City News Goes to the Blogs
Large dailies see city bloggers as ground-level troops in the 24/7 news reporting cycle
The sun is still nestled well beneath the horizon in the early hours of June 29. Across Toronto, delivery trucks slip through the streets, stopping at clusters of newspaper boxes and filling them with still-warm stacks of the new day’s issue. Shawn Micallef, associate editor for Spacing magazine, walks eastward, towards downtown and home. He happens by a recently stocked National Post box. Straddling the cover fold is a teaser for the Urban Scrawl opinion piece on A9 — “Is it multicultural celebration or just hooliganism? World Cup fans are getting aggressive.” It piques Micallef’s interest; about 24 hours before, he’d written a piece on the same subject for Spacing Wire, the magazine’s blog. Dropping in his change, Micallef pulls out a copy and flips to the article. The headline reads, “Soccer fans play rough.” The byline? “Shawn Micallef.”
The article’s unauthorized appearance sets off an online hailstorm. Cries of “Shameful!” and “Scandal!” erupt across the blogosphere. Much of the criticism isn’t over the reprinting, but the fact that the article has been cut by about 50 per cent, including a contextually important passage from The Globe and Mail‘sToronto columnist, John Barber.
Despite all the anger, the issue resolves itself quickly. After Micallef and Spacing publisher Matthew Blackett cry foul, the Post prints an apology on A2 and pays Micallef $200 (which, he says, includes an extra $50 for “pain and suffering”).
“We all chalked it up to experience,” says Rob Roberts, the Post‘s Toronto editor, who admits he originally had no intention of paying Micallef for the piece. “Blogs are always linking to each other. I saw this as an extension of that. I recognize now, in retrospect, I don’t think I should’ve seen it that way.” Roberts also explains that a bad situation got worse when, after he signed off on the article, additional edits were made and attribution for the Spacing blog was moved from the top of the piece to the bottom.
All wrongdoing aside, a bigger issue remains. As Masthead noted in an online article, “It was the first time a blog entry had received such treatment.” With city-oriented blogs in major centers like Toronto gaining increasing credibility, readers in search of their local news fix have embraced the outlets as a raw, fresh take on their towns. But even now, in the midst of an online revolution that’s putting media in the hands of the Everyman, it may be too early to completely abandon the black and white pages of a paper for the bright lights of the city blog.
Unlike at newspapers, city blog content is mainly generated through observation. If a staffer sees something unusual, hears about an interesting event, or notices a rant-worthy issue, it becomes a post. There’s no agenda, no news for the sake of news. “We can narrowcast what we write about,” says Ron Nurwisah, editor of the Torontoist blog. “[Newspapers] have a hard time because they have to cover that big mayoral announcement or that big conference — it’s in their mandate. We know that these things are going on, but we don’t need to cover them all because you could get it from the Toronto Star.”
City blogs also benefit from the communal nature of citizen journalism. Readers often act as reporters, and bloggers usually share content with each other freely, creating a huge network of eyes on the city. This past January, for instance, a Toronto photographer captured a street fight between a littering motorist and an eco-friendly bike messenger. The pictures and the story were all over Toronto’s city blogs the next day, but it wasn’t until the following week that the Star picked up the story and put the photographs on their cover (albeit without permission, though the photographer was credited). “Blogs are on the street a lot more — they’re closer to what’s happening,” says Micallef. “The major dailies kind of float like motherships above the city, and reporters get dropped down and then they go back up and report.”
One of those motherships sits high above Toronto in the Don Mills suburb, where the National Post has their headquarters. Needless to say, the view’s different from up here. For one thing, their Toronto editor doesn’t exactly embrace the narrowcasting that blogs champion. “Blogs tend to give you what you already think you want,” Roberts contends. “But there’s something to be said for reading stuff that you might not think you’re interested in.”
There’s also the issue of accuracy. Blog contributors generally publish their work directly, without any editorial review beforehand. “We try to be accurate — it’s not like we go out of our way to be inaccurate,” says Nurwisah. But he also admits that outlets like the Star and CBC provide a level of authority and trustworthiness that his blog can’t match. “I wouldn’t get my election results from us. I wouldn’t trust it.”
