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January 23 2012

15:30

How a tightly paywalled, social-media-ignoring, anti-copy-paste, gossipy news site became a dominant force in Nova Scotia

Every morning, the business and political elite in the biggest province on Canada’s East Coast turns to an unlikely source of information about their own world.

Among all the online news organizations trying to find a way to profitability, consider AllNovaScotia.com, which has just celebrated 10 years online and now challenges its historic print rival for the attention of the province’s leaders.

It’s done that by not following the rules: It has a nearly impenetrable paywall, no social media presence, no multimedia, and only rare use of links. It doesn’t cover crime and barely covers sports and entertainment.

However, it delivers up-to-the minute coverage of business, city hall, and the provincial legislature via the web and apps for iOS and BlackBerry. It scoops its news rivals almost daily and has won loyal readers through dogged combing of public records and often by prying into the personal lives of the province’s movers and shakers.

The site is based in Halifax, the capital city of Nova Scotia, a province of just under a million people in Atlantic Canada. Ask 10 people on the street about AllNovaScotia and it’s likely eight will say they’ve never heard of it.

“I think it might be nine people,” says Parker Donham, a former journalist for the now-defunct Halifax Daily News, communications consultant, and blogger. “But the one who did would be an assistant deputy minister or a regional manager. Between people paying for it and a limited amount of advertising, they’ve got a business model that seems to work.”

“On the whole, I think they are the paper of record now,” adds Donham. “I don’t think there are many serious business or political people who don’t see that every morning.”

AllNovaScotia has 5,950 subscribers, whose monthly dues generate 80 per cent of its revenue. The site doesn’t come close to having the broad appeal of its 137-year-old print competitor, the Halifax Chronicle Herald, which has a Monday-to-Friday circulation of 108,389. Three people with different email addresses can share a $30 a month subscription, but they can’t pass the stories on to anyone else without some effort. The publication — produced by a staff of 14, 11 of them reporters — is locked down in Flash, making sharing usually a cumbersome ordeal of cobbling together screenshots. No sharing buttons here.

A representative for 5,200 small- and medium-sized businesses in the region says AllNovaScotia’s influence among her association’s members is narrow but strong.

“I would suspect that most have never heard of AllNovaScotia,” says Leanne Hachey, vice president of the Atlantic Canadian chapter of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business. “However, among those with some influence over politics or public policy or government relations, everybody knows about AllNovaScotia and everybody, as far as I know, pays very close attention to it.”

In many ways, AllNovaScotia is similar to Statehouse News Service, the Massachusetts online outfit that offers “gavel-to-gavel coverage” of state government for lobbyists, government officials and business people. However, AllNovaScotia’s approach is both broader and spunkier.

The guts of each edition are development permits, court documents, and land transfers — and the stories of triumph and failure inside them. One January issue was a typical mixture of hard news and betcha-didn’t-know information about the province’s movers and shakers. The 25-story edition included:

  1. a scoop that a local mall would host the region’s first Apple Store
  2. an alert that a buyer had been found for one of the province’s struggling paper mills
  3. an exposé in text and photos of the $7.6-million Florida mansion purchased by the owner of one of the region’s largest companies
  4. profiles of three new partners at one of the city’s leading law firms
  5. an obituary of a small business owner and minor-league hockey supporter

The news site appeals directly to the province’s tight-knit and family-oriented business community, according to Kevin Cox, AllNovaScotia’s former managing editor, who retired in June.

“The strange thing was they liked to read about other people within their circle. Not in a satirical way…but in a serious way,” says Cox, a former Globe and Mail reporter who still writes commentaries for the site, but who is now studying to be a United Church minister. “How do the Fountains spend their money? How do they make their money? Who did they give it to?”

As it turns out, the Fountains, one of the province’s leading philanthropist families, spent a chunk of their money on a surprise appearance by crooner Tony Bennett at their Dec. 10 Christmas party. The lead story in AllNovaScotia’s next issue detailed the lavish event, Bennett’s set list, and the who’s-who-of-Nova-Scotia guest list.

This focus on people and their wealth makes AllNovaScotia a different beast from typical business coverage that focuses on companies. People’s names are bolded in stories, frequently paired with their corporate compensation and the assessed value of their house. An almost-daily feature is Who’s Suing Whom.

“We wrote about property. We wrote about local stocks. We wrote about the old families,” says Cox, of his time managing the site beginning in 2004. “We wrote about the big business deals and the little business deals. We wrote about the breweries and the coffee shops. Some of it was micro-news that no one else was paying any attention to.”

The character of the site can be attributed to its creator, David Bentley, who co-founded a gossip publication called Frank Magazine in the 1980s. Frank is an irreverent print and online journal that chronicles everything from local celebrity divorces, petty scandals and social faux pas. Many in this conservative province read it, though fewer would admit it. Bentley had started a separate newspaper a decade earlier that would become the Halifax Daily News. That paper, a scrappy tabloid that became the first Canadian newspaper with a website in 1994, folded in 2008, two decades after Bentley sold it.

Bentley, who no longer operates Frank, says AllNovaScotia’s readers are business people, government officials, academics, and health-care administrators. They are people who need to know what’s going on but who also read the publication “just to keep an eye on who’s in the courts and owing people money.”

Cox says AllNovaScotia writes about personal lives of the province’s business elite if it affects the way that business is run.

“Just because you’re Colin MacDonald of [seafood giant] Clearwater doesn’t mean we’re not going to pry a little bit to see what’s underlying the value of that stock or the lack of value of that stock. And it’s not to say that we won’t pry into people’s personal lives,” says Cox.

That approach hasn’t rankled MacDonald, chairman of the international shellfish company that does about $300 million in business annually. Clearwater received extensive coverage by AllNovaScotia in 2011, when it was the target of a hostile takeover.

One AllNovaScotia story in August, headlined “Colin Goes Fishing,” asked whether “the most committed Clearwater founder was losing his passion” after MacDonald went salmon fishing in Newfoundland during the takeover challenge.

MacDonald stated in an email that AllNovaScotia “provides me and I suspect other business leaders with a real-time heads up on what is happening in the business community” — an advantage over other news media in the province, which he said are slower and “lacking the business focus and insight.”

In reaction, the Chronicle-Herald played catch-up in 2011, launching a rival morning business newsletter and hiring additional business reporters.

But a major component of AllNovaScotia’s success is style, not just substance.

“We speculate about an awful lot of stuff — this could happen; that might happen,” says Cox. “We write about it with a certain amount of self-righteousness that a lot of business publications won’t take to.”

How much of this style can be attributed to Bentley’s roots with the gossip magazine Frank?

“I think a substantial amount,” adds Cox. “We’re criticized harshly in the [local] journalism school for using anonymous sources, because we do. But we have people who talk to us who won’t talk to anyone else. If they’re going to give me the legitimate news and I can verify it somewhere else, I think that’s my job to get it out there.”

For Bentley — who co-owns AllNovaScotia with his daughter, the publisher — “getting it out there” simply wouldn’t happen without the site’s uncompromising paywall.

“We’ve got to do that, otherwise they won’t buy the bloody thing,” he says flatly. “Our competition is people who want to read it for nothing. That’s the great big overarching thing that attempts to suck our blood every day. It sounds a bit paranoid. But that’s the problem.”

The result, says the consultant and blogger Donham, is a web site that would appear not to get the Internet at all, by today’s online news norms.

But that’s fine with Bentley. He knows what his content is worth to his audience — in contrast to many media excutives who “think what they’ve got is more valuable than it is.” He acknowledges the value of social media in the Arab Spring uprisings, but insists, “You can’t be in the content business and not get paid for it.”

Even so, he cautions against viewing AllNovaScotia as a model. “This thing has been going on for 10 or 11 years. It’s one little place,” he says. “What sort of success is that? It’s not as though it has taken off like wildfire and spread across the continent, has it?”

Note for transparency: Cox is a sessional instructor and colleague of mine at the University of King’s College School of Journalism.

April 14 2011

18:00

What works for news orgs on Foursquare? Opinion, reviews, evergreens, but maybe not the news

Editor’s Note: At the International Symposium on Online Journalism earlier this month, one of the most interesting papers presented was from Tim Currie, an assistant journalism professor at the University of King’s College in Halifax, Canada. His subject was newspapers’ use of the tips function in Foursquare to spread their content — what works and what doesn’t? And what does “works” even mean? I asked Tim to write a summary of his findings for the Lab; you can download the full paper here. I’ve also embedded his slide deck below.

