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Sunday Roundup: Welcome Back to the Future

03/04/2012 01:02 EST | Updated 05/03/2012 05:12 EDT
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Well, there are quite a number of things to get through for this week, but if you'll indulge me for a moment, I'd first like to address an article that appeared in the Globe. Entitled "Is the Huffington Post the Future of Journalism?" writer Simon Houpt described our Canadian branch plant thusly:

You might even say marketing is what HuffPost does best: sampling the highlights of others' work, writing a few original sentences to add context, slapping on a come-hither headline and providing a link to the original article for the convenience of those readers not sated by the summary.

The industry calls it aggregation; HuffPost prefers the term curation, and it's what 90 per cent of the Canadian site's roughly 20 editorial employees spend their days doing. HuffPost Canada has only two full-time employees dedicated to original reporting: Ottawa bureau chief Althia Raj and business reporter Rachel Mendleson.

But maybe that's too narrow a way of measuring the undertaking. Scoops, intelligent analysis, probing investigations, the stuff by which journalistic organizations usually measure themselves, are, for HuffPost, all merely ways of driving engagement with their community. For contemporary marketers, engagement is everything. As it is at HuffPost.

The italicised emphasis is mine. Now I realize Houpt is banging this article out on his portable Olivetti in the antiquated Globe newsroom (nee the old Toronto Tely building). Behind him is a row of clattering teletype machines, and beside him is a colleague who's shouting into the receiver of his dial-equipped 'landline': "Get me rewrite!" Simon pauses after the word "undertaking" (realizing, uncomfortably, that it shares a meaning with those who prepare corpses for burial). He strokes the wispy strands of his Van Dyke, adjusts his pince-nez, and clacks out the next two sentences in the paragraph, his spine stiffening a little with pride as he does so. Scoops, intelligent analysis, probing investigations, the stuff -- (good word, "stuff") -- by which journalistic organizations -- (and by this I mean, of course, such venerable institutions as The Globe and Mail) -- usually measure themselves, are, for HuffPost, all merely -- ("merely," another good word) -- ways of driving engagement with their community.

Simon pauses again, satisfied with his words. There's something that sounds... so vulgar about engaging with one's community. Of course, when your articles appear in print, on paper, hours and even days after a story has taken place, you can't be said to have "engagement" with your readers, exactly. Not in that way, anyway. "Driven" -- like the person who tries too hard to be popular. Reader engagement properly comes via the post, in the form of letters bearing stamps, and are sorted by the editor of "The Letters Page." The ones written in crayon are immediately discarded, as are those with prisons in their return addresses. The rest are then carefully sifted through, and a few of the more intelligent, well-crafted morsels are chosen for publication. "My dear Sir, I take issue with your column of Thursday January 15, 19XX in which you incorrectly stated the number of live cod births versus captured adult cod during the most recent fishing season in Newfoundland..." Scoops, intelligent analysis, probing investigations -- the real "stuff" -- these should all be laid out in Linotype by unionized men wearing eyeshades, and published as if chiselled in granite; articles that are to be thoughtfully read, considered, and commented upon (if at all) to one's spouse -- before one turns to the crossword on the back page.

That, dear reader, is engagement.

Now all of this would be pretty funny, if it were not for the punch line in the next paragraph:

By that measure, at least, the approach seems to be working.

Simon, Simon, Simon! Simple Simon! Even allowing for the throat-clearing phrase, "By that measure, at least," your one-piece long underwear is showing!!! And it only gets more embarrassing:

In January, they say, HuffPost Canada -- which counts all traffic from Canadian visitors to both the domestic site and the U.S. one -- counted almost 2.8 million unique users, according to the online ratings service comScore.

Before Simon can even take a moment to hunt about his desk for the Wite-Out -- to remove that unnecessary "they say," as if it were town gossip -- his fingers have already raced on to the next paragraph:

Meanwhile, other news organizations look on with a toxic blend of envy and disdain. Envy because -- well, who wouldn't want one out of every 12 Canadians as readers? (Or, more to the point: Who wouldn't want to be able to serve up ads to one out of every 12 Canadians?)

