The Province’s Print Extras might be the Maginot Line

From Twitter:

From @JefferySimpson: A sign that The Province is still hoping that this whole internet fad goes away soon.

From @TheProvince: No way! Then we wouldn’t be able to do this: @laura_l

Print Extra

This Twitter exchange was prompted when I came across the pictured tag at the end of an article on smuggling drugs from Canada to the United States (I’m a freelance writer, smuggling drugs might be a way to make ends meet in a slow month) in an issue of The Province this week.  That issue (published May 31st) included this declaration stating that going forward not everything that appears in the printed Province will be appearing online.

It’s a short read, and so for full context check it out, but I think that this paragraph best sums it up:

In the paper, Print Extras are stories that go further than the basic news stories on the web. They aim to put issues into context for you and/or give you more background on a story. Sometimes they represent exclusive news no one else has. Sometimes a “print extra” is nothing more than a fine bit of writing and storytelling.

I’m a freelance writer, and so I’m loath to be critical of any possible publication that might one day buy something from me but I just don’t think that this strategy is going to work.  Let’s ignore that the link The Province‘s Tweet rebuttal included sent me to a Flash page that I couldn’t read on either my iPhone or iPad.  I’ve got enough to say without bringing up HTML5.

Before I go deep into this I’ll point out that I don’t own a newspaper.  I ran a student newspaper for a few years, it never lost money and all the staff got free t-shirts with the newspaper’s logo on the front, but then again we had a student levy that helped pick up the slack and at the time the web had not yet started to really cut into newspaper readership.  I’ve also written for newspapers with far worse websites, and even wrote a variation of what I’m going to say here for that paper.  They declined to publish it and politely asked me to submit something else.  Also before we go below the jump my idea of what a newspaper should be like online is The Guardian.  It’s continual addition of new forms of media, along with an established stable of podcasts and the fact that you never feel as if they’re holding anything back for the print edition, makes it an example of what a newspaper should be evolving towards.

Let us continue, as they say, below the fold.

I believe in the media.  I’m not someone who believes that one day all we’ll need is a few citizen journalists with iPhones to tell us what’s going on.  That’s a whole other argument, but I just want to be clear that I’m not coming from a place where I believe that the whole system is about to collapse, or is corrupted by corporate influence.  Sure maybe it’s a little corrupted, but I trust the reporters at The Province, the CBC and so-forth more than I trust a blogger who got given a “gift” by a PR company and is now writing about it.  

The thing is I believe in content, not format.  A well written bit of journalism carries as much weight whether it’s printed on a bit of paper, or appearing as dark text on a white screen.  Good journalism is good journalism.  At the end of the day the best media outlets are in the content business.  If we could stick The Province in a laboratory somewhere and separate it completely from economics then I have to imagine that nobody there would argue that the value of an article changes depending on whether it’s online or in the paper.  They might have personal preferences, preferring to read an article in the newspaper because they can read it on the Skytrain or preferring to read the article online because they don’t like getting ink on their fingers, but I’m giving them the benefit of the doubt that they don’t believe the value of the work changes.  So it’s the money.  The Province makes more money when someone reads their newspaper than when they read their website.  The paper makes more money when someone reads an article in their paper than they do when someone reads it online.  

On a macro level a newspaper has two customers, its readers and its advertisers.  The editorial department works to please the readers and the advertising department works to please its advertisers and apart from company picnics and a non-denominational holiday party in December the two groups probably should not be talking that much.  The trouble is on a micro level a newspaper has a lot more customers than that.  Breaking down the readership into separate groups there are online readers and print readers.  While the online group is getting bigger, the print group is getting smaller and offering print-only extras is a way to re-balance that because a print reader is more valuable to The Province than an online one in terms of dollars and cents.

The problem comes when you start treating one group of customers as being less important than another, no matter what the economic realities.  If a restaurant offers a 10% discount for seniors, it shouldn’t then proceed to treat its senior customers to slower service and serve them less fresh ingredients.  Imagine a waiter telling someone, “Your soup’s cold?  Well, to be fair you did use a coupon.”  That just would not happen, and if it did it would not be with the sanctioning of the restaurant’s management.  

The second sentence of the paragraph I quoted noted that the Print Extras, “They aim to put issues into context for you and/or give you more background on a story.”  So are we to assume that anything on the website won’t put issues into context?  A post on the site about breaking news might be slender as the event is in progress, but should we not to expect that to be expanded when possible?  If the answer is no, then what is the point of the website?  For Flash animations and reader polls?

Making money online is hard, it’s super hard.  I don’t have to pay the electricity bills in The Province‘s offices, and so I can shoot my mouth off all I want without worrying about people’s jobs or whether or not I’ll be able to buy all the reporter’s t-shirts with the newspaper’s logo on the front.  The thing is the internet is not going away.  Finding a way to make money with online content is going to be harder if The Province is not putting its best content online.  The danger is that they’re so busy fighting the last war that they’re handicapping themselves for the next one.  Print Extras is the Maginot Line and I’m afraid that by the time The Province figures that out we’ll all be speaking German.