Tag Archives: newspapers

Alt-weekly death spiral spreads to Toronto

A little over a week ago was the second anniversary of the death of Mirror, the last of two alternative weekly newspapers in Montreal. That move came less than two months after the other, Hour, finally ceased production. It’s been five years since the death of ICI, and one year since Voir’s Montreal edition cut costs by going biweekly instead of weekly (it also killed editions in Mauricie, Saguenay, Gatineau and Estrie in the span of about a year).

Now, Canada’s largest city is feeling our pain. Word came out Wednesday that The Grid (a successor to Eye Weekly) is shutting down immediately after years of losing money for its parent Torstar. Thursday will be its last issue.

The shutdown leaves NOW as the only alt-weekly left in Toronto.

The Grid’s end is particularly painful for those who appreciated its award-winning design. While other papers were cutting back on the little things and going as cookie-cutter as possible to save money, The Grid put in the extra effort and created a paper that was as interesting to look at as it was to read.

NADbank: Journal de Montréal is still king, but…

NADbank, the company that measures newspaper readership through audience surveys, came out with its latest report recently, which on the surface doesn’t show much to write home about. Overall, the Journal de Montréal is still the most read newspaper in the metro area with 1.17 million readers, or 1.25 million if you include digital. (Quebecor has its press release crowing about this with some cherry-picked numbers, as well as some slides comparing its demographics with La Presse.)

But reading a bit deeper into the numbers and we see some interesting facts popping up.

La Presse has two and a half times the Journal’s digital readership. Two major changes explain this. First is La Presse+, the iPad app launched last year that’s the new flagship product for that company. But even with all the hype, the data shows only a 3% increase in the number of people reporting they read La Presse in a digital format in 2013. The bigger factor is a 9% drop in the Journal de Montréal’s digital readership, which is probably explained mainly by the setup of a paywall in September 2012.

Métro has more weekly print readers than La Presse. Even though La Presse’s print readership is up by 5%, Métro’s up by twice that, and can now claim to be the #2 most read newspaper in Montreal. (It already claims to be the #1 paper on the island.) Métro has 903,900 print readers a week compared to La Presse’s 879,200. And that’s with Métro putting out one fewer edition a week. But La Presse has 28% more people reporting they read that newspaper “yesterday” (i.e. the day before the survey was taken), meaning La Presse’s readership is more loyal and more interested than Métro’s.

24 Heures shows double-digit gains in print readers. Compared to 2012, 24 Heures had a great year, at least in print (and it doesn’t hesitate to tell people that). The number of people reporting having read the paper the day before shot up 25%, from 252,900 to 317,300. Weekly, the paper is up 15.5%. But three years after 24 Heures wrestled away the right to distribute its paper exclusively in the metro system, it still hasn’t managed to beat Métro in readership. Métro now has 10% more readers than 24 Heures though, and that margin is smaller than it used to be. And 24 Heures is now effectively tied with La Presse in terms of print readers on weekdays (it reports to be slightly ahead, while NADbank’s numbers report it slightly behind).

Several papers are showing double-digit drops in digital readership. Whether it’s paywalls or disinterest or something else, there’s a lot fewer people reading newspapers online. Overall, the market showed an 8% drop in weekly digital readership, while print gained 2%. Other major markets showed little change in digital readership. Here, the smaller papers took the biggest hit. 24 Heures’s digital readership is down 21%, the Globe and Mail’s is down 19%, and the National Post’s is down 18%.

As for The Gazette, the numbers put out by NADbank show modest drops across the board, though internally the paper is reporting increases, particularly in digital. Overall, it has 240,000 print readers on an average weekday and 499,000 people read it in either print or digital format every week (which I’m sure I can extrapolate into meaning that half a million people read every article I publish in that paper).

For the full numbers for each paper, you can read this chart from NADbank. The chart below shows the difference between those numbers and the previous year’s.

