Yes, the Internet is a big, scary monster that threatens newspapers. But as Globeandmail.com and others have shown, the counterattack has begun
On Friday, November 11, 2005, in the lobby of The Globe and Mail building on Front Street in downtown Toronto, I leaf through the day’s edition and come across the headline: “Sony BMG shoots itself in the foot while firing against music pirates.” I sigh, because I already know the story: hidden security software has caused problems on some compact disc buyers’ computers. Eight days earlier, the paper’s website posted a more complete report not only explaining the glitch, but also outlining the record company’s planned response. Globeandmail.com isn’t even where I first heard about the mess. Back on October 31, I read about buried software on CDs on the personal blog of Mark Russinovich, the man who actually discovered the problem.
This little story illustrates the central quandary facing newspapers today. By the time a story is reported, written, edited and printed, the information (true, false or a bit of both) has been on the Internet for hours, sometimes days. So why buy a paper? While newspaper circulations decline steadily each year, Nielsen/ NetRatings reports that the number of visitors to newspaper websites grew eleven per cent in 2005. The Calgary Sun, to name one, has a weekday circulation of 65,648, but gets 240,000 unique web visitors each week. Unsurprisingly, younger readers in particular prefer to receive their information digitally and unfiltered. According to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, eighty-four per cent of U.S. blogging teenagers and seventy-two per cent of their non-blogging peers go online to get their “news or info about current events.”
Advertisers have followed the shifting audience. Online classified advertising grew eighty per cent in North America in the twelve months ending last September – in the U.S. alone, spending on all online advertising increased twenty-six per cent to $5.8 billion in the first half of 2005.
National papers like the Globe, less dependent on classifieds, are somewhat insulated, but none of them can afford to ignore the generational trend. Newspaper executives are shifting their focus from their main newsrooms to a previously ignored pocket of the office – the one the online team calls home.
And so they should, but exactly what the online team does – and what it means for the future of journalism – is still something of a mystery. On that November day in the lobby, the Globe’s answer seemed to be: “Let’s scoop our own paper online.” I get more specific and more complicated answers as the winter – and thirty-ninth federal general election campaign – unfolds.
I pass the sea of cubicles that is the Globe’s main newsroom as Kenny Yum, online managing editor, guides me up a side stairwell and past the editorial departments. The online department consists of about twenty workstations tucked along the building’s eastern wall. Soon, five people gather at an oval table overlooked by a blow-up of the first home page of Globeandmail.com, stamped June 19, 2000, 6:09 A.M. EDT. An out-of-place analog clock on the wall marks the time: 4:15 P.M. Thunk… thunk, it says as the minute hand moves. It is January 9, and tonight the federal party leaders compete in a televised English debate for the second time.
Angus Frame, online editor, is at the table, along with his crew: reporter Allison Dunfield, evening news editor Jack Bell and Sunday editor Diana Pereira. Yum outlines the plan for the night. Gloria Galloway, a writer, is in Montreal. Her story, about each party’s likely debate strategy and key policy platforms, is ready for posting at 8 P.M. Pereira will tweak the story as the debate proceeds, while moderating the site audience’s comments. Blogger Dan Cook is set to summarize minutes of the debate from Montreal. Bell will watch the wires and the Globe’s queues for debate visuals and the night’s other news. Yum is standing by to record audio feeds of the debate and post transcripts. Meanwhile, in their offices, three editorial board members from the Globe’s print edition have arranged to discuss the debate in live-chat mode.
Yum finishes his twenty-minute briefing, and there are no major questions. As the clock thunks to 8 P.M. and beyond, the plan glides into execution. Cook’s blog and Galloway’s story go up as the debate – and the editorial board’s discussion – begins. Thunk. 8:31 P.M.: Galloway updates her story for the first time. Thunk. 8:38 P.M.: the story gets a new lead and headline, “Martin wants to remove the notwithstanding clause.” Thunk. 8:53 P.M.: Bell, watching the newswires, announces that Wayne Gretzky’s grandmother has died. Pereira says, “God, he just lost his mother.” Her fingers never leave the keyboard. A bit later she laughs, reading aloud a reader’s comment: “I don’t like Stephen Harper’s grin.”
