Convergence, Corporate Restructuring, and Canadian Online News, 2000-2003

Robert Sparks (University of British Columbia)

Mary Lynn Young (University of British Columbia)

Simon Darnell (University of Toronto)

Abstract: This paper critically examines the corporate restructurings that took place in the Canadian news industry in 2000, using findings from website analyses in 2001 and 2003 that assessed the impact of the changes on the provision of online news. The paper shows that despite their stated commitment to convergence, the restructured companies only selectively exploited the interactive potential of the Web, and that they tended to operate under traditional news and revenue strategies. It also documents a continued shift in Canadian regulatory policies toward neo-liberal conceptions of news and the public good framed in terms of private ownership, free markets, and consumer choice.

Résumé : Cet article propose un examen critique des réorganisations d'entreprises qui ont eu lieu dans l'industrie de l'actualité canadienne en 2000. Pour ce faire, il a recours aux résultats d'analyses de sites Web faites en 2001 et 2003. Ces analyses avaient pour but de mesurer l'impact de ces réorganisations sur la présence de nouvelles en ligne. L'article montre que les entreprises réorganisées, malgré l'engagement qu'elles ont exprimé de s'avancer vers la convergence, n'ont exploité le potentiel interactif du Web que de manière sélective continuant à recourir à des stratégies traditionnelles en ce qui a trait à l'actualité et au revenu. L'article observe aussi une tendance continue dans les politiques réglementaires canadiennes vers une conception néolibérale de l'actualité et du bien public qui privilégie la propriété privée, les marchés libres et l'offre de choix au consommateur.

Introduction

A series of major corporate mergers and acquisitions occurred in the Canadian news industry in 2000 that entailed an unprecedented integration of telecommunications firms and Web services with print and broadcast media. Three companies emerged as primary stakeholders in the restructured market - Bell Globemedia Inc., CanWest Global Communications Corp., and Quebecor Inc. - creating what Dwayne Winseck has called "one of the most consolidated media systems in the developed world" (2002, p. 798). By most accounts at the time, the restructurings were undertaken to capitalize on the much heralded "technological convergence" that was thought to be occurring in the telecommunications, computer, and television industries and on the economic efficiencies that were thought to be derived from integrating media producers, distributors, and sellers (so-called "content producers" and "content providers"). Consumers and companies were both expected to benefit from the "interactive" and integrated services a converged system could provide, and the Web was understood as the key site where these services would develop. These restructurings raise important questions about the trajectory of media regulatory policy in Canada and its impacts on news production and dissemination.

Our goal in this paper is to critically assess the regulatory and market framework of the restructurings, including the competition review and licensing processes, and to provide a brief, retrospective snapshot of the online news services in Canada that resulted from the mergers. These interests position the paper as a study in the political economy of online news production and, in combination, point to its underlying interest in capturing in a preliminary way the effects of current regulatory policies in Canada on the provision of online news.

The paper is organized in two parts. First, we examine the regulatory and market context in 2000, including the jurisdictions and market orientations of the two regulatory bodies involved: the Competition Bureau and the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC). This part of the paper begins with a discussion of the concept of convergence in order to sort out its use and role in the regulatory decisions that authorized the restructurings.

In the second part, we report findings from a study of 113 news websites conducted in 2001, as well as from a follow-up analysis of 10 news websites conducted in 2003, which respectively assessed the companies' online news services one and three years after the restructurings. We draw on prior research on the state of online news to support our analysis and to comment in a relative sense on how the merged companies mobilized the potential of the Web technologies available to them. In this part, we emphasize the ideological significance of the concept of "interactivity" in helping to authorize a new market-oriented vision of the Web. We also problematize the value of the consumer benefits that the corporations promised in their licence applications and weigh these against the more obvious goals of corporate consolidation and profitability. Retrospective research, such as that presented here, is particularly helpful for capturing the direction and form of market and regulatory changes. One of the essential questions we try to answer in the paper is whether the mergers and acquisitions of 2000 marked the beginning of a progressive new era in the Canadian news industry or whether they were a contemporary version of an older story of news industry concentration that predated the Kent Commission (Kent, Spears, & Picard, 1981). We conclude with a brief discussion of the effects of the mergers on Canadian news production and an update on developments since 2003.

What becomes clear in our analysis is that the restructurings were seen by regulators as a necessary response to the demands of the new "information economy," even though there was little public discussion of the economic assumptions this involved or their social and political implications. Because of its jurisdiction over telecommunications and broadcast media, the CRTC played a pivotal role in authorizing the restructurings and determining the operating requirements of the companies, including their level of integration of news gathering, their separation of editorial responsibilities, and their emphasis on interactive services. The result of the CRTC's decisions was an unprecedented consolidation in the industry with only limited provisions for protecting the diversity of opinion in the national news system and for ensuring public access to online news and information. The site analyses show that despite their stated commitments to interactivity and digital media integration, the restructured companies did not merge their services in real terms and tended to operate under traditional one-to-many news and revenue strategies and to only selectively exploit the interactive potential of the Web. For most sites, the online news edition tended to be a repurposed version of the news agency's main coverage that was posted to the Web once daily. There was limited use of breaking news or novel news categories outside of standard newspaper formats (international, national, local, sports, et cetera), and hypertext links were used mainly to shrink the size of the news footprint on the homepage. The diagonal integration undertaken by the companies, with its distinctive cross-media pattern of ownership, invited cross-media news posting, yet the merged companies tended to remain true to their original format and not to "cross-platform" content on their websites. Increases in the number of subscription-based sites between 2001 and 2003 suggest that free public access to online news and related services is diminishing. When coupled with the high number of internal versus third-party advertisements found on the sites, the rise in subscriptions suggests that the revenue model for the news services is still developing and calls into question the rather simplistic assumptions of the economic efficiencies and value-added benefits of a converged media industry. These tensions and uncertainties were there from the beginning, and we begin our analysis by identifying them as a way to give context to the regulatory decisions.

Part 1: Media markets, convergence, and licence applications

Convergence

The term "convergence" sustains a number of distinct meanings when applied to the context of new media. One of these encompasses a mainly technical understanding of convergence as the integration of computer, television, and telecommunications technologies. This in part is what Pavlik (2006) has referred to as the "coming together [in a digital environment] of all the formerly separate analog media systems, including the telephone." A second meaning draws more on the functional capacity of these technologies to integrate previously distinct forms of information, as seen in the representation of the World Wide Web as an "information highway" that provides storage, transmission, and access to images, data, text, audio, and televisual materials and virtual environments. Here the meaning shifts toward opportunities for digitally based expression, communication, inquiry, and experience. A third use of the term, however, is less technological and informational and more marketing oriented; it refers to the integrated nature of the consumer markets that are generated when formerly discrete goods and services, such as movie DVDs, television, newspapers, and telephones, are packaged together and delivered via a converged media system and end-user technologies. This understanding of convergence assumes greater utility for consumers and a more efficient market environment for the company. The fourth meaning of convergence describes the corporate structure that facilitates the latter process. Here the assumption is that consolidated ownership of converged productive and distributive capacities yields greater economies of scale and competitive advantages for the parent company (Fidler, 1997). Converged ownership, in this understanding, can provide consumers with a wide selection of information and entertainment products that capitalize on the integrative and communicative potential of digital technologies.

As can be seen, one potential difficulty with current usage of the term "convergence" is that it sustains multiple meanings. A second is that none of these meanings is politically unmotivated; each has a particular fetch in contemporary social, political, and cultural life. For example, writers such as John Perry Barlow (1996; see also Barlow, Birkerts, Kelly, & Slouka, 1995) and Mitch Kapor (1993) (both cited in Meikle, 2002) saw the rise of online communications on the Internet as having deeply rooted democratic tendencies, while marketers overwhelmingly saw the same technologies as a new medium for commerce. As McChesney has paraphrased, proponents of the latter (business) case argued that the Web would allow "entrepreneurs to compete as never before, offering wonderful products at ever lower prices" (1999, p. 137). Meikle (2002) has referred to these two distinct understandings of the Internet as versions 1.0 and 2.0 (with the numeric progression intended as a reflection of historical change and not the usual sense of an "improved" system). In both cases (grass-roots democratic and business), it will be noted, the discourse surrounding the development of the Internet and Web is framed in largely utopian terms. This is a third problem with the term "convergence." Part of the reason that these claims can be made relates to the conceptual and ideological breadth of the term, but part also relates to the manner in which the distinct meanings of convergence (such as those that focus on its business and technological benefits) themselves are prone to ideological interplay and a kind of conceptual convergence in their own right. Without overstating the case, when combined uncritically in popular discourse, these different views provide a diffuse and suggestive framework that links together anticipated social and technological functions and benefits. If one had to pick which of these combinations was most powerful at the time of the restructurings in 2000, it is quite clear it was the business model, or what Meikle has called version 2.0. News coverage of the major media transactions in 2000 alternated between discussions of corporate, technological, informational, and consumer-product convergence and consistently blurred the lines between them, as did the corporate documents that we reviewed.

