Ottawa Citizen, Journalism and the Future of Print

Ottawa citizen 1Last Tuesday I went on a trip to this very building. It was a good hour ride with OC Transpo from my home, but it was very worthy. Not only I had an inside look of the making of the news in a notorious newspaper, but I also had an opportunity to exchange on some journalistic concepts with notorious journalists. In fact, as a graduate student enrolled in communications, I was able to further the concepts I am learning in class.

I found real examples to create a basis for comparison and application of the readings included in my actual course New Directions in Journalism at the University of Ottawa. Of course, it was no surprise to find out that Ottawa Citizen, like the rest of the industry, had been challenged by the context of newspapers crisis that deepened since the financial crisis of 2008[i]. At the Ottawa Citizen, one of the key solutions to survive this crisis and secure a future for the paper was INNOVATION.

Ottawa Citizen is a well-established newspaper, nestled in the heart of the neighbourhood of Nepean. In fact, Ottawa Citizen has moved to this charming building in 1973, a location close to the community although far away from downtown and Parliament Hill. However, as a newspaper located in the Nation capital, Ottawa Citizen has a twofold purpose: reporting local news that matter to the Ottawa community, and covering political events with a national interest.

 

Surviving in the Actual Newspapers Crisis: an Inside Look

Ottawa Citizen tripThe visit included a tour of the building located on 1101 Baxter Road in the heart the Nepean community, discussions with several journalists, and the observation of an editorial meeting. I then learned that since 1845, Ottawa Citizen has kept the population of Ottawa and its regions informed for over 160 years. My first impression was one of an old newspaper in a recent building, a building big enough to accommodate a Press Room with three press machines, and a large journalist’s staff in the early 70’s. Unfortunately, as a result of the newspaper crisis, Ottawa Citizen has known a downsizing in its staff, which was clearly apparent in the several empty desks I had seen during the tour.

In this changing and unpredictable media environment affected by the recent 2008 financial crisis and the rapid evolution of the Internet and new technology, the Citizen has to make some compromises by changing ownership. It was a survival effort which is in line with a concept introduced by McChesney, “the consolidation of ownership”, presented by Geoffrey Bays in its 2005 article about the Daily Show[ii]. He presented the concept as an integrated and structured way to reduce cost by “sharing personnel, resources, and approaches to content across what were once distinct media outlets”. Thus, the citizen has become a property of Postmedia since 2010. During the visit of the press rooms, a stack of National Post papers introduced our group into the integration of Ottawa Citizen in the big Postmedia family. I then learned that the relationship between the dozen of Postmedia papers is one of collaboration and partnership. For example, they share the same editorial for many national and international contents.

However, Ottawa Citizen is going ahead in its survival efforts, knowing that the consolidation and integration into the Postmedia news outlet is not enough. In the Citizen, they know all very well that if they don’t succeed in keeping their readers, they might lose everything. There goes the idea of innovation, which is in line with new approaches in the making of the news and a true engagement to audiences. It also conveys the idea of striving to make news accountable by pursuing the truth while maintaining the journalistic norms: investigation, accuracy, and freedom of press (Pavlik 2013, p183). From this perspective, the website proposes a video tour of the Citizen explaining how the news is made, a real inside look which gives an accountability of the newspaper’s work.

Consequently, the Staff has a STRATEGY to secure their future in the Nation Capital: innovating. This strategy is very simple: reaching the reader where he or she is. Using statistics, the Citizen is able to find out how its readers consume the news depending on their background and their group of ages. Then the innovating process proposes among others an enhanced print version of the newspapers for the generation who prefers dealing with papers. For younger people, there is a selection of online news content, a mobile version of the website as well as a version for tablets. Besides, they will continue to increase their presence on social network sites in an attempt to attract more readers and perhaps gaining more subscriptions.

Specific payrolls model: Metered payrolls—restricts number of free articles[iii]; this is another way of resolving financial problems. The Citizen offers 10 free contents for a period of 30 days for local news. National and international news usually produced by Postmedia editorials are free. Since the paper is not funded by government or any other public funding, it relies heavily on advertising and newspaper payrolls; the subscription of the online print paper is a type of payroll.

And still, a look at the online brand newspapers owned by Postmedia let suppose that the website of each newspaper is managed by their parent company. This raises questions about the independence and the flexibility of the Citizen’s staff and the other brands as well.

Anyway, can a paper involved in integration and consolidation measures truly innovate in terms of journalistic approaches? The answer is certainly not obvious, but the journalists of the Citizen certainly have flexibility in terms of offering accurate and trustworthy contents, in-depth analysis, and local news that matter to the community of Ottawa. While relying on Postmedia for financial survival, the Citizen is the one who manages the journalistic issues by keeping up-to-date the image of the paper and their credibility as professionals. The journalists of Ottawa Citizen should make sure they conserve the trust of their readers.

Despite these challenges, is there a future for print journalism? Can Ottawa Citizen survive as a newspaper in its contextual consolidation and integration?

Once again I would like to refer to John V. Pavlik who said “Innovation is the key”[iv] for the future of journalism. But, what kind of innovation, and in which extent? A look at the Postmedia papers websites let suppose that there is a unique solution applicable to all the papers. Each website proposes the same advertising media kit which includes news available on four platforms: paper, web, mobile and tablets. Is this model viable for each paper? This is one question one could ask about the financial survival of the newspapers integrated in Postmedia or in any other media outlets consolidation. Does it work and will continue to work for Ottawa Citizen in the future? This is an issue we would have to follow very closely.

Furthermore, is such media ecology convenient for innovation—as proposed by Pavlik—that would include good investigation and research, freedom of speech, trustworthy and accurate report, and ethics? (Pavlik 2013, p190) However, when it comes to the future of print journalism one issue that is rising in the profession and among scholars is whether journalists can conserve their independence and their credibility? No matter the steps followed to survive the crisis and secure a future—newspaper payroll, government and public funding, advertising—it will remain important to figure out how true journalism can survive and innovate. It will also be important to understand what readers are seeking for in this new age of internet, new technology, social media, and rapid changes.

In my opinion, the future of print journalism relies on innovation; an innovation that pursues the journalistic norms: investigation, verifiability, accountability and transparency, true reporting on news that really matter to people of the community. If a media outlet can apply these rules while striving to overcome financial difficulty, its future is sure to be secured. Since Ottawa Citizen is striving to go down this road, I think that they have a journalistic future.

By Katia Ulysse Saint Vil


[i] Siles, I. and Boczkowski, P. (2012). “Making sense of the newspaper crisis: A critical assessment of existing research and an agenda for future work”, New Media & Society, 14(8) 1375–1394

[ii] Baym, G. (2005). “The Daily Show: Discursive Integration and the Reinvention of Political Journalism”, Political Communication, 22: 259–276

[iii] Myllylahti, M. (2013). “Newspaper Paywalls – The Hype and the Reality: A study of how paid news content impacts on media corporation revenues”, Digital Journalism, 1(1), pp. 1-16

[iv] Pavlik, J. (2013). “Innovation and the future of journalism”, Digital Journalism, 1(2), pp. 181-193

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