Change Yesterday print Yesterday total Weekday total Saturday print Sunday print Weekly print Weekly digital Total weekly
Any +2.80% -0.11% +1.67% +6.40% +4.43% +2.20% -8.39% -0.75%
La Presse +2.53% -0.54% +2.10% +8.13% +5.31% +3.24% +1.25%
Journal de Montréal +6.40% +18.13% -1.40% +17.20% +4.43% +0.52% -8.86% -1.73%
The Gazette -1.63% -1.21% -10.18% -3.39% -8.20% -0.56% -10.06%
Métro +12.59% +9.97% +11.19% +11.19% +9.17% +9.72%
24 Heures +25.46% +22.40% +15.53% +15.53% -21.56% +12.97%
Globe and Mail +11.58% -9.71% +7.63% +37.56% +5.87% -18.53% -16.40%
National Post -3.70% -20.35% +23.23% +62.35% +22.72% -18.18% -1.94%

Further reading

La Presse+ turns 1: Has the gamble worked?

La Presse spent $40 million to develop its iPad app.

La Presse spent $40 million to develop its iPad app.

Friday marks the one-year anniversary of La Presse’s $40-million gamble that its future lies in an iPad app.

La Presse marks the occasion with a press release (reproduced below) in which it lauds the fact that it’s now installed in more than 450,000 tablets, making it the most popular Newsstand app in Canada. It also reminds people that it’s about to launch its first Android app, which will be available on some Samsung Galaxy and Nexus tablets starting next week.

The company does a lot of self-congratulating, throwing out some statistics to suggest how successful it has been with this giant gamble. It points out how much time people spend with the app (44 minutes on weekdays, 50 minutes on Sundays and 73 minutes on Saturdays) as well as favourable demographics (58% are in the 25-54 demo, compared to 50% for a paper like the Globe and Mail), and even a stat suggesting people like the adds on the app.

The most interesting statistic is that “nearly 30% of La Presse’s overall ad revenue” comes from the iPad app. Even if we assume that print ad revenue is falling sharply, that’s still an impressive stat.

Because La Presse+ is free, its business model is entirely based on advertising. As I explained six months ago in my analysis, La Presse has priced its iPad ads along the lines of print ads, figuring that it can create an environment where the ads are noticed like print ads are, instead of ignored like most online ads.

We don’t have access to much financial information from La Presse, because the company is privately held by Gesca, which is in turn owned by Square Victoria Communications Group, which is in turn owned by Power Corporation. But even if some bad-news figures are being held close to the vest, that 30% ad revenue figure is pretty impressive.

We can also compare the 450,000 figure to La Presse’s goals. The company had hoped to reach 200,000 readers by September, but got that in May. It hoped to get 400,000 by December, and announced in January that it had surpassed that mark in installations.

When I met with La Presse last year, the estimate was an average of 1.5 readers per tablet, since many families share them. That estimate was later confirmed by a CROP survey. But when you consider the number of people actually reading at least one issue a week (versus those who download the app and rarely use it), the ratio is closer to 1:1. Late last summer, it gave a figure of 250,000 tablets installed and 196,000 people consulting at least one issue a week. At the end of November, it was 340,000 tablets and 250,000 weekly readers. That gap will probably increase as time goes on.

At 250,000 people a week reading at least one edition of La Presse+, the tablet has a bit less than a third of the reach of the print newspaper, or about half that of the printed Gazette.

From her on out, the road gets more difficult. There will be a surge once the Android app version comes out, but then with all the geeks and early adopters already on board, and a big chunk of the general population, it will be up to convincing the hundreds of thousands still sticking with print to shift over to the iPad. And then, eventually, the big decision of what happens to the print paper.

I was handed a free copy of La Presse — on a Saturday morning — at a metro station last week. So clearly they’re not planning on shutting it down any time soon.

La Presse+ is still not perfect. It’s improved its live-news system, even while the iPad edition itself remains a once-a-day thing. It’s also added crosswords and other missing pieces since it launched.

For online readers without tablets, it remains a bit annoying. Its pages can be shared online, but videos aren’t, and dossiers with multiple articles aren’t linked to each other, making it pointless to share many major stories from the app.

Unfortunately much of this is apparently by design. The environment of the iPad app is the reason they can charge so much to advertisers. Put those same stories on a website, and you’re back to the ignorable banner ads that get pennies on the dollar. If this is the future of newspapers, it’s going to be kind of an awkward one for people who read news on anything but a tablet.

