Honours Project

For the purposes of archiving, here is my 4th year BJH Honours project, on Allnovascotia.com. Originally published here.

The computer screen has no photos or videos. There are touches of green on the page, but the rest is monochrome. A list of headlines sits on the left, with the story you’re reading in the middle. For this, AllNovaScotia.com charges you $30 a month. Without paying, you don’t even get a taste.

For anyone in power in the Halifax business or political scene, AllNovaScotia is nothing new. It’s been growing steadily since it launched seven years ago, and now it’s a standby. Of 17 Halifax city councillors asked whether or not they read it, 16 said they do; five described it as their main source of news. Daryl Eisan, who works in the office of Nova Scotia Premier Darrell Dexter, said he reads AllNovaScotia every day. “Our office pays for a subscription,” he said, “but if I didn’t get one from them, I’d pay for one.”

AllNovaScotia.com is a website that focuses on business and political news in Halifax. It publishes an issue every weekday, usually about 15 stories. It has a staff of 11 people. The style is crisp, old school news. Clean copy, as they say. With minimal advertising and no fancy design, virtually all of AllNovaScotia’s revenue comes from subscriptions. Most of its subscribers are businesses, which pay a single rate to provide access to all of their employees.  Without that access, a visitor to the site would have no idea what stories are being covered. AllNovaScotia goes so far as to code all of its issues in Flash, so stories can’t be found on any search engine.

And it’s been that way since the beginning.

In 2004, reporter Kevin Cox had just been bought out by the Globe and Mail, after working there for 16 years, when he got a call from David Bentley. Bentley said he had started a news website, and needed a copy editor. Cox agreed, and started editing from home. Soon, Bentley made him managing editor. Cox held the position at AllNovaScotia until he retired this year, though he still contributes stories occasionally.

“You should be proud enough of what you do to ask people to pay for it,” Cox says. In the early days, he and the rest of the staff sold subscriptions themselves by cold-calling businesses, even though sales is usually taboo for journalists. At the end of an interview, Cox would offer the interviewee a month trial, under the guise that they would be able to read the story they were being interviewed for. According to Cox, most people renewed their subscription after the trial expired.

Meanwhile Bentley used his business connections to build up 900 subscriptions. AllNovaScotia grew from there.

In those early days, when Cox and Bentley were the only editors, the two would alternate days off. “If the other guy was off, you were it. It was your publication for the whole day,” says Cox. “It was kinda neat. You thought, ‘this is what every other journalist wants to do.’” In contrast to working at the Globe and Mail, Cox felt like an underdog. Many associated AllNovaScotia with Bentley’s Frank venture, which continually created controversy. The first year Cox was at AllNovaScotia, he says, “we were pariahs in the journalism community, and I think that stigma has stuck with us a little bit. I kinda like it.”

Despite that, AllNovaScotia has increased its reader base to more than 6,000. The number of subscribers is not revealed; each $30 a month subscription can be accessed by up to three people. Clearly, AllNovaScotia, against all odds, has a growing business model.

Since AllNovaScotia launched in 2001, the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, and the Washington Post have lost 700,000 subscribers. In 2008, the Halifax Daily News—a newspaper that had operated since 1974 (and was also launched by Bentley)—shut down. A year later, the Chronicle Herald laid off almost a quarter of its newsroom. And meanwhile AllNovaScotia has expanded, hiring away journalists from both papers. “(Former Daily News reporter) Brian Flinn can tell you, I got him within twelve hours of theDaily News going down,” says Cox.

AllNovaScotia also hired Judy Myrden, formerly theChronicle Herald’s ace business reporter, to manage its newsroom. Myrden manages nine full-time reporters, in what has become roughly a two million dollar business.

Her hiring was a coming of age for AllNovaScotia. It sent tremors through Halifax, as people were shocked to see someone leave the big paper for the small website. The event triggered the Chronicle Herald to start competing directly against AllNovaScotia; this summer it hired veteran reporter John DeMont for its business section.

Part of its success can be credited to the atmosphere in its newsroom. Cox admits he’s left a few dents in the wall of AllNovaScotia’s office after getting beat on a story by theChronicle Herald. “Unlike most newsrooms, which quite often are like the Vatican library, there should be that creative tension. There should be conflict there. People should be wondering ‘What’s the next thing that’s gonna come out of management’s mouth?’ Nobody ever lived in fear, but there was lively tension.”

“They’ve set up this environment where it’s very fun to be. You’re just very motivated,” said Paul McLeod, who reported for AllNovaScotia for a year before departing to head up the Chronicle Herald’s Ottawa bureau. “You’re definitely quite driven to beat the competition, to get information no one else has… They’ve set up this great vibe where everyone’s trying to be three steps ahead.”

It is a testament to the newsroom that when Myrden declined to be interviewed for this feature, other reporters on staff deferred to her. Bentley, who is notoriously media-shy, also declined.

