Opinion: Making his mark on the capital: Sutcliffe’s dedication to his career and community runs deep

We all know Mark Sutcliffe as a ubiquitous presence in Ottawa’s media scene.

The tireless journalist and entrepreneur wears many hats – he hosts a radio talk show on CFRA, writes a regular column for the Ottawa Citizen, co-owns Great River Media, which publishes OBJ, and hosts a Sunday morning running show and podcast on TSN 1200 as well as a national political show, The Week, on CPAC.

When he’s not doing all that, he is also known for his charity work and his Q&A style-hosting of celebrity events such as Malcolm Gladwell’s appearance at the National Arts Centre.

But I felt it was time to turn the lens around and find out more about Mr. Sutcliffe the person. I only partially succeeded.

What did I find out? Well, Mark is a handsome, super-fit 46-year-old with three children, two girls and a boy. He lives in West Wellington, so all his commutes are short. He works 60 hours a week and says he still manages to have family time since much of his writing and some management obligations can be taken care of from home.

An avid runner, he has written a book on his favourite athletic pastime called Why I Run. He has participated in 22 marathons, including this year’s Boston Marathon, which he finished in a time of 3:42:37.

He loves everything about Ottawa except its winter weather. A die-hard Senators fan, his secret dream as a younger man was to be a sports announcer, but it wasn’t a career conducive to having a family, so he abandoned that path.

Yet even after spending more than an hour interviewing him, I wasn’t sure I was any closer to solving the enigma that is Mark Sutcliffe. Perhaps the closest I got was when he acknowledged that his many different professional interests were motivated by a fear of financial failure.

As a host who talks to people involved in breaking news – the most interesting part of his job, he says – Mr. Sutcliffe understands, in a way most of us can’t unless we ourselves are part of the media business, how dangerous and unpredictable the world can be.  

He views CFRA, the Ottawa Citizen, OBJ and his other business interests as his clients; thus, his sources of income are diversified. If one goes down, the others can pick up the slack. He is, perhaps, the consummate telecommuting knowledge worker.

As a prelude to asking about the future of his media interests, I mention Aloe Blacc, the marvelous singer-songwriter who penned and performed on Avicii’s 2013 tune Wake Me Up!

Though the song was streamed 168 million times on Pandora and Spotify, it generated less than $4,000 in the United States for Mr. Blacc. No one – with the possible exception of Taylor Swift – can actually make any money writing and recording songs, and Ms. Swift had to remove her catalogue from Spotify before she could manage the trick.

In short, both the music and publishing industries are going through calamitous times, a fact Mr. Sutcliffe knows all too well.

Still, “I feel good about OBJ,” he says. “I’d rather be in this (free publication) niche than be a paid subscription daily newspaper, which has many more challenges.”

When I ask him to elaborate, he says, “Look, paywalls, with rare exceptions such as maybe the New York Times, won’t last. The future of the Internet is free. They have to look for more innovative solutions. Our job at OBJ is about organizing a community – a business community, which wants to present their ideas to their stakeholders. We help with that. Events are also a big part of our future, as is providing end-to-end marketing solutions and custom publishing for clients.”

I ask him whom he admires and, without a second’s hesitation, he says former astronaut Chris Hadfield.

“I learned from him the perspective one gets by leaving this planet,” Mr. Sutcliffe says. “But Chris is also a marketing genius. What he did from the international space station with Twitter, video, music and personal branding was amazing. I could not name a single other astronaut or cosmonaut who has been to the (International Space Station).”

A proud civic booster, he believes Ottawa has a bright future, but says the city should focus on what’s realistic for a second-tier urban centre that can’t compare to other G8 capitals that are older and much larger.

Mr. Sutcliffe says Ottawa’s priorities should include promoting tourism and building around a few fast-growing tech companies such as Shopify while focusing its marketing and branding efforts on what a great place the capital is to bring up a family.

He also thinks the city needs to do a better job of creating special events that generate sustained economic spinoffs year after year.

“It’s great that we are getting the Grey Cup, the Brier, FIFA (the Women’s World Cup) and we hosted the world juniors,” he says. “But I’d take Ottawa Race Weekend over hosting five Junos anytime. The former is an Ottawa event, it’s sustainable and repeatable and it fills every hotel room in the city. In fact, one of the bands we booked for the event had to stay in Kingston. That’s good news in a way.”

When it comes to transit, Mr. Sutcliffe believes the new LRT system scheduled to open in 2018 isn’t worth the $2-billion price tag. Like former regional chair Andy Haydon, he thinks the city would have been better off finishing and expanding its bus transitway system rather than building a costly light-rail line. Having said this, he believes that now that the LRT is on its way, the city should build the next phase immediately.

He also believes downtown Ottawa can and should be more tourist-friendly, featuring way-finding signage and multiple attractions.

As a fellow hockey fan, I ask him: “If you were NHL commissioner for a year, what would you do?”

His answer is blunt.

“I’d get rid of fighting,” he says. “It’s time. The league’s values are out of line with society’s. Look, after one girl was killed, in Columbus I think, by an errant puck, the league strung nets up in 30 arenas. It’s only a matter of time before a player dies in a fight. Why wait for that?”

Does he ever worry about his personal safety or take some of the criticism inevitably aimed at a high-profile person to heart?

“Well, the death of (former CTV Ottawa sportscaster) Brian Smith does cross my mind from time to time,” he concedes. “As for criticism, I never read anything that is anonymous, but I will engage in debate with people who will stand behind what they say and, most of the time, public discourse in this country is pretty civil. But sometimes people do forget that public figures are human beings and have feelings too.”

Bruce M. Firestone is founder of the Ottawa Senators and a broker at Century 21 Explorer Realty. Follow him on Twitter @ProfBruce.