So far I haven’t heard of any major media organizations making big changes as a result of La Presse+. But if it continues gaining readers and ad revenue, that may change in the near future.

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Can La Presse save the newspaper industry by doing everything wrong?

La Presse+ ipads

La Presse has made a $40-million bet on a new tablet platform that it hopes will replace its newspaper.

The newspaper industry is dying. The data is conclusive. As baby boomers die off, so will the business model of the daily newspaper, and there’s no way to stop it.

As someone who works for a daily newspaper, it’s tough to hear this. People in this industry want to pretend that there’s some magic solution waiting, but everyone has that fear that maybe the death spiral will continue until the business model collapses in on itself and there’s nothing left but some novelty papers kept for the sake of posterity.

But what really got me wasn’t what I was hearing, but who I was hearing it from: Guy Crevier, the publisher of La Presse, one of Canada’s largest and most prestigious newspapers.

And he wasn’t just repeating some attention-grabbing phrases he heard at the latest industry conference. Crevier’s conclusions are based on numbers and analysis that his company has spent millions to produce.

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Cult MTL tries twice-monthly print issue as it turns a year old

Cult MTL staff at their December 2012 issue launch.

Cult MTL staff at their December 2012 issue launch.

It’s not often you get to write a happy news story about struggling print media. Heck, the blog post just before this one is about hundreds of jobs being lost and big papers shutting down. But while other papers have decades of history and so-called “legacy costs” and are slashing their workforce to face the new industry reality, Cult MTL is building itself up slowly from the ground. And through a mixture of incremental steps and fuelled by a large amount of good-will unpaid or underpaid work, it’s establishing a future for itself and filling the hole that was left by the shut down of Hour and Mirror last year.

It was one year ago today that the cultmontreal.com website published its first articles. And in today’s Gazette, I talk to the brains behind the operation about their progress and future plans.

It’s during that meeting a little over week ago that they told me Cult was moving to a twice-monthly schedule (the next issue comes out starting on Thursday) and that they’re looking for permanent office space.

The three senior editorial staff were surprisingly open with me about how things are going there. Part of being so independent is not having to keep too many trade secrets. I didn’t ask them for their tax returns or anything, but they answered every question I asked as best they could.

Here’s a roundup of things they told me.

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Voir to publish twice a month


Voir, the last remaining of Montreal’s alternative weeklies, will soon no longer be a weekly.

Editor in Chief Simon Jodoin announced on Wednesday that, beginning this summer, the paper will publish twice a month instead of weekly. In a fine example of burying the lead on bad news, the announcement is at the very end of a long story talking about the paper’s future in upbeat tones.

The news comes a year after the company shut down Voir’s Saguenay and Mauricie editions, as well as English alt-weekly Hour. Last month, it killed its Gatineau edition.

But Jodoin isn’t presenting this as bad news. Instead, he says Voir will concentrate on writing longer, more in-depth articles and focusing more on related businesses (including one that apparently involves creating websites). I’m a bit skeptical about whether this will make a difference, or even whether people who pick up a free newspaper and read it on the metro want longer in-depth pieces. But clearly Voir isn’t throwing in the towel yet.

More coverage (well, mainly rewriting of Jodoin’s column) from Le Devoir and HuffPost Quebec. Pieuvre.ca asked for some thoughts from yours truly.

UPDATE (June 11): The Estrie edition is now also dead.

NADbank: Journal still reigns as print falls and online grows

NADbank, the company that surveys newspaper readership, released its 2012 survey results on Wednesday. In general, it shows that online readership of newspapers in Canada is growing as print readership is declining, and that is reflected in the numbers for the Montreal market.

Comparing last year’s numbers to this year’s for the Montreal market, there isn’t much change. The Journal de Montréal is still tops in most categories, with La Presse behind it. And Metro still beats 24 Heures in print and online, despite the fact that 24 Heures is distributed in the metro system.