These pronouncements were problematic on at least two levels. For one, the media hype surrounding convergence gave the concept a novelty that defied evidence that the communications industry has sustained periods of both convergence and divergence in the past (Longstaff, 2001; Winseck, 1998; Winseck, 2002). Winseck (1998) argues in his analysis of the Canadian telecommunications industry, for example, that telecommunications policy has undergone two distinct stages: (1) media divergence, or the separation of telecommunications from the press, online services, and broadcasting, which occurred from the 1940s to the 1990s; and (2) recent re-convergence as a result of new policy reforms promoting "strategic rivalry across media," global free-trade regimes, and the "information highway" (Longstaff, 2001; Winseck, 1998, Winseck, 2002). The positioning of convergence as a new phenomenon in the late 1990s played into regulatory uncertainties at the time about the market structure and profit model of the "information economy." In the absence of a critical historical account, it was easy to see convergence itself as a necessary condition for corporate survival even though, strictly speaking, this understanding rested on politically motivated evidence.

The inflated rhetoric about convergence was problematic in a second sense. Although the prevailing business discourse of the day suggested that technological and corporate convergence operate in unison, there is reason to believe they may not. As Doyle (2002), Fidler (1997), and Pavlik (1999) have noted, corporate and technological convergence are not necessarily synergistic or even compatible. Doyle (2002), for example, problematizes the assumption that they ought to work in concert. She describes three "planes" of corporate convergence: horizontal, vertical, and diagonal. The first two are traditional understandings of corporate integration, with "horizontal convergence" referring to a merger of firms at the same stage in the supply chain and "vertical convergence" designating an expansion in either direction in the supply chain, which means that media firms may own operations that span from content creation to distribution. "Diagonal" convergence (also known as "cross-media integration"), by comparison, occurs when firms diversify into new but related business areas, such as newspapers purchasing television stations. This is different from simple conglomeration, where corporations invest in distinct industries and markets. The nature of corporate convergence in Canada during 2000 was unique, with all of the transactions falling into the diagonal expansion category. According to Doyle (2002), a diagonal expansion strategy is intended to allow firms to spread the risk if one division is underperforming and potentially to increase overall economies of scale. Doyle indicates that cross-media ownership of this type is increasing on a global scale because of the ability of digital technology to integrate information across different platforms.

Whereas technological convergence makes diagonal expansion relatively straightforward in a technical sense, it does not guarantee successful corporate convergence. In her 1997 study of U.K. media firms, Doyle examined how size affected the economic performance of diagonally integrated media firms. She found that there was strong scepticism among leading U.K. media companies about whether broadcasting and newspaper publishing offered any substantive synergies. Economies of scale were not considered an incentive for cross-ownership of television stations and newspapers because the knowledge and skills involved in newspaper production and distribution were different from those required in the television industry. She concluded that the economic rationale for combining newspaper and television operations was "quite limited" and that the only special advantage of cross-owning television and newspapers appeared to be in the opportunity to "cross-promote" products.

At a regulatory policy (and ideological) level, therefore, a case can be made that the concept of convergence, as it came to be used in the late 1990s, lent itself to a range of market-oriented assumptions about the major benefits of digital media technologies, the appropriate agents for realizing these benefits (private corporations), and the appropriate regulatory framework within which these agents should be allowed to operate (deregulated markets). Whereas it is quite possible to envision a future of the Web in which convergence operates on the basis of public providers and open access codes and software, as the Internet did in its infancy, the understandings of convergence that were invoked by industry in the late 1990s were quite different. The "public good" that was anticipated in this framework was not that of facilitated free speech for a plurality of voices in a publicly supported system of communication, but of business-facilitated commercial speech and commerce in a privatized system where the public was conceptualized as "consumers" of digital products and their freedom consisted mainly of the right to choose contents from a menu of product offerings (what Meikle [2002] calls the "juke box" approach).

A review of the restructurings

CanWest Global's purchase of the major newspaper, Internet, and magazine assets of Hollinger Inc. in July 2000 was touted at the time as the largest media acquisition in Canadian history ("Canada's media makeup transformed," 2000). In this transaction, CanWest acquired the 159 newspapers and Internet assets and magazines of Hollinger Inc. for $3.5 billion, which more than doubled CanWest's size, adding to its already substantial position as one of the country's largest private broadcasters ("Blockbuster opens way for more deals," 2000). Included in this package were 14 major metro daily newspapers; the remnants of the Southam Newspaper Group still held by Hollinger's principal shareholder, Conrad Black; and a 50% share of the National Post, Black's flagship newspaper based in Toronto. The Southam chain had also included four other daily newspaper titles - The Hamilton Spectator, The Kitchener-Waterloo Record, the Guelph Mercury, and The Cambridge Reporter - but Black had traded these newspapers to Sun Media Group for the Financial Post in 1997, which provided the backbone for the launch of the National Post that same year (Pitts, 2002). The deal between CanWest Global and Hollinger did not include Hollinger's British Columbia-based newspaper group, which was eventually sold in 2006. Leonard Asper, president and chief executive officer of CanWest Global, called the merger the "ultimate convergence transaction" ("Canada's media makeup transformed," 2000, p. B1). News reports described the event as a "transformation" of Canadian media, and proposed that the industry restructuring was necessary in order to create the right corporate environment for the convergence of media technologies.

The same logic of convergence provided the rationale for three other mergers and acquisitions within Canada during that same year. In February of 2000, Bell Canada Enterprises Inc (BCE) acquired CTV, Canada's largest private television network, and six months later, it added one of Canada's two national newspapers, The Globe and Mail, to its fold, uniting both news organizations under one company. BCE planned to integrate both media groups with its online news portal, Sympatico, to form what was then considered a "new media/old media" powerhouse called Bell Globemedia (Pitts, 2002). BCE Chairman Jean Monty explained that the Internet was "exactly where all [the media company's assets] meet" and stressed that the Web "facilitates the possibility of cross-selling, cross-promoting and repurposing" ("BCE, Thomson converge," 2000, p. B1). Thomson Group, which owned The Globe and Mail, had either divested or was in the process of selling many of its remaining American and Canadian newspaper holdings to other parties in order to focus on its electronic database business, and when BCE purchased The Globe and Mail, Thomson Group gained a 30% ownership stake in the newly created Bell Globemedia.

A month later, in September 2000, Montréal-based newspaper publisher Quebecor purchased cable company Groupe Videotron Ltée, which also owned Québec's largest private television network, TVA ("BCE, Thomson converge," 2000). The $5.4 billion purchase of Videotron occurred after a bidding war for the cable company between Quebecor and Rogers Media and amid allegations of political interference by Québec's powerful Caisse de dépot, which wanted to keep Videotron owned by a Québec company (Pitts, 2002). Industry interest in cross-media ownership and technological convergence was high, and the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission itself declared that "technological innovation [was] erasing the traditional boundaries within and across the telecommunications and broadcasting sectors" (Bertrand, 2000). Critics of the deals decried them because of concerns over decreased media competition and diversity of opinion, as well as threats to journalists' employment (Pitts, 2002). These groups included Friends of Canadian Broadcasting, the Canadian Association of Journalists, and the Canadian Media Guild. Ultimately, however, the dissenting voices were lost in the pro-convergence fervour of the day.

Media regulation and the market environment in Canada

Regulation of the media industries in Canada involves two main government agencies that are concerned with licensing, competition, and the public good: the Competition Bureau and the CRTC.