Many news organizations, including The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and Canada’s Metro chain of free dailies, began experimenting with the location-based social network Foursquare in 2010. They were adding editorial content — mainly restaurant reviews — as tips at locations that people could check into using the Foursquare app on their smartphone.

The newspapers were trying to explore what some social media editors have called a promising tool for news organizations. These journalists say Foursquare offers the possibility of targeted news distribution and finding on-the-scene human sources during breaking news events.

Online editors at these outlets were putting only a fraction of their paper’s editorial content into Foursquare; the number of tips left by each of these newspapers in early 2011 numbered, at most, in the low hundreds. So I was interested in determining what it was about the articles they did choose that editors thought worked well in this location-based service. I also wanted to know how editors were crafting the tips and what their goals were.

I chose Canada’s Postmedia Network as a case study subject because its member newspapers were among the most active in North America for placing editorial content into Foursquare. As of early March, Postmedia newspapers had 1,901 tips cumulatively in Foursquare. I studied three newspapers — the National Post, the Edmonton Journal and the Vancouver Sun — through in-depth interviews with the online editors that were responsible for putting content into this social network.

Asked to characterize the articles they placed into Foursquare, the editors used phrases such as “feature-y”, “evergreen”, “opinion”, “not hard-core news” and “useful to people over a longer period of time.” They cited successful efforts in using editorial content such as a film festival guide, a commentary on transit users and reviews of hip urban restaurants.

In general, the newspaper content they placed into Foursquare had at least one of these five characteristics:

An opinion, review, guide, or first-person account: The articles had a strong narrative voice and usually offered recommendations. The editors said they were using lots of restaurant reviews — but also travelogues and commentaries.

Described with the goal of inspiring action: The articles contained opinions selected specifically to inspire interaction. The editors chose editorial content likely to spark an emotional response in readers. They hoped this response would lead users to click the “I’ve Done This” or “Add This To My To-Do List” buttons in Foursquare — or begin a conversation in other social networks such as Twitter or Facebook. The editors said they crafted their tips to highlight these opinions. One or two worked specifically to link editorial content with Foursquare’s interactive buttons. Some editors cited relatively weak functionality within Foursquare for discussion and traffic measurement. Consequently, they looked to push conversation to social services that had more robust support for interaction — and analytics.

Timeless — or about an event lasting more than 2 days: The editorial content had an “evergreen” quality” about it that made it relevant for a long period of time. Foursquare users value immediacy, the editors said, and articles about long-past events have little appeal. The editors said they rarely placed articles into Foursquare concerning events that took place on a single day. Some said they had initially placed profiles of single-day concerts at clubs or concert halls but ultimately found the workload demanding in light of low user response. One editor had also come to worry about “clogging up” entertainment venues with multiple tips. A majority of editors said they used articles about music festivals or sporting events — as long as the events ran for at least three days. One editor said that’s enough time to attract adequate attention within Foursquare and to use other social media services such as Facebook and Twitter to drive traffic to Foursquare.

About a specific location or an activity typically done at a location: Articles left as tips were about locations with a street address, such as a restaurant or a school offering a cooking class. However, they were also about activities typically done by people at a specific kind of location. For example, they were about things people do at light rapid transit stations or about issues of interest to people who shop at an Apple Store.

Placed at a location where people gather socially: Editors rarely placed articles at venues such as homes or small businesses. Instead they placed tips at venues where people gather in groups: at music and theater festivals, sports events, transportation hubs, educational classes — and restaurants. These are places where people interact in the real world and where the editors guessed people are likely to interact online as well.

News content rarely used

While most participants said they were open to the idea of putting news stories into Foursquare, few cited instances of doing it. One said it would be “jarring” to know someone had been robbed or beaten recently near where they were. This editor added that Foursquare’s nature as a tool for exploration (“unlock your city” is its slogan) was at odds with violent news content: “I think indicating where there have been shootings and where there are robberies would be indicating why you should stay in.”