I’ve compiled the numbers into a chart below. Red shows declines in real numbers, green shows gains. Bolded numbers are where there has been a change in rank. In the first case, it shows that for average combined print and online readership on weekdays, The Gazette has gone back ahead of 24 Heures after slipping behind it last year.

The huge gains online have also shaken things up. The Journal de Montréal more than doubled its online readership in a year, bringing it ahead of The Gazette for second place (though still only about a half of La Presse), and Metro has climbed ahead of the National Post for 5th place behind the Globe and Mail.

Overall, weekday print readership has continued to decline, with four of the five local dailies showing double-digit declines. Saturday was especially bad, with declines ranging from 11% for La Presse to 31% for the National Post. But thanks to the gains in online, every paper has a larger weekly reach than it did a year ago (except The Gazette, which is exactly the same), so everyone can claim gains here.

You’ll notice that Le Devoir is not included in this chart because its numbers weren’t published by NADbank. According to the Journal de Montréal, Le Devoir had a total weekly audience of 226,900, which puts it last among the local dailies.

Newspaper readership in Montreal

Paper Any paper The Gazette Journal de Montréal La Presse Metro 24 Heures Globe and Mail National Post
Avg. weekday print 2011 1,484,100 283,300 (5th) 597,900 (1st) 436,500 (2nd) 349,700 (3rd) 312,300 (4th) 40,900* (6th) 28,200* (7th)
Avg. weekday print 2012 1,381,600 (-7%) 239,300 (-16%) 532,400 (-11%) 438,100 (+0.4%) 311,400 (-11%) 252,900 (-19%) 35,400 (-13%) 29,700 (+5%)
Avg. weekday print/digital 2011 1,594,200 308,700 (5th) 617,500 (1st) 525,600 (2nd) 352,900 (3rd) 316,800 (4th) 64,600 (6th) 31,200* (7th)
Avg. weekday print/digital 2012 1,742,900 (+9%) 298,300 (-3%) (up to 4th) 612,800 (-1%) 689,800 (+31%) 325,900 (-8%) 263,400 (-17%) (drops to 5th) 80,300 (+24%) 57,500 (+84%)
At least one weekday 2011 2,163,900 464,200 (5th) 1,077,700 (1st) 722,100 (3rd) 789,700 (2nd) 637,000 (4th) 122,000 (6th) 78,700 (7th)
At least one weekday 2012 2,124,400 (-2%) 439,900 (-5%) 1,085,400 (+0.7%) 761,200 (+5%) 812,900 (+3%) 652,800 (+2%) 108,800 (-11%) 73,600 (-6%)
Saturday print 2011 1,362,700 318,900 (3rd) 617,300 (1st) 552,400 (2nd) N/A N/A 50,200 (4th) 37,200 (5th)
Saturday print 2012 1,164,500 (-15%) 268,300 (-16%) 513,400 (-17%) 489,300 (-11%) N/A N/A 40,200 (-20%) 25,500 (-31%)
Sunday print 2011 407,900 N/A 407,900 N/A N/A N/A N/A N/A
Sunday print 2012 372,600 (-9%) N/A 372,600 (-9%) N/A N/A N/A N/A N/A
Print at least once a week 2011 2,266,400 498,000 (5th) 1,163,800 (1st) 820,100 (2nd) 789,700 (3rd) 637,000 (4th) 132,200 (6th) 84,900 (7th)
Print at least once a week 2012 2,220,500 (-2%) 465,900 (-6%) 1,164,300 (+0.04%) 834,900 (+2%) 812,900 (+3%) 652,800 (+2%) 122,700 (-7%) 77,900 (-8%)
Web at least once a week 2011 578,800 144,000 (2nd) 111,500 (3rd) 293,800 (1st) 36,300* (6th) 35,200* (7th) 78,500 (4th) 50,200 (5th)
Web/digital at least once a week 2012 1,155,600 (+100%) 177,500 (+23%) (drops to 3rd) 252,700 (+127%) (up to 2nd) 553,000 (+88%) 67,600 (+86%) (up to 5th) 50,100 (+42%) 98,200 (+25%) 61,600 (+23%) (drops to 6th)
Print or web average week 2011 2,370,800 554,800 (5th) 1,188,300 (1st) 941,200 (2nd) 796,600 (3rd) 648,200 (4th) 186,600 (6th) 117,200 (7th)
Print or web average week 2012 2,505,200 (+6%) 554,800 (unch.) 1,276,600 (+7%) 1,104,700 (+17%) 844,000 (+6%) 674,800 (+4%) 207,300 (+11%) 128,900 (+10%)

* Small sample size

We’re all number one!

