Being a digital frontier kind of guy it might surprise you to know my life has been fairly intertwined with newspapers. Way back in 1990, my parents decided the state of our little towns newspaper was insufficient (Bothwell Ontario, population 900, where I spent the first 16 years of my life). I remember them telling me that in our area, all the papers for the majority of tiny communities like ours were printed by one company. That often, aside from the front page, there was no actual content about our little town. If I remember correctly, because my Dad had just finished at FRAM engineering they decided they could do better and set out to make their new business a newspaper for our community. I don’t recall what the name of our actual first publication was, but it was intentionally something generic because we planned to hold a naming contest. A few weeks/editions into it, I clearly remember in our first temporary office (an old auto/welding shop in the middle of town), surrounded by the make shift layout table, hot wax roller, and scrap strips of paper from the cutting board was the voting cork-board and piles of peoples votes they had clipped from the paper themselves. “The Spirit of Bothwell”, was the name the town picked, I remember hoping for “Bothwell News and Views”, a close runner up.
From the beginning we were eager to get into the digital age. We did layouts on the computer in PageMaker, printed them out, carefully cut them out with Xacto knives or cutting boards, and waxed them up on to the proofs themselves. The proofs were laid out on this really awesome lightbox type thing my Dad built, it gave all the proofs this back-lighting that is reminiscent of LCD backlights today. We had a pretty awesome scanner because we developed black and white pictures in our own darkroom. We actually had one of the first digital cameras available in Canada, the Dycam 10C (AKA Kodak DC50). We used it, but with meager 640×480 resolution images, it had slightly noticeable digital distortions when printed.
We sold the paper in 1995 after my Dad passed away, and I thought that was the end of my relationship with printed newspapers.
Since January of this year I’ve been on contract at The Globe and Mail, working on a cool new product for their premium subscriber members (can’t say much more, but you should see sometime this year). It’s such an odd feeling being back at a newspaper. It doesn’t help that The Globe is about to get a new building, so their current digs are a little dated and rough around the edges. The feeling I got walking in each morning is a little like going into an old summer camp building you might have went to… the ones the adults stayed in, or the common area buildings that were air conditioned. I’m sure it’s an odd mix of my nostalgic youth and the age of the building.
My first sight every morning was desks and Globe employees awash in a sea of various kinds of papers. The age range is predominantly older than I’m used to working with, and every morning when I walked past I couldn’t shake the feeling that there was a vague and general sense unease around the computers… perhaps rightfully so. The Globe is a state of flux and no one is quite sure what the final result is going to be. This is true for all traditional media companies, each seems to be trying their own thing in an attempt to maintain profitability. “Pay walls” are a big idea, they satisfy an idea that many people inside the business have, but those outside don’t: “Our content is the absolute best you can get, why wouldn’t someone want to pay for it?”. It’s a good opinion to hold about your own content, but obviously not everyone is going to agree and therein lies the problem.
These days “the best” information content you can get doesn’t come from one source. It can’t just come from one source, it doesn’t make sense to restrict yourself to just one source, even if that one source really is the absolute best journalism you can get. The simple reason is because the network, our internet, is the great publishing equalizer. Publishing something for everyone to see used to mean you put in a huge amount of time and effort into creating and distributing that content physically. Today you write, then literally push a button to publish it, and almost magically it’s everywhere anyone wants it to be. The ease of which information flows today means that it’s virtually impossible to limit yourself to a single source, so you train yourself to filter out sources you don’t like and or trust.
This flow of information is what’s important. If you intentionally put resistance up in front of people, be it pay walls, “Like/+1/Tweet Us To See This”, or “sign up for our newsletter”, it puts too much impedance on the flow of information from that source, people will automatically filter it out in favour of information sources that flow more freely. This is especially for content that is not exclusive and in demand. No one will pay for a re-written wire service story – those days are over. I don’t purport to have a solution (if I did, I think I’d be rich), but I do know the current strategies being tried out won’t work.
Today was my last day at The Globe and Mail, I just opted not to renew my contract, but to instead move on to a cool new start up (more details on this later). There were many reasons, but not the least of which was their digital strategy was not one I could get behind. It’s going to be interesting to see what comes of newspapers in the coming decade, we’re at a critical point, it’s make or break time for publications world-wide and I feel like I’ve had a front row seat for the whole thing.