It’s a truism every young journalist hears early in his or her career: There’s no such thing as a stupid question.
After a 30-year run that took him to the pinnacle of television broadcasting in Canada and the United States, Kevin Newman hasn’t forgotten it, and he plans to put it to work as one of Communitech’s newest board members.
Newman, 52, promises to bring plenty of curiosity to the role, which follows a high-visibility career with CBC, CTV, Global and ABC in New York, where he appeared on Nightline, World News Tonight and on Good Morning America as a co-host in 1998-99.
After he left Global National as an anchor in 2010, Newman tried his hand as a startup entrepreneur at the Communitech Hub, then joined CTV News as its Digital News Evangelist. He also co-hosts Question Period, the network’s Sunday-morning political talk show in Ottawa.
We sat down for a quick interview at Communitech’s annual general meeting in the Tannery Event Centre on Nov. 17, where Newman was among six new directors to join the board.
Q – How did you come to join the Communitech board?
A – Iain Klugman (Communitech’s CEO) gave me a call and he asked me if I’d be interested in standing. I had to do some checking with Bell Media and the group, and they were really enthusiastic about it, actually.
They’re at an interesting inflection point in that they’ve just taken over a content company, CTV. I know they’re very interested in trying to catch this wave and not being fast followers.
So Kevin Crull, the CEO of Bell Media, basically said ‘Go do it, because we need better eyes and ears on what’s coming through the pipe, and where content consumers of the future think the opportunity is.’
Q – Tell me about your new position at CTV.
A – Mostly it gets laughs when I’m introduced to a room full of journalists as the Digital News Evangelist. They think it’s a little bit wonky, but what I tell them is that it’s a common phrase in the digital media world, and all it means is that I’m passionate about transformation.
And then, what I’m doing now is touring the country to newsrooms of CTV News, basically explaining what I think the next two years are going to bring for our industry, and where the opportunities are.
I think the opportunities for video news are tremendous because, as Bell and others roll out this LTE (long-term evolution) high speed network, the video experience on mobile is going to be significantly enhanced.
So, that’s a tremendous opportunity if we plan well for the future, and it’s a tremendous threat if we don’t.
Q – How important is it for the so-called traditional media to get on this bandwagon?
A – Well, we watched what happened to our brothers and sisters in print and audio when they didn’t catch on to the wave soon enough, and they’re still trying to recover from that and sort it out. So, we have the benefit of some learned knowledge.
We have the benefit of knowing that when video arrives on a new platform, it tends to dominate the platform. So, the video experience on mobile has been good on the download up to now, but people haven’t been able to upload.
So, we’re doing a lot of thinking about what it will mean when people can broadcast live from something that fits in their pocket, and do it faster, in high definition.
Our challenge is, do they share that with CTV News, or do they self-organize into something else like Twitter, or video Twitter, or do they feed social media?
What we’re working toward is becoming a destination for that kind of user-generated content, so that hopefully people begin to imagine that CTV News stands for not just broadcasting, but for engagement on the day’s news.
Q – What do you hope to bring to Communitech?
A – I’ve always sort of been the guy who asks where the skateboarders are. In an engineering culture like Waterloo, I don’t think it’s a surprise to anybody that the aspects of design, the guys who don’t perform well in meetings, the people who look a little rough around the edges are probably more of what’s needed.
So, I hope that I can speak for the creative class, not as a terribly creative person myself, obviously, but more toward understanding that if content is the future, which everybody says it is, that the creative class’s definition of content is part of that.
As you’ve probably discovered, the word ‘content’ is like that old terrible joke about Inuit and ice; it has different meanings to different people. And, in our business, content means something different than it does in the document business.
So, I’m hoping that I can speak for the creative content class and help bring about that beautiful marriage of good content, beautiful design, strong technology that ends up sharing Canada’s stories with the world in a way that I worry won’t happen unless we get our act together more quickly.
Q – How do you think your journalism background will benefit you in your new role with Communitech?
A – I got into journalism because I’m curious about stuff, and I think all journalists are. So, if nothing else, I will ask a lot of questions, and sometimes people don’t do that around boardroom tables.
I’m not afraid of asking dumb questions; I’ve asked dumb questions for 30 years. I’m not afraid of asking basic questions. Sometimes there are people around the boardroom who are afraid to do that; I’m not afraid to do that.
I’m looking forward to learning a tremendous amount. I’ve never held a board position before, and I’m fascinated by the dynamics in one of the fastest-changing places that you can find.
I have gained tremendous admiration for entrepreneurs, and for a generation working at the Hub that is able to take on risk in a way that I never would have then, or probably now, so I’m looking at soaking up some of that vibe, too.
I’m not sure what I can bring, but they haven’t – I don’t think – had someone from media who is a traditionalist, but who is intensely curious about where it’s going, so I hope that’s of value.
Q – What did you know about Communitech coming into this gig?
A – I went through it as a customer for a little bit; I brought other friends through it. I know the idea behind it.
I was here the first week the Hub opened and it was empty for a while, and I was really glad to come back today, having not seen it for two months, and the amount of energy in the room was four times what it was a couple of months ago. That makes me feel good.
I feel like I’m joining the board at a time when it’s starting to pop. I don’t know what that’s going to mean, but it’s been nice to watch something that was a concept, and then a shell, and now something that has some life in it, and I’m just excited to see where it’ll be a year from now.
Q – How did you come here as a customer?
A – When I took a year off after leaving Global National, I was looking at some ideas to help CEOs communicate better with their companies, and they helped shape the idea, attached some really good market research, challenged it.
So, at the end of it I had a much clearer concept of what product I was going to offer, and then I went out and did some market research, got a little bit discouraged by it, and then Bell Media came along and I thought, ‘All right; I can continue to make this go; I’m 52, and it’s easier, maybe, if you’re 20, or I can try to make a difference from the inside.’ So, I decided on that.
But I went through the process, and as somebody who had no business background, I probably learned more through that process than I’ve learned in 20 years. I had my mind opened, and I wasn’t used to being challenged because I was an expert at what I used to do, and it was great. I felt young again.