The Competition Bureau deals exclusively with economic and market-related issues. In the logic of its terms of reference, the mass media are considered a dual product containing advertising and information, and only the advertising component is considered to have economic import. As a result, the Competition Bureau does not concern itself with media content or with competition-related factors in the production of content, such as news gathering, or with the number of voices in the Canadian news industry. As Fraser (2003) notes, the Competition Act itself has "no specific provisions regarding broadcasting, telecommunications, newspapers or other media," and this limits the Competition Bureau's impact in most instances of media consolidation in Canada.

The second government body that deals with issues of media ownership is the CRTC, which regulates broadcasting and telecommunications in Canada. Broadly stated, the CRTC's role is to "maintain a delicate balance - in the public interest - between the cultural, social and economic goals of the legislation on broadcasting and telecommunications" (CRTC, 2004). Because of this mandate, the CRTC initially only held hearings on the two transactions in 2000 that directly involved broadcast and telecommunications firms: BCE's offer to purchase CTV in March 2000 and Quebecor's acquisition of Groupe Videotron and TVA. BCE was the first to initiate an application, but Quebecor's undertaking was the first to create a truly converged media conglomerate in Canada, involving content from print and broadcast outlets, an extensive cable network, and Internet properties, which included Canoe.ca. The print media-related mergers did not have direct relevance to the CRTC, and they were not heard by the Commission until CTV and Global came up for their seven-year licence renewals in 2001.

Although the CRTC was not immediately involved in all the transactions, it ended up being the main governmental regulator in each case, and its decisions served to significantly reshape the Canadian media and telecommunications landscape, albeit in different ways and at different times. The first case to test the CRTC on the issue of media "convergence" was BCE's purchase of CTV, and this decision helped set the tone for the Commission's response to the subsequent restructurings. BCE required CRTC approval because the purchase of CTV stood to change the ownership and control of the network. Documents filed with the CRTC suggest that the regulator's main concerns at the time were with the changing economics of the broadcast marketplace and the impact of the "proposed consolidation" on Canadian content (MacDonald, 2000, p. 7). These decisions must be considered within the larger telecommunications context in Canada, which has privileged a free-market policy agenda. As Rideout (2003) has noted, regulatory decisions in Canada have prioritized a competitive telecommunications market for services and the privatization of publicly owned telecommunications utilities and satellite operations within a framework of limited regulation and little public oversight. The federal government and corporations have been the key parties that have created this telecom regime, she argues, despite attempts by consumer groups and public-service advocates to direct telecom policy toward a conception of public ownership and access (rather than private ownership and the rights of a free market) as the public good.

In this regulatory context, it was incumbent on the applicants to address market conditions and prove fiscal viability in their business plans in addition to addressing their contribution to Canadian culture and content. BCE mobilized both levels of argument in its documentary filings to the CRTC to defend the need for its convergence strategy. In its market analysis, BCE contended that the revenue structure of the Canadian television industry, which relied on U.S. programming to subsidize the more expensive Canadian programming, was under threat because new specialty services had fragmented conventional television's audience base by more than 20%, which created a "flattening of revenue" and "more intense competition" (MacDonald, 2000, p. 7). Increasing media consolidation worldwide and the lack of a parallel response in Canada were cited as evidence that Canadian companies were falling behind the global trend and would be left behind if BCE's application was not approved. On a content level, BCE argued that its purchase of CTV would enhance CTV's Canadian content by providing it with larger pockets and a more technologically integrated structure. Summarizing these benefits and the necessity to keep up with market trends, James MacDonald, Senior Vice President of CTV, assured the CRTC that the merger of BCE and CTV would result in a viable, market-responsive organization:

BCE/CTV will draw upon the strengths of CTV in news and sports and BCE"s popular Internet sites and expertise in telecommunications networks. BCE will work with CTV to develop content for the Internet and to build upon the leading edge developments that both companies have been pioneering. These include BCE's investments in Extend Media, which is a world leader in developing interactive television applications and CTV's work with Blue Zone in creating compelling and customizable online news featuring CTV news reporting. . . . We cannot afford to risk being left behind. We believe that packaging Canadian content one way for broadcast delivery and in a different manner for online delivery will bring our content to the world. (MacDonald, 2000, p. 56)

One of the innovations promised in the application was a focus on interactive media. MacDonald indicated that BCE would develop interactivity around "CTV's in-house news, sports and public affairs programming" and advised that "interactive content is best designed from the ground up as opposed to being grafted on later" (MacDonald, 2000, p. 75). BCE also promised the largest benefits package in CRTC history, worth $130 million, which included provisions for Canadian-content support and funds for young journalists and research. Finally, documents supplied to shareholders of CTV also described the purchase in terms of its ability to advance BCE's participation in e-commerce (Bertrand, 2000, p. 6).

Similar arguments of market responsiveness and technological convergence were used to support the other media consolidations within Canada during the same year, which involved Quebecor and CanWest Global. According to Pierre Karl Peladeau, Quebecor's chief executive officer, his firm was looking for technological synergies when it purchased Videotron. As Peladeau put it, "the euphoria was so high, we got caught up a bit. I got caught up in the Internet" (Pitts, 2002, p. 160). During the lead-up to Quebecor's purchase, Peladeau stated that "by merging Videotron's Internet access capabilities with Quebecor, we will be building a company that will be much more than the sum of its parts" (Pitts, 2002, p. 168).

Quebecor and CanWest Global were both vocal about wanting to use the restructurings to increase their competitive advantage globally, and this posed a problem for the CRTC in ruling on the proposals, which were all eventually approved. The Commission's commitment to a market-oriented approach to regulation was at odds with its role as a cultural watchdog for the Canadian broadcasting system, in which capacity the agency had to weigh the interests of Canadian audiences against the potential market performance of its individual licensees (see Raboy, 1990, and Salter, 1986). This tension was highlighted in one of the only decisions to address content and newsroom organization. Quebecor succeeded in obtaining CRTC approval by promising in its licence application to maintain a strict separation between its print and broadcast assets in order to preserve a diversity of voices in Québec. This decision and the issue of diversity became contentious during the licensing renewal hearings for both BCE-CTV and CanWest Global in early 2001. Both firms argued that the strict separation of print and broadcast assets agreed to by Quebecor would negatively affect their business models, and they lobbied for a watered-down version of the terms. They proposed to incorporate voluntary codes of conduct that would maintain separate editorial management bodies at their print and broadcast holdings, but not for news gathering. Each organization filed a statement of principles with the CRTC. These delineated separate decision-making processes for each management structure, such that in the case of Bell Globemedia, the editor of The Globe and Mail could not tell CTV what to place on its newscasts and vice versa. Integrated news-gathering discussions would be allowed at the journalistic level, however, to minimize duplication and generate joint projects.

In the end, both firms received approval for the less stringent version, although even this accommodation constrained their ability to reach their original financial objectives that were based on merged news structures. While the organizations had some level of convergence in news gathering, this did not reach the senior editorial level, and there remained a duplication of services and media-specific production logics that in combination stood to limit potential cost-savings. Whether it aided the retention of positions for journalists remains to be seen. The tension between business interests and preservation of industry jobs was yet another of the factors in the complex array of issues faced by the CRTC, which had to ascertain that the business models for the converged corporations were sufficiently economically viable to sustain the industry as a precondition to also considering whether the arrangements would protect jobs in television and newspaper newsrooms and thereby protect diversity of opinion and a multiplicity of points of view.

Part 2: Technological convergence, interactivity, and Canadian news websites

Licence applications and agreements always beg the question of what a company can and will do when given the opportunity (see Sparks, 1992). As shown above, one of the justifications for allowing the consolidation that occurred in Canadian media in 2000 was the expectation that the resulting companies would be able to capitalize on the emerging technological convergence in digital media to create new kinds of marketable services that would be beneficial to consumers. Critical questions, therefore, are how the companies actually responded to their new market positions and licence agreements after receiving approval and how their responses affected the state of Canadian online news. These questions can be answered by examining the kinds of online services that were developed in light of the expectations voiced at the time of the mergers.

Based on the information in the companies' licence applications, four results of the mergers were likely. First, the Web was repeatedly framed as a focal point because of its multimedia capabilities, and this emphasis stood to shape the companies' content and format strategies, as well as to make the Web a critical new medium for news and marketing. Second, as noted in their applications, the companies' cross-ownership of broadcast and print news sources presented an opportunity for cross-platforming content within and between their various websites, a condition which again underscored the importance of the Web as a news medium. Third, the companies stated unequivocally that sales and promotions would be important activities, which raises the critical issue of the revenue model for the converged services. Fourth, a clear expectation in the licensing process was that the companies' news services would empower consumers and enhance their news experience by being integrative and "interactive." The latter attribute requires a brief explanation prior to turning to the companies' responses.

