Paddling into Cyberspace
After four years of choppy waters, CANOE is steering a course toward real journalism
“Spin Doctors” hit the cyber-stands on Sunday, December 12, 1999. At 12:01 a.m., the article was posted as the lead feature on Canadian Online Explorer, the national news and information website. Veteran investigative journalist Wayne MacPhail and executive producer of CANOE’s health area, Paul Benedetti, had been tracking the story – hyped as Canada’s first-ever Internet probe – for months, partly induced by the announcement of a proposed affiliation between the Canadian Memorial Chiropractic College and York University.
The series of 36 articles included digitized documents, audio files of interviews and links to related sites. One of the issues they delved into was a chiropractic procedure that could be linked to strokes in as many as 150 patients, including the death of a Toronto woman in 1996. The report went beyond chronicling the risks of specific chiropractic treatments to question the scientific foundation of the entire profession.
Reader reaction was swift and impassioned. The site’s traffic, which averages 65 to 70 million page views each month, experienced an additional 50,000 page views within the first 10 days of the series’ being posted. The investigation drew more than 400 letters to the editor, hundreds of emails to the message boards and more than 16,000 responses to an online poll concerning chiropractic practice in Canada. Ontario’s chief coroner even considered calling an inquest into one of the cases highlighted in the report. Members of the CMCC and the U.S.-based International Chiropractic Association also charged into the online debate, defending the legitimacy of chiropractic practice, including the right to treat children.
The intensity of the response surprised MacPhail. Although the sheer volume of letters was unexpected, it proved to him that there was an audience for online journalism in Canada. MacPhail has experimented with hypertext reporting since the late 1980s, but outside of “Spin Doctors,” he believes that, by and large, newspapers have done a “woeful job” of building an audience for Web-based investigative reporting. “Most of what goes up on the Internet is shovelware that in no real way makes use of the interactivity and multimedia capabilities of the Web,” he says. The CANOE project intrigued him because it didn’t merely expand on material published or aired elsewhere, but was conceived as an original investigation that would take advantage of Internet technology. “It appears,” says MacPhail, “that CANOE is getting serious about online content.”
CANOE’s editorial staff would argue that they have been serious about content since the beginning. Although “Spin Doctors” was the website’s most extensive expedition into interactive journalism so far, it was not the first time the site had scooped the offline media. CANOE was the first to report, for example, that Olympic snowboarder Ross Rebagliatti would get to keep his gold medal, and in 1998, the site ran an exclusive interview with absentee Senator Andrew Thompson after he resigned from the upper house. In 1996, the American Journalism Review named CANOE one of the world’s top 20 news sites – the only Canadian website to make the ranking.
Despite being Canada’s best-known source of online information, CANOE has struggled to establish its credentials in news-media circles. Its attempts to make itself known as an independent news source have not produced the kind of respect enjoyed by its print and broadcast brethren. Much of the public and the media view its news content as merely Sun newspapers ported onto the Internet. The perception isn’t entirely inaccurate. In the four years since the website was launched by Sun Media Corp., it has grown to become a leading clearinghouse of information (or portal) of online services, links and information for Canadians. But when it comes to news, CANOE has functioned more as an archive than as a reporter.
Posting wire copy online may have been enough to draw readers to the site when cyber-news was still a novelty, but today CANOE is navigating increasingly competitive waters. Most television and print media have launched online editions, and major Internet portals now boast their own news sections. Canadian news organizations still lag behind their American counterparts – where Web-only magazines such as Salon and Slate regularly scoop their offline competitors – and leading newspapers and broadcasters that boast websites manned by large, dedicated staffs.
Unlike its media rivals, CANOE has never made journalism its only, or even its most important, focus. Visitors are greeted by a panoply of attractions. A headline announcing the top story of the day appears underneath the CANOE banner, but there are so many other things to do; shopping, emailing, contests, Web utilities and lifestyle tips all compete with the news for more than a quarter of a million pages.
The CNEWS section isn’t necessarily the first place people are expected to go on the network, although it is usually at the top of the highlighted sections with links to more in-depth stories and opinions from Canada and around the world. It is also the part of the site that changes over the most during daylight hours. In other words, when CNEWS changes, the entire home page changes. A “This Just In” feature was recently added, but there’s no set schedule for posting stories. Despite this expansion of the news section, CANOE’s promotional material drives home the message that the site is about much more than current events. One recent ad reads: “Shop. Chat. E-mail. Read.” In that order.
