By Stefanie Phillips, RSJ ’18
This year, David Skok was inducted into the Ryerson School of Journalism (RSJ) Headliners hall of fame, a title given to distinguished alumni. This is the story of his career, starting from his time as a student at the RSJ.
As an intern at The Team radio on 1050 AM, David Skok was cutting tape when all of the station staff – except for him – got paraded out of the studio. As Skok continued editing that day in the Summer of 2002, everyone outside of the studio was being told that the station was shutting down. They were losing their jobs.
“That was the beginning to my awakening to the fact that business plays a huge role in our ability to do our work,” he said.
Over the years, moments like this one became all too familiar.
When, for instance, he interned at Nightline in Fall 2002 as a journalism student from Ryerson, Skok worked alongside Ted Koppel. He remembers the people at Nightline fearing the loss of their show’s prime time slot if David Letterman joined ABC, but the rising star ended up staying at CBS, putting an end to the rumours around Nightline’s future.
In 2009, when Skok was working at Global, owned by former Canadian media giant Canwest, the parent company went bankrupt. Its newspapers were sold to the then newly formed, Postmedia Network and its broadcasting arm was sold to Shaw Communications.
But underneath this grim pattern was a silver lining.
In the same year of the Canwest bankruptcy, Skok and a team of journalists finished creating GlobalNews.ca. The website launched and the team went on to be nominated for several reputable awards, including the 2013 Data Journalism Awards, the only international prize for data-driven journalism, and were named a finalist for the 2014 Canadian Journalism Foundation Prize for Excellence in Journalism.
As the network’s first-ever online producer, Skok recognized the changing media landscape of the time and became increasingly interested in the business side of the industry.
“Necessity breeds innovation,” he said humbly at a cafe in Toronto. “In order to do journalism in the way we want to do it and the quality work, we have to understand how business works; you have to understand how the industry works.”
From a young age, Skok began to understand the value of quality journalism.
When his family moved to Canada from South Africa in 1988, they stopped in London to visit relatives. It was there, where Skok, 10, would hear the name Nelson Mandela for the first time. He remembers being surprised to learn that such a prominent figure of his native country was previously unknown to him.
“In South Africa, at that time there was no free press; it was all censored,” he explained. “Because I’ve lived in a country that doesn’t have a free press I intrinsically feel to my bones the importance of what journalism means to humanity. I also believe it’s a fundamental human need.”
In that period of adaptation and innovation at Global News, Skok was actively trying to further his business understanding as managing editor of GlobalNews.ca, to ensure the sustainability of the newsroom. He learned how to concoct business plans and share his business acumen, things he had never done before. But at times, due to his own personal anxieties, it felt like his ideas were not taken seriously because of his background as a journalist.
“I would sit in a room full of people wearing very expensive suits and I was hair unshaven … I didn’t present myself well. I didn’t understand the world they had come from,” he said.
That’s why in 2011, when he became the first Canadian digital journalist to be awarded the Martin Wise Goodman Fellow at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University, he decided to focus on the business of journalism.
Then a 33-year-old running a digital media newsroom within a legacy news organization, Skok set out to look at how Canadian newsrooms should evolve in light of the changes digital journalism was imposing on the industry.
The fellowship is awarded to a group of journalists from around the world, providing them with a year of study within any department of Harvard University. The opportunity includes a stipend for living expenses and payment of fees to the University and is funded by an endowment left by the late president of Toronto Star Newspapers Inc., Martin Wise Goodman.
Once there, he co-wrote a paper with Harvard Business School professor, Clay Christensen and James Allworth, which eventually evolved into “Breaking News,” and was featured in the Fall 2012 issue of Nieman Reports. The paper focused on applying the disruptive innovation theory to journalism and prompted news organizations to rethink some of their preconceptions about the long-term viability of their existing revenue streams.
“We had the luxury for a long time of thinking that journalism could be subsidized by advertising but when I entered the field those days were already numbered,” he said. “So it was just kind of a given that I had to [find a way to make journalism sustainable and independent].”
The businessman and journalist describes digital not as a platform or a technology, but as a philosophy, one he believes is the “healthiest” journalism has ever had. He calls it a way of thinking that puts the reader and their interests at the centre of all business decisions, instead of dividing an organization into the segregated parts. Simply put, it is a direct relationship with the reader.
“For me, my interest in digital is about understanding how journalism evolved fundamentally,” he said.
After finishing the fellowship, Skok went on to work as managing editor and VP digital at The Boston Globe and associate editor and head of editorial strategy at the Toronto Star. Skok said he’s currently working on a few projects, which could not be discussed because of timing, that should be announced in Spring 2018.
This year he was inducted into the Ryerson School of Journalism (RSJ) Headliners hall of fame by the Ryerson Journalism Alumni Association.
Suanne Kelman, was one of Skok’s earliest mentors from his days as a student at the RSJ. At the awards ceremony to honour the Headliners, she said Skok has come a long way since his first few weeks of her radio and broadcast class in 2001.
She recalled the time she commented, “competent…but boring” on one of his first assignments only to be laughing out loud at another assignment a few weeks later commenting, “beautifully written.” In those days of rigour and self-flagellation she advised him that both his work and his life would get better with age. “They did,” she said.
“No one ever exhibited a steeper learning curve,” she said. “David Skok can do anything he sets his mind to.”