Breaking down the trends and rebels of today’s media landscape in Montreal and beyond.
A little over two weeks ago, I started writing an email to The Tyee, Vancouver’s independent online news magazine. It was the last night of the site’s $100,000 crowdfunding campaign to help it expand its coverage nationally, and it looked like it was about to fall short.
With about five hours to go before midnight, a little more than $70,000 had been raised in three weeks. I wanted to ask what would be done with the pledged money, and if the site would still be pushing forward with its plans to expand.
I never sent the email, deciding to wait the night out instead.
And then something happened.
Within the last hours of the campaign, readers pitched in enough money to bring the total to nearly $103,000 come the next morning. The goal had been met.
“I went to sleep feeling really good about raising $75,000. I thought we’d go from there and keep chipping away,” The Tyee founder and editor-in-chief David Beers told The Link.
“I was flabbergasted when I saw what happened,” he said.
A late-night push on social media made those interested in contributing flock to the site in order to donate.
The Tyee has been no stranger to raising money via crowdfunding during its 10-year existence. In 2009, it asked readers to choose which issues they wanted to see covered during the provincial elections and to donate accordingly. In 10 days, almost $25,000 was pledged.
Besides its scale, the nature of the site’s most recent campaign was the same as previous ones: offering a specific, tangible outcome.
“I think The Tyee has a proven identity now,” said Beers.
“When you tell people you would like to do more of what you already do, it’s the kind of proposition they seem to appreciate.”
So now that the goal has been met, what comes next?
The money raised by the campaign will be delivered in monthly pledges—the average donation being $100 over a year—so the site’s expansion will be a gradual build over time.
The first step will be establishing the “The Tyee National Pool,” a network of established reporters and columnists from around the country.
“That’s 30 new perspectives and voices that will be given a platform,” said Beers.
The goal of having one full-time national affairs reporter in Ottawa is also in the works, though it may take longer to accomplish.
As for the website itself, the objective is to not lose the current look and feel that’s made it a success, garnering between 800,000 and 1 million page views per month.
“It will take a little while to design some navigational aspects of the website, but someone reading from B.C. won’t notice a difference. We’re not pulling back on any of that coverage,” said Beers.
With its main page staying focused on covering issues related to British Columbia, a new page called The Tyee National will eventually surface.
The “fair amount” of national content already on the site will be tagged as such, as will any content coming from the new pool of reporters and columnists.
Beers founded The Tyee in 2003 after growing dissatisfied with the media landscape in B.C. and across the country.
“We knew there wasn’t enough diversity and that we wanted to broaden and deepen the conversation. But we didn’t know if it could be sustained,” he said about the website’s early days.
More than 1,100 people helped sustain that mission by pledging last month to help The Tyee go national.
“I think this shows that there are a lot of people who feel that what’s said in the media matters,” Beers said.
“It’s an important vote of confidence in what we’re doing.”
The race for your eyeballs is heating up, and it’s a real headline issue.
Upworthy—whose smugness, for full disclosure, makes me nauseous every time their posts show up in my feed—epitomizes this. The hyperbole abounds: words like “life-changing” and “revolutionary” get used often, and for old news. It becomes hard to take those words seriously when a site constantly cries wolf.
It’s an attempt to cheat the system for that oh-so-precious virality. Because for many, the goal is to simply get you on their site. There’s so little money in online advertising (although this may soon change) that bulk visits are the only real means to get cash flowing in.
If you make the click an instinctual reaction to the hype, it doesn’t really matter what’s waiting for you on the other side.
But it’s a short-lived gold rush, and exaggerating your news can only last so long until these buzzwords become part of the noise too. And more people are feeling duped by this strategy—in the past few days alone my Facebook feed’s been filling up with jokes similar to this post’s headline.
There are some new media outlets that are giving the headline a much-needed facelift, however.
Other online-only news sources, like Slate and Quartz, have headlines that read like ledes, pushing you into the story before you start it. A headline posted today on Quartz reads “How JP Morgan’s record settlement could hurt struggling homeowners in Detroit”—a clean introduction that makes you want to read the piece while not giving away the whole story.
