What Southam Shutdown Spells for New Media

By: Steve Outing

Canada's Southam Newspapers is a company that for some time has championed the Internet and devoted significant corporate resources to new media. It operates an 11-person New Media Centre in Edmonton, Alberta, which generates online content to be used across Southam's news Web sites and develops tools to help the chain's far-flung publishers operate on the Web. Several years ago, it funded a new technologies research operation called InfoLab, although that project was killed in late 1995.

Now comes news that Southam this fall will close the New Media Centre and move its operations and responsibilities to Hamilton, Ontario, where it will become part of Southam's Editorial Services and Information Technology groups. But while at first blush it may sound like Southam is trimming back its new media commitment, the company's director of new media says it's nothing more than a reorganization to make things more efficient.

"My budget come November 1 (when the New Media Centre officially shuts down) will be larger than before," says Mike Pilmer. "This (closing of the Edmonton operation) is a bit of a non-event," although to the outside world it might look bad, he admits.

The reason for the shutdown, according to Pilmer, is primarily to consolidate the operations of Southam Editorial Services and the New Media Centre (both based in Hamilton). Editorial Services is the corporate unit charged with creating and collecting national editorial content for use by Southam's print newspapers. The New Media Centre includes among its responsibilities doing the same thing for the papers' Web sites.

Pilmer says it makes much more sense to have those two groups of Southam employees in the same physical location in order to lessen duplication of work -- should the respective staffs be producing separate content packages on the same topic for Southam Web sites and for Southam print products. "And it made a whole lot more sense to run (new media) out of an area that already had an infrastructure in place," he says. Southam's Hamilton operation already includes 20 to 30 dedicated programmers on staff.

Across the miles

The New Media Centre opened for business in 1995 and has been housed at the Edmonton Journal, one of Southam's 32 newspapers, although it uses the central server in Hamilton for its newspaper Web services. Asked why the company originally set up the New Media Centre in Alberta -- some 2,000 miles away from the person who heads Southam's new media operation -- Pilmer (whose employment as new media director came after that decision was made) would say only, "Don't get me started!"

Some New Media Centre staffers are expected to make the move to Hamilton, but they probably all won't go, says Pilmer. He expects to have about the same number of new media jobs in Hamilton and doesn't expect any job positions to be lost. Three of the current staff members moved from the Edmonton Journal, so those individuals may move back to the newspaper. The company has offered the New Media Centre employees the options of being placed at another Southam newspaper, joining the operation in Hamilton, or leaving the company with a severance package come November 1.

Pilmer says that the change is unlikely to have an impact on Southam's publishers, who will continue to get corporate support in their Web ventures; national Web content will continue to be produced. All of Southam's large city papers have operational Web sites, and the central theme is in creating online community guides as the core of the sites, Pilmer says. (Southam has not allied with any of the independent online city guide companies -- such as Digital City or CitySearch -- but Pilmer reports that he has held discussions with all of them.) At the company's smaller papers, the focus of the local Web sites will be the papers' classified advertising. Currently, more than half of Southam's papers are on the Web, but over time the rest of the company's smaller publications are likely to launch Web sites.

Another emphasis for Southam New Media is Canada.com, which is a national umbrella Web site for all of the Southam daily newspapers as well as the Canadian papers of Hollinger Inc. (Hollinger owns 60% of Southam.) Canada.com follows a New Century Network-like model, where a team of editors culls the best content from Southam newspapers to create a national site. A sales staff markets the site to national and regional advertisers. (An advertiser can buy, for example, Web coverage of just western Canada.)

What Southam New Media is not about, says Pilmer, is in exploring technologies that are farther off in the future and being a company "think tank" -- which was the focus of the ill-fated InfoLab. ("They were into some pretty wild stuff," Pilmer says.) Rather, the focus is on taking advantage of the Internet today.

CP site to take over Web news service role

Paul deGroot, managing editor of the Southam New Media Centre and one of those affected by the reorganization, says that part of the Centre's role has been to produce a national news service (updated 18 hours a day) for use by Southam papers. The need for that may be lessened, however, by plans of the Canadian Press (the newspaper industry-owned wire service) to launch a national Web news service this fall. It is expected to be similar to "The Wire" Web service offered by The Associated Press.

The New Media Centre had been shifting more to an emphasis on creating Web content "modules" for use by the newspaper Web sites, says deGroot. For the recent Canadian federal election, for instance, the Centre produced a national election site that Southam papers used in a co-branded format.

The Centre also has produced a suite of tools for use by client newspapers, including a system that allows them to feed news to a central server and have it converted to HTML format. It also has built tools to create trivia games, online surveys, and discussion groups.

The staff in Edmonton may be feeling a bit demoralized. The New Media Centre once had a staff of 18 before a round of layoffs last fall. Now their offices are being pulled out from under them. Yet for the larger corporation, new media remains a serious commitment.

Contacts: Mike Pilmer, mpilmer@southam.ca
Paul deGroot, pdegroot@thejournal.southam.ca< p>

Asahi Shimbun joins Pointcast

Japan's second largest newspaper, Asahi Shimbun, has joined as a PointCast Network member. An Asahi-branded news channel will be included in PointCast's forthcoming Japanese edition of its "push" software, which is scheduled to debut later this year. The second-largest newspaper in the world, with total circulation of over 10 million, Asahi Shimbun has the potential to significantly increase PointCast's 1 million-plus users of its American screensaver news network.


I feel like a boob after mentioning the Beeb in a column last week. In reporting on the recent NetMedia 97 conference in London, I commented that no one from the BBC was on the program. Actually, BBC Online designer Meriel Yates was a speaker at a session about design -- which I obviously missed. The BBC is working on developing a major news Web site that should debut later this year.


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This column is written by Steve Outing exclusively for Editor & Publisher Interactive three days a week. News, tips, and other communications may be sent to Mr. Outing at steve@planetarynews.com

The views expressed in the above column do not necessarily represent the views of the Editor & Publisher company


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