Interactivity

The term "interactivity" in its application to new media generally denotes a process of active engagement between system users and/or a user and the system itself. Jensen (1999), for example, defines interactivity as "a measure of a [medium's] potential ability to let the user exert an influence on the content and/or form of the mediated communication" (p. 183). In practical application, however, the concept of interactivity is not precise, and it covers a broad array of functional relationships, many of which are only marginally interactive in a literal sense. In Jensen's (1999) taxonomy of interactivity, for example, three of his four categories (adapted from Bordewijk & Kaam, 1986) fit this distinction: "transmissional" interactivity (for example, subscribing to a service that delivers content via e-mail), "consultational" interactivity (selecting information from a website), and "registrational" interactivity (a service-provider distinction - collecting information on or from system users). Only the fourth category, "conversational" interactivity (for example, e-mail services), encompasses the literal sense of two-way interaction between users. Lister, Dovey, Giddings, Grant, & Kelly (2003) offer a related taxonomy of interactivity based on the functionality of new media. Two of their four categories concern "navigation": "hypertextual" navigation (for example, accessing a range of data forms via hypertext links) and "immersive" navigation (for example, manuevering through representations of space such as within computer games). These two distinctions are adapted from Lunenfeld's (1993) two "paradigms" of interaction, "extractive" (calling up data from a repository) and "immersive" (navigating within a spatial context), and they help to give broader meaning to the processes involved in selecting information in Jensen's "consultational" category. Lister et al. also offer a more encompassing understanding of "registrational" interactivity by emphasizing the ability of users to "write back into the text" in specialized environments such as bulletin boards, newsgroups, multiple-user domains (MUDs), and multiple-user object-oriented spaces (MOOs). Their fourth category, "interactive" communications, draws on the full range of potential interaction in computer-mediated communications (CMC), highlighting the functional side of Jensen's category of "conversational" interactivity. This category encompasses a continuum from highly interactive conversations on a chat site to more formal question-response "conversations" on a bulletin board. In the case of the media mergers in 2000, it is clear that the meanings of interactivity that came to bear in the licence decisions pertained mainly to Jensen's first three categories - "transmissional," "consultational," and "registrational" interactivity - although "conversational" forms such as e-mail and chatrooms were also a possibility for Web services. It is important to ask, therefore, how interactivity was operationalized after the mergers, as well as how it was made to fit the mission of online news services, that is, of delivering news in new, "interactive" ways.

Online journalism and news websites

The impact of digital technologies on news reporting is an emerging area of concern in media studies, and a growing body of work has focused on how these technologies are affecting the work of news producers, the global flow of information, the nature of news content, and the availability and presentation of news, including the kinds of online news services available to users (see, for example, Gasher & Gabriele, 2004; Li, 1998; Massey & Levy, 1999). The latter issue in particular pertains to the questions we were interested in answering about the effects of corporate convergence in the Canadian news industry in 2000. Most of the research to date has found that online news sites of major media outlets have tended to conform to traditional formats, with repackaged contents and limited evidence of interactivity or technological convergence. For instance, Tremayne (1999) found that newspaper websites used fewer hypertext links than their broadcast counterparts. Gubman & Greer (1997) showed that larger newspapers with more resources were able to include more interactive features on their websites, such as menus and links, and that sites associated with larger newspapers were more likely than sites associated with smaller newspapers to put news on the "splash" page (newspaper homepage) and to update frequently. More recently a general trend toward increased original news reporting by online news sites in the United States has been noted; however, the level of participation of electronic newspapers in this process remains unclear, with some online editions in the United States little more than electronic versions of the print edition of the newspaper (Dibean & Garrison, 2001). This may partly be a consequence of a time lag in the diffusion of news reporting innovations, but it may also be a result of uncertainties in the business model for online news media and a conservative response by management pending a better understanding of the online market for news. New media have often emulated the business practices and missions of old media when they have first been introduced, as part of a strategy to operate within known market conditions, retain traditional consumers, and buy time to build a new operational model and clientele for the services. Lister et al. (2003) refer to this process as "remediation" and observe that "all new media refashion existing media in order to find a mass audience" (p. 182). They quote from Bolter & Grusin (2000, p. 198): " . . . the World Wide Web could now refashion a much larger class of earlier media. In addition to the letter and the scientific report, it could now remediate the magazine, the newspaper and graphic advertising" (cited in Lister et al., 2003, p. 182). In addition to emulating the look, feel, and market strategy of print and broadcast media, Web-based news could also add value to these earlier products through the use of interactive Web technologies. The point, ostensibly, would be to introduce innovations in such a way as to attract users but not overwhelm them. Such an approach would implicitly follow American industrial designer Raymond Loewe's "MAYA principle" of implementing the most advanced yet acceptable level of innovation from the standpoint of consumer knowledge and comfort (Leiss, Kline, & Jhally, 1990). Web technologies such as hypertext links, search engines, and video links are good examples of widely used and acceptable site features (whereas site-customization tools are not).

Despite the potential value of these services, however, a number of researchers observed in the late 1990s and early 2000s that media websites in general, and newspaper sites in particular, had not fully taken advantage of these kinds of interactive or multimedia features (Cochran, 1995; Dibean & Garrison, 2001). For example, Massey & Levy's (1999) study of Asian English-language newspaper websites found that while the publications offered a relatively complex choice of news content, most did not rate high on their measures of interactivity. At the same time, some research (in the U.S.) found that newspaper websites were offering a variety of interactive Web-based services. For example, in a content analysis and e-mail survey that examined the online services offered by 80 newspapers in the United States, Peng, Tham, & Xiaoming (1999) found that the majority of the newspapers used hyperlinks and provided access to archives and search engines, and one-third offered readers forums or live chat environments, with the larger national and metropolitan dailies more likely to carry these services.

The findings from this research potentially have application to Canada, but while several studies have addressed U.S. and Asian media markets, very few have analyzed the Canadian context, and none of these to our knowledge have been national in scope. For example, Gasher & Gabriele (2004) provided a useful analysis of the international news flow of The Montréal Gazette and its online editions, but they did not engage the broader Canadian context. Given our research questions and the lack of evidence available, we undertook a national study of Canadian news websites in 2001 that was intended to assess the functional status of the online news media one year after the mergers previously noted and determine the level of integration of new presentation formats and capabilities (such as cross-platforming content), as well as the level of use of Web technologies for novel news products, including the kinds of interactive services that were envisioned in the licence applications. We focused on the Web, because this is where the companies said they would focus their efforts. To enhance the sensitivity of our measures, we used Massey & Levy's (1999) site inventory, in particular their adaptation of Heeter's (1989) conceptualization of interactivity, as a point of departure. This included four dimensions of interactivity that Massey & Levy tested in their analysis of online journalism sites in the 14 Asian newspapers they studied. These relate broadly to Jensen's (1999) consultational, registrational, and conversational forms of interactivity. We expanded the inventory to include transmissional interactivity in the form of listservs and other subscription services. The four dimensions from Heeter's framework used in the Massey & Levy (1999, p. 140) study were:

  • Complexity of choice available: The range of Web content available to readers. Includes diversity of content, text supplemented with digitized audio, video, and in-story hypertext links, and news customization features.

  • Responsiveness to the user: The degree to which online journalists can react responsively to readers. Includes potential for responsiveness and actual responsiveness, that is, the provision of e-mail links to the newsroom and whether journalists actually respond to them.

  • Ease of adding information: The extent to which website users can act as an information source and provide information to other users via asynchronous or one-to-many communication such as bulletin boards.

  • Facilitation of interpersonal communication: The extent to which a website facilitates synchronous conversations between readers via chatrooms.

