I feel a surge of election-night excitement as I push through the lobby doors of the Sun Media building just east of downtown Toronto. It’s 8:30 p.m. on October 14, 2008, one of the most important nights for online journalism. But when I get to canoe.ca‘s third-floor office, all is quiet, aside from rapid fingers tapping on keyboards. Only eight people are working tonight, and apart from the occasional question, the room is not the loud hub of election frenzy I’d expected. Finally, at around 9 p.m., some drama unfolds between editor-in-chief David Newland and online news editor Vanessa Gates.

“You don’t want to order pizza?” he asks.

“I already ate,” she says, keeping her eyes on the computer screen in front of her.

Defeated, Newland retreats to his office. While staffers continue to update election results from their assigned grey cubicles, Wendy Mesley’s voice fills the office as CBC’s election coverage plays on three televisions suspended from the tiled drop ceiling.

A few floors above the atrium from which Mesley is reporting tonight, cbcnews.ca staff is also working away. Forty employees-including writers, copy editors, designers and encoders-sip water and coffee as they update election results. And instead of debating a $40 pizza order, the online news team enjoys a catered buffet courtesy of the public broadcaster. While the crew at canoe.ca goes without, CBC staffers nosh on salad, chicken in cream sauce and a selection of desserts that includes mini tarts and fresh fruit.

Comparing election night menus might seem silly, but it’s a reflection of the financial disparity between competitors in the battle to become Canada’s top source for online news. Media giants such as Quebecor Media Inc. (which owns canoe.ca, the Sun chain and Le Journal de Montréal) don’t consider the primarily government-funded cbcnews.ca to be an equal opponent. Canada’s national newspapers, The Globe and Mail and the National Post, also grumble, but are working hard to improve their own websites. While cbcnews.ca thrives both on ad dollars and government subsidies, private news organizations are having difficulties funding their online properties. And given that the future of news is digital, it’s not a debate about whose expense account is bigger, so much as it’s a fight to survive.

In 1989, physicist Tim Berners-Lee at the European Organization for Nuclear Research wrote a proposal for what would become the WorldWideWeb. Four years later, the first version of the browser Mosaic was released, making the web available to PC and Mac users. By the mid-1990s, news organizations began to realize that a successful brand required a strong online presence. In the early days, websites acted as supplements to news outlets’ existing mediums-a newspaper would direct readers to its site for additional, but limited, information on a story published in its print edition. Some didn’t offer additional information at all, just content lifted from the paper.

Today, we look to the web for news as it happens. In March 2008, The New York Times made a critical decision to break the prostitution scandal involving then New York Governor Eliot Spitzer on its website, rather than waiting to run it in the print edition. After a propane explosion in Toronto last summer, the Toronto Star provided breaking-news reports, photos and video online. For major news outlets, investing in a website is no longer a frill but a necessity.

CBC went online in May 1995, the year of the O.J. Simpson trial and the Oklahoma City bombing. Its first election site made its debut a year later and received 14 visