Newspaper companies and elections: a modest proposal

Back in the mid-2000s, as federal lawmakers and bureaucrats were working out the details and regulations for the National Do Not Call List, the Canadian newspaper industry was in a bit of a tizzy. Telemarketing, after all, lay at the heart of every newspaper company’s strategy to build circulation and wage daily warfare against subscriber “churn” (the rebuilding circulation with new customers as the subscriptions of other customers lapsed and weren’t renewed).

As a result, the Canadian Newspaper Association undertook a concerted lobbying effort for an exemption. They argued for it on the basis that a well-informed citizenry was essential to the functioning of a vibrant democracy. And that, by the time the ink was dry on the regulations in 2006, was enough to earn them an out, alongside charities, pollsters and other organizations, on the exemptions list. (Plus perhaps the adage, ringing in the ears of federal politicians, that one should “never pick a fight with a man who buys ink by the barrel” — an aphorism often attributed to Mark Twain.)

The time has arrived for a quid pro quo. Newspaper companies have argued, successfully, that they are an essential gear in the clockwork of a healthy democracy. They’ve been granted special licence by the federal government in acknowledgment of that function. Meanwhile, voter participation rates in Canada have been plummeting. Voter turnout during the last federal election on Oct. 14, 2008, was a mere 58.8 per cent — an historic low. In Ontario, the rate hit an all-time low on Oct. 10, 2007, when only 52.6 per cent of eligible voters cast ballots. At the municipal level, the news has been even worse. While high-visibility municipal campaigns last fall in places such as Toronto garnered participation rates that edged over the 50-per-cent mark, many cities, such as London, Ont. — at 39.9 per cent — saw a positively miserable voter turnout.

So here’s a modest proposal: During the writ period for federal and provincial campaigns, as well as the final weeks of municipal elections (between the close of nominations and voting day), publishers of Canada’s daily newspapers should provide their full electronic editions, to readers who request them, free of charge.

I’m not referring here, of course, to the websites maintained by most newspaper companies which are already free and carry a sampling of that day’s editions. Instead, I’m referring to the more comprehensive electronic editions published by many of Canada’s dailies and distributed on platforms such as personal computers and iPads, via apps and software such as PressReader. Postmedia Network Inc. provides iPad apps for all of its major dailies; makes dozens of additional titles available to Canadians and other readers worldwide, usually via subscription to e-editions. Titles such as The Globe and Mail provide their products in discrete electronic formats (e.g. Globe2Go).

If newspapers are indeed part of the national conversation that informs citizens in a viable democracy, organizations such as the Canadian Newspaper Association, part of Newspapers Canada, should seize upon such an opportunity to demonstrate that fact. Federal legislators would be very much interested in seeing whether the faith they placed in these companies, through the NDNCL exemption, continues to be merited. And it should be the aim of such an experiment to see voter participation rise.

There would be an upside for newspaper companies, too. Additional electronic editions would impose only marginal added costs. Yet what greater treasure trove of potential subscribers might there be than the account information of hundreds of seven- or eight-week e-subscribers — readers who have already proven their interest in civic engagement and dialogue through media that portend the future of the news business?

The impact of social media on communication

A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of serving as an interview subject for a short radio documentary by Conestoga College student Andrew Shepherd, produced in the studios of CJIQ-FM, the college’s radio station. Shepherd was interested in the exploring the impact social media are having on our society and the relationships we have with one another. He called his documentary “Transcending Maya.”

A bit of background on Shepherd: He was born and raised in Kitchener, Ont., and is in the second year of the Broadcast Radio program at the college. In high school, he took all academic/university level courses, thinking he was university bound. But his friends coaxed him into developing his broadcasting abilities.

“I didn’t always know that Broadcast Radio was the program I wanted to be in,” Shepherd says. “My friends told me I belong in radio, so I gave it a shot. I’m glad I did, because it’s the best experience I’ve ever had — and I’ve fallen in love with radio.”

In addition to his studies, Shepherd works part-time at 99.5 KFUN as one of the weekend newscasters. “And when the big guys take time off, I’m the man to fill in on the morning shows on both KFUN and 105.3 Kool FM,” he adds. “I’m currently working on getting an internship there for the summer.”

“News is my forte. I enjoy watching the world change in front of my eyes and reporting on it,” he says.

To listen to Shepherd’s documentary, click on the link below.

