Traditional media are scrambling to create online communities. A report on who’s doing it right—and who’s doing it wrong. This week we feature Rodney Barnes‘ story from the spring issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.
“Hi Gloggers. I’m your scarey moderator Bil asking what frightens you.” It’s a November evening in the newsroom as Global News writer and producer Bill Marshall’s index fingers stammer out his greeting. He knows he’s a crappy typist and freely admits it’s been his biggest challenge since he started moderating the live-blog that runs alongside the 11 p.m. broadcast.
About a dozen of the regulars—Marshall calls them his “midnight crowd”—have been with him since the launch of the blog in March 2009. They started calling themselves gloggers, or Global bloggers, about a month later.
They’re signing on promptly tonight. Victor is there as soon as Marshall starts up CoveritLive, the live-blogging software. “Hello gloggers,” Victor chirps. “Is it safe to come on tonight?” Yesterday the group spent almost an hour debating a challenge to Ontario’s pit bull laws. National Fearless Day headlines tonight’s show—a lighter subject, which leads to a discussion about food, the group’s favourite topic. Sure enough, it takes just 15 minutes before Nina, the group’s self-described blog diva, brings up wine. She tells Jim Todd he missed a wine fest the other night. “That’s right JT, we all had to take a wine break,” she taunts. “It was a raucous old time!”
“Nina,” Victor teases, “are you sure it wasn’t a whine break?”
After joking with meteorologist Anthony Farnell for predicting snow and Marshall for operating an illegal still in the office—a running joke within the group—someone mentions putting honey on ice cream with Nutella and food dominates the rest of the discussion. While the gloggers congratulate themselves for getting their tweets about their fears on-air during anchor Carolyn Mackenzie’s Twitter Topic segment, banana white-chocolate-chip pancakes and peanut butter-covered waffles dominate the conversation. Even Mackenzie gets in on it, dropping in from her laptop on the anchor’s desk.
“Peanut butter and Nutella,” she gushes. “Killing me…softly…”
“It’s killing me, too,” Marshall mutters. “I’m always going home thinking about Dairy Queen and pizza. I wasn’t hungry when I started.”
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Such a conversation would have been impossible back when mainstream media were the only source of news. Journalists controlled the content—and anyone else could mail a letter to the editor. The gatekeeper mentality followed the media onto the first news websites, according to Alfred Hermida, assistant professor at the University of British Columbia (UBC) Graduate School of Journalism and co-founder of bbcnews.com. By refusing to link to other sites or provide a comment system for reader feedback, newspapers had simply recreated the physical product in a digital medium, giving them the same control over both the content and conversations around it that they had traditionally enjoyed. “Journalism is essentially based upon a system of control,” argues Hermida. “The problem with that approach is that these conversations are happening anyway.”
What no one had counted on was how easy it is for people online to undermine the gatekeepers by circumventing that control. Yochai Benkler captured the essence of the problem in his book, The Wealth of Networks. As the creation and distribution of information becomes more and more decentralized, Benkler argues, there is now greater individual autonomy to do more for and by ourselves.
This autonomy includes both crowdsourced dessert recipes and breaking news. Hermida says that over the last five years, reporters, editors and producers have found themselves competing with blogs and citizen journalists for an online audience. When a U.S. Airways jet landed in New York’s Hudson River on January 15, 2009, tweeter Janis Krums snapped the first photo. Two months earlier, mainstream media followed connected citizens in Mumbai as they tweeted about terrorist attacks around the city. “The idea of the journalist as gatekeeper has largely eroded,” says Hermida. “There is no gate any more.”
Vince Carlin, a CBC ombudsman, witnessed first-hand the erosion of the old ways. In March 2008, cbc.ca opened up for comments and through the avalanche of feedback rose a subculture of people who took it very seriously. From April 1, 2008 to March 31, 2009, the ombudsman received 2,666 complaints, which was an increase of 829 from the previous year.
What surprises Carlin more than the extra scrutiny is his colleagues’ acceptance of his role—20 years ago, they would have been indignant with his investigations. “Before, we thought we were the College of Cardinals. We made our decisions and the public could like it or lump it,” he says. But the whole culture changed. “People actually bought into the notion of being transparent and were open to discuss decisions.”
This new openness, combined with the overwhelming popularity of social media, has meant an increasing focus on collaborative journalism. In July 2009, Global News started letting people share its stories through Facebook, Twitter and rss feeds. But while Marshall certainly acknowledges a connection to viewers that wasn’t there before, he wonders if live-blogging might be just another fad—a sentiment common to every new communication tool since CB radio. If it isn’t, though, news outlets that can’t harness social media to improve newsgathering and relations with readers and viewers may struggle to retain an audience over the next few years. In fact, the real fad might just be journalism’s gatekeeper model.
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In April 2008, Global News hired Andrew Lundy to bring its website out of the Dark Ages. His job was to direct the redesign of an underfunded site that had been an afterthought to the broadcast product. Lundy had been editor-in-chief at msn.ca and had spent nearly a decade working with various online sections at CBC. David Skok, senior producer of online content, once jokingly called him “The Messiah,” but even with all of his experience, the redesign was a substantial undertaking. “The site had been neglected for years,” Lundy says. “There wasn’t a digital culture at all. So there was a lot of work to do.”
The last redesign was in 2005. The amount of new content and technology Global News was pumping into the site cluttered that version. So Lundy and his team went to several other sites, including cnn.com and nytimes.com, to research examples of how to better display and organize content. Then lead designer Andrew Davies sketched out where each element would appear on a page and sent the plan to the stakeholders for their approval. About 40 people were involved with the redesign, all with their own ideas. None of those stakeholders, however, were members of Global News’ audience.
The revamped website was ready to launch in a year. Lundy streamlined the layout so that video, the network’s biggest strength, is now more prominent. Top headlines are easier to look through, and the home page features a widget that shows local news. A strip of links leads to social media extensions—Facebook and Twitter pages, rss feeds and e-mail alerts, podcasts and mobile applications. Lundy’s hope is that these features will help convince the broadcast audience to become loyal and devoted visitors to the website. The problem, especially before the redesign, was a huge disparity between the TV and website viewer numbers.
The plan seems to be working. Page views across the country rose from 1.5 million in January 2009 to 4.1 million in January 2010—a 166 percent increase. Lundy says his team is maintaining that growth.
But, of course, it’s still too soon to tell whether there’s money to be made from social media. And while news is more participatory and two-way, it might not be enough yet to staunch decreasing viewership numbers. A study released in 2008 by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) found that, though local television news ratings have not dropped significantly from 2004 to 2007, viewership numbers have begun to fall in the most desirable demographics—ages 18 to 54. Eighty-one percent of Canadians between 18 and 34 who use the internet at least once a month access news information online. But these people, who spend an average of 41 hours online each month, devote just one hour to the news—a fact that has taken its toll on media websites, including ctv.ca.
In 2000, Mark Sikstrom, executive producer of CTV News syndication and ctv.ca, had a staff of 12 and 300,000 unique visitors a month. A decade later, full-time staff has grown to 18 and the site receives around three million unique visitors monthly. But when it soft-launched a redesign in September 2009, page views increased only five percent per month. “We need our audience to survive,” explains Richard McIlveen, a late-night news producer at CTV. “Our audience is declining fairly dramatically and it’s certainly worrying for us. And they’re not going to the competition. They’re not going to Citytv; they’re not going to Global.”
McIlveen removes his glasses. “They’re just going,” he says. “It scares the shit out of me.”