The editors drew almost all of their articles from the newspaper or the website. They frequently used the headline or deck of a published article as their 200-character tip in Foursquare. Some, however, said they searched an article for vivid descriptions of physical surroundings or distinct flavours in a restaurant dish. They subsequently used these descriptions to craft a custom tip aimed at attracting a user who might be holding a menu or gazing around them.

A small number of editors said they were working with reporters to create content specifically for Foursquare — such as a guide to Christmas light displays in town or a list of travel tips integrated with Foursquare’s To-Do List. The aim was to prompt users to click Foursquare’s “Add This To My To-Do List” button or “I’ve Done This” button on each tip screen. However, some of the editors described these button-clicks as weak measurements of engagement. As one put it, “It’s an inaccurate term for what we have [published] because it isn’t really a ‘to do.’”

Here at the Lab, there’s been discussion about news organizations’ discomfort with the awkward nomenclature of social media sharing buttons, such as Facebook’s Like button. Buttons that signal agreement can be a tough fit with content from news organizations, which have been “traditional bringers of bad news.” There’s also been some emerging research, conducted by my colleagues at Dalhousie University and others, suggesting a link between positive emotion and online sharing.

The results of this study suggest editors have acknowledged this association. Their goal of promoting engagement seems to have influenced their selection of articles for use in Foursquare. They chose a narrow range of content that supported the mood of people out on the town, having a good time and looking to explore. In general, they indicated they looked for light-hearted recommendations users could mull over, not weighty, impartial reporting to digest.

This choice reflected an observation made by former NPR CEO Vivian Schiller at the conference at which this paper was delivered. She called the notion of platform agnosticism “misguided.” News organizations need to tailor their content to specific platforms, she said. In this study, there was indeed a certain type of newspaper content that Postmedia editors thought was suited to this particular social platform.

In other findings:

— Some editors said they formatted key points with bullet lists to help users view recommendations on small screens.

— None of the participants used Foursquare to find sources for stories.

— A majority said they regularly removed tips from Foursquare to avoid presenting users with out-of-date articles.

Goal is engagement, not monetization

None of the editors I spoke with had made any attempt to monetize Foursquare content. They all cited engagement as their primary goal, with one saying, “The ROI on this stuff is going to be five or 10 years. It’s getting people reading your stuff [now] who would never normally read it in any way, shape, or form.”

This study did not investigate audience numbers. All of the editors suggested their Foursquare audience was relatively small — in keeping with a study that pegged the number of Americans who use a location-based service with their mobile phone at 4 percent of online adults.

In general, the editors said their main goal was simply to be present where people interact with each other. They framed this presence in geographic terms: at venues where people use their phones while eating, playing, shopping, and travelling. They also said it was simply important to be present in the social media spaces populated by young, connected adults — such as Tumblr or Foursquare — even if those spaces aren’t yet crowded with users.

This study used a very small sample size — five editors at three news organizations controlled by a single company. One can’t extend these results to other location-based social networks or to the use of editorial content in location-based services generally. Much more research is needed.

November 23 2010

19:00

Catalysts: The Globe and Mail’s community brain trust

One of the Big Existential Questions facing journalism right now is the extent to which news organizations are just that — organizations that produce news — and the extent to which they’re also something more: engagers of the world, curators of human events, conveners of community. Should news outlets focus on news…or should they also be sponsoring conferences and creating film clubs and setting up stores and selling wine?

There’s a lot of variation in the way they answer that question, of course, but many news outlets are currently skewing toward the “community” end of the continuum, preparing for the future armed with the idea that news production is only part of their mandate — the notion that to succeed, both journalistically and financially, they’ll need to figure out ways to cultivate community out of, and around, their news content.

One particularly interesting experiment to that end — a worthwhile initiative, you might say! — is playing out in Canada, where The Globe and Mail, the country’s paper of record, has convened a community of users to help guide its engagement policies. The Globe Catalysts are a kind of external brain trust for the outlet, a community charged with helping to ensure that the paper’s path is the right one for its users.

“We wanted people to know we’re taking this seriously,” Jennifer MacMillan, the paper’s communities editor, explained of the project. And at its core, the Catalysts experiment is about demonstrating that engagement is a mutual proposition. “We wanted to make sure people felt valued.”