“It’s very much a writer’s paper… er, publication,” says Cox, catching himself referring to the site he worked at for more than eight years as a print publication. He admits that despite AllNovaScotia’s nature, he’s not all that tech-saavy, and neither is the company. Originally, the issues were published in one giant text file, without any breaks. Then Cox discovered the “clickable” format on the BBC’s website, allowing readers to view only the story of their choosing. He showed Bentley, and after agreeing they should implement this new technology, they brought someone in to apply it. They were told the technology was years old. “We felt like the Beverly Hillbillies, you know? ‘Oooooo-ee, look at that!’” says Cox.

What makes AllNovaScotia unique isn’t its writing, or even the style of its reporting. It’s how it does business. “People have heard of this place in Nova Scotia where it’s actually working, and it’s growing, and it’s making money off of paid subscriptions,” says McLeod. “I think the fact that AllNovaScotia works proves that the model can work. I have bad news; I don’t think it’s easy.”

Indeed, its subscription model has produced terrible results elsewhere. Long Island-based Newsday is the 11th highest circulation paper in the U.S., but when it tried to install a total paywall for its website last year it had only 35 website-only subscribers after three months (access was also given to customers of its parent company, Cablevision). Newsdaynow employs a hybrid model. The New York Times famously failed to retreat behind a paywall, but later changed its policy. The only lasting success, the Wall Street Journal, has a partial paywall, and even they may not be as successful as they seemed. AllNovaScotia stands out. Its subscription model has done so well that at one point AllNovaScotia didn’t know how to handle advertising requests. “We didn’t know what to do with them,” says Cox. AllNovaScotia now has a small number of advertisements.

According to Mark Potts, an American digital journalism expert and co-founder of the Washington Post’s website, it doesn’t add up. “AllNovaScotia.com may be the rare success story, but I’d be most skeptical that their journalistic success has translated to the bottom line,” he said in an email interview from Virginia.

It’s likely that being privately owned helps. Kevin Cox believes that a sense of liberation lets AllNovaScotia chase stories fearlessly. “There’s nobody telling you ‘You can’t,’” he says. “There’s no publisher, no owner that you’re scared of, because the owner is sitting at the desk beside you!” Cox says that Bentley never pocketed money; instead any cash was put into improving the operation. Every time he could afford to, he invested in another journalist. “Never ever was I told ‘we can’t afford that.’ Never ever was I told ‘we can’t afford to hire that person.’”

The University of Missouri’s Donald Reynolds Journalism Institute recently did a study on paywalls and news sites, sampling 1,390 American dailies. Of newspapers with a circulation less than 35,000, 46 per cent are charging for some online content. Of papers with a circulation more than 25,000, only 25 per cent charge. In Halifax, the Chronicle Herald’s website doesn’t charge for content, and according to Dan Leger, the Herald’s director of news content, there are no plans to go behind a paywall. “We’ve made a decision to stick with the free model,” he says. “Our business newsletter, which goes out an hour before AllNovaScotia, is free.”

With business news available for free from its competitor, people still pay for AllNovaScotia.

Potts, the digital expert in Virginia, says at least some of its success must be attributed to its specialization in niche news – business reporting – rather than general stories. “Can it attract general readers with the same business model? I doubt it.” He says that few news sites make money, no matter how well they are written. “It takes dollars, not journalistic success, to sustain a business.”

Who says they can’t go hand in hand? McLeod cites Bentley’s guidance and sense of newsworthiness for AllNovaScotia’s financial success. “David knows this market, he knows journalism, and he knows what people want, and with AllNovaScotia, he’s kind of combined these elements into something that is unique and really hit a public nerve.”

If AllNovaScotia’s total paywall can work elsewhere, the era of free news may be over. The New York Times is trying to charge again, and many other newspapers are following suit. In the University of Missouri study, of papers that don’t charge, only 15 per cent have no plans to charge for content.

Kevin Cox believes newspapers made a mistake by not charging when they first went online. “If you hadn’t made that fatal error 15 years ago of not charging for the content, we wouldn’t be in the mess we would be.”

Meantime, AllNovaScotia will just keep doing what it’s doing.

“We never had a chance to map it out,” says Cox. “Nobody ever thought ‘What’s the next step?’ I’ve got a feeling our readers will tell us.”

Update

Paragraph nine corrected to clarify how many individuals can access each subscription. Originally written as “Despite that, AllNovaScotia has increased its subscription base to more than 5,000. It’s hard to know how many people read AllNovaScotia.com, as many of those subscriptions are for businesses; one subscription can represent dozens, even hundreds of people.” Changed: Dec. 19 and 2, 2011

David Bentley, Photo Courtesy of Parker Donham
David Bentley, Photo Courtesy of Parker Donham

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