And the self-congratulatory press releases/stories:

Gazette begins charging for website access

Pop-up box that comes up when you hit the Gazette's metered paywall

Publisher Alan Allnutt announced in Wednesday’s paper that The Gazette is moving back to a paid model for its website.

Based on a similar move by the New York Times earlier this year, montrealgazette.com will have a metered paywall, which allows a certain number of free articles a month and then charges for access beyond that. The model is designed to get heavy users to pay for content while not discouraging occasional readers who might reach an article through a Google search or a blog link.

The system, which is managed by Press+ and expected to be running by the end of the day, will allow 20 free articles a month, then charge $6.95 a month (or $69.95 a year) for access. This compares to $26.19/month for six-day print delivery or $9.95/month for the Digital Edition.

Print subscribers will, once they register, have unlimited access to online content.

The meter will only apply to “premium” content from The Gazette and Postmedia News, including photo galleries and videos. “Major” breaking news stories, blogs and content on affiliated websites like Hockey Inside/Out and West Island Gazette Plus won’t be subject to the meter. It’s unclear whether other wire copy (Reuters, AFP, etc.) will apply. Wire stories, including those from Postmedia News, Reuters and Agence France-Presse, will count toward the meter, even though many of those are freely available elsewhere.

Users of the iPad app will not be metered. Nor will mobile users.

“A great deal has been written about the economics of publishing newspapers in 2011,” Allnutt writes. “The ‘old’ model – selling newsprint products very cheaply to readers and selling the audience to advertisers for the majority of income – is increasingly challenged. Simply transferring advertisers from print to online may not work for all. In order to continue our investment in the quality and depth of our award-winning journalism and offer you the features and functions you want from our website, we believe we have to find new sources of revenue.”

Once upon a time, The Gazette used to charge for online access, under a model similar to what Le Devoir uses today: Some articles free, but most completely locked down behind a paywall, with only the first paragraph available to non-subscribers. Like the Times, The Gazette abandoned this model with the hope that increased advertising revenue would be more profitable than the subscriber revenue that comes out of the paywall.

The big question, of course, is whether or not this will work. The Times got 100,000 subscribers in its first month (most of those at 99 cents for four weeks), but its model isn’t universally loved, and it has been criticized as being too loose and having too many loopholes. More importantly, there are still plenty of free sources of local, national and international news online, so paid sites need a significant amount of original content that can’t be found elsewhere. People aren’t going to pay for stories about highway crashes, politics and press releases they can get from six different sources.

There’s also the added difficulty that, as part of the Postmedia Network, The Gazette shares content with websites of other newspapers, and those newspapers share content with it. Charging for a Gazette article will be pointless if it can be found unmetered on ottawacitizen.com. The Victoria Times-Colonist is also moving to a metered system (one that charges print subscribers as well), but other Postmedia websites are not. Postmedia is waiting to see how The Gazette and the Times-Colonist fare.

Of course, as much as I’m a fan of an open Internet and getting things for free, being a Gazette employee I stand to benefit indirectly if this results in a lot of new revenue. So subscribe away!

A page of frequently asked questions has been posted, and subscriptions are being taken.

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Rue Frontenac ends paper edition

Rue Frontenac has been publishing weekly since October

Citing an unsustainable business model that was based on advertising revenue that never materialized, Rue Frontenac coordinator Richard Bousquet announced on Wednesday that the publication of formerly-locked-out Journal de Montréal workers will no longer be publishing a weekly printed edition.

Rue Frontenac has published weekly on Thursdays since October. Small, squarish, with all its pages in full-colour and very little advertising.

