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; PressDisplay.com 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?

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.

Decades, centuries, eras: How do we measure time?

The end of the decade to which the Brits refer as the Aughts (“aught” being the Old English word for “zero”) is upon us. In three days, we’ll enter 2010. (Will common parlance come to prefer the expression “two thousand and ten” or “twenty ten”?)

The approach of that milestone reminds me of how tentative, narrow and conditional our understanding of history often is. Take the current decade, now coming fast to a close, as an example.

As we approached the end of 1999, it seemed clear that with the turning of all four numbers on our digital calendars — as if they were odometer numerals — we’d enter a new, as-yet-undesignated, era. The calendar was telling us things were about to change. Who were we to argue?

There were passionate and heated arguments about what the turning of all those figures would mean. Remember the Y2K paranoia — the notion that many of our automated systems would freeze and lock up, creating mass havoc? Then there were the debates over when, exactly, the end of the second millennium in the common era would arrive. Many argued (rightly, but inconsequentially) that the new millennium would not begin on Jan. 1, 2000, but rather on Jan. 1, 2001.

When extremists struck at the United States with such unprecedented force on Sept. 11, 2001, we revised our thinking. Many commentators, myself included, thought that, when the chronicle of this century is written 100 years hence, 01-09-11 would mark the geopolitical fulcrum on which the world shifted and a new chapter of human history began. Only eight years out, does that still seem likely? Not so much, really — the events around airport security in the last few days notwithstanding.

Just as lively debate still exists among historians over precisely when the Dark Ages, the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Industrial Revolution, the Victorian Era or the Modern Era began, so I expect debate to continue for some time as to when, exactly, the 21st century arrived in our midst. For some, it will be the clicking over of the calendric numerals; for others, the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Economists may one day argue that it was a particular date in the fall of 2008, when the biggest global recession since the Great Depression struck.

I was intrigued, however, to read a passage on the popular Quoteflections blog from Roger Martin, dean of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto. Martin is quoted there as saying Nov. 10, 2001, was a pivotal date in the history of the past decade, if not the fledgling century. “That was the day the first iPod was shipped. To me, it heralded a kind of an interesting, ironic intersection of trends. In terms of consumers, what it heralded was individualization . . . . But Apple didn’t just announce iPod; it announced iPod and iTunes simultaneously. What that heralded was also the era of the business ecosystem — a gigantic system that a corporation orchestrates and manages. The two trends were more momentous than any of us had realized. It’s not that iPod caused it, but iPod signalled it,” Martin said.

Whose view will prevail over the long run won’t be known for another century or two. But two things seem clear. One, that the technological shifts of the past decade will play a role in interpreting and drawing the lines of history. And two, that history, as always, will be told in myriad ways, through the lenses of an increasing number of tellers, through an ever-expanding bouquet of tools and platforms.

Media Literacy Week at London Public Library

Media Literacy PosterIn an age of ubiquitous messaging — replete with sound, text, video and still images — understanding the sources and inherent biases of both the technologies and message generators is more important than ever. It’s one of the reasons the Media Awareness Network and the Canadian Teachers Federation, together with more than three dozen collaborating organizations, partnered in 2006 to create Media Literacy Week, which this year runs Nov. 2-6. This year’s theme: Media Literacy in a Digital Age.

The organization’s website is loaded with hints for parents, educators, information professionals and media enthusiasts on how and why they should be part of the process. There are also plenty of resources, available online and for download.

London Public Library has scheduled two events as part of this year’s Media Literacy Week. The first, on Wednesday, Nov. 4, at 7 p.m., consists of a screening of the film Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People. If you have a Google account, you can watch it here on Google Video. Following the film, I’ll moderate discussion by a panel consisting of Kane X. Faucher, an assistant professor in the faculty of information and media studies at the University of Western Ontario; Wael Haddara, a physician and a director of the Muslim Association of Canada; and Ghada Turk, an educator at the Al-Taqwa Islamic School in London, Ont.

The second event, on the following evening at 7 p.m., is titled Digital Media: The New Democracy. It’ll be a talk and discussion led by London blogger and creative thinker Brian Frank, exploring the notion that the digital revolution that is so dramatically changing our lives has links to ancient Greek notions of democracy — and what might be next. It promises to be an interesting evening.

If you believe in the importance of media literacy and think you can lend your insights to broaden understanding of the media and their many effects, get involved. Plan or attend an event — or simply encourage others to do so.

