The annual Clissold lecture at Western University is one of the high points of the year for the university’s master of arts in journalism program; it has brought to campus the likes of Christine Blatchford, Linden MacIntyre, Gwynne Dyer and Michelle Shephard, among many others, to lecture on journalism-related subjects and provide a kind of state-of-the-vocation analysis.
This year, it was veteran broadcaster Ira Basen’s turn. The longtime radio and documentary producer is currently the CanWest Global Fellow in Media at Western. I first met him about a decade ago when we served on the same media panel at a conference for public relations professionals, sponsored by The Canadian Institute, in Toronto. Basen has since produced two important radio series on media: Spin Cycles, a six-part look at the interplay between the public relations industry and the media, and News 2.0 – The Future of News in the Age of Social Media.
Tuesday night’s talk was, by Basen’s own admission, substantially off the advertised topic, which was “And New the News: Re-inventing Journalism in the Digital Age.” Instead, he focused largely on the emergence of “custom content” farms and divisions within the bowels of established legacy media properties such as The Globe and Mail and The Toronto Star and the threats those miniature content factories might pose to authentic or serious journalism.
Basen did manage a neat trick at the start of his presentation: spending considerable time on the career and business challenges faced by the lecture’s namesake, Edward Clissold (1833-1915), a prominent journalist in his time who ran the London Advertiser, which folded in 1937. “The Advertiser died in 1937 during the Depression when ad dollars dried up,” said Basen, in a pre-lecture interview. “A similar situation prevails today, of course, as ad dollars can no longer support print journalism as it used to.”
I won’t review the entire lecture here (perhaps FIMS will eventually make an audio recording available), but merely respond to some of the points Basen made during the course of his well-received talk, which was followed by a short Q&A.
1. To Basen’s contention that the London Advertiser’s demise was due in large part to the effects of the Depression and the increasingly desperate attempts to have editorial copy in the newspaper align with the interests of advertisers, foreshadowing today’s custom-content operations: The Depression no doubt a factor in the newspaper’s demise, but a far more critical role was played by the steady rise, already during Clissold’s era, of the Blackburn family’s newspaper property in London. Simply put, the London Free Press won what amounted to a protracted circulation war between the two titles. Local competition for advertising dollars was keen and was taken up a notch in 1922, when Free Press proprietor Arthur Blackburn launched CJGC-AM, which in 1934 became CFPL-AM. After a young Walter Blackburn took the reins from his deceased father in 1936, the print-only London Advertiser soon died, ceding the local advertising marketplace to the growing bi-medial Blackburn empire. (It would become tri-medial within two more decades.) There’s a lesson in there for media companies that, today, are trying to find their way across a variety of delivery platforms.
2. To Basen’s concern about the proliferation of custom-content operations at mainstream news media companies, and the deleterious effects such operations may have on quality journalism, causing an inexorable tilt toward client or advertiser interests rather than toward truth, accuracy and balanced reporting: Certainly, these developments are fascinating and worth watching. The emergence of Star Content Studios at the Toronto Star (see this memo of introduction at Globe and Mail reporter Steve Ladurantaye‘s blog from Star publisher John Cruickshank) and the Custom Content Group at the Globe and Mail are new forays into client-driven storytelling and enterprise. But “special sections” to draw new advertisers or incremental revenue from existing advertisers are nothing new in newspapering — they are at least a half-century old. Whether they were “Progress” editions or special sections about chambers of commerce, rising business figures or special community events, newspapers have for a very long time been willing to package staff-written content around special themes and topics that would draw specific types of advertisers. What’s new in the current iteration of custom content creation is the ambition of legacy media to assist clients with reputation management and corporate communications.
3. Regarding Basen’s contention that certain advertisers are actively trying to “fool” readers into thinking their “special report” or advertorial content is really journalistic content, due to the placement and design of their messaging: I don’t believe advertisers much care if readers see these information packages as journalism or as advertising — the placement of their product and engagement with the reader is all they care about. They are renting a reader’s eyeballs for a short period of time and believe that content dressed up and adorned in a manner similar to what the reader is used to getting is the most effective way of communicating with him/her. Controls placed by publishers on how close advertisers can get to the actual look and feel of their journalistic products have been robust and I don’t see any degradation, yet, in those built-in safeguards.
4. To Basen’s view that the pre-election supplement published by the Globe and Mail with the support of Nissan Canada and subsequently hand-delivered in six Canadian cities represents a new and potentially dangerous trend in the liaisons between newspaper publishers and advertisers: Advertisers have long been able to specify exactly where an ad must go, what its precise dimensions should be, what the quality of the paper stock should be like and how the ad is distributed. If Tiffany’s wants an ad for a Christmas pendant on page 2 of The Globe in the Atlantic, Ottawa, Calgary and B.C. editions, that’s exactly where it will go. The desire by Nissan Canada to engage in a big spend with The Globe isn’t surprising, nor is its preferred method of hand-delivering the special Nov. 5 supplement on street corners in six Canadian markets. The company wasn’t interested in a buying the entire sweep of the newspaper’s circulation — only certain pockets of select markets. Publishers will indeed try to accommodate those special orders — and always have. To Basen’s point that some Globe writers were disappointed to have their stories appear in the supplement: certainly. Journalists want their stories read by the broadest possible audience. Their concern was likely not so much that their pre-election stories sat next to Nissan’s ads or in a product sponsored by the automaker, but rather that the highly selective distribution meant a smaller readership for their copy, given that it would not be reprinted in the newspaper’s broadsheet pages.
It was somewhat regrettable that Basen’s lecture didn’t focus on some of the issues on which his advertised topic would have touched: the place of legacy media in a multi-platform news universe, the construction of new packages for news and information for delivery platforms such as tablets, the financial realities facing large media companies as they try to push content through emerging platforms, and the future of e-editions — a type of information package being sold but nearly ignored by companies in their efforts to get readers to pass through paywalls toward a laptop or desktop experience. Most importantly, in the context of the Clissold lecture, would have been what all these trends mean for journalism between now and 2020.
The evening left plenty of exploration and discussion on those themes for another day.
Update (Nov. 25): Ira Basen has posted a robust and important response to this post; please have a look at it under the “Reply” link at the top.