The paper came up with the idea over the summer, MacMillan told me — as a project that would be a part of the paper’s print and online redesign that rolled out this fall. (The idea, actually, was Mathew Ingram’s — the Lab contributor who, before he became a writer at GigaOm, was the Globe’s communities editor.) To test the waters of user interest, MacMillan and her team sent out a Catalyst invitation to the users who subscribe to The Globe and Mail’s e-newsletters (“people we knew were engaged, and who might have an interest in helping us shape where we’re going”) — a form asking for basic info like name, postal code, gender, and profession. And they got, to their shock, floods of replies in return — “several thousand,” in fact. Which was not just a surprise, but also “really encouraging,” MacMillan notes — a show of users not just expressing interest in the paper’s future, but acting on it. “A sign that they wanted to play a bigger part in the experience of the Globe.”

From there, the paper streamlined further, asking respondents to write a short explanation of their vision for the paper. Looking for a cross-section of background and location, interests and perspectives — and employing the services of the digital communications firm Sequentia Environics for help in whittling down the applications — the paper selected a group of users who are charged with helping to oversee the community elements of the paper’s content. A group of 1,000 or so users, in fact, MacMillan told me. (And, of those, about 800 accepted the offer to be Catalysts.) From there, they created a special, members-only section of the Globe and Mail site and then “just started chatting” — about the paper’s future and about the best way to cultivate community around it.

And a big part of that community is the content that it generates: the comments that flesh out a story’s life in the world beyond its text. Per MacMillan’s introduction of the Catalysts project, its members will:

— Help out commenters when they need a hand

— Help keep discussion on-topic

— Intervene when discussion becomes immoderate or personal

— Bring particularly poor behaviour to the attention of Globe staff

— Act in any manner that is representative of a community leader

— Add thoughtful posts that add background info, perspective

— Recommend/vote on comments that add insight and contribute to the discussion

It’s a broad mandate that’s along the lines of Gawker’s starred commenter system and HuffPo’s “Moderator” badge. And so far, it’s yielded good results: “We’ve had very good feedback,” MacMillan says, “and I think a big part of that is that we’re giving readers what they were looking for.” The paper’s recent series, “Canada: Our Time to Lead,” made use not only of Catalyst moderation, but also of the Catalysts’ connection to the newsroom. Globe reporters waded into the Catalyst forum, which led to conversations and new (crowd)sourcing opportunities, MacMillan notes. “We’ve never really done something quite like this before, where the contact has been so direct” — and “it was a really fruitful discussion.”

As for the comments, their volume has held fairly steady since the Catalysts started doing their thing in early October — a recent piece on Canada’s failed bid for a seat on the UN Security Council garnered over 2,000 comments — but their overall value, MacMillan says, has risen. Which is a trend we’re seeing among several of the news organizations that employ a select group of users to do their comment-moderation: investment leads to accountability leads to higher quality. (And to add a bit of incentive, the paper has made a practice of picking a particularly punchy quote from a user comment, and running that quote, via its “You said it” feature, across its homepage.)

But what’s the incentive for the Catalysts themselves? The fact that the community has a high barrier to entry, and no financial reward, begs the question: Why? Why are people willing to take time out of their presumably busy lives to participate in a project whose work isn’t compensated? Is this the cognitive surplus, playing out in our news environment?

To some extent, yes. Financial gain is by no means the only incentive for participation, of course — and there’s something inherently rewarding about seeing your ideas play out “in living color,” MacMillan notes. And togetherness — being part of something — can be its own compensation. One benefit of the Catalyst approach could simply be that it’s making its members part of a community; and in this fragmented world of ours, that alone is a value. And though the project is a work in progress, it’s been gratifying to see what can happen when put some effort into transforming your users — anonymous, atomized — into something more meaningful and productive: a community. “They’re interested in seeing where this is going,” MacMillan says — “just as we are.”

October 13 2010

14:00

Does investing in print help the bottom line? Discouraging evidence from the San Francisco Chronicle

The Globe and Mail is the latest newspaper to double down on print — investing big money in a new, glossy, full-color format aimed at making the value of news-on-paper more clear. As Canadians kvell over the print redesign and read the national daily without the inky stain of newsprint on their fingers, it’s worth remembering that the San Francisco Chronicle made a similar move almost a year ago.