Transcending Maya

Egypt earns headlines around the globe

The front page of Al-Ahram, Cairo, Egypt, Feb. 12, 2011

It was Philip Graham, publisher of the Washington Post from 1946 until his death in 1963, who coined the phrase that has since almost become cliché in the world of journalism and beyond. In a speech to Newsweek’s correspondents in London on April 29, 1963, he urged them, “Let us today drudge on about our inescapably impossible task of providing, every week, a first rough draft of a history that will never be completed about a world we can never really understand.”

Yesterday was one of those days when it was easy for journalists in Egypt and around the world to feel as if they were, indeed, writing the first rough draft of history. And today is one of those rare days where one story dominates headlines around the world: Egypt. The resignation of president Hosni Mubarak inspired front-page designers on five continents to mark the day in unusual and special ways.

That makes it a perfect day to check out the website maintained by Washington-based Newseum. Sort through the world’s front pages by region, compare visual treatments of the story from continent to continent and notice the headlines, including their emphases and nuances. The Newseum’s newspaper front-page index is here.

News photographers scramble for Rafferty pic

Great news photography is often about split-second timing. Such was the case outside a  Woodstock, Ont., courthouse yesterday as Michael Rafferty, accused of first-degree murder in the death of eight-year-old Tori Stafford, made an application for a change of venue for his upcoming trial.

With police shielding Rafferty from public view (more for his own safety than concerns about his image), it was a tough assignment for any news photographer to get a clear image of the accused. Several tried, with varying degrees of success. The Woodstock Sentinel Review‘s Elliot Ferguson captured Rafferty’s fleeting appearance between courthouse and police van. London Free Press reporter Randy Richmond got a photo that landed on the next morning’s page A1.

Perhaps the most impressive shot, however, was that of freelance shooter Dave Chidley, hired by The Canadian Press to cover the court appearance. Chidley, who planned to review the assignment and his technique today with his news photography students in both the print journalism and broadcast journalism programs at Conestoga College, said the assignment was a challenge. The resulting photo, used in newspapers and websites across the country, was captured by a combination of great anticipatory timing and a motor drive that shot 10 frames per second. Only two of those frames revealed Rafferty’s face, Chidley said.

Murdoch bets on the tablet platform with The Daily

Say what you want about News Corporation magnate Rupert Murdoch (and people do, mostly about his conservative brand of politics and radical reshaping of American journalism). But his unveiling of The Daily this week — a virtual news product built on the platform of Apple’s iPad — provided a prescient peek at the future of news delivery and consumption.

Murdoch introduced the tablet-only “newspaper” at a press conference this week at the Guggenheim Museum in New York:

In the end, however, it’s not Murdoch’s massive financial investment, determination or reputation that will see the virtual newspaper to sink or swim. It’s whether or not the tablet format and its presentation capabilities will catch on with news consumers. Here’s a glimpse of some of the features (not all) of The Daily on the iPad platform:

Murdoch and his team have made no secret of the fact they’re preparing to deliver The Daily to other tablets — they’re merely starting with the iPad and will discern future direction based on the newspaper’s success on that device.

For publishers, the arrival of tablet-only news products means no newsprint, no printing presses, no ink, no trucks, no home delivery contractors. Even The Daily’s website will be a scaled-back version of its tablet edition. The larger question for those of us in journalism is how much in the way of resources will be redirected to the editorial side of the product and, most importantly, to the kind of incisive journalism that, in the long term, sustains any news enterprise.

Tablet news products offer storytellers a vastly different canvas on which to paint their versions of the day’s events — quite different, in fact, even from online presentation via websites. What will it mean for the way we train journalists?

• Content will continue to be king — and that’s our job. Reporting, interpretation, insight and context remain the cornerstones of the journalistic enterprise. Journalists won’t need to learn to write code for tablets any more than they needed to learn to operate a printing press.

• Journalists will, however, need to continue to think about the storytelling process and how the tablet’s capabilities affect how they do that. Multimedia storytelling skills — lucid writing, digital photography, rich audio capture, videography, database development and mobile presentation — will become indispensable within an expanding journalistic toolbox.

• While journalists won’t need to become preoccupied with presentation, they’ll be required to be increasingly conversant and collegial with those who are. A couple of decades ago, reporters and editors (grudgingly at first) permitted art directors, designers, graphic artists and visual journalists to join their news meetings and, more importantly, their pursuit of new forms of telling stories. We began to learn the language of graphic artists and to see that linguistic capability as being essential to communicating ideas, vision and possible storytelling packages. The arrival of tablet news products will necessarily mean we learn the language, if not the technical expertise, of the designers and engineers who translate vision and aspiration into charged electrons on high-resolution screens.

In short, The Daily holds a bucketful of journalistic promise — and may be showing us the near-term future of news delivery and consumption.