Yesterday’s news

By guest blogger Brian Brennan

They’re all doing it now but still I have to wonder: Why are Canada’s daily newspapers encouraging their opinion columnists to simultaneously blog on the papers’ websites?

I used to think — like media observers elsewhere — that newspaper blogs were meant to be dumping grounds for material the papers could not, or would not, accommodate on the page. Jeez, we can’t put this turkey in the paper; let’s find another home for it. Thank gawd for that Internet thing.

That still holds true, it appears, for some Canadian newspaper blogs. Edmonton Journal columnist Cam Tait, for example, recently devoted not one but five lengthy posts over six days to minute-by-minute descriptions of an amateur hockey series arguably of no interest to people other than diehard fans of the Canadian Junior A Hockey League. Would any of this stuff have made the regular paper? Hardly.

At the National Post, gossip columnist Shinan Govani seems to have notebooks full of throwaway celebrity trivia because he has taken to doing the same kind of name-dropping routine in his blog — except for the video insertions that the newspapers cutely dub “web exclusives” — that he offers in the pages of the paper. The Toronto Star‘s hockey columnist, Damien Cox, uses near-identical phraseology in his blog (“. . . takes turns stirring up trouble and chuckling at the foibles of the sporting world”) as he does in his regular column in the paper (” . . . loves to stir up trouble while chuckling at the foibles of the sporting world.”) Which makes you wonder why he is doing both. Wouldn’t one or the other suffice?

So, aside from the advantage of being able to hold an unlimited number of words, what is the rationale for these newspaper blogs? Are they meant to encourage dialogue with the readers? If so, then clearly they are not working. Just count the number of comments at the bottom of the posts — often zero — and you can see that the readers, for the most part, don’t care enough to respond. The letters pages in the newspapers are generally filled with correspondence from readers eager to comment on what they have just read in the papers. But the newspaper blogs — for whatever reason — are drawing very little response.

The Montreal Gazette‘s Editor-in-Chief, Andrew Phillips, has a blog, “Ask the Editor,” in which he invites readers to pose questions about “what goes into putting out The Gazette every day. A similar feature on The New York Times website, “Talk to the Newsroom,” often attracts thousands of questions and comments from readers. A Times article questioning Senator John McCain’s judgment over potential conflicts of interest prompted more than 4,000 e-mailed questions and more than 2,000 comments from readers, many of them critical of the paper’s handling of the issue. Editor Phillips’s blog, by comparison, has drawn such a small number of questions and comments that he has taken to filling his space with bits and pieces of news and commentary about the newspaper business in general.

There are exceptions, of course, to this apparent lack of public interest in Canadian newspaper blogs. Montreal Gazette political reporter Elizabeth Thompson’s behind-the-scenes look at the shenanigans on Parliament Hill often generates up to a dozen or more comments whenever she has something juicy to pass along. The Toronto Star’s always provocative Antonia Zerbisias gets almost as much reaction to her feminist blog on women’s issues as she did to her now defunct and much missed blog about the Canadian media (See my previous take on the latter here.) But you always get the sense that these newspaper blogs would make for much better reading if they were posted somewhere other than on the websites of the newspapers employing the bloggers. You only have to compare the gently whimsical blog of autobiographical memories and emotions that the very readable Todd Babiak compiles for his own website to the still entertaining but often restrained and predictable cultural affairs blog that he produces for his employer, the Edmonton Journal, and you can see that the most affecting stuff emerges when columnists are not trying to second-guess what the bosses expect of them.

The most widely read and respected blogs by Canadian journalists are not written for newspapers or magazines. If they were, you would see links to them posted on such media sites as the Canadian Journalism Project “Town Hall” blog or the Bill Doskoch: Media, BPS (Big Picture Stuff), Film, Minutiae blog. But these sites only link to the blogs of freelance journalists, or to those of writers such as CanWest News Parliamentary reporter David Akin and Maclean’s national editor Andrew Coyne who, while they do work for major media organizations, produce blogs independently.

As I see it, the biggest single problem with many of these Canadian newspaper blogs is that they lack a sense of immediacy or urgency. They are allowed to sit without updates for days and sometimes weeks on end. The whole idea of a newspaper blog, surely, should be to provide information and comment sooner. The American newspapers have apparently figured that out because they now make political blogs an integral part of campaign coverage, bringing to them a mixture of gossip, commentary, and trivia along with serious reporting produced at lightning speed. In Canada, a newspaper has to produce new content daily, yet the blog postings on that newspaper’s site are often allowed to stagnate before being refreshed. The newspapers have the technology and the talent to do things better. They should make use of it.

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