Recalling missed opportunities during early days of newspapers online
With new and emerging technology being updated constantly, it is hard to remember what it was like when the internet invaded Canadian newsrooms around 20 years ago. David Cadogan remembers. His reflections during those pioneering days are captured in this personal essay.
As a lifelong newspaper man, he owned several award-winning papers in the Miramachi area. He holds an honourary Doctor of Civil Laws degree from the University of Kings College in Halifax. In 2003, he sold his newspaper publishing and printing company to Brunswick News Inc. Community Newspaper Group. He witnessed many changes in the industry from the time he started at his father's community newspaper in Durham, Ontario, at the age of eight until he retired. This snapshot gives us a few recollections at a key time.
By David Cadogan
As a lifelong newspaper journalist, newspaper owner, publisher, editor and association director, I am frustrated and heartsick that this is not the Golden Age of newspaper organizations. It should be. Industry leaders did just about everything wrong.
When I first looked at the World Wide Web, in the early 1990’s, there were already some daily newspapers putting some news online.
The Detroit News, Miami Herald, San Francisco Chronicle and the New Orleans Times Picayune were among the papers I remember. All except one had the same top story. Only the Times Picayune realized the audience arriving at its site would not be looking for world news but information tourists visiting New Orleans would want. Its tops stories were all about entertainment and attractions taking place that week and the near future.
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Much later, when the Toronto Star went online, it made the same mistake, but I noticed it quickly changed to putting local news front and centre.
The monopoly on local news has always been the strength of community newspapers like mine.
It is difficult to comprehend or even remember how primitive those early sites were. They were more bulletin boards than anything else. Servers were primitive, small and very expensive. Publishers had to have their own servers and some of them provided the access to the web and even email accounts.
Access to the Internet was over phone lines at speeds like 800 baud. The term was generally used to describe the number of bits per second the modem could send or receive. Most users had separate, dedicated, telephone lines for their modems. There are 8 bits in a byte. Imagine downloading information at 100 bytes! Try to imagine that, at the time, we thought that was impressive.
Try to imagine that a 40-megabyte hard drive was the size a colour laser printer/scanner is now and cost thousands of dollars.
Soon, people at my local drinking haunt began to taunt me that the days of print media were over now that anyone could desktop publish.
My response was that I preferred to see the web as potential liberation from three of my biggest headaches as a newspaper owner and publisher.
One was postal distribution. Sometimes, at Christmas, Canada Post would stop delivering second class mail to out-of-province subscribers for several weeks and then deliver papers out of order or in groups of five or six bound with elastic bands.
One was the newsprint industry, which could inflict the cost of their generous wage settlements on me while I could not pass them on to small town advertisers. Sweepers in the mills made more than some of my skilled employees.
The third, of course, was the delay between the time we collected news and the time we could get it to readers.
In November of 1997, we put my flagship paper, the Miramichi Leader, online with a piece of off-the-shelf software our web press company manager found. By that time, our readers had 28k or 56k dial-up modems and access to Internet. Still, we could publish only stories, pictures and classified ads. A full-page colour ad would have taken more than a day to download.
From the beginning, we charged for subscriptions. We could not prevent readers from giving out their password access so we kept the price low enough that they wouldn’t bother. After all, an additional reader cost us nothing. Unfortunately, because the ads were not included, we could not count online subscriptions for our Audit Bureau of Circulation numbers.
However, it did reopen the door to many out-of-province, and American readers we had lost as postal costs and delivery delays increased.
We even gave an online subscription to our print copy subscribers for their convenience. We would not sell an online subscription in our county without a print copy subscription because we needed our readers to see our advertisers’ ads.
We also created a community mall site with a message board. This helped us keep up a rapport with young readers. Many of them had moved away from home and they used the board to keep in touch with friends at home. We’d print the comments to cross promote the services.
We would also use it to ask for opinions and to get local angles on national or regional stories. Our subscribers and online readers became part of the news team.
We had a great rapport with the young people of our community and got great story leads from them.
Our bridal supplement one year included two stories of couples that met via the web. The stories came about because, seeing comments on our message board from Australia and Virginia, I asked the commenters what Miramichiers were doing there.
I should begin these next sections with the alert that I was involved in trying to sell the former and was both an investor and a sales agent in the latter.
In the first decade of the 21st century, the possibilities took off. A Saint John company, Advanced Publishing, acquired the North American rights to an Australian digital reproduction service called Realview. It made it possible to flow the pages we prepared to go to press directly to the web complete with ads. Every URL and email address was automatically hot linked. We encouraged advertisers to include links to their supplier sites or bands or whatever they were offering.
