PostMedia, Post Paper? From paper to pixels and the transitioning of journalism brand. A day at the Ottawa Citizen

Digital first. It is the slogan of PostMedia and the slogan of the Ottawa Citizen. Almost two weeks ago, my CMN5165: New Directions in Journalism masters’ students and I visited the Ottawa Citizen to see, first hand, how the paper is adjusting to challenges faced by the newspaper industry. Given the bleak assessment for the future of print offered by the Economist and others, this is no doubt a trying time for papers. But, what was clear from our visit was that the Citizen is implementing a strategy to transition from paper to digital. It was also clear from our visit to the Citizen that working there takes coffee; lots of it and constantly.

PostMedia, PostPaper?

Perhaps one of the most interesting things about the Citizen trip was how openly a “PostPaper” perspective was expressed and enacted by the higher-ups. Beyond an obvious word play on the Ottawa Citizen’s parent company, a PostPaper perspective was a view that had moved beyond seeing the Ottawa Citizen as an organization that prints a newspaper. Of course, by now, one should expect some uptake of this logic as the business model must change. Yet, I would bet if took a straw poll and asked people “What is the Ottawa Citizen?” the overwhelming, if not exclusive response would refer to the physical object; a newspaper.

Our tour of the Ottawa Citizen office building also showed that the Citizen still was very much a (physical) newspaper. News stands and shelves lined the walls of the Advertising section with stacks of inserts, magazines, and a pile of the “2011 Babies of the Year” supplement. There is perhaps no better sign of the physicality of the newspaper than a tour of the massive printing presses complete with a visit to the workshops of the in-house staff who tend exclusively to the Citizen’s printing presses. Also impressive were the massive reams of newsprint which were themselves postpaper, being made exclusively from post consumer product.

Paper versus Pixel

Thus a fundamental tension faced by the Citizen is the need to produce a physical newspaper – because that is what it has done since Canadian confederation – and the need to adapt to changing news habits of readers in order to remain relevant to readers and advertisers. Judging on the talks given to us during out visit the in attempting to figure out how to resolve this tension, the Citizen is clear in what its key product in both paper and pixel is the Ottawa Citizen brand.

People are always going to want news and they are going to want news from a source they can trust. The challenge is we don’t want to pay for it; electronically; for now. I accept that if I want a physical copy of the Ottawa Citizen, I can’t just walk into the Pharamplus, take a copy and walk out. Ok, I could, but there is a chance the police would be called. Yet, I ‘expect’ to be able to go on the Ottawa Citizen home page and get my news for free and, if I can’t, I ‘expect’ to be able to go somewhere else.  The obvious challenge the Citizen continues to face is how monetize this freeloader problem. We go to the Ottawa Citizen because we trust the brand as a news source, but we don’t (yet) expect to pay for news content. There are some newspapers like the New York Times who run paywalls as a strategy to harness some income from a digital subscriber base. The trick however, especially in age of social media and sharing (see below), is not locking everybody out. Sticking with the Times example, they tried imposing a 20 article a month limit on visiting web users before locking them out however workarounds for this paywall were published as quickly as the wall was built.

Reviving Two-Step Flow Theory

The sharing of stories online is quite interesting because social media such as Facebook and Twitter have become regular sources for sharing and coming across news. For this reason, I think that it could be a rather fun exercise to try and update or simply apply Katz and & Lazarsfeld’s “Two Step Flow Theory” which was first published in 1955 in their book Personal Influence.

The theory emerged as a challenge to direct effect media theorists who believed that media had a direct effect on all individuals who came in contact with the information provided in the media. The authors realised that not everyone may come into contact with the media but they may still come in contact with ideas from the media. They labelled this the two-step flow of communication which whereby “…ideas, often, seem to flow from radio and print to opinion leaders and from them to the less active sections of the population” (Katz and Lazarsfled 1955: 32).

The authors put much emphasis on the idea of “opinion leaders” who were people who pay close attention to the media. Opinion leaders often had a strong degree of influence and they would recount the information they found in the news (and their assessment of it) to people who otherwise would not have seen the information. These ‘Opinion Leaders’ were thereby seen as having a significant degree of ‘personal influence’ in their relevant communities.

So, how does this translate to the news?

Opinion leaders and two step flows

Two-step flow theory could provide a way – or at least an orientation – to thinking about how news is shared. Of course, those who engage in data visualization and tracking and the like are way ahead in actually showing us what this looks like. But it still could provide a conceptual or theoretical hook to think about how our diet of news may be one or two steps removed from directly going to a source for news. Thus, unlike in the original two-step flow model where the Opinion Leader passes on the information  second hand, the opinion leader tweets on the link to the news story. This point is nothing ground breaking and the idea forms the whole basis for services such as Klout (identifying Opinion leaders and their relative weight). However, what is new is how this theory could be used to think about audiences of news and those who share news.

I’ve put on my “to do” list to delve more into this in an future post.

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