Mike Simpson, CANOE’s executive producer and vice president of content, has big plans. He has recently been hiring new editorial staff and launching new sections. A former Toronto Sun executive sports editor who launched that paper’s technology section, Simpson has long believed that the Internet would become an important medium for news. CANOE, he confidently asserts, will lead the pack. “The Net is much more than a place for fun and games,” he says. “When we started CANOE, we didn’t want to just put the Sun online. We wanted to create a real 24-hour-a-day, seven-days-a-week online newspaper that had some intelligence behind it.”
Clad in an elegant suit and exuding a polished professionalism, Simpson gives no hint of his jock-reporter past, except for the mock front page featuring a Sunshine girl, which hangs framed behind his desk. Since arriving at CANOE three years ago to head the news section, he has been striving to blend the site’s dual mandate as a portal for popular online services and a source for quality journalism.
While Simpson stresses that “building editorial content products” remains CANOE’s priority, most of the recent expansion focusses on e-commerce. “CANOE has demonstrated that commerce and content are the winning ingredients to drive traffic to the Internet,” says Pierre-Karl P?ladeau, president and chief executive officer of Quebecor Inc., on the company’s website. Quebecor’s new media division acquired complete ownership of CANOE from BCE Inc. last July. The Montreal-based communications and printing company has made a major financial commitment to the site, beefing up the retail features to take advantage of the recent boom in online shopping.
A year of prosperous acquisitions catapulted Quebecor to record profits in 1999, and analysts speculate that CANOE was a contributor to the company’s hot share prices. A report published by financial analyst Bill Wolfenden estimates CANOE generated $3 million in revenue in 1999, and that it will earn $6 million in 2000. John Paton, newly appointed president and chief executive officer of CANOE, plans to prepare the website to go public, in addition to acquiring an Internet service provider to better compete with archrival Sympatico.
The influx of Quebecor cash has also allowed CANOE to double its staff, add a French-language sister site and launch a major advertising campaign this past fall that plugged the site’s e-commerce capabilities. Shop.canoe.ca, the consumer mecca just a click away from the main page, has grown into a mammoth directory of more than 2,000 online stores.
Much of the content product on the site is of the lifestyle-and-entertainment variety. Readers can check into SLAM! Sports, an extensive, real-time sports service; Jam! Showbiz, an online entertainment encyclopedia of information; or C-Health, a library of medical information, tips on keeping fit and news about nutrition. Finance junkies can track stocks, mutual funds and international money markets at CANOE Money, while car lovers can surf dealer listings and learn the latest on financing and insurance options at AUTONET.CA. In January, CANOE introduced Lifewise, a lifestyle section intended to lure more women to the site with bulletins from the worlds of fashion, food and home decor, along with stories about career development, parenting, family and relationships. Readers can find deeper coverage of current events, top stories, politics, space and science in CNEWS, but most of CANOE’s editorial content is quick, easily digestible “news you can use.”
Simpson’s strategy is to make CANOE a nationwide online community that readers can regularly come back to for local and national news. When he first came aboard, the site averaged 285,000 hits per day; today, it registers about 2.5 million page views per day. According to a Convergence Consulting Group study last October, CANOE now has 50 million page views per month, which ranks it as the number three website in Canada, behind Sympatico and the Tucows.com Inc. distribution network (tied for first place) and Yahoo! Canada. While Ontario represents the largest portion of traffic to CANOE, Simpson hopes to expand its reach by boosting regional coverage in the other provinces.
CANOE’s association with the Sun newspaper chain has undeniably helped build a readership, but the link has also been an obstacle in establishing the site’s identity as an independent news source. With the recent efforts to strengthen original content and tackle ambitious investigations such as the chiropractic expos?, CANOE staff increasingly play down the Sun connection. Simpson points out that the site’s audience is completely different from that of the Sun papers. CANOE’s core readers are mostly male, between 25 and 49 years of age; two-thirds are university educated and more than half have a household income of over $75,000. A defensive note enters Simpson’s voice when the newspaper association comes up. “Do some people come to the site to read the Sun? Maybe some do,” he says. “But we don’t put the Sunshine girl on the front page.”
The casual decor and laid-back atmosphere of the CANOE offices, located in a converted factory in downtown Toronto, leave no room for doubt: this isn’t an old-style newsroom, but a hip new-media pad. The TV plays a WKRP in Cincinnati re-run. Marilyn Manson blares from the radio tuned to the Edge 102 FM, Toronto’s alternative rock station. A mini-pool table sits on a shelf. Front pages of the Sun are tacked to wooden beams, along with many pictures of women in swimsuits. “She posed as a man to lure lovers on the Internet,” screams a headline. A full-size canoe bearing the company’s Web address hangs suspended from the ceiling.
