It's easy to criticize newspapers for being slow to embrace new information technologies - specifically the Internet and its various media structures - and for implementing them poorly when they do, reluctantly, make the leap.
After all, the Internet is first and foremost a disruptive technology. It lowers the bar dramatically for participating in creating and distributing content, and that's a direct attack on the business models of existing companies that act as gatekeepers to information.
Newspapers recognize they need websites, but then they hobble the sites so badly with awkward navigation, poor searchability, and closed archives that they're scarcely easier to access than their print editions. The alternative, of course, is to make their sites easier to use and risk shrinking their revenue stream of print advertising and subscriptions.
It's not an easy choice, and it requires imagination to seek out ways to make new media work for established companies. That's why I'm happy to note that the Hamilton Spectator is starting to find its legs online with the launch of two new blogs.
Bill Dunphy began blogging internally for the Spec in 2005, to keep his colleagues abreast of innovation and education projects. Graham Rockingham publicly blogged the Junos in 2005, and Denise Davy launched a parenting blog in 2006.
(See a full list of Spec blogs here: hamiltonspectator.com/blogs/.)
Dunphy created No Excuse "to help me tap into and build up a community of people active or merely interested in the poverty issue." He hopes the blog will become a place where active citizens and readers can share ideas, promote events, identify community resources, and seek feedback on stories in development.
As Dunphy acknowledged, "The truth is - and this applies to any beat reporter - most of the people we interview every day know far more than we do about our subject (that's why we're interviewing them), and a blog is one way to tap into that knowledge and wisdom and expertise."
Nicole MacIntyre launched Hall Marks to foster "community discussion on important city issues" and encourage more feedback from her readers.
She explained, "I think it's critical that Hamiltonians be informed about what's happening and engage in public debate. I've watched it happen on RTH and hope Hall Marks will offer another venue for people to interact."
I also asked them what kind of editorial freedom they have to post content to their blogs. MacIntyre responded, "I have the freedom to decide what I want to write about, just as I do on my beat."
However, she points out that as a reporter rather than a columnist, she will post straight reporting rather than opinion, though she hopes the posts will generate commentary and discussion in the comments. The positive response she's received "proves there's a huge appetite for this type of communication."
Dunphy went into some more detail on the matter of editorial freedom, explaining the difference between reporters, who "are limited, not by some cabal of advertisers or by overbearing editors or publishers, but by traditions and the form itself" - a form that focuses on reporting the facts of an issue, not expressing an opinion or advocating for either side.
He pointed out that news writing is "checked and edited by several people, looking for accuracy, style, grammar, spelling, and libel". As a columnist, he is free to express his opinions and is edited with a "much, much lighter hand" since "the raison d'etre of columnists is their personal writing style and voice".
He concluded that the paper's policies around blogs are still in development, but "in general the blog's conversational style and format means that the 'freedoms' I enjoy fall somewhere between straight news and columns."
The biggest reason why most blogs fail to attract an audience is that their authors start them without a clear idea of what they're trying to accomplish and lose the motivation to maintain them; so it's encouraging to see that MacIntyre and Dunphy have clear, explicit, and compelling goals for their blogs. This is good news for Hamilton's media landscape.
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