2001 website analysis

The site analysis inventory and protocol were developed through an iterative process, drawing on Massey & Levy's (1999) categories as a baseline and adding further categories to ensure coverage of all major site features relating to news services, cross-platforming, advertising, and interactivity found during trial site visits. The inventory included general site information such as layout, size, and user fees, as well as specific information relating to site navigation, news content and presentation, site utilities and services, communication, and functionality (assessed via a series of four heuristic tests adapted from Krug, 2000 and Pearrow, 2000). The sites studied included 100 daily newspapers, 8 community newspapers, 3 national television networks, and 2 Web news outlets (see Table 1). These sites were chosen to be representative of online journalism in Canada during the summer of 2001 and to include representative sites of the three major converged companies. Altogether, 29 sites were owned by CanWest Global, 12 sites were owned by Quebecor, and 2 sites were owned by Bell Globemedia. The other 62 daily newspapers and 7 community newspapers were owned by a number of other media outlets, none of which had a clearly articulated convergence strategy at the time. These included Osprey Media Group Inc., Power Corporation, and the Irving family in New Brunswick.1 Table 1 lists the newspapers by the population size of their city of record and major market area ranging from the largest (CMA >149,000) to smallest (< 20,000). The national television networks and news websites are listed separately in the table because they have a national geographical reach and their home location and the size of their city of record is not pertinent to their role in providing national news.

Table 1: News organizations in the 2001 website analysis (city size)
Newspapers (CMA > 149,000)
Calgary Herald La Tribune Simcoe Reformer
Calgary Sun Le Journal de Montréal St. Catherines Standard
Corrière Canadese Le Nouvelliste The St. John's Telegram
Edmonton Journal Le Soleil Sudbury Star
Edmonton Sun London Free Press The Province
The Globe and Mail The Montréal Gazette Thunder Bay Chronicle Journal
The Halifax Chronicle-Herald National Post The Toronto Star
Halifax Daily News New Brunswick Telegraph Journal Toronto Sun
The Hamilton Spectator Ottawa Citizen The Vancouver Sun
Journal de Quebec Ottawa Sun Victoria Times Colonist
Journal le Droit The Regina LeaderPost The Windsor Star
Kingston Whig Standard Saint John Telegraph-Journal Winnipeg Free Press
The Kitchener-Waterloo Record Saskatoon Star Phoenix Winnipeg Sun
La Presse Sherbrooke Record
Newspapers (50,000-149,000)
Barrie Examiner L'Acadie Nouvelle Peace River Block Daily News
The Belleville Intelligencer Le Quotidien Penticton Herald, Kelowna Daily Courier
Brantford Expositor Lethbridge Herald Peterborough Examiner
Cape Breton Post Medicine Hat News Prince George Citizen
Charlottetown Guardian Moncton Times and Transcript Red Deer Advocate
Chatham Daily News Nanaimo Daily News Sarnia Observer
Fredericton Daily Gleaner Niagra Falls Review Sault Ste Marie Star
Guelph Mercury North Bay Nugget Standard-Freeholder
Kamloops Daily News North Shore News†
La Voix de L'est Northumberland Online
Newspapers (20,000-49,000)
Alberni Valley Times Moose Jaw Times-Herald Sentinel Review
Brandon Sun New Glasgow Evening News St. Thomas Times Journal
Brockville Recorder and Times Orilia Packet and Times Stratford Beacon Herald
Corner Brook Western Star Owen Sound Sun Times Timmins Daily Press
Cranbrook Daily Townsman Pembroke Daily Observer Truro Daily News
Fort McMurray Today Portage La Prairie Graphic Welland Port Colborne Tribune
Grand Prairie Daily Herald Tribune Prince Albert Daily Herald Whitehorse Star Daily
Newspapers (< 20,000)
Alaska Highway News Kenora Miner and News Nunatsiaq News†
Amherst Daily News Kimberly Daily Bulletin Sackville Tribune Post†
The Cambridge Reporter† Lindsay Daily Post Slave River Journal†
Fort Francis Times† Miramichi Leader† Tillsonburg News
Hay River Hub† Nelson Daily News Trail Daily Times
Inuvik Drum Northern News Service Yellowknifer
Television Networks
CBC CTV Global TV
Web
Canada.com Canoe.ca
Total (n=113)
† Eight community newspapers (published 1-3 times weekly) were included in the study. All other newspapers are dailies.

A systematic analysis was completed of each site using a single-pass, single-coder method of data collection during the period from August 2001 to November 2001. The terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City occurred during our study, so we suspended the site analysis on September 11 and resumed one month later, once the main news items no longer featured the terrorist attacks and a more normal balance of news stories had been restored on the site homepage. In addition to spanning the September 11 attacks, a further limitation of this study is that it represents only a "snapshot" of a medium that was still very much in flux. Even now the state of online news sites can be considered "rapidly evolving," with what Dibean & Garrison (2001) call "frequent changes" and "radical redesigns." In order to offset this temporal limitation, we conducted a follow-up study in August 2003 using a subsample of 10 representative sites to update our findings. These results are reported later in the paper. The findings from the 2001 site analysis show that while the rhetoric of technological convergence was still very much in play, signs of its effect in practice one year following the mergers were negligible. Results of the site analysis have been grouped under four headings: the format of online news services, cross-platforming, interactivity, and advertising (cross-promotion).

Format of online news services

To assess the first indicator of change - the format of online news services - we analyzed the layout and types of content displayed on the site homepages ("splash pages"). We recorded this information in its literal form; however, we interpreted the types of layout and content as first-level proxies for the extent to which the organizations had remained true to the original form of the medium (a conservative approach) or had adapted to the potential of the Web (an innovative approach). Using these criteria, signs of innovation would be a Web-enhanced site structure and novel content, as these would be indicative of the parent organization having taken seriously its mission to offer novel news products. As seen in Table 2, the majority of the 113 sites were still using traditional newspaper formats in their splash-page design. Thirty-six percent used a left-sidebar layout and 24.8% used a left-right page design. Both are traditional linear layouts using a hierarchical navigation structure long preferred by newspapers, with the left-sidebar design situating the lead news stories on the centre-right side of the page, a newspaper tradition (Barnhurst & Nerone, 2001). The Web opened completely new possibilities for communicating information, and leading designs already made use of this capacity by 2001. The most innovative layout from a website design standpoint, the multiframe format, was used by only 1.8% of the sites.

Table 2: Web page layouts
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 Other† Total
Daily newspapers 12 1 7 38 5 23 2 12 100
Community newspapers 2 0 0 2 0 3 0 1 8
Television networks 0 0 1 0 0 1 0 1 3
Web 0 0 0 1 0 1 0 0 2
Total 14 1 8 41 5 28 2 14 113
Percent 12.4% 0.9% 7.1% 36.3% 4.4% 24.8% 1.8% 12.4% 100%

† Other layout configurations of newspapers included fixed or static bars (without active content) on top or left of " home page (n=5), no columns or single column (n=4), linked left and top bar (n=3), and scrolling bars on left and " right (n=1). Other layout for television was a static left side of home page with Real Player (n=1).

In addition to layout, we examined news headings to determine if the media outlets were using traditional news categories in their presentation of the news online. As Table 3 indicates, the majority of daily newspapers in the sample arranged their news indexes along traditional print journalism lines, with subsections that featured sports, local news, national news, and weather, as well as editorial, business, international news and entertainment. Again, we took this as a proxy for the extent to which the organizations were acting innovatively or conservatively. It was quite possible with the Web to accommodate community-specific news and reader input and new kinds of information services, but the findings show little movement beyond the traditional one-to-many reporting of major news stories that was common at the time. Not only did the content categories emulate traditional newspaper design, the majority of newspaper sites (72/100) updated the news once a day, with only 5 out of the 100 taking advantage of the Web for breaking news and updating stories as they occurred (The Globe and Mail, Le Soleil, Ottawa Citizen, The Toronto Star, Le Quotidien).

Table 3: News headings
Daily Newspapers Community Newspapers Television Web
News Index Subject Categories† (n=90) (n=7) (n=2) (n=2)
Local news 76 7 0 0
Regional/provincial news 23 2 0 0
National news 51 2 2 2
International news 44 2 2 2
Business/finance 45 3 2 2
Sports 83 6 2 2
Weather 56 2 2 2
Columns 25 4 0 1
Opinion/Editorial 51 7 0 0
Entertainment 43 4 1 2
Other‡ 83 7 2 2
News Posting (n=100) (n=8) (n=2) (n=2)
Single posting (date) 72 7 0 2
Single posting (date & time) 13 1 0 0
Breaking news posting 5 0 2 0
† News index subject categories on the homepage were used as a proxy for actual news contents. Ten dailies and one community newspaper did not have a news index.
‡ Major "other" news subject categories for daily newspapers included: life/lifestyles (n=13), health (n=13), letters (n=12), science/technology (n=10), money/markets (n=8), and top stories (n=6). The major "other" category for community newspapers was "community" (n=3).