Now we could include online subscriptions and count them for circulation audit lowering our cost per thousand to advertisers.
Publishers could control access to the publication. The system put cookies on the subscribers’ computers.
We could even leave special sections like bridal sections or directories up on our site until we did the next one providing much more reach, impact and appeal for the advertisers in them.
Suddenly, we had a system much like the Zinio service Maclean’s magazine uses now.[node:ad]
It cost between $50 and $100 per week to post our newspapers depending on the number of pages. Advanced Publishing has gone on to success in the magazine industry.
Not long after that, another huge opportunity presented itself. A pair of exciting young Nova Scotians, Glenn Smith and Mike Carroll, came up with software to aggregated classified advertising on a website called Cansell.
Users could click anywhere on a map of North America or type in a city name and begin a search. They could choose an area to search anywhere from three kilometres to 3,000 miles. If they were looking for an apartment within walking distance of their job, they might choose 3 km. If they were looking for a Bobby Orr rookie card, they’d search the entire system.
Cansell came up with a system for newspapers that allowed us to automatically flow our classifieds into the system without any re-keyboarding. The papers paid less than five cents per ad. They could have upped their rates by a dime and made a handsome profit.
My thinking was that, if all the newspapers used the system, we would have the most massive database of classifieds anywhere. It would also have hundreds of local points of purchase because people were already calling their local papers to place classified ads. One of our promotional ads said, “Around the corner or around the world, people can read your ad in the Miramichi Leader”.
Cansell ads and classifications could even provide links to advertiser catalogues or flyers or whatever. It could have been Kijiji and Amazon rolled into one with unlimited local promotion every issue.
At my insistence, Cansell even went to far more expense than I had imagined to offer any publisher the opportunity to buy shares if they wished. They had to register with each province.
I failed abjectly at trying to get newspapers to buy into these opportunities. A few papers signed up for Realview and a few for Cansell, but there was generally negative reaction.
The opposition to Realview came from sales-oriented publishers who wanted to repackage the content paid for by the original advertisers and sell it to new ones on the web. I thought this was short sighted because, instead of increasing circulation and lowering cost-per-thousand, it did the reverse driving advertisers away.
Others simply thought it wasn’t worthwhile and that readers would never abandon the print versions. I thought it was obvious it would be a good idea to have a foot in both camps.
The resistance to Cansell was partly based on the idea that online classifieds were a fad and partly on internal empire building. Many publishers were neither knowledgeable nor interested in the internet. Some of them ignored it. Other, larger ones had their own IT departments and would delegate the decision to them. The IT managers invariably said they could do the same thing themselves at less cost. This completely ignored, of course, the impact an international system would have, and now does, have.
One of Canada’s biggest and most successful newspaper owners told me, “We put them on our own site for an extra quarter. That’s all anyone is ever going to make from online classifieds”.
Another barrier was the insistence by the executive directors of several newspaper associations to control access to the system and the revenues from it. When we would not agree to that, knowing individual publishers would decide whether to sign up or not, they engineered a national recommendation for a Saskatchewan based service that did not exist but promised everything they asked. Once annointed, it was never built.
There are a couple of possible explanations why neither digital reproduction nor a continental newspaper aggregated classified service took off.
One could suspect newspaper managements were too short sighted, ignorant, lazy, and greedy to see even the medium term future and potential.
One must also conclude I was a terrible salesman and went about it the wrong way. Perhaps if there had been a venture capital presence on the East coast at the time or a television show like “The Dragon’s Den,” we could have got the development advice that would have worked.
When I saw, “The Social Network,” I recognized myself as like Eduardo Saverin, the Facebook co-founder, who was off in New York selling one ad at a time while Mark Zuckerberg was in California shooting for the stars. It wasn’t that I wasn’t willing to form an alliance with a global partner. I didn’t know and had no access to any.
I did know newspaper people and, as long time director and past president of both my regional and national newspaper associations, I had access to many newspaper company executives.
Still, I can’t help but muse from time to time what the current fortunes of the newspaper media might look like if I had not.
Imagine the difference growing newspaper circulations, shrinking cost-per-thousands ad prices, and huge classified advertising revenues could make to the industry.
Imagine the expanding editorial content of healthy newspapers.
Am I the only one who thinks the industry blew the opportunity of the century?
David Cadogan is a retired community newspaper owner, publisher, editor and weekly columnist who got his start in the business at the age of eight, when the Linotype machine was 65-years-old. Cadogan is a past president of both the Atlantic Community Newspapers Association (now Newspapers Atlantic) and the Canadian Community Newspapers Association (now Newspapers Canada).