Despite their different priorities, Roberts is quick to admit that blogs are worthy media outlets. “There’s value in an unvarnished voice,” he says. “I think that you read a blog knowing that it’s a different approach to journalism and you forgive some of its failings because of that.” Even before he and the Post improperly tapped Micallef’s article, it was clear that they and the other dailies knew city blogs were onto something good. Since April 2006, the Post has run a feature called Blogtown about once a week. The spread compiles notable blog posts and responses from across Toronto, all clearly attributed and transparently edited (if at all). The Star took things a step further, setting up their own city blog, Paved.ca. The site, run single-handedly by Marc Weisblott, was intended to be a sort of blog hub for Toronto. According to Chris Carter, senior editor of TheStar.com, they wanted to bring together bloggers and readers from across Toronto to generate one big online discussion, fueled by Weisblott’s posts on the city. But the site met with limited success and closed shop after only a year. “We didn’t see the take-up on the reader side. We didn’t see the participation rate that we’d hoped for,” says Carter. “We had to make a decision on whether it would be a long term thing or to end it as an experiment, and we chose to end it as an experiment.”
A subtler and less risky recognition of the city blog’s value is that dailies often use them as a tip service. It’s not uncommon to see a full, fleshed-out story in the paper a day or two after a smaller blog piece on the very same subject. “Quite frankly, I’ve stolen a lot of ideas from these blogs,” says Roberts. “With full attribution — I make a point of almost always somewhere in that story either giving direct or indirect credit to whatever blog it came from.” Over at The Globe and Mail‘s downtown building, Toronto editor Gregory Boyd Bell also admits to having occasionally tapped blogs as a tip service in the past, but says their usefulness peaked more than a year ago. “It may be a cyclical thing, where you get these waves of enough people doing a little bit of original material that you get a fairly steady supply of something original every day,” he says. “But I don’t see that happening right now.”
While Micaleff admits that this situation helps bring important issues overlooked by the mainstream media to a wider audience, he also says it creates some tension with newspapers. “There’s this kind of David and Goliath feeling,” he admits. “None of us are paid, or are paid a pittance. We dedicate a lot of time to this stuff and it gets sucked up into the major media by reporters who are paid and have benefits and all that stuff.”
Roberts thinks that similar concerns with financial imbalance will eventually upset the culture of sharing that blogs currently enjoy. As ad revenue for blogs grows with popularity, he suggests, so will competition for that cash; blogs will become increasingly protective of their content, and the ones that don’t hit ad gold right away won’t be looking to lend a hand to their better-funded ex-allies.
Blogs can’t be all that upset with the dailies, however, as they provide a substantial amount of content for their sites — either through a blogger’s response to a news story or a daily breakdown of notable pieces from their pages. “In the morning, we often do a round-up of public space-type articles that we see in the papers,” says Micallef; another Toronto site, blogTO, compiles a similar list with a wider range of stories. “There are a lot of people who don’t read the dailies every day but might read blogs, so we throw people back to traditional media who have the resources to cover these things deeper, and then maybe add our own take on it.”
Only with that balance can readers truly benefit from city blogs, though. In a way, newspapers provide the hard news for blogs to comment on and pass along to their readers, while blogs provide the papers with inspiration for more community-minded stories — and everyone’s material reaches a bigger audience in one way or another. Through it all, readers simply get better local coverage, via either an original and opinionated take on their city from blogs or a more attuned approach from the dailies.
Roberts sums it up with a tale from the Post‘s launch in 1998, when the word “blog” would’ve sounded like an insult — and when soft, community news was still a distinctly different beast than the day’s hard, top news. “In the first week, one of the stories was about where to get good eggs in Toronto,” he recalls. “And I was like, ‘Whaaaat?’ But you know, I’ve lived here for eight years, and I’m more interested in where to get good eggs in Toronto than I am in a lot of the serious news and crime stories. The most important story of the day isn’t necessarily the most interesting story of the day.”
Graham Silnicki was the Senior Editor for the Spring 2007 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.