When I talked to Bousquet in January on the anniversary of the lockout, he said that advertising was starting to pick up, and that the big problem was that so many marketing companies plan advertising campaigns months in advance, that they want the stability of a paper they know will last that long. Bousquet mentions in his piece that large companies and even governments prefer to deal with ad placement agencies for the sake of simplification, and that made it difficult for Rue Frontenac.

Though it was played down at the time, there was also the nervousness from some businesses about antagonizing the Journal de Montréal, something that was expected to end when the lockout was ended with Quebecor apparently blessing the continuation of the newspaper and website.

In the end, though, I think the biggest problem goes to the larger problem of Rue Frontenac’s business model. Not only do they have far more journalists than they can afford, but they’re trying to squeeze into the most overserved market in Canada: Francophone Montrealers. They’re fighting against five daily newspapers, including two free ones that are handed out every weekday morning outside metro stations. Rue Frontenac, meanwhile, is distributed like an alternative weekly, with distribution points in bars, supermarkets, restaurants and random places where the papers can easily be forgotten or missed among the dozens of others vying for attention.

So now Rue Frontenac will focus its efforts on its website. Bousquet notes that it’s growing in popularity – if not so much in advertising revenue – and there are no plans to end that part of the project.

But part of the idea behind a printed edition of Rue Frontenac was to provide enough revenue to at least partially subsidize the work of journalists who report online.

Now they’ll have to find some other way to make money. Even though the lockout ended more than two months ago, Bousquet and his team are still trying to figure out a viable business model.

If I can offer one piece of advice, the most important move they will make in that direction will be finding a niche audience that is willing to give them a lot of attention or a decent amount of money. Billing itself as a generalist news publication that’s just better journalism than the Journal de Montréal isn’t going to work in a market that has Le Devoir, La Presse, Radio-Canada and others.

NADbank numbers: Journal, free dailies gain readers

The latest NADbank newspaper readership numbers have been released, and as you can imagine it’s fantastic news for every news agency with the ability to spin:

  • Halifax: Metro has a 20% increase in daily readership.
  • Montreal: The Journal has had “spectacular” growth, with 58% more readers than its closest competitor La Presse and 64% market share.
  • Ottawa: The Sun’s readership has “skyrocketed”, with Saturday readership up 43%. Metro’s readership is up 22%.
  • Toronto: The Sun is “the fastest growing paid English language daily newspaper in Canada”, with 19.5% growth since the last full survey, far outgrowing its competition. The Star, meanwhile, clobbers its competition by a factor of more than 2:1 in readership, reaching more than half of the GTA’s adult population.
  • Edmonton: The Journal’s online readership has jumped 21 per cent since the last survey, and weekday print readership has shown “stability.” Metro has gained momentum with the second-highest growth increase.
  • Calgary: Metro is the fastest-growing daily newspaper in Canada.
  • Vancouver: The Sun’s online readership jumped 19 per cent in the past year. Metro has a lot of “traction” in its key demographic.

Of course, it’s all about selective cherrypicking of numbers:

  • Readership numbers down but you’re still No. 1? Don’t talk about growth, and concentrate on how X% of the market is choosing you
  • Still far behind the big players in a market? Talk about how fast you’re growing, and leave out how your competitor still has twice as many readers.
  • Print readership numbers suck? Point to the online numbers. Compare those to 2007 if necessary.
  • Numbers stagnant? Talk about “stability” and imply you’re ahead of the curve that is quickly leading to the extinction of newspapers.
  • Still nothing? Focus on some key demographic – young adults are the best – to show how the cool people choose your product.
  • Little exciting news about your paper? Focus on the national scene and what the numbers show nationwide for online vs. print readership.

Montreal numbers

Infopresse has the numbers for Montreal (PDF) as part of its analysis. Here they are compared to last year at this time, using five-day cumulative numbers:

2009 2010 Difference
Journal de Montréal 1,027,400 1,124,700 +9.5%
La Presse 678,200 650,100 -4.1%
Métro 630,100 688,800 +9.3%
24 Heures 516,400 561,900 +8.8%
The Gazette 454,200 442,600 -2.6%

Of note here:

  • The Journal de Montréal continues to gain readers despite its lockout. This is being explained as more papers being given away free or cheap (this survey measures audience, not subscribers or subscription revenue).
  • Métro has replaced La Presse as the No. 2 paper on weekdays. When you consider on-island readership (this survey covers the entire region), the difference is even greater.
  • Online readership is mostly stable for all five (down slightly for The Gazette/La Presse, up slightly for the rest). La Presse kills in this category, with 330,300 weekly readers, more than twice that of the Journal and The Gazette. In fact, it’s slightly more than all the other four combined.