Table 4: News media & cross-platform links
CanWest Global Quebecor Bell Globemedia CBC Other Com
Newspapers TV Web Newspapers Web Newspaper TV TV Dailies Papers
Daily&Com Global Canada.com Dailies Canoe.ca Globe&Mail CTV
Media (n=27) (n=1) (n=1) (n=11) (n=1) (n=1) (n=1) (n=1) (n=62) (n=7)
Video 2 0 0 0 1 1 1 1 1 0
Audio 0 0 0 0 1 0 1 1 0 0
Story Links
Related stories (from today's news) 1 0 0 1 0 1 0 0 2 0
Background content (prior stories) 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 1 2 0
Related links (external to this site) 0 0 0 1 1 1 0 0 1 0
Reporter Links
Byline (reporter email link) 1 0 0 6 0 0 0 0 2 0
Story end (reporter email link) 1 0 0 1 0 0 0 1 3 0

Cross-platforming

Our second convergence measure looked at the cross-platforming of content or the possibility that newspapers and television stations were sharing news formats and contents. Our results indicate that the majority of news sites were not taking advantage of these opportunities. Table 4 shows that 7 websites of the total 113 in the sample offered video links and 3 offered audio links to news stories. The four newspapers that used video clips to enhance their online print offerings were The Globe and Mail, owned by Bell Globemedia (parent company: BCE Inc); The Belleville Intelligencer, of Osprey Media Group; and The Windsor Star and The St. John's Telegram, both owned by CanWest Global. The St. John's Telegram, however, began offering video before CanWest Global purchased the newspaper, while it was still owned by Hollinger. According to Telegram editor Russell Wangersky, the newspaper started providing video coverage of events because a local production house offered to share its material in exchange for space on the news site (Russell Wangersky, Editor, The St. John's Telegram, St. John's, NS, personal communication, June 20, 2002). Of the television stations that we examined, both CTV News and the CBC were utilizing video streaming and audio on their websites. The only online news website using both video and audio was Canoe.ca, which was owned by Quebecor. There was limited use of story and reporter links. Quebecor newspapers, however, had the highest use of reporter e-mail links.

Table 5: Interactivity
CanWest Global Quebecor Bell Globemedia CBC Other Com
Newspapers TV Web Newspapers Web Newspaper TV TV Dailies Papers
Daily&Com Global Canada.com Dailies Canoe.ca Globe&Mail CTV
Services (n=27) (n=1) (n=1) (n=11) (n=1) (n=1) (n=1) (n=1) (n=62) (n=7)
Advertising contact 18 0 1 9 0 1 0 0 40 2
Subscriptions 21 0 0 8 0 1 0 0 32 4
(site use requires subscription) 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 6 1
Web search window 19 0 0 4 0 1 0 0 22 0
Searchable news archive 7 0 0 7 0 1 1 0 13 1
Listserv 8 0 1 0 0 1 1 1 9 1
Classifieds (searchable) 25 0 1 10 1 1 0 0 45 6
(requires registration) 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
Job listing service 12 0 1 6 1 1 0 0 17 1
(requires registration) 2 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 8 0
Email accounts 4 0 1 0 1 0 1 0 9 0
(requires registration) 2 0 1 0 1 0 0 0 8 0
Customize the web site 2 0 1 0 0 0 1 0 8 0
(requires registration) 2 0 1 0 0 0 0 0 8 0
Site Navigation Aids
Site map 9 0 1 2 0 1 1 0 18 1
(homepage links to site map) 8 0 1 1 0 1 1 0 16 1
Site search window 9 0 1 4 1 1 1 1 16 4
(homepage links to search window) 10 0 0 2 0 0 1 1 13 1
Types of News Links
Html text underlined 17 0 1 3 1 1 0 0 36 5
Standard phrase: "Full story" 11 0 1 7 1 1 1 1 26 1
Html text highlighted 1 0 0 3 0 0 0 0 4 0
Standard icon: video/audio 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 5 0
Graphic 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
Photograph 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
Standard button 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
Roll-over button 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
Communication
Contact (email link) 26 0 1 11 1 1 1 1 54 7
Letter to the editor (email link) 17 0 0 7 0 0 0 1 19 3
Discussion board 6 0 1 1 1 1 0 1 20 2
Poll or survey 5 0 0 5 1 1 1 0 8 2
(immediate poll or survey results) 5 0 0 5 1 1 1 0 8 2
Chat room 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 1 0
Communication Test
Reply to contact test 11 0 1 4 1 1 0 1 22 3

Interactivity

The third set of measures addressed the area of interactivity, which we operationalized, following Heeter (1989) and Massey & Levy (1999), as including hypertext and news customizability, facilitation of journalist-reader and reader-reader communication, and news-agency responsiveness to readers. These were critical measures in the study because the promise of interactivity and digital integration had played a central role in justifying the restructurings to the CRTC. As indicated by Table 5, the distribution of Web- and site-related services, navigation aids, news links, and communications services demonstrated an emphasis on revenue-oriented or "transactional" forms of interactivity, as well as reader-to-journalist communications and the use of hypertext as a content management tool. Highest in incidence in the services category was a searchable classifieds utility that was offered by 81 dailies, 6 of the 7 community papers, and the 2 Web news sites. Nearly all of the newspaper sites of the three merged corporations provided a classified utility. Classifieds are a traditional revenue-producing service for newspapers, and the Web version constituted a value-added service for the customer who paid to list the ads, as well as for the site user, because a searchable database is a superior format for obtaining information in comparison with a newspaper section that must be visually scanned. It is possible the newspapers offered the Web listing as an added benefit for print customers, or that they had a surcharge for the Web listing or provided a Web-only service; however, this was not assessed in the site analysis.

Next-highest in incidence in the services category were advertising and subscription contact links, which again had a revenue connection in that they facilitated paid advertising and subscriptions. Whereas 66 sites provided subscription links, only seven required subscriptions for site use and none of these were owned by the merged corporations, which means that the majority of Web services were being offered for free. Advertising and subscriptions were followed in prevalence by Web search windows, job-listing services, and searchable news archives that potentially stood to augment the value of the site for users and to help retain existing users as well as attract new ones. Having said this, there were comparatively low rates for offering other value-added services, including news listservs (18 dailies, 1 community paper, 2 television networks, 1 Web news) and e-mail accounts (13 dailies, 1 television network, 2 Web news). The rate of site customizability was very low overall, and only 10 dailies, 1 television network, and 1 Web news site offered users site customization utilities. Similarly, the incidence of site navigation aids was depressed, with only 30 daily newspapers offering site maps (9 from CanWest Global, 2 from Quebecor and The Globe and Mail) and 29 offering site search windows. The major navigation systems for the sites were the news indexes listed in Table 3, a very traditional way to manage news hierarchy. Site search windows were relatively more popular among the community papers (5 of 8), television networks (2 of 3), and Web news sites (2 of 2).

In the news links category, 64 daily newspapers used hypertext news links in stories, 56 in an underlined style and 8 in highlighted text. Seventeen of the 27 newspapers owned by CanWest Global used hypertext links, as did 3 of the Quebecor newspapers and Bell Globemedia's The Globe and Mail. Forty-five daily newspapers used links that indicated the "full story." Hypertext has received an ambivalent response - criticized for giving readers a false sense of control over content, but also defended as a technology that is not given its due. We were interested in hypertext in part because it takes advantage of multimedia capabilities and can serve a "remediation" function by adding depth to news stories not readily available in print newspapers or on television. This potentially could be an important value-added feature of online news. The main use of hypertext in the sample we analyzed, however, was not to add depth, but to make the story footprint smaller on the splash page so the sites could minimize the number of screens (page-downs) on the homepage yet still have a representative selection of introductory text from lead stories, together with news photos and advertising. This spatial strategy is clear when one compares the rates for news links in Table 5 with the very low rates for related stories, background content, and related links in Table 4. Again, this is in keeping with the traditional positioning of headlines, lead stories, and photos above the fold in newspapers to capture the attention of readers, and it indicates that the organizations had only partially responded to the remediation potential of the Web.

