized by the issues that we think we ought to be seized by. Getting out of the 2 percent growth trap that we’ve been stuck in for the past 20 years, bringing market ideas to bear to improve the quality of our healthcare, advancing a foreign policy rooted in Canadian interests. I could go on and on. These are all the subjects that people hear us talk about during the Friday Roundtable.

I guess the key point here is that we really think that we were advancing these ideas and asking these questions at a time when few others were. Now that people are turning their mind to them, we uniquely have the answers. I think that explains, in large part, the growth that we’re seeing on the platform.

RUDYARD GRIFFITHS: We invested in some credibility because we were talking about these things when they were not in front of mind during the depths of the pandemic. A lot of you who are listening to this probably saw that National Reader Survey that we sent out to our Hub subscribers. This is probably the group that has the closest attachment to us, and people that have given us their email, we really appreciate that. They’ve signed up for one of our newsletters. We polled you all this fall to find out who the heck are you. Again, for the first time to release some of these numbers, and we can talk about them a little bit, Sean, a spread across the country that, skews definitely English Canada, has a little bit in Quebec. It’s heavy in Ontario in the West. That didn’t surprise me. Male, predominantly, not surprising. Older, similarly, not surprising.

What did stand out for me, though, is the extent to which, roughly half of our email subscribers, these are not the people interacting with us on social media, I’m not making that assertion, but half of our email subscribers are effectively people who are the heads of their organizations. Whether that’s the chief of an industry association, the managing director of a partnership, the president or a CEO of a corporation or organization, of our subscribers, our most committed readers and listeners, an influential group. Again, I think that’s positive about the momentum of The Hub, and its potential to be a place and a vehicle and a way for Canadians who themselves have influence to bring insights that The Hub can share with them to their own work, their own communities. Maybe that would be a final stat of that readership survey that really was cool for me, is just the high level of civic engagement of our subscribers.

These are people who are communicating with their elected representatives about issues of public concern, who are members of service organizations, volunteer in their communities, have worked for a political party. That, to me, suggests there’s some civic energy inside The Hub combined with a lot of leadership, people in leadership positions making important decisions, Sean, about the economy, about a whole bunch of things that affect the country day in and day out.

SEAN SPEER: Yes, it reminds me of that old Adlai Stevenson quote. Someone said to him, “Governor, every thinking person will vote for you.” He said, “That’s not enough. I need a majority.” We’re glad to have such a thoughtful and a civically-minded audience. It bears out in the numbers that you shared. It also bears out anecdotally, Rudyard, in the reaction that we’re getting at Hub forum, which, of course, is something we launched this year to try to create more of a two-way conversation with our audience, the regular emails that we get to The Hub, and even in what we hear from people who are listening to our podcast or engaging our content. I know we have members of parliament who regularly listen to The Hub Roundtable and some of the other episodes that we release. I think we have some judges who read some of our thoughtful content on legal and constitutional questions.

I think one of the ways we’ve come to think about The Hub and its model, is we don’t aspire to compete with the department store-like news outlets such as The Globe and Mail or The National Post or whatever. We have a smaller, thoughtful audience that really is responding to the ideas and perspectives that we’re trying to bring to bear on what are the questions that we think will shape Canada’s future. I think Stevenson may have been right about electoral politics, but when it comes to journalism, I’ll take the thinking people.

RUDYARD GRIFFITHS: According to that media survey, at least our subscribers, 96 percent reporting that they’re happy with what they’re seeing or reading in The Hub. Wow, guys, I’ll take that any day of the week. Really appreciate all the positive support from our email subscribers, those of you listening.

Sean, the purpose of this year in review of The Hub isn’t just to talk about the momentum of The Hub or what we think are some important accomplishments, the extent to which we feel we’re making a difference. It’s also just to share some of the challenges of what we’re trying to do, because it’s not easy. We’re in an industry that’s contracting, that’s going through a huge amount of disruption. I think one of the things that I’ve increasingly become aware of is that, and maybe it’s not always apparent to people listening to reading to us, is that we just have a really different business model.