O, I C

A Cmore tag on A2 of Tuesday's Gazette

Gazette publisher and editor-in-chief Alan Allnutt introduced a new feature in today’s paper: articles are being outfitted with little boxes containing keywords, which when texted to a special short code sends an email with a link to the article (and any online extras attached to it).

It’s a three-month pilot project being tested by The Gazette and the Calgary Herald. The technology side is handled by Montreal-based Cmore Media (not to be confused with C-More Systems, which makes gun sights).

The idea is similar to the one that has led to 2D barcodes appearing in newspapers such as the National Post: It’s a way to bridge the gap between the non-electronic physical newspaper and the endless possibilities of Internet communication. People who want to get online-only extras related to a story or who want to share the URL with friends online have to go to the newspaper’s website and search for the story. This is inconvenient, so these tags are designed to make it automatic, taking advantage of the fact that people carry cellphones with them wherever they go.

But while Scanlife, the system used by the Post, requires a mobile device to have a camera and a special application, the Cmore system requires only the ability to send a text message (and the patience to do so).

Here’s how it works:

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Don’t call the newspaper worthless

It’s a cute little video from Search Engine’s Jesse Brown, making a point about how newspapers aren’t all that. And his arguments are valid – there are a lot of ads, wire service stories, opinions, comics, games and other not-original-news in your local newspaper.

But what bothered me was the implied conclusion: Newspapers are so full of not-news that they don’t deserve to be saved. They should be left to die, because they’re worthless.

This, while he’s holding up a copy of the Toronto Star.

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The Daily Miracle: Exaggerated, but only slightly

(From left) Arthur Holden, Jean-Guy Bouchard, Ellen David, Sheena Gazé-Deslandes and Howard Rosenstein in David Sherman's The Daily Miracle

Over the weekend, I joined a group of journalists (in fact, two distinct groups – one veteran and one up-and-coming) to see a production of the Infinitheatre play The Daily Miracle, written by former Gazette copy editor David Sherman.

I’ll spare you the usual theatre review stuff, because (a) I’m not a theatre critic and (b) it’s already been talked about in The Gazette (along with a feature article), La Presse, Mirror, Hour, the Suburbanthe West Island Chronicle, the McGill Tribune, the Concordian, the Link, Le Quatrième and maybe some other places too.

We’d first heard about this play years ago, when Sherman left his copy editing job at The Gazette. By the time he made his leave permanent to become a playwright (and work on his first play Have a Heart for Centaur), there were rumours floating that he would use the copy desk as the basis for a production – and the editors potentially as models for his characters.

I should add here that I know Sherman – he was a copy editor when I was an intern at The Gazette, and he was one of the people who I got the most on-the-job training from.

Though I got a sneak preview at a reading a while back, the people I went with on Saturday didn’t quite know what to expect from this play. Though the name of the newspaper is the Montreal Star (taken from the former newspaper of the same name – they even used the same logo on computer screens and papers on set) and its parent company is called WestPress, it’s pretty clear which major newspaper the play is based on. Even some of the characters are familiar, either as composites (Gazé-Deslandes’s Carrie, the pretty young desk intern) or as near-ripoffs (Jean-Guy Bouchard’s Roland reminded most of my former colleagues of a particular person with a similar personality and accent).

But what’s most familiar is the work. The play, staged at the Bain St-Michel (literally inside a pool that had been converted into a theatre) is set in real time, between the 10:30pm first edition deadline and the midnight final. It’s a time when copy editors and other night staff get chatty (the stress of making first edition deadline having just been lifted) and start airing their grievances with the paper and the news industry, along with spreading personal gossip.