Campaign video wars begin

Mike Duffy appears in a campaign-style video, personalized and emailed to prospective supporters.
Conservative Senator Mike Duffy appears in a campaign-style video, personalized and emailed to prospective supporters.

In mid-September, I found a message from the Conservative Party of Canada in my email inbox. The sender was identified as “Mike Duffy” — yes, that one. The subject line — “Let’s talk about moving Canada forward” — was followed by a brief text message that introduced a personalized video extolling the virtues of Stephen Harper’s government and asking for my participation in determining its new priorities.

I first met Duffy in June of 1974, when he was one of the “boys on the bus,” covering the campaign that produced Pierre Trudeau’s third mandate. Over the intervening years, I’ve seen him at work at various political conventions and on other campaign trails. But we’ve rarely spoken and I’d be shocked if he actually remembered me. So when the former TV journalist-cum-senator looks into the camera and says “Hey Larry, it’s the old Duff,” I credit the sophisticated production prowess and messaging capability of the Conservative Party, rather than the TV host-cum-senator-cum pitchman’s memory.

All politics aside, the federal Conservatives have become masters of new communication tools. This is not a new development; they’ve long been extremely media savvy. I recall covering Reform party events in the 1990s in which party organizers (and those they hired) proved themselves to be technology wizards in deploying the latest big screens and high-tech gadgets to assist in the business of their meetings and conventions. The same was true as the party morphed into the Canadian Alliance and then the Conservative Party of Canada. The Progressive Conservatives, Liberals and New Democrats, by comparison, just didn’t operate at the same level of sophistication when it came to use of technology.

I suspect the difference is a function of two factors: the money the Tories have been able to amass through donations, and the armies of technology sophisticates the party attracts through its centre-right ties to business.

Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff spent part of the past summer recording his own video messages (with production values considerably higher than the disastrous video message to Canadians by Stéphane Dion late last fall). Ignatieff’s spots are already on the air, with the Liberals seemingly determined to force a general election yet this fall.

Leave it to national CBC funnyman Rick Mercer to provide an “outtake” (below) of one of the Ignatieff TV spots.

In defence of security updates

Users of self-hosted WordPress blogs, like this one, should be aware that a worm is making its way through WordPress sites that haven’t been updated with the latest security releases. A more detailed explanation from WordPress is here. If you use WordPress, make sure you’re running version 2.8.4.

Thanks to University of Wisconsin journalism professor Kathleen Culver for the timely alert.

Liquidity in textbook form

Last weekend, when I asked my daughter-in-law about her new job, she tossed back a term I hadn’t heard before: “liquid textbooks.” The more she talked about it, the more I was intrigued.

I was very happy for her on a personal level, of course. Kathleen Schreurs graduated in spring with a master’s degree in information studies from the University of Toronto and had spent the summer looking for meaningful work. Last month, Symtext Corp., a startup in the heart of Toronto, brought her on board as its content and project manager.

Illustration by Symtext Corp.
Illustration by Symtext Corp.

But I was curious about how the concept of “liquidity” — a common term in physics, chemistry and finance — could be applied to postsecondary curricula. It turns out that liquid textbooks are fluid, living instructional materials capable of being even more dynamic than those custom-built course books cobbled together by professors for students and sold in institutional bookstores. The contents of a liquid textbook might consist of a wide variety of digital assets: chapters from a host of traditional textbooks, podcasts, audio, video, photographs and the like, augmented by materials authored or collected by the instructor. As a journalism prof, I’m intrigued by the possibility of altering the contents of my course materials on the fly: If a federal election is called this fall, for example, I’d be able to “pour” a series of new materials in my liquid textbook and extract less relevant segments. If a major news story breaks, I could make similar changes. Students gain access to the textbook through their local LMS (learning management suite), campus bookstore or as a standalone product.

It’s a compelling concept, especially for those of us who teach journalism, where the instructional tools and curriculum are in large measure the panoply of events that occur around us each day. The notion of a “textbook” that would consist of such a wide range of materials and that could be altered on the fly offers some interesting new possibilities. I plan to keep this option in the back of my mind as I work with my students through the coming semester.

Update: Retired educator Paul C, over at the highly rated Quoteflections site, draws our attention (thanks, Paul) to a popular rant by Seth Godin on textbooks. Indeed, liquidity in instructional materials goes a long way to addressing many of Godin’s concerns.