By Brian Brennan
Can the mainstream print media successfully reinvent itself to become as relevant to news consumers in the digital age as it used to be back in the days when readers looked to their morning newspapers for authoritative coverage of the previous day’s events?
The question arises in the wake of Tuesday’s surprise announcement by Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach that he is stepping down as leader of the provincial Progressive Conservative party and will not seek re-election when his current term expires.
The news first broke on CBC Radio at 11:00 a.m. Tuesday, half an hour before Stelmach was due to hold a news conference announcing his resignation. At about the same time, a “breaking news alert” flashed across the Calgary Herald home page and across the web pages of other newspapers in the Postmedia network. The Herald‘s chief political columnist, Don Braid, offered a short teaser saying there was a “fuller” story to be told and that he would “lay it all out” in his column the following day.
However, with all due respect to Braid, a respected and well-connected print journalist who has been writing about Alberta politics for more than 25 years, what he served up today tasted a lot like yesterday’s leftovers. Other mainstream news organizations such as the CBC and The Globe and Mail, and political bloggers like Dave Climenhaga, had already provided the main ingredients: Stelmach was coping with a palace revolt over budgetary concerns and unfulfilled promises similar to what one of his predecessors, Social Credit Premier William Aberhart, had to deal with back in 1937. However, instead of facing down his cabinet opponents as Aberhart had done, Stelmach chose to quit.
Dave Hedley, a web producer at calgaryherald.com, wrote in a recent column about the challenges the Herald faces as it transitions from a traditional print news operation to a digital, multi-platform operation. Using the recent death of a newborn tiger at the Calgary Zoo as an example, Hedley tracked the progress of the unfolding story from the moment he first learned about the tiger’s death to the time the published newspaper account appeared on Herald newsstands. First came the “breaking news alert” on the Herald website, ending with the now-standard “more to come.” Then came a more complete story for the Herald website with photos and backstory links. It was followed by an update for the Herald‘s iPad edition after a news briefing at the zoo. By the time the most complete and most up-to-date version of the tiger story appeared in the newspaper the following day, Hedley had updated the website a couple of more times and added video content, while Herald columnist Val Fortney had written a companion piece about the emotional turmoil felt by zoo staffers after the mother tiger abandoned her sick cub.
The Herald‘s director of online content, David Blackwell, explained to Hedley that the Herald newsroom now has to “catch up with the audience” as it reorients itself around a multi-platform identity: “It’s not just a matter of skills, but also learning how to relate in a very different manner than many staffers were accustomed to back in the day when the local paper was the only real authoritative voice about what was happening in this city.”
The Herald‘s blanket 12-page newspaper coverage of the Stelmach resignation included, along with Braid’s exposing-the-entrails column, the predictably traditional mix of editorial commentary, quoted reaction from the Alberta business community and from political rivals, word-on-the-street blather, and some solemn analysis of the Stelmach “legacy.” Most of this wall-to-wall coverage was about looking back. The only looking-forward story was the inevitable speculative piece about potential successors. If “catching up with the audience” was the object of this exercise, the Herald trailed badly.
Climenhaga, Alberta’s best-read independent political blogger, was as usual ahead of the pack. Let others in the media occupy their time trying to winkle out the gory details of the Stelmach resignation, Climenhaga said in his Wednesday posting. The more important question to be answered now is where his resignation leaves the upstart Wildrose Alliance, which has been offering itself as an attractive right-wing alternative to the ruling Tories while rising steadily in the polls.
Could there be a lesson here for the Herald and its traditional mainstream print comrades? With such online powerhouses as The Daily Beast and Huffington Post now providing the daily news and commentary fix for a growing number of journalism junkies, and independent bloggers like Climenhaga showing that it doesn’t take a big newsroom budget to produce timely and informed journalistic commentary, the landscape is rapidly changing. Can the old newspapers change focus, leave some of their hidebound ways behind, and reposition themselves to connect more immediately and more engagingly with readers who quickly have their fill of what happened yesterday? So far, there is little sign of this happening.