Losing the war of the clueless

Quebecor, a Canadian newspaper oligopolist (sharing the same bed: Thomson, Southam, Torstar), has taken two of its newspaper Web sites offline.

Why? Le Journal de Montréal and Le Journal de Québec offered no interest to readers as simple “repurposed” print newspapers. («La simple reproduction en ligne d’un quotidien sans valeur ajoutée ne représente aucun intérêt pour les lecteurs du Journal et les internautes en général.») Unions at the papers are accused of blocking changes.

We suppose this is one way to deal with the high cost of newspaper shovelware, which is the only online model the Canadian newspaper industry has ever understood. We suppose that pulling the plug could possibly make some sense in that regard. But Quebecor has more or less declared a unilateral strike against readers by shutting the sites down.

Even if most of what the sites provided was warmed-over newspaper copy, guess what? Having something out there on the net, assuming that something is updated regularly, beats having nothing there. And during the time the two sites are down, every other significant newspaper in Canada keeps its sites up.

Just how does this strengthen the newspapers’ competitive edge?

A bigger deal

Quebecor bought the Sun newspaper chain in 1998, giving the vertically-integrated conglomerate (it boasts paper and publishing holdings, meaning it gets you coming and going) a popular string of vulgar sex–sports–scandal tabloids preferred by obese tank-top aficionados whose lips move while they read. (The two papers whose sites were ankled are similar tabloids.) But from this sow’s ear, Quebecor fashioned a silk purse: Canoe, the only Canadian portal site that actually makes any sense. (Not that we particularly like portals, but we acknowledge when one is less bad than the others.)

Canoe, which predated the Quebecor takeover, reuses stories from the Suns and other Quebecor newspapers and does a bit of original reporting for the Web. Though run by a middle-aged newspaper guy, Canoe looks dramatic (we love the white, grey, and black, naturally), offers a full archive (the pop-music encyclopedia is great), and is almost worth reading each day.

With their laughably spotty and/or americentric content and eternally bumbling management, competitors Sympatico, MSN.ca, and AOL.ca have bugger-all going for them compared to Canoe.

Better yet, Quebecor finally got its act together and launched a French version. The name is nearly the same, Canoë (pronounced “kan-oo-euh”), even if the URL isn’t (canoe.qc.ca – Canadian domain-name politics again).

What’s not to like? In short, while no newspaper publisher in Canada comes even remotely close to getting the Internet, Quebecor has sinned the least.


Then why the dunderheaded decision to shut down its sites? Why not simply lob off heads behind the scenes, particularly of the middle-aged guys who rule newsrooms and think “computer network” means “Atex,” hire knowledgeable new people, cook up a new approach, and spring it on the world with great fanfare later?

Why tell existing readers to get lost when those who actually deserve punishment, at least according to Quebecor’s thinking, work inside the company?

With the strength of two sibling portal sites differentiated by language and a simple umlaut, why not come up with a way to integrate the two “failed” sites into Canoe and/or Canoë? (Yes, we know, they’re already in Canoë; we refer to doing something better.)

The newspaper malaise

This is a movie called Clueless, with a cast of thousands, all harvested from newsrooms worldwide.

We were planning on saving this up for another day, but the oft-levied accusation that newspapers are clueless about the Web remains true. Editors tend to see the net as threatening the goose that keeps laying the golden egg (the print paper) rather than seeing it as an egg that hatched into a gosling that will grow up to lay or fertilize eggs of its own.

(Jeez. Talk about your metaphors.)

We know of exactly two newspapers worldwide that even bother with the simple addition of a Weblog: The Age in Oz and the Guardian in the U.K.

Traditionally, the youngest staff at newspapers are interns or juniors or, in rare cases, pop-music critics. These are the people who actually get the net. Why aren’t they running entire online divisions, ferreting out stories (in print, audio, and video formats, and in photography, design, and illustration) that live out their existences online and online alone?

That prospect makes middle-aged managers nervous. Any kind of special or oddball coverage tends to be herded into the gulag of enterprise or investigative reporting. If it isn’t part of a daily beat and/or doesn’t have immediately understandable news value for the culture of the print paper, it doesn’t get done – except, in increasingly rare cases, when the reporting will result in a series of exclusives and net the paper prestige and/or industry awards.

That’s how print editors look at new forms of reporting: They don’t understand them. If a new plan is not rejected out of hand, it’s rejected a moment later when it doesn’t fit into the enterprise or investigative bailiwicks, or offers no hope of capturing Lucite trophies at drunken annual newspaper bashes.

No wonder something as simple as a Weblog is effectively unknown.

In this climate, Quebecor’s actions aren’t merely an overreaction, they betray its hard-earned reputation as the newspaper monolith in Canada least clueless about the net.

We’re still waiting

We have a lot of ideas for online news development, not all of them costly. We wonder why newspaper conglomerates don’t attempt limited experiments here and there. Look at it this way: They own a dozen (or fifty, or a hundred) newspapers. All but one of those papers can happily, or at least blithely, maintain the status quo. Give us one paper to play with. Give us five or ten new people with carte blanche. (And Æron chairs, natch.) Market the nouvelle formulation journal onliné far and wide. Remember, the Internet is global.

Case in point: Torstar. If executives ensconced in the concrete bunker by Lake Ontario are wary of fiddling with the biggest goose laying the most glittering golden eggs, the Toronto Star, why not experiment with the Hamilton Spectator down the road? The CRTC recently approved a license for a Victoria TV station that’s permitted to beam into Vancouver. Why not use the same model (not at all novel in Canada – Cf. CKVR’s back-door approach) and cover Hamilton and Toronto news online from Steeltown?

Or cover world news online from Steeltown?

Not exactly rocket science, and not all that risky, either. But, like the simple Weblog, it’s too new and racy a concept for newspapermen (sic). They’re finally comfortable with the Impressionist period and we’re proposing Dadaism, at least as they see it.

We disagree that daily newspapers are irrelevant online. We agree that today’s newspapers mostly are. The zillions of content sites online won’t ever replace a single pre-edited compendium of news (a creature genetically unrelated to a portal); indeed, editing is more important than ever. What’s likely to happen, though, is that no one under age 30 will read an online daily newspaper. They have no reason to do so. To paraphrase Morrissey, the approach that they constantly take says nothing to them about their lives.

Posted on 2000-07-19