Last November, the Chronicle began printing its weekday front page, section fronts and select inside pages on high-gloss paper as a way to lure advertisers and strive for “magazine-quality production,” publisher Frank Vega and editor Ward Bushee said at the time. (The paper revamped its layout in February 2009.) It was an interesting move, considering that less than eight months earlier the paper, facing the threat of closure by its parent company Hearst, was shedding nearly $1 million a week. The switch was a result of a 15-year, $1 billion deal between Hearst and Canadian printing giant Transcontinental, which opened a $200 million plant near San Jose.

Looking at the numbers, it’s hard to see any improvement from the move. Circulation numbers are still in decline, and the Chronicle has scaled back glossy printing to its Sunday paper only. Which raises the questions: Is glossy paper worth it, both in terms of circulation and advertising? And if readers enjoy a smoother feel to their paper, does that warrant the extra cost?

“I don’t think so,” Chronicle president Mark Adkins told me. “You would have to be part of a broader strategy that would include more commercial printing and higher consumer pricing. It’s not a good tactical move for other papers.”

Lack of advertiser response

When it switched to glossy, the Chronicle circulated around 251,782 weekday papers, a 26-percent drop from the previous year. By March 2010, weekday circulation was down to 241,330. The economy certainly takes part of the blame, but the marketing power of a classier kind of newsprint doesn’t seem to be having much of an impact. It costs about 30 percent more to print on the new heat-set presses, which are rare (and expensive) in the newspaper industry.

“On the ad side, advertisers have not responded to it at all,” Adkins says, although the Chronicle wouldn’t reveal specific ad revenue numbers. When the Chronicle switched to glossy, it had “no advertisers lined up,” Adkins adds. The move was primarily aimed at consumers, to present a more luxurious product. But to some extent, that’s what the Chronicle expected when it restructured its business model around readership and circulation revenue, rather than advertising, almost two years ago. Even before the arrival of glossy stock, the paper had increased single-copy and subscription prices. Readers have responded favorably to the new paper, Adkins says, but they’re shouldering more of the production cost.

But back when the shift was made, Adkins also emphasized the appeal to advertisers, leading the San Francisco Business Times to write: “Without naming names, Adkins said that some advertisers who are now playing ball with the Chronicle wouldn’t before. They shunned newspaper ads because ‘they don’t deliver the brand image they require,’ he said — an obstacle the Chron’s new paper removes.”

“People are definitely and truly intrigued when they see copies of the Chronicle,” says Chuck Moozakis, editor of the print innovation monthly Newspapers & Technology. “The paper is trying to send a signal that you can have a newspaper that looks like this and not like that. But it’s a challenge now.”

Looking internationally

The Chronicle won’t be phasing out high-gloss paper any time soon — not with that $1 billion Hearst deal — but Adkins isn’t ready to champion glossy as the savior of the print industry. That’s partly because in most cases printing on high-gloss paper requires outsourcing — a costly and alienating move — to independent commercial presses like Transcontinental. Heat-set presses simply aren’t ubiquitous enough in the United States to make higher-grade printing a viable option for most newspapers.

As for Canada’s Globe and Mail, editor John Stackhouse told readers that he wasn’t looking to the American newspaper market for inspiration when it comes to his “Proudly Print” approach: “Rather than study the U.S. market which is fairly depressed in terms of newpaper innovation, we looked to quality papers in southern Europe, Latin America and parts of Asia and found a great array of ideas that encouraged us to pursue a bold and confident look as well as a design that would continue to support great, in-depth journalism…One of the principal goals of the redesign is to raise the quality of The Globe at a time when we feel many other media are reducing their quality.”

October 05 2010

14:00

Doubling down on print: Canada’s Globe and Mail unveils a new print edition to complement the web

The Globe and Mail, Canada’s most-circulated national daily newspaper, revealed its much-ballyhooed redesign on Friday. The paper is calling it “the most significant redesign” in its 166-year history, and it’s a billion-dollar bet on print at a time when the format’s fortunes would seem to be fading.