Yum says, “Well, he does have a bad grin. Whether it’s a good comment….”
Pereira laughs again. “I’ll put it up anyway.”
Thunk. Thunk. Thunk.
10:01 P.M.: Yum posts his audio feed, which is quickly joined by an interactive report card and a column by the paper’s parliamentary correspondent Jane Taber. Cook’s blog receives its final update, and the debate page closes. It’s 10:04 P.M. – four minutes after the event ends.
“For us,” says Yum, “by 10:30, it’s pretty much over. But for them,” he says, gesturing down and away, “they’re still slogging away at it.” And indeed, as I head home at 11 P.M., the main newsroom is quietly abuzz with reporters and copy editors, bashing at computers and punching phones.
The Internet’s appeal extends beyond speed. With the multimedia potential of broadband (used by more than half of Canadian Internet users), audio and visual can marry graphics and text. “You can give people the immediacy of radio with the depth of newspapers,” says Larry Johnsrude, online editor for the Edmonton Journal. At big, rich papers such as the Globe, online specialists cover news events live with audio feed while their notebook-wielding colleagues hit the phones for quotes. Sometimes print-focused journalists find themselves going online with a story that may not remain exclusive long enough for a print scoop. Last June, Globeandmail.com announced – twelve hours before press time – that the National Hockey League and the NHL Players’ Association had found a way to end the lockout. Edward Greenspon, editor-in-chief, later wrote that, “We are on our way to becoming a continuous operation, with the newspaper still at the core, but the Web is very much a part of the mix and growing more fundamental to the mission with each passing day.”
That said, today’s consumers don’t just want their news faster; they want to be part of the news operation itself. As Rupert Murdoch, head of News Corporation, said in an April 2005 speech, today’s readers “don’t want to rely on a god-like figure from above to tell them what’s important, and they certainly don’t want news presented as gospel.” Penney Kome, editor of Canadian online magazine Straight Goods, agrees. “News used to be a lecture, and is now turning into a conversation between the news outlet and its audience.”
That amounts to a radical redefinition of news but so far, few journalists are buying it. The Toronto Star is testing the model stealthily by funding – but not linking to – a city news and culture blog called Paved.ca. Some columnists, such as the National Post’s Andrew Coyne, run blogs to supplement their print offerings, a trend that’s also been growing at smaller papers such as The Record in Kitchener-Waterloo and the Guelph Mercury. The Globe allows readers to comment on stories and participate in online polls, customize charts and tables and read staff blogs. But as for amateur civilians actually supplying news, that raises huge questions. “We see, all the time, people at a news event who aren’t journalists,” says Bob Cox, editor of The Winnipeg Free Press. “This is a great thing sometimes because information that wasn’t public can be made public readily. This is a bad thing because there are no standards. Nobody’s judging whether it’s factual, whether it’s credible, whether it’s real. The biggest danger is people posting anonymously on the Web. That’s no better than graffiti sprayed under a bridge by my house.”
The Globeandmail.com often scoops its own paper online
While suspicion of citizen journalism remains the norm among what bloggers call the “mainstream media” – or MSM – citizen journalists are fast becoming an important news source. Quebecor, Inc., for example, recently announced a media experiment in which citizens will supply content from cameras and other digital technologies. Such contributions have already proven especially valuable for gathering foreign news and reporting on national disasters, terrorist attcks and other crises. Richard Sambrook, head of BBC global news, told an October conference that “the avalanche of high-quality video, photos and emailed news material from citizens following the July 7 bombings in London marked a turning point” and the BBC was evolving “from being a broadcaster to a facilitator of news.” He also said, “We don’t own the news anymore.”
Is that loss of control good news? In a Toronto seminar last November, Bob Woodward, of Watergate fame, discussed the impact of changing audience expectations on the way news is produced. “Impatience, speed tend to dominate everything,” he said. “I always find that you do better work if you spend weeks, months, even years on something. There’s not a tendency in the media to do that now… we are continually rushing for the incremental advance [but] we have to get to the bottom of things.”
