Future of News: What does online excellence look like?
J-Source’s Rhiannon Russell quizzed five Canadian Online Publishing Awards winners on the hurdles, the process, and payoff of making top online content. Trade secrets from Torontoist, the National Film Board, OpenFile Toronto, Sparksheet, and The Thunderbird.
Red: Consumer, custom, religious, public association
Blue: Business-to-business, professional association, farm, scholarly
Green: Daily and weekly newspapers, and broadcasters
Green: Best video or multimedia feature
Winner: Welcome to Pine Point
by Paul Shoebridge and Michael Simons
The National Film Board
J-Source: How did you get your hands on all the old videos, photos, memorabilia, and audio clips?
P & M: We asked a number of people for access – especially Richard Cloutier, whose site held most of the photographic material. The videos, yearbook photos and images of objects came from very generous Pine Pointers, who very willingly shared them with us.
J-Source: It says on the film’s website that you were initially planning to write a book when you stumbled across the Pine Point Revisited website. Why did you decide to tell the story in an interactive, video format?
P & M: We had the Pine-Point-as-book project sitting on a white board for a while, then a good friend of ours, Sean Embury (of Fulscrn.com) suggested we bring it to the National Film Board, which had just recently opened their head office for interactive production in Vancouver. They recognized that we had not only a good story, but a wealth of incredible visuals (many of which were video and sound). As we developed it, it became obvious that this was a natural way to tell the story. We've been told that it would still make a great book, however!
Red: Best online-only article or series of articles
Winner: “And then there was one”
by Jane Armstrong
J-Source: How did you reconstruct, with such detail, the Egerton family’s past? (Like how the neighbours saw Frank Sr. conducting military drills with his sons in the backyard.)
Armstrong: Reconstructing Stan Egerton’s World War II experiences was a weeks-long team effort by OpenFile editor-in-chief Kathy Vey, contributing editor Patrick Cain, photographer Liam Maloney and me. Patrick first discovered the Egerton family story in the city of Toronto’s archives while compiling the names and addresses of Toronto’s war dead from World War II. He then ordered the full service files on a handful of these soldiers from the National Archives in Ottawa. The Egerton file was as thick as a phone book when it landed on my desk and it’s where I gleaned much of the information to write this article.
Kathy found a 1942 article about the Egerton brothers from the Toronto Star archive called Pages of the Past. That story described the Egertons — a working- class family of six from Toronto’s west end — as a family with a strong military past whose father, Frank Sr., had served in World War I. Neighbours told the Star that they often spotted Frank Sr. running military drills with his sons in their backyard on Foxley St. By 1942, the two eldest Egertons had already signed up. The National Archive file on the Egerton brothers contained official documents detailing their military careers and deaths in Europe. They also included the poignant letters from Jean Egerton asking the Department of National Defence to discharge her sole surviving son, Stan. We tracked Stan down through Canada 411 and found him living in Burlington, Ont., an 85-year-old retired firefighter and widower. Photographer Liam Maloney and I drove to Burlington to interview him. By then, I felt I already knew Stan.
J-Source: What was your biggest challenge with this story?
Armstrong: I think the biggest challenge, as a reporter, came at this point, standing in Stan’s basement rec room, coaxing him to open up about the deaths of his older brothers more than 60 years ago. His life had flourished after the war. He resumed his track career, married, and joined the fire department. He seemed to enjoy talking about his wartime experiences, as if reliving his youth. I had to ask about his brothers, but it was obvious that Stan, like many veterans, didn’t want to wade into that painful, emotional realm. I’ve seen this before with other war veterans and it’s a self-protection mechanism. I pressed. Once Stan began recounting the night his brother George died in France, his words spilled out quickly and so did the tears. It was hard to watch. Harder for Stan, I’m certain, to relive.
Blue: Best Blog
Editor Dan Levy
J-Source: When Sparksheet cleaned up at the COPAs, I know I’m not the only who thought, "What's Sparksheet?" (I mean no offense by this!) Tell me a little bit about the site.
Levy: No offense taken – we take pride in punching above our weight! Sparksheet is a multiplatform magazine that covers the space where content, media and marketing intersect. Our sense is that we’re now living in a world where media outlets are acting more like brands and brands are acting more like media. So while magazines experiment with things like events and apps to finance their reporting, companies like Havana Club (which we profiled in our COPA-winning feature article) is producing music and movies and all sorts of multimedia content. Sparksheet is all about the implications of these changes for marketers, journalists, and the organizations they work for.
On top of that, we’re powered by Spafax, the content marketing agency behind enRoute magazine and other custom publications around the world. As an editor I have an incredible amount of editorial independence (probably more than a lot of “traditional” editors), but we also exist as a sort of internal think tank for Spafax. So essentially we’re branded content about branded content. It’s all very meta.