The renovations to “Canada’s National Newspaper” are part of what editor-in-chief John Stackhouse boldly calls his “Proudly Print” approach, with print as one component (with online and mobile) of a three-pronged news attack. The redesign tries to make the differences between print and web more clear. Full-color printing and a high-gloss wrap — the first of its kind in North America — aim to help lure advertisers. There’ll be more magazine-like stories, including photo-driven features plastered boldly on the front page. A slightly narrower size means shorter, punchier stories. And that’s not to mention the informational accoutrements, like sidebars and info graphs, and the litany of new inserts and content realignments. The redesign “once again demonstrates our commitment to the newspaper business,” according to publisher and CEO Phillip Crawley.

This is a big-time overhaul for the Globe, and not only because the paper sees it as a reassertion of dominance — i.e., shelling the struggling National Post, its conservative competitor since 1999, in the national newspaper war of attrition — over the Canadian media landscape.

But whenever a redesign happens, criticism follows. The prevailing question in this case is fairly obvious: Why invest in an 18-year, C$1.7-billion printing deal — with the same press as the San Francisco Chronicle — at a time when newsprint seems like yesterday’s medium?

“It’s going to be a millstone around the Globe’s neck,” says Mathew Ingram, a senior writer at GigaOm and former Globe web editor (and Lab contributor). “That’s 10 years you’re going to be paying for something that’s going to restrict the paper’s ability to do things that are focusing on the web. That’s not a thing a newspaper needs at a time like this.”

But the Globe sees its investment as a bet on print having a complementary role to online news going forward. “Our readers are digitally-minded people,” Stackhouse told me on launch day. “We publish a paper for people who are online a lot and still want a printed product at their doorstep every day to make sense of a world that flew by them while there were online.” Stackhouse, who took over as editor-in-chief in spring 2009 after a career as a business reporter, knows what he’s up against, and he’s making an argument about what a 21st-century newspaper needs to look like.

The Globe has always been the highbrow stalwart in Canadian journalism — and judging from its minimalist yet dramatic ad campaign, the paper still sees itself at the head of table. (For more proof, check out this nifty microsite.) Stackhouse uses the term “the daily pause,” when readers feel obligated to close their browsers and read insightful, show-stopping journalism. That’s what newspapers should strive to give their readers, he told me. He says there “needs to be more selection. We need to bring more insight to issues that matter most and focus on issues of consequence and try to have fun with it.”

The Globe, like most other newspapers, realizes there’s still money in print advertising. According to a profile of the Globe in last month’s Toronto Life magazine, the paper’s online component brings in roughly 15 percent of the revenue generated on the print side — not far off the totals for most large American newspapers.

Whether or not Crawley’s doubling-down strategy will work remains to be seen. Eighteen years is a long time. Critics wonder if placing such emphasis on print will limit the Globe’s ability to take the reigns of a slim Canadian online news market. The responses look a lot like this tweet, from Toronto-based technology consultant Rob Hyndman: “The Globe’s changes are about fear of loss, not about moving towards a positive goal.”

The Globe surely sees things differently. Its prime competitors — the National Post, the Toronto Star, and free dailies like Metro and 24 — are all print products. In fact, the paper’s weekday circulation jumped 5 percent last year and its print revenue increased 10 percent, while everyone else took a step backward. In Canada, the world of print is still the gladiator ring. The Canadian online news marketplace is underdeveloped: There’s nothing like Salon or The Daily Beast or The Huffington Post to draw eyeballs away from sites — GlobeandMail.com, CBC.ca, CTV.ca, GlobalTV.com — already affiliated with traditional news organizations. Speaking at the Economic Club of Canada on the eve of the launch, Stackhouse pinpointed four online competitors — The Huffington Post, Bloomberg, Yahoo Finance, and the BBC — none of which are Canadian. Without a sea of competitors galvanizing innovation and growth in Canadian online news, the Globe seems to think it makes sense to stick to the gravy — a move Ingram thinks is a mistake.

“Now is the time to seize the day, to become a leader,” he says, “because the Globe doesn’t have a huge amount of competition in print or online. It feels like it’s the only game in town — except maybe the CBC — and that lulls the paper into a false sense of security about its future.”

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