In addition to hypertext, we looked for communications features that enabled site users to correspond with the news agency and with each other, such as e-mail links to reporters and editors, polls and surveys, discussion boards, and chatrooms. Such features relate broadly to Jensen's conversational form of interactivity (1999) and Lister et al.'s expanded concept of registrational interactivity (2003), in the sense that they let users "write back into the text" available on the site as well as share information with journalists and each other. The "contact" e-mail link was the most widespread feature found in the 2001 site analysis, indicating a commitment to receiving input from users (or to wanting to be perceived as such). Ninety-one daily newspapers, all 8 community papers, 2 television networks, and the 2 Web news sites had an e-mail link for contacting the organization. Forty-three dailies and 3 community papers also listed an e-mail link for letters to the editor. Discussion boards and polls/surveys were much less common, although 6 newspapers from CanWest Global, 1 from Quebecor, and 1 from Bell Globemedia (The Globe and Mail) had discussion boards, as did the CBC. As well, 5 CanWest newspapers and 5 Quebecor newspapers were using online polling. The prevalence of contact links is consistent with an interest in monitoring user opinions. We did not evaluate this dimension of user-journalist interactivity, but we did assess news-organization responsiveness to user enquiries.

As part of the interactivity analysis, we conducted a contact test in which we sent an e-mail message to the main contact address (or news desk address, in the absence of a contact address) at each site, requesting further information about a lead story. The messages were sent from a generic e-mail address - "@hotmail.com" or "@yahoo.ca" - to minimize the possibility of a greater rate of response to a university address.2 The rationale for the test was to determine actual organizational responsiveness to readers. The 113 emailed queries resulted in 44 responses (a response rate of 38.9%), with 37 responses from daily newspapers (37%); 4 from community papers (57.1%); 1 from a television site, the CBC; and 2 from the online news sites (100%). Forty percent of the CanWest newspapers, 36% of Quebecor's newspapers, and The Globe and Mail (Bell Globemedia's newspaper) responded. The CBC, which also responded, used an automated e-mail system with no follow-up.3 The contact test is useful because it demonstrates the quality of service offered to the site users and the news organization's commitment to acting on user input.

Advertising (cross-promotion)

Finally, because much of the news coverage and industry rhetoric about the importance of convergence emphasized the cross-promotional potential of converged news media, we examined the advertisements on each of the news sites in the sample. The importance of taking account of advertising was supported by Peng, Tham, & Xiaoming (1999) who found that two of the top three reasons cited by newspaper editors for establishing online editions were to generate income through advertising and to use the online version as a promotional tool for their print product. Our results support this finding. Table 6 shows that the majority of small ads on the splash page were self-promotional, in the sense that they related to "internal" products or features of the news agency itself, or to another component or offering of the media company. In the small static-ad category, the 100 daily newspapers had a collective 174 internal ads and 90 income-producing ads that promoted products or features "external" to the paper. The majority of ads on the television news sites were also internal to the media outlet (11 versus 3) as were those on the Web news sites (14 versus 0), which is to say they were mainly self-promotional and not revenue-generating. The number of small animated ads on newspaper websites also reflected a higher rate of promoting internal versus external products, but the overall incidence figures and ratio (52 versus 40) were not as high as those for the static ads.

Banner ads were an important vehicle at the time for commercial advertising on the Web, and they commanded a prime rate (Cho, 2003; Shen, 2002). Banner ads typically ran across the top of a Web page and included a combination of graphics and text linking to the advertiser's website. While the numbers of internal and external ads in the static-banner category for newspapers were similar (13 compared with 14 for dailies), the number of external ads in the animated-banner category was significantly higher than the number of internal ads (37 compared with 13 for dailies), which reflects greater advertiser investment. Yet the low incidence of banner ads generally in the sample, versus the elevated incidence of lower-cost static and animated small ads, suggests that paid advertising was not yet a secure revenue stream for the sites. Overall, the percentage of ads that were internal to the organizations was higher than that of external ads, which indicates that these sites were largely utilized as cross-promotional tools and that, as business ventures, the sites had not yet achieved the financial success anticipated at the time of the mergers. This apparent lack of external advertising revenue in the 2001 study helps to explain the results that we found in the follow-up site analysis in 2003, which show that in addition to adopting a multiframe layout as a new look, in 2003 many media outlets were trying to make the sites more economically viable by shifting to user-fee and subscription models.

2003 website analysis

To update our findings, we conducted a follow-up study of a representative sample of 10 news sites in August 2003, using the site analysis inventory from the 2001 study. Table 7 shows the 10 news sites that composed the 2003 sample.

Table 6: Advertising
CanWest Global Quebecor Bell Globemedia CBC Other Com
Newspapers TV Web Newspapers Web Newspaper TV TV Dailies Papers
Daily&Com GlobalTV Canada.com Dailies Canoe.ca Globe&Mail CTV
Small Advertisements (n=27) (n=1) (n=1) (n=11) (n=1) (n=1) (n=1) (n=1) (n=62) (n=7)
Static
Internal 38 0 6 26 8 1 3 8 110 2
External 31 3 0 13 0 3 0 0 43 3
Animated
Internal 21 0 2 2 0 0 0 0 29 2
External 20 0 0 7 0 0 0 0 15 0
Banner Advertisements
Static
Internal 3 0 0 0 0 0 1 1 10 3
External 2 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 12 2
Animated
Internal 6 0 1 1 1 0 0 1 6 0
External 12 1 0 6 0 1 0 0 19 0

These sites were chosen because they represented news organizations of varying sizes owned by the three major media conglomerates from across the country, as well as control sites such as The Toronto Star and The Hamilton Spectator, which were being used as online test sites for the Torstar chain. The website for Global Television was not included because it fell under the Canada.com umbrella of websites owned by CanWest Global, which had initiated a uniform approach to online content in the fall of 2001 for its entire news organization. We found a number of changes in the two-year period, including a shift to user fees at 4 of the 8 newspaper sites. The fee-governed sites included The Hamilton Spectator, owned by Torstar Corp., which was offering its content through subscription only; Le Devoir, which charged for access to most of its stories; and The Halifax Chronicle-Herald, which instituted a "subscriber login." CanWest Global also moved to a subscription model in the fall of 2003 with the Ottawa Citizen. The change at The Hamilton Spectator was a local initiative to charge for online content, but it occurred at a news organization not initially committed to convergence strategies. These changes show an evolving interest in making the sites more financially viable, and they raise the possibility that the advertising model was not working as well as initially hoped. Other shifts that we noted in the 2003 sample included a move by 4 of the 8 newspapers to a Web-based layout from the traditional newspaper navigation hierarchy we discussed above (see Figure 1, category 7: "multiframe"). Three of the four newspapers were owned by CanWest Global, and the fourth was The Toronto Star. There was no change in the breaking-news findings. As in 2001, The Globe and Mail and The Toronto Star posted breaking-news updates, as did the CBC and CTV, but the remaining 6 newspapers posted only once daily.

Table 7: News organizations in the 2003 follow-up analysis (city size)
Newspapers (CMA >149,000)†
The Globe and Mail Le Devoir The Toronto Star
The Halifax Chronicle-Herald The Montréal Gazette The Vancouver Sun
The Hamilton Spectator The Regina LeaderPost
Television Networks
CBC CTV
† All newspapers are dailies.

While some organizations had enhanced the layout and design of their sites, the status of other Web innovations was less clear. The Globe and Mail offered streaming-video links from CTV in 2001, but not in 2003. According to the editor at Globeandmail.com, the reason The Globe stopped using video on its website was because the "costs outweighed the benefits" and because CTV and ROB-TV, The Globe and Mail's specialty business channel, already offered video streaming to customers on their respective websites (Angus Frame, Editor, Globeandmail.com, Toronto, ON, personal communication, January 12, 2006). There was also a suggestion of intraorganizational competitiveness to the extent that links to CTV and TSN, CTV's specialty sports channel, were perceived as directing users away from Globeandmail.com, despite the fact that these sites were part of Bell Globemedia and BCE. In addition, the Globeandmail.com editor indicated that interest in video streaming has ebbed and flowed and that while the site does not offer video as a consistent service, it provides links to CTV video during special news events, such as federal elections. CanWest Global's Montréal Gazette went the other way; its website had no video in 2001 but offered video clips in 2003. The links for the clips reveal a cross-promotional strategy in their message to "Click for Global video with this story." While the Gazette started to offer video streaming, it dropped its use of online polling, as did The Vancouver Sun. Compared with the earlier period, three additional media outlets in the 2003 sample - CTV, The Montréal Gazette, and The Regina LeaderPost (also a CanWest Global paper) - started providing discussion-group services. One of the most novel uses of technology among the newspapers in the 2003 sample was at The Toronto Star, which had links to traffic cameras from the Ministry of Transportation for major routes into and out of Toronto.