Some of the 80-odd staffers of CANOE’s English division are wearing headphones as they hunch in front of their computers. Most of the editorial staff are only in their mid-twenties. A friendly rivalry between the different sections spices up the collegial atmosphere, as the “idiots” in SLAM! banter with the self-anointed “power” in Money. Three full-time reporters employed at CANOE dig up original stories, an anomaly in Canada. The editorial staff consists largely of executive producers and online editors, whose job it is to get copy from the wires and papers and package it for the site. They check spelling and facts, line-edit, tighten copy, add headings and format the text to make it more Web-friendly. “It can get really frantic,” says Craig Saila, online editor with CANOE Money. “Imagine laying out a newspaper mixed in with the immediacy of an all-news radio station, then tossing in a bit of writing, editing and graphic design, and you’ll get a sense of what the average online editor does every day.”
Bob Brehl, executive producer of CANOE Money, says that CANOE’s goal is to be the online leader in Canadian news and information. “We’re not going to beat CNN’s site on huge international or American stories, but they’re not going to beat us on important Canadian stories.” The strategy seems to be paying off: a recent poll conducted by Loyalist College, of Belleville, Ont., and International Teledata Group found that Canadian newspaper, magazine and broadcast employees picked CANOE as their favourite source for online information. CANOE’s main competitors, according to Brehl, are other online portals such as Hollinger Inc.’s canada.com, Bell’s Sympatico and Yahoo! Canada. “But canada.com doesn’t update nearly as much as we do throughout the day,” he says, “and Sympatico is not run by journalists, but by telephone people.”
The competition is heating up, however. The traditional news media, which have been slow to move online, are now trying to make up for lost time. The National Post Online plans to follow CANOE’s lead, adding staff and original content in the coming months. CBC News Online has even more original content, including stories, photographs, streaming audio and video footage and even a poem.
Ken Wolff, executive producer of CBC News Online, gives CANOE credit for building a strong readership. He says, however, that the site’s design – street-wise, savvy and, brassy – “shouts at you,” and that its heavy reliance on wire copy often makes the stories awkward to read online.
According to Clive Thompson, Shift magazine’s New York-based editor at large, CANOE’s greatest accomplishment is establishing a very strong brand. “I’m sure most people know of it as the main portal for Canadian news. It’s designed really well, and I know a lot of Canadians outside of Canada who check it for national news. There aren’t any other sites that are comparable, except maybe Sympatico, but it doesn’t have the reputation news-wise that CANOE has.”
Still, Thompson believes that CANOE is making the same mistake that most other news sites make by copying the broadsheet model online. To most cyber denizens, sites like CANOE are little more than newspaper archives. “CANOE may be doing a very good job at that, but that’s not very interesting,” he says. The future of online news, Thompson believes, lies in the approach used by Slashdot, an online geek community and newswire that relies on its readers to submit news and offers them a forum for discussion. This new kind of journalism is modelled on the way people surf the Internet. “They go around, they see stuff online, then share it with their friends,” says Thompson. “That’s an incredibly powerful force. It’s something that these websites that just try to be newspapers online have no idea how to harness.”
Kathy English, executive producer of CANOE’s Lifewise section, believes that a more slow-and-steady approach will win out in the end. She first learned about CANOE when she was a journalism instructor at Ryerson Polytechnic University. “I couldn’t convince my students to read newspapers,” she says, “and yet I’d walk around the class and see them on the Internet, reading the news.” This helped her realize that the Internet would become a vital part of the news business, one that would require novel ways of telling stories. “It’s not newspaper journalism. It’s not magazine journalism. It’s something new.”
Today, as English goes about finding content partners and contributors for Lifewise, she feels as if she’s part of the invention of a whole new industry. While she was researching new media, one comment stuck in her mind: the claim that only 25 per cent of the possibilities for online content have been explored so far. “My master’s thesis was on the history of the Canadian newspaper industry,” she says. “I focussed a lot on its pioneers. It really excites me to be able to do that with a new medium, to figure out how it’s going to work?just as those people did with newspapers a hundred years ago.”
by Tara Stevens
Tara Stevens was the Online Editor for the Spring 2000 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.