Globe election hub “admirable,” but doesn’t empower citizens

Robert Washburn

When this federal election campaign began, I criticized The Globe and Mail‘s election website. It seems only fair to come back and take a second look as the campaign closes.

The site shows real strengths when it comes to the sheer number of stories and the comprehensive nature of the coverage. It capitalizes on Internet by providing material well beyond the limits of the pages of its newspaper, making it a truly valuable resource. Many other news organizations could take a lesson from this.

As I wrote earlier in the campaign, e-journalism seeks to educate, engage and empower its audience, while online journalism fulfills the more traditional mandate of informing, explaining and interpreting. This may seem like a semantic argument, but this site is a great example of the subtle differences.

Three important characteristics of journalism on the Internet are hyperlinking, the use of multimedia and interactivity. The Globe site does all three. In fact, it has used some of these tools with incredible results. The site features one tool that lets people find their riding and then not only lists the candidates, but also scrapes headlines from other local news websites and posts them. So, you can read stories from other news organizations, not just the Globe. This is a phenomenal step forward and shows the Globe is not afraid to use hyperlinking to beef up its own news coverage.

As far as using multimedia, the Globe has put together an excellent mix of archived and live material, which is quite advanced for a newspaper site. Many newspapers still use only text and images, when they could (and should) be adding audio and video. And the Globe goes one step further by providing some live features, making the content more immediate.

When it comes to interactivity, the Globe hosts a lot of live online chats, something other newspapers tend to shy away from because of uneven audience response. A recent online discussion with the Globe‘s editorial board editor John Geiger not only provided an opportunity for the audience to engage with a high-ranking member of the paper’s staff, but also provided a level of transparency, something the current media environment seriously lacks. This type of interactivity can only build trust and credibility for the Globe and for journalism at large.

One sure criticism of the Globe‘s online presence is that it doesn’t empower audiences as much as it could. The interactive elements are very positive but there are still invisible power relationships from the old days of traditional journalism haunting this site. The comment features do allow an exchange of ideas, but the topics covered are still set by journalists and editors.

Other sites, such as Global or CBC, have features that allow users to submit questions for journalists to ask politicians. This past week on the CBC radio show The Current, Prime Minister Stephen Harper refused to be interviewed. Host Anna Maria Tremonti played audio of every day people and community organizations posing questions they would like Harper to address. Reaching out to the audience and giving people the chance to participate in the journalistic process in an unmediated fashion should be used more online as well, as it is one of the greatest powers of the medium.

The Globe seeks to inform readers with an amazing array of information, that stretches from straight news stories to interactive features. How can e-journalism take this practice to the next level of educating audiences? By allowing the audience to share its knowledge as well. Members of the community might know more about local issues and could post specific information or their thoughts and perceptions about a campaign stop. This network of knowledge would break down the old walls between news media and audiences. In education, gaining knowledge is a shared experience, not a hierarchical one.

Overall, the Globe has done an admirable job. My early criticisms were based on an evaluation that took place within the first days of the campaign. Certainly, the site gained momentum as the election proceeded. However, journalists and editors at the Globe still have a ways to go before it takes full advantage of the opportunities the Web provides.