Readers south of Toronto may not have heard of Canada.com. That's because this behemoth is not only a newcomer to the online news business but a new kind of animal.
A creature of convergence.
A year ago, 125 different Web sites -- mostly small, local newspaper sites -- were leading a nomadic existence. Then CanWest Global Communications swooped in. Last summer it bought 136 newspapers from Conrad Black for $2.2 billion (US), the biggest media deal in Canadian history. It now owns 14 big-city dailies, one national newspaper, 126 other dailies and weeklies, a television network and several radio stations.
And behold, out of the media chaos arose a single Internet strategy and a singular Web site, Canada.com.
"We decided that the various newspapers would give up their stand-alone Web sites and become a part of an aggregated international property while retaining their local content," says Bruce MacCormack, president of CanWest Interactive.
Visit the site and you're immediately prompted to choose from among 29 local editions. CanWest is betting the ranch on local news as a key differentiator.
"Our strategy rests on the belief that the Internet should be a local medium for us," MacCormack says. "Yahoo and Microsoft have strong portals here, and a me-too product wouldn't get us where we wanted to go. But I could build a better Halifax site than Microsoft and a better Calgary site than Yahoo."
Not counting the portals, Canada.com is now the No. 1 news and information site in Canada, MacCormack says, with 2.4 million visitors and more than 100 million page views per month.
Transforming more than 100 newspaper Web sites into a single "hybrid" nationwide entity has meant bumps and bruises for the local entities, but a stronger overall product, with lower production costs and a more attractive set of local audiences for advertisers, MacCormack says.
CanWest decided early on to take the painful step of converting to a common publishing platform, which took effect last September. That has paid dividends not only for the company but for news consumers.
"We have the advantage of publishing in multiple time zones," MacCormack says. "A news event that occurs early in the day can be handled by our editors in Halifax (Nova Scotia). Developing news can be updated late in the evening by our folks in Victoria (British Columbia) after our editors back east have gone home."
The combined publishing platform will also let editors share local news and feature packages much more easily, and it allows member sites to share national content. "There's a lot of stuff that is best done once: stock prices, sports, weather," MacCormack says. "You don't want to reinvent the wheel. You want to add on the things that give you a local differentiated character."
The new platform also gives readers "the most comprehensive entertainment database in Canada," MacCormack says. For instance, the site provides listings of noteworthy events, such as which bands are playing in which clubs in all major cities.
Two months ago at the E&P Interactive Newspapers Conference in San Jose, MacCormack had an interesting face-off with Tom Regan, an editor at the Christian Science Monitor, who said he finds the new format of the Halifax Daily News less appealing under the homogeneous Canada.com umbrella.
"The uniqueness of each newspaper's individual format was killing us financially," MacCormack shot back. "The sites all look the same? Yes, that's the goal. But the important thing is the local content that differs from site to site."
"While there's a high degree of commonality between the different cities, none of them are identical," MacCormack adds in our phone interview. "It's always a fine-tuning exercise, but we think we're doing OK."
That tension between local control and national assimilation drew considerable attention a few months ago when CanWest decreed that no local editorials would be permitted to contradict national editorials issued from corporate headquarters in Winnipeg. The decision prompted a handful of resignations, a byline strike by reporters at the Montreal Gazette, a protest site, and outrage from journalists worried the policy would spill over to local columnists and news stories, diluting the diversity of views in their communities.
"That's a newspaper issue, not an Internet group issue," MacCormack says. "We don't set editorial policy."
True. But the echoes of that flare-up should serve as a reminder of the dangers of standardization gone amok and the folly of silencing local voices.
Convergence, in short, is a two-edged sword. And its benefits may come in ways not currently envisioned. Take the convergence of newspaper and broadcast assets on Web news sites, often trotted out as a forward-looking practice by media companies.
"On Canada.com, we're deemphasizing video," MacCormack says flatly. "The equations just don't work. We've got a ton of text-based content, but it's a financial challenge to deliver video. We won't focus on that until broadband rolls out widely."
MacCormack says that true convergence at media companies is not so much about what's happening at the top of the iceberg, where you'll see the occasional newspaper reporter appearing on a sister station's TV news show. Convergence is more about what's happening below the surface: the operations infrastructure, the circulation data-capturing, the ability to deliver multiple audiences to advertisers.
Looking down the road, MacCormack sees considerable benefits of convergence for CanWest's TV, newspaper and Internet operations. "Digital set-top boxes with feedback channels are going into Canadian households at a rate that's well ahead of other western countries. We see some really exciting possibilities for both editorial and advertising when we're able to look at our customers as individual subscribers with known viewing habits," he says.
"Sending out 'Hogan's Heroes' with a digital signal, that doesn't change the universe," he says. "When you've got the attributes of identity and two-way dialogue -- when your people can talk back to you -- that's when it starts to change the world.
"At its worst, it'll be about selling zirconium rings. At its best, it's going to change democracy. And it'll probably fall somewhere in between."
On to Tribune Interactive...