Conclusion

Our results suggest that the market realities of Canadian online news services during September to November 2001 and August 2003 were somewhat different from the bold visions of converged news media outlined in the companies' licence applications. The majority of Canadian news websites that we analyzed in 2001 and 2003 were still repurposing in-house news and posting it once daily utilizing traditional print formats and medium-specific conventions. While most of the online daily newspapers were experimenting with hypertext and offered a means for users to contact the organization, few were using the Web's ability to cross-platform content and few had yet capitalized on the interactive and multimedia potential of digital technologies. Notable exceptions were newspapers owned and operated by CanWest Global. Also, The Globe and Mail, which was part of the newly formed Bell Globemedia, fared better than most. This may have been partly a result of size, as larger news organizations at the time had more resources at their disposal and were better able to capitalize on Web technologies as a result. Nevertheless, Bell Globemedia's other major media concern, CTV, was not overtly utilizing hypertext content links or newspaper resources. The most converged news outlet in 2001 was the CBC, the country's public broadcaster, which employed nearly all of the interactivity and multiplatform capabilities of the Web. The Toronto Star in 2003 demonstrated a number of innovative online technologies and news strategies not found in the holdings of the three major convergence organizations (which ironically had gained significant market share and competitive advantage as a result of their mergers). We also found, however, that a high proportion of ad space on news websites was devoted to internal ads supporting the individual media outlet and other holdings of the parent company. Our results, therefore, confirm Doyle's (2002) work on convergence in the U.K. media: that (in the absence of fully consolidated news collection and production) the main advantage resulting from cross-ownership of television and newspapers was the ability to "cross-promote" media products across platforms. More than technological convergence, therefore, the mergers and acquisitions that occurred in 2000 seem to have resulted in increased conglomeration in the Canadian news industry, with increased platform diversification within the corporations that emerged and increased integration of their marketing communications activities.

Beyond these immediate effects of the mergers, we also found deeper social and political changes underway that reveal a growing schism between proponents of the industrialization of online media and their critics. At play in the CRTC decisions we reviewed were fundamental tensions not only between Canadian culture, corporate performance, and technological innovation, but also between social democratic ideals of public ownership of the airwaves and communications media as a national resource and neo-liberal understandings of the rights of private ownership of media and the importance of utility maximization as a core right and benefit of citizenship. In this instance, an economic justification for convergence rooted in principles of private ownership of property, free markets, and consumer choice appears to have taken precedence, as anticipated by Rideout (2003) and Doyle (2002). Nevertheless, regulatory decisions such as these beg the question of whether alternative forms of media governance and services are possible beyond the industry-focused framework of the Competition Bureau and the CRTC that could potentially provide more access to Canadian citizens and give people a greater voice in the structure and form of their national and local communications systems.

This study demonstrates retrospectively that increased consolidation and cross-media ownership in Canada were legitimized to the main regulatory bodies and within public discourse through the rhetoric of technological innovation and new-economy demands despite the fact that there was little public debate of the potential social and political consequences of these changes. The ultimate results of these regulatory decisions were a significant consolidation in the industry and a largely unspecified plan for handling the loss of discrete individual and organizational voices in the national news system apart from voluntary limits on the separation of print and broadcast editorial management in two of the major news corporations that emerged (Bell Globemedia and CanWest Global). The regulatory decision in Quebecor's case was more profound, but it was still a far cry from the kind of measures that critics of the mergers were calling for - mainly a system that would contribute to social, political, and cultural expression and give voice to ordinary Canadians. Earlier stages of the Internet continue to serve as counterexamples to the increasing commodification and architectural walling-in of the Web by registrational and transactional requirements. We now must wait to see whether over the long term the result of the mergers will be increased consolidation of news production and a diminution of voices in the system as unproductive media units are shed or wound down, or the continued development of a new medium whose outlets may eventually attain viability as a source of revenue for their parent companies.

At this writing, the single most visible changes that are underway at news websites are the rise in user fees and the development of "hybrid" registration requirements, where some news items are free but others, such as full news coverage, require the user to register and pay for the service. In January 2006, we revisited the 10 sites from the 2003 sample (with the addition of Global TV) and found no changes in the breaking-news results, but a continued rise in registration requirements and fees. The Globe and Mail, The Vancouver Sun, The Regina LeaderPost, The Montréal Gazette, Le Devoir, and CTV all had hybrid fee structures. Nevertheless, this pattern was not universal. The Toronto Star, CBC, and Global TV offered unconditionally free sites, and two sites that required subscriptions in 2003, The Halifax Chronicle-Herald and The Hamilton Spectator, were temporarily providing free access to their news stories. The latter two cases raise the possibility that subscriptions may have their own limitations as a revenue source and that forcing users to "log in" may limit site usage. They also point to issues of the perceived "value-added" benefits of online versus print news, as foreseen in Lister et al.'s (2003) analysis of the market dynamics of remediation of old media by new media (see also Bolter & Grusin, 2000).

The Halifax Chronicle-Herald site stipulated that "for a limited time" users could "view the site without logging in" (TheChronicleHerald.ca, 2006). The site offered several new services, including traffic cams and road reports provided via a Nova Scotia government link, a live camera view of downtown Halifax, and SpeedRead, a site feature that provided short excerpts from major daily stories on a single page. The Hamilton Spectator explained that its site was being "renovated" over the next several months and that they would be adding "new features and functionality, all intended to make [the user's] experience at thespec.com more informative, interesting and just plain fun" (HamiltonSpectator.com, 2006). The implication was that user fees would be reinstated once the changes were fully operational. The Toronto Star (the other test platform for Torstar in addition to the Spectator) again demonstrated its leadership in technological innovation by providing a range of services not generally found on other sites, including traffic cams, but also blogs, podcasts, Flash media coverage, and "story in photo" features. These changes demonstrate a MAYA-type responsiveness to consumers and a continued commitment to utilizing the functionality of Web technologies to enhance user capabilities and experience. Yet these very positive benefits aside, a byproduct of these developments is the continuing gestation of a fourth news medium after print, radio, and television that now competes for audiences, subscriptions, and advertising revenue and that stands to change the communications landscape as well as the market for news in Canada.

Online news is still very much a work in progress, as is the regulatory framework in Canada, but for the time being the direction of change appears to be toward an increasingly converged news industry that provides progressively more commodified forms of online news, information, and public services and offers a diminished number of organizational and individual voices and perspectives. To preserve diversity, it will be necessary to monitor these changes carefully. The highly converged structure that is emerging is not inevitable, but maintaining public access, a public voice, and a broad diversity of opinion will require the concerted efforts of governments, organizations, and individuals to search for alternative and perhaps complementary ways to organize and govern online communications in Canada to those that are developing at present.

Notes

  1. The four former Southam newspapers that formed part of Black's financing package for the Financial Post were traded in Quebecor's purchase of Sun Media in 1998. This purchase saw The Hamilton Spectator, The Kitchener-Waterloo Record, Guelph Mercury, and The Cambridge Reporter sold to Torstar Corp. in an effort to decrease Quebecor's takeover costs of the Sun Media chain (Pitts, 2002).

  2. We sent out two e-mails, one in English and the other in French, to all of the online media sites. The English one read: "Dear Madam/Sir, I am interested in knowing more about today's story on [we chose the main story of the day]. Are there any further links or information sources that you can suggest? Sincerely, H. Young." The French version was exactly the same except for the name, which was H. Richard.

  3. The CBC's response was as follows: "This is an automated response to let you know your email has been received. We appreciate your comments, suggestions and questions. Please note that due to the large volume of emails we receive daily, it may not be possible to respond to you directly. Rest assured, your comments and questions will be brought to the attention of the appropriate department (s)."

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