It’s hard to evaluate the play objectively because I’m so familiar with what it’s based on. It’s the life I lived for three and a half years at The Gazette. I know the terminology, I know the stress, and I know the characters and their roles.

Still, for the benefit of those who don’t work on a copy desk, I can tell you that what happens in this play is a dramatization. I for one never saw anyone come to work five hours late, pop pills like they were candy and start sexually assaulting his coworkers. But maybe it’s just because I wasn’t there in the old days.

One of the people who saw the play the same night as me was Thomas de Lorimier, who works as a copy editor at La Presse. He agreed that there was a lot more drama here than you’d see on a normal night (but then, that what we’d want in an entertaining play, right?) but that the elements of the characters’ personalities and the way things work are what you’ll find on the copy desk of a major newspaper. A line about how disasters in China need a triple-digit death count before becoming news is entirely true. Having a picture of a pop diva on the cover solely because she’s famous and she performed at the Bell Centre that night is also spot on, as are the staff’s reactions to the burying of (what they considered to be) real news in order to emphasize fluff.

One thing de Lorimier and I both agreed on that was missing from the play was pun-offs. That’s when an editor takes a story and makes a really bad pun (like saying Haiti’s “all shook up”) and other editors jump in with even worse ones. It’s part defence mechanism against the horrors of life they’re exposed to on a daily basis, and partly a way to hone their skills as wordsmiths.

It’s a skill Sherman clearly doesn’t need too much help with, judging by this play.

If you’re interested in getting a dramatic look at a newspaper’s news desk on deadline, The Daily Miracle is a good way to spend an evening. It’s on every night until Sunday, Feb. 14. Details at Infinitheatre.com

The new Page 1 Story

It’s that time of year again, when journalists all take their vacations, the B-teams take over to deal with any breaking news (like, say, an unscheduled mob shooting), and the news media fill the lack of news with retrospectives of the year gone by, the journalistic equivalent of a clip show.

The Gazette devotes a page a day over 10 days to the subject, looking back at both 2009 and the 2000s as a whole.

Dave Bist, a highly-respected senior news editor at The Gazette, wrote one of those year-in-retrospective stories for Sunday’s paper about the Michael Jackson story, and his decision not to tear up the front page to run with it.

His reasoning was that by the morning after, everyone would have known that Jackson was dead (including readers of montrealgazette.com, where the story was played up), and because The Gazette had nothing original to offer on the story (the original plan for A1 had a Gazette exclusive, albeit a small one). So instead, Jackson took over the skybox above the Page 1 flag, as well as a large part of the Arts section inside.

It’s a decision that makes sense, but wouldn’t have 15 years ago before the creation of the Internet. Though I worry a bit sometimes about newspapers being so desperate to “advance” a story that they neglect to mention what actually happened for the record (like, say, “Man walks moon“). People still pick up newspapers even if they know what the story is, just to see it on paper. Barack Obama’s election, the Alouettes’ Grey Cup win, or the next Canadiens Stanley Cup, which should come any time now. If I pick up the paper, I want to see “Canadiens win Cup”, not “RDS hurries to schedule parade coverage after NHL playoffs end early”, even if the latter advances the story.

And while the print world considers what to do about their front pages, the online world is still trying to figure out how to balance so-called “top stories”. Right now, the emphasis seems to be on time more than importance – big news websites are expected to change their top story on an almost hourly basis, unless the story is so important that it trumps all others. People complain when they see that the top story is about some recent traffic accident or something sports-related, but they’re applying the old newspaper Page 1 logic to the Internet.

I’m still conflicted about it. This blog is strictly chronological, so an important feature might be pushed down by some funny cat video I found online a few minutes later. That clearly doesn’t work for a large media organization that has so much content that nobody should be expected to read it all. But keeping the same story up for hours or even days at a time makes it boring and discourages people from coming back.

Ideally, we’d have a dual system, where you can check the top story on the homepage or see the stories posted chronologically, depending on your preference (the Toronto Star is trying something like that). And, of course, tagging, RSS feeds and topic pages means the homepage won’t be the point of entry for many visitors.

So maybe this whole discussion will become irrelevant.