Of course, journalists get stuff wrong too. At its best, the essence of journalism lies not only in getting facts fast, but checking those facts and seeking broader perspectives. Chris Carter, senior editor of electronic news and information at the Star, says there’s no substitute for the professional approach. While citizen journalists are capable of conducting a proper interview or delivering a balanced report, the traditional editorial process ensures that it actually happens. “There will always be a place,” he says, “for professional journalism to provide that fourth-estate function.”
“Are you coming to watch the elections?” Three times today, I’ve turned down friends’ invitations to huddle around network TV for the results. Now it’s 9 P.M. and I’m at my computer. I’ve got multiple browser windows open, tuned to newspapers across the land and to CBC.ca, along with the alternative Rabble and Straight Goods sites, which I think might defy the 10 P.M. EST embargo on results. (Nope.) I try to access Coyne’s Post blog, but the page won’t load. No worries – I expect to have my hands full.
10 P.M.: Click. The Post, Ottawa Citizen and The Vancouver Sun sites are much the same as when I left them this morning: largely, reprints of the morning paper, with additional wire feeds supplied by CanWest’s Winnipeg online centre. It’s as if nothing has happened in Atlantic Canada, where first results were released half an hour ago.
Click. The Star and CBC have special election sections online, anchored on a Canadian Press tool for viewing riding-by-riding results. The little squares on the chart are already changing colour – mostly Grit-red and Bloc-turquoise in the eastern half of the country – and updating faster than even the Elections Canada site. Wow, I can mouse over individual ridings for updated results. The entire election is right here in my hands. It just takes a click.
Click. Switching over to the Globe, I’m offered an interactive map of Canada with no fewer than seven ways to view results, including nationally, by province, “Ridings to Watch” and “Close Races.” Plus, I can compare this information with results from the previous election. Most important, I can select specific results on a “My Ridings” page. Though I live in Toronto, Ottawa is my home, and I want to see how the two cities voted as a whole. This should be easy – I’ll just add those various ridings to my list.
Click. Um, this will take a while. There’s no easy way to identify Toronto or Ottawa ridings. Maybe Google can find me an electoral map somewhere…
Click. Um. Click. Um. Click. Um.
At 10:30 P.M., I notice the Globe’s riding numbers are sitting still – dead still – last updated a full thirteen minutes ago. My hard-built personal tracking list is useless.
At 10:40 P.M., I open another window. Nothing new at the Citizen or at the Post. No one’s chatting at the alternative forums – of course, they’re busy watching the election! The Star has an updated feature story, but nothing about Ottawa.
10:50 P.M.: Back to the Globe. Still no riding updates since 10:17 P.M.
Better try the TV.
“The flash application we developed to serve the results choked,” the Globe’s Frame explained a few days later. Apparently, too many users bombarded the site with simultaneous requests. “We were hit by a perfect storm of heavy traffic, complicated results feeds and flash technology that slowed us down dramatically from 10 P.M. to 11 P.M.”
Well, at least they tried. The audience may be demanding fresh news, but until now most papers in Canada have been content to reprint the daily paper online, along with raw wire-service feeds.
But this is – and must be – an interim state. “We need to have ongoing updates,” says Shane Holladay, online manager of the Edmonton Sun. “How we do that is something conglomerates are struggling with.” Eventually, Holladay says, “The online version and print version will evolve into a hybrid where one complements the other. The most likely outcome is that people will turn to the website to find out what’s happening in the city or around the world, and then turn to the paper for more in-depth writing and analysis.”
“As a journalist, it’s a reality,” says Yum. “Online came of age quite a while ago. It’s a medium, the delivery mechanism can change, but it’s still news.”
I awake early the morning after the election, walk to the corner newsstand and plunk down my loonie for the Globe. I head back home, pour myself some tea and sit down to read. The results are posted clearly across the top of the front page, followed by twenty-six information-heavy pages. They’ve got the scoop on every region and every major city in the country, with key information in boxes and sidebars on every page. A full-colour election map spreads across two pages, along with a table that compares the results with the 2004 election.
There’s even a wonderfully tabulated chart of riding-by-riding results that covers two full pages.