Ah yes, the toxic blend of envy and disdain. We feel it over here, Simon -- in our "airy, two-storey, loft-like playpen on Spadina Avenue." (You forgot to mention the foosball table!) That toxic blend of envy and disdain is as Canadian as cheese curds and gravy... as blood and ice... as, well, you get the idea. And what always accompanies it is this fervent hope: "Maybe if we just ignore them, they will go away."

But it's not going to happen, Simon. You may as well just yank the paper out of the typewriter carriage (don't forget the carbon paper, too -- but save that, you can reuse it), crumple it up, and start over. And when you do, you might correct your assertion that we only have "two reporters" devoted to producing original content. As our Managing Editor Kenny Yum points out:

Michael Bolen writes on politics, as does Dan Tencer on business. Josh Ostroff, who heads up Spinner, writes all original pieces, including recent interviews both in music and politics. Our lifestyle team daily puts out original content and heads up such original features as Citizen Style. Same beat for Autos, TV, Movies. The list goes on -- most of our 20 staff are editors who also report and create content -- including original pieces, curated pieces and pointing out to readers the best of the web.

I'll add to that my own team of some 700 bloggers, who are producing original content every day -- and more often than not, breaking stories when they do so.

But maybe I should just simply jot this all down in a letter to the Globe's editor? With a stamp?

Now back to business. Or as we like to call it around here, the 21st-century news business.

The Oscars seem like a thousand years ago in Internet time, but if you were looking for instant coverage online, you no doubt joined the quarter million visitors who showed up at our site last Sunday for everything Oscar, on both HuffPost Style and Moviefone. We paid special tribute to Canadians Christopher Plummer and Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, the latter who was recognized for her short film Saving Face, which documents the horrors of acid attack burning in Islamic societies. You can read contributor Farzana Hassan's blog about it here.

Just as the glow of the Oscars was receding, the Tories provided us with entertainment of their own. Ottawa Bureau Chief Althia Raj reported on how the Tories in the Senate are moving to investigate foreign funding of green charities that oppose oil sands (an issue of concern that Environment Minister Peter Kent raised when we had him to an editorial board luncheon last week).

Then the robocall scandal erupted: Blogs by Jim Harris, Daniel D. Veniez, Irwin Cotler, Zach Paikin, Yoni Goldstein and J.J. McCullough provided the perspective -- and often an amusing one -- that our readers expected. And Vancouverites, always looking for a chance to riot, staged protests about the robocalls yesterday. Fortunately it was not about hockey, so no one was injured.

The controversial crime bill, C-10, passed the Senate late Thursday night, with one Tory dissenter, Pierre Claude Nolin. The bill will return to the Commons for a final vote next week.

Criminals waiting for a verdict on the bill may have been tempted to peruse the "Ten Most Expensive Houses" on sale in Canada, for future break-and-enter research.

And grief hit the VIA Rail family when a train just west of Toronto, Ont. derailed and killed three locomotive engineers on Feb. 26. As VIA's president, Marc Laliberte, wrote in a blog for us:

VIA Rail is a relatively small company but we are a big family. As its President & CEO, I lead a team of executives who together influence many things, make many decisions, and are entrusted with the authority to manage the corporation's affairs and ensure it provides Canadians with safe, reliable inter-city train transportation. On that day, at that moment, we all shared a deep sense of helplessness over an event with such tragic consequences for members of the entire VIA Rail family, our passengers, and their families.

Stay tuned with us TOMORROW when we announce the winner of our reader straw poll for the Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction. As sponsors of the prize, we've run excerpts from the five finalists over the past month. The winner will be announced tomorrow at a luncheon that will be livestreamed on our site, starting at 1 p.m. EST. It's not too late to read the excerpts and to cast your vote here. I will announce the winner tomorrow morning, in advance of the prize.

*Manufacturing note: This blog is deemed 100 per cent original content; no aggregation preservatives or ingredients have been used in its fabrication.