We are funded by individual donations from readers and listeners, and from foundations. In some ways, this is terrific because we’re insulated from the kind of cost-per-click methodology that most private news information organizations use to fund themselves. They’ve got to create content that’s going to generate the most number of clicks because they’re selling those clicks on to advertisers. We don’t have to do that.

At the same time, Sean, what we’ve really seen this year as our readership and engagement levels increased yet another 50 percent year-over-year, is that that growth in engagement doesn’t translate into a growth in revenue because the two are not attached as they would be in a traditional media model where for every new engaged listener or reader, you get you’re kind of monetizing them on a one-by-one basis. We don’t want to do that, and we can’t do that, but it’s created some interesting conversations that we’ve had about, well, how do we grow this thing if audience growth doesn’t have a linear relationship to the resources that you can aggregate to generate more growth.

SEAN SPEER: One of the findings of The Hub community that you mentioned earlier is that, if I recall correctly, something like 30 percent said that the reason that they don’t provide financial donations to The Hub is because they think our content is free, and so we spend a lot of time thinking about how can we create value for our audience such that they won’t simply engage our content, which we’re enormously grateful for, but they’ll go that extra step and think about making a contribution, not merely because we like revenue, but because we fundamentally believe, and maybe I’ll ask you to take this point up, that it works as something like a market signal or a market affirmation that the work that we’re doing is responsive to and reflects the audience or market demand of The Hub community.

Do you want to talk a bit about how we’ve come to think about these market signals as a valuable means to constantly assess and evaluate the work that we’re doing?

RUDYARD GRIFFITHS: It’s no coincidence that our new slogan at The Hub, which we debuted this autumn, more signal less noise, is partly about what we think our proposition is to you, the listener or reader, but it’s also about just the importance of signal to us. Each signal that we get, each person that chooses to become a subscriber and give us their email, that’s one signal, that’s one level of engagement. People coming to our website is another, people engaging with us on socials is another, people donating is another important signal.

Similarly, we have some very generous foundations, the Hunter Family Foundation, the The Maxine and Ira Gluskin Granovsky Foundation, Linda and Howard Frum Sokolowsky. There are a number of foundations that are also really interested in those other signals because they, as donors, as larger donors, want to have a sense that not only are numbers improving quarter-by-quarter and year-by-year in terms of engagement, because as a donor they’re interested in impact, but they want to see that those other signals are suggesting that there are people there that see value and worth. Whether that’s a simple $7.99 a month, which is our supporter-level membership, whether it’s that type of engagement, or our Hub fellows that we really appreciate, lifetime members at $500 each, these all are important to creating a reality for The Hub where it can straddle.

What I think is so special is straddle these two worlds where we have enough market signals that we continue to produce things that we know people want because they’re giving us the information back that, yes, they like it. Two, that we’re, to some extent, again, insulated from what we feel is a broken funding model for much of the mainstream digital media where you have to follow cost-per-click, you’ve got to generate content that’s as sensational as possible, that’s as edgy and at times outrageous as possible because you are selling page impressions, you’re selling users on site, you’re selling time on site.

What we’re trying to do, Sean, and we’ll see where it goes, and we’ll see what the limits of the model are, and I always wonder when we’re going to bump into those limits, how long can we have, in a sense, a foot in both camps, having market signals on one hand, but also being protected in a really valuable way we think in terms of producing stuff that others are not producing because we’re not being forced into this anger factory, as we like to call it at The Hub at times, where you’re selling outrage as a commodity. That’s just where we’re never going to go.

SEAN SPEER: Yes, you’re right. It’d be interesting to see if and when we hit that limit, but we’re not hitting it yet. Lots of signs of growth over 2023 at The Hub. I’ve mentioned some of them already. Of course, the launch of Hub Forum, which I hope listeners and readers are finding a useful way to continue the conversation provoked by The Hub’s content. The Hunter Prize for Public Policy, where we awarded $50,000 in cash prizes to up-and-coming policy thinkers and professionals tackling the wicked problem of healthcare wait times. We had over 180 submissions for the prize, and we’re looking forward to kicking off Year 2 of the prize in 2024. We brought on Amanda Lang, of course, in a new bi-weekly series, In Conversation With Amanda Lang, where we’re talking about the key issues concerning Canadian business, economics, and public policy. I could go on and on.

It’s one of the things that is so motivating about the project. At the same time that the legacy media seems to be stuck in a state of managing decline, we’re at least, for now, thanks to our generous philanthropic supporters and individual help community members, still in the process of growth. As those two tracks move in the opposite direction, I’m excited, Rudyard, at our ability to start to seriously target the audience and talent from those organizations who are looking at what we’re doing and want to be part of something that’s dynamic and growing. That’s how I think about the state of The Hub as we move into 2024.

RUDYARD GRIFFITHS: Yes, I think you and I are committed to seeing how far we can take this. I guess, for me, the big reward or the big moment would be to see, is there a way that we can continue to scale using this model of both being insulated from the worst of how the rest of the media funds itself, while at the same time having revenues grow with audience so that we can accumulate more resources, more writers, more reporters to produce more content so that The Hub starts to look more like, not a department store, but maybe like a really great Baskin and Robbins? Maybe not 31 or 21 flavors, but we’re going to have a fantastic rocky road, a really great mint chocolate chip, my favorites, peanut butter and dark chocolate. That’s got to be in there.

I guess what I’m saying is that there’s a potential here where The Hub could become more of a one stop for our audience, where they could come to us and get some things that they would like that we’re not offering right now. That readers’ survey that we did provided some interesting examples, like people are asking for a political cartoon. I think that would be great if we could find the resources to have our own political cartoonist. We will be, again, debuting some new content in the weeks to come as we go into the year-end. If people have ideas about things that they would like to see in The Hub that we’re not doing.

Right now we’re doing news, commentary, podcasts, which is our dialogue product, we’re doing different types of news where we’re trying to give you focus pieces of news, and then longer form reporting, we’re giving you some poetry, we’re giving you some wine reviews, some book reviews. We’re trying to think about the thinking person and what they would want, but the cartoon suggestion is great. If you have others, send us your thoughts to editorial@thehub, and we’ll certainly put those in the ideas basket for consideration.

SEAN SPEER: You said at the outset, Rudyard, that part of the purpose of this episode is to try to let people in a bit. One of the questions that weighs on our mind is how conservative we should be about managing growth, especially in light of turmoil going on in the industry. Is there an argument right now that we should lean in a bit and take some risk and expand The Hub’s capacity in new and different areas, including energy reporting or even something like sports? Or do we continue down a more conservative path where we’re continuing to grow, but we’re making sure that the model is sustainable?

I think, probably at the end of the day, the most fundamental question that you and I and the rest of the team are grappling with, but in some ways it’s a good problem to grapple with, that our progress so far has exceeded my expectations. The response from the market has been stronger than I anticipated, and I think at some level, that’s a sign to continue doing what we’re doing. Obviously thinking of new and different ways to be responsive to the audience, but so far anyway, the audience reaction has been an affirmation of that hypothesis that we started about in the early days of the pandemic.

RUDYARD GRIFFITHS: I think one thing to let people in on, I mean maybe this year people saw it over the summer, we had our first paid partnership with Pathways Alliance.

The Oil Sands industry group committed to net zero from operations by 2050. We’re now running a new campaign, the Future of News, that’s funded by our foundation partners and Meta, the social media platform. It’s important for our listeners and readers to understand that, again, we’re talking about signals. We actually welcome and are really interested in advertising where we think the partner has a genuine public policy issuer concern that they want to have adjudicated, have debated in and by The Hub community.

I think that there’s something promising there as we’re seeing these advertisers come forward because they’re sending a signal to us that they value the audience that we’re aggregating. Those 150,000 to sometimes upwards of 200,000 engaged users per week across our platform that we know, from our survey, at least, of our email subscribers, are frankly a pretty influential important group in the country. Half of them are the heads of their organizations, they’re civically active. These are people whose opinions matter.

I want to be clear to our listeners and readers that, yes, we have this charitable model, but we’re also committed to bringing in partnership dollars that we’re going to declare in all of our content. Anytime we work with a partner, you’re going to see who’s funding it, and we’re going to be clear about that in each and every instance. We actually don’t see that as a compromise or something that is a fallback position. We think that could be a really important leg for the stool that we’re trying to build, where we’ve got small individual donors, larger foundation supporters, advertisers, and that all that wrapped together creates a budget at least that’s maybe not growing as fast as our readership is growing, but it’s still year-over-year up over 25 percent in terms of new net revenue.