There’s nothing sensational about the headline either. It just draws you into a short web story breaking down the effects of a settlement from the U.S. sub-prime mortgage crisis.
All this makes the old, generally low-on-preposition headline seem pretty stuffy.
Traditional headlines look nothing like sentences, but new media takes the opposite approach. An op-ed posted today on Slate has the headline “The Telecom Industry Should Be Embarrassed by Its Silence on Surveillance.”
It’s direct and simple, and as long as it’s under 140 characters, it can be a little longer than the old style.
See how many headlines begin with the word “This” in your social media feed to clearly see this headline dichotomy. You’d never see that word beginning a headline in the dead-tree business, but it embodies the kind of immediacy that the old guard just might need to keep our attention.
On Sept. 28 last year, thousands tuned into Fox News’ Studio B with Shepard Smith and watched as wanted felon Jodon Romero ended an hour-long police chase with something unpredictable.
Stumbling out of the vehicle he carjacked, he put a handgun to his head and pulled the trigger.
Within hours, Jessica Testa, reporter for viral content website BuzzFeed, had already posted the video online. The post was viewed over 357,000 times.
BuzzFeed’s reasoning at the time was clear.
“Making an editorial decision on how to cover a sensitive, tragic news event like this is never an easy one,” spokesperson Ashley McCollum said.
“But it is, indeed, a news event and we are a news organization.”
Eight months later, Testa wrote about the incident for BuzzFeed again.
Except this time it came in the form of a 5,000-word story explaining why Romero did what he did. Testa travelled to Arizona, spoke with Romero’s sister and told his backstory.
The story received more views than the original post.
BuzzFeed’s transition to becoming a “news organization” started in December 2011 when it hired then-Politico writer Ben Smith as its new editor-in-chief.
The website’s lesser known side, where its journalism lives, has continued to grow ever since.
Testa’s Romero story was one of BuzzFeed’s first long-form, in-depth articles.
The only problem was, within days, the story was gone from the site’s front page. BuzzFeed’s content churning nature had it replaced by what you mostly see there: tons of lists, sponsored posts, linkbait photos, memes and viral videos.
That problem was fixed this past April when BuzzFeed launched BuzzReads, a place for its longer stories to call home. A few months earlier, the site had hired former SPIN magazine editor Steve Kandell to oversee the project.
He’s played a key part in deciding what kind of stories the site wants to report.
“The one thing that I think we’ve been using as a criteria is, what would be the longer, narrative nonfiction journalism equivalent of something that would have the same effect on you as a bunch of cat GIFs,” Kandell told the Longform Podcast in June.
“Not because it’s cute, but because it’s the kind of thing that makes you go, ‘Okay, I need a lot of other people to see this,’” he said.
And now, BuzzFeed has taken another step towards journalism.
Last month, it announced it was not only expanding its reporting staff, but introducing an investigative unit led by Pulitzer-winner Mark Schoofs. Schoofs joins the site from ProPublica, where he worked for the last two years after spending over a decade at the Wall Street Journal.
In a statement, BuzzFeed’s Smith said Schoofs was the kind of reporter the site needs as it continues to “expand the kind of rigorous reporting that people want to read and share.”
The new investigative unit will count about a half-dozen reporters. BuzzFeed now employs more than 130 reporters overall, including a team of foreign correspondents, which are of a dying breed. The company employs journalists based in the Middle East and Eastern Europe.
Whether or not the site’s push towards serious journalism will last remains to be seen.
BuzzFeed’s not going to become anyone’s first stop for hard-hitting news anytime soon, nor does it really have to.
Its size alone and recent commitments to journalism make it an interesting player in the field.
And we’re still a long way away from people going there primarily for news, but people do go there—some 85 million every month. And that’s not a bad place to start for a “news organization.”
Media is taking up more space in our lives with each technological breakthrough, and it’s more than just white noise.
Our norms are shaped through constant media consumption, and it’s never been easier to make your voice part of the conversation. But is the information we’re consuming leaving too much out? Does the new media climate reinforce the same old prejudices? And do we even deserve whatever power new media has given us?
Dive into our Media Democracy Issue to get some answers.