J-Source: Sparksheet won best blog, among other things. [The site won six other awards in the blue category.] What do you strive for when you’re blogging?
Levy: All of our content, whether it’s our long-form magazine features or our shorter, bloggier stuff, strives to both inform and inspire. Lots of other marketing and tech publications are mired in jargon and stuffed with buzzwords. We make sure our content is accessible and useful to people from all corners of the media and marketing universe, without condescending to our readers or dumbing anything down. Our posts are filled with real-world examples, external links and infographics that add an editorial and design layer to research and stats that you normally find floating around the web without much context.
At the same time, we’ve always been a hub for “good ideas about content, media and marketing,” as our tagline goes. We’re not a news site, we’re an ideas site. So Sparksheet pieces ought to make an argument, pose a question, or challenge a generally-held assumption. Readers should be able to swoop in and pluck out a kernel of wisdom or advice and then apply it to their own work. If we’re able to inspire media and marketing professionals to take risks, explore new platforms, or engage with their audiences in a more human way, then we’re pretty pleased with ourselves.
Red: Best News Coverage
Winner: Torontoist, G20 protests
Editor Hamutal Dotan
J-Source: What were the advantages, in your opinion, of reporting the protests online as opposed to in print or television?
Dotan: I think there are two kinds of advantages, really: some which stem from the actual nature of the medium (i.e. the mode in which information is conveyed to our audience), and some which stem from the fact that we weren't just reporting online, but are an online-only outlet.
In the former category I'd put elements like immediacy. We now have the ability for photographers to email us their photos from their cameras (in addition to camera phone photos), and to publish updates almost as events are unfolding. (A few of the updates in our liveblog were dictated to editors by reporters on the scene, for instance.) And we can do it from multiple locations simultaneously. TV broadcasts can do that extremely effectively, but generally require bigger crews and aren't quite as nimble during an event like the G20, when there wasn't any one centre of activity and you need to be able to relocate and capture events quickly. And unlike print coverage, we have unlimited space, so we can run as many large colour photos, and as many updates, as we feel are useful to our readers.
The latter factor (that we are an online-only outlet) confers what I'd call, for lack of a better term, a cultural advantage. It's commonplace in digital-native media to link to other media outlets in a way that more traditional media don't, for instance which means we can point our readers to other key reports, wherever they originate. We don't mind driving traffic to other sites - our attitude, and the attitude you find most commonly in online outlets, is that our job is to provide our readers with the best information and the best sources, period, whether we're linking to our own coverage or another outlet's. What we find consistently is that readers value that tremendously, that we provide as complete a picture possible on an event by drawing on a wide array of sources.
But, it's also essential to note that there is value in all of these kinds of media, and I view them as complementary rather than competitive.
J-Source: How challenging was it to chronologize and order all the information and updates your reporters were bringing in?
Dotan: There were a lot of balls to juggle, for sure, but it's amazing what adrenalin can do at times like that. The tools we use help a lot, as well - any update from a writer came with a timestamp, since they were filing electronically, and photos come with timestamps in the metadata for each image.
But what we found, inevitably, was that there was more information to process than we could fit into our liveblog, so at the end of each day we also recapped events with a timeline - a photographic chronology of the day, making use of any key images that might not have made it into the liveblog, and allowing readers who weren't following along during the day to catch up with one start-to-finish recounting of events.
Blue: Best video or multimedia feature
By Natalie Dobbin and Kendall Walters
UBC Graduate School of Journalism
J-Source: How did you come up with the idea for this story?
Walters: We were doing the story for a school assignment with the theme “aging.” We wanted to do a story that fit the theme that wasn’t necessarily about typical aging concepts. We were interested in doing a story about First Nations people and when we started researching, we found some interesting details about indigenous languages in B.C., many of which are in imminent danger of extinction. We wanted to explore that issue so we looked into a few ideas before Natalie remembered a First Nations woman she’d heard perform hip hop in the Musqueam language. We thought that was really unusual and interesting, so we contacted her and the rest is history.
Dobbin: We were interested in doing a story on First Nations languages in B.C., and efforts to preserve these languages. I’d recently heard work by Christie Lee Charles in an exhibit at the Vancouver Art Gallery. A professor also mentioned to us that she’d heard her perform in the past. We decided to get in touch with Charles, and the story developed from there.
J-Source: You did an excellent job of timing the photos to your audio. Sometimes it almost feels like a video, until the viewer realizes the pictures aren’t moving. Did you consider creating the story as a video? Why did you settle on what you did?
Dobbin: We didn’t discuss video at the time. We wanted to produce a strong online package that would incorporate text, audio and images. Each element adds something different to the story.
Walters: Video was an option, but we were really interested in working on a multimedia piece. I think that multimedia was a good choice for this story, because the stills capture something that video interview clips may not have been able to do. The stills allow us to help the audience focus on important details that could have been missed in a video clip.