I put that all together, Sean, and I think, again, it’s a testament to our listeners and our readers engaging and caring about the content. That’s really what, at the end of the day, is going to let us continue to grow, continue to have an impact, think about adding new types of content to possibly become that more full-service media and information outlet that people could rely on and trust as a provider of accurate, informed, civil and substantive conversation, debate and analysis.

SEAN SPEER: Well said. It’s maybe worth putting a fine point on it. I happen to think, Rudyard, that this is the best job that I’ve ever had. The work is fun. It’s interesting, it’s challenging, and it’s rewarding.

I would just say to readers, listeners, and donors, that you’ve given us a gift, you’ve given us this extraordinary opportunity to try to build something that can make a positive contribution to Canadian public policy discourse, and ultimately create a sustainable business model. We see it as a gift. In a way, we’re humbled by the opportunity and want to do right by those who support us.

As we wrap up this year, we’re going to take a couple of days to look back, and take stock, and feel a sense of pride of what we’ve accomplished. I assure you; we’re hitting 2024 with the same energy and urgency that we’ve had in the first two and a half years of this project because we want to make it work. I think you said to me early on, Rudyard, that your goal was to create something that would last beyond you. I feel the same way, and after two and a half years, but at the time it sounded a bit grandiose, I admit.

RUDYARD GRIFFITHS: Which I’m just going to say. It’s all right.

SEAN SPEER: I admit, but after doing this for two and a half years, it seems to me a challenging yet attainable goal, and one that I’m as committed to now, as you were then.

RUDYARD GRIFFITHS: My final thought on that is, I’ve had the opportunity a couple of times in my life to be professionally involved with things that, and it’s not for the whole duration of the project, but you know, for a moment, you’ve got lightning in a bottle. For me, that was starting the Dominion Institute, which was a history charity in the 1990s right after the Quebec referendum, and there’s just a swell, this upsurge interest in Canada’s past.

There was a project that I continue to be involved with, the Munk Debates, where you just had– that evening where we had Christopher Hitchens and Tony Blair debating religion at Roy Thomson Hall, you knew you had that lightning in a bottle. There’s times of The Hub in this first three– coming on three years now, where I get that same spidey sense that there’s something powerful here. We still have to pick the lock, still have to figure out how to get at it, how to deploy it, what the impact is, what the real potential could be, but it has echoes to me of all those other initiatives that have been really important to me personally and professionally over the course of my life.

Just to reiterate what Sean just said, if anything, I want to end this podcast, is just a huge thank you to the listeners and readers who make us optimistic, excited, obsessed about this initiative day in and day out. Not a weekend goes by where Sean and I aren’t busily texting and emailing each other about what we’re going to be covering in the days to come. This is a 24/7 job, and we love it. We just absolutely love it. A big thank you to the listeners for caring about it and giving us this opportunity.

Just finally, to recognize the team, Sean, because I always think it’s important. This is a team effort. We’ve got Amal Attar-Guzman, our content editor, podcast producer, Luke Smith, our deputy editor in Edmonton, who is a terrific resource, a rock at The Hub. Alisha Rao, a new content editor who’s joined our team is making a big contribution. Our new managing editor coming on board in January, Harrison Lowman, who we know is going to make a big contribution to The Hub. Geoff Russ, our reporter out of Vancouver, who’s just doing great work on the Hunter Prize series and so many important things. Sherry Naylor, who puts everything together at The Hub, makes everything work. We actually get our paychecks every two weeks. Thanks to Sherry. A great board of directors, Deon Ramgoolam, Malcolm Jolly, Patrick Luciani, and of course Zach Muscovitch.

It’s a small team, but it’s a 100 percent team effort, full spectrum. Everyone’s pushing hard, and we’re going to keep doing that in 2024. Thanks for listening.

If you enjoy Hub Dialogues, be sure to check out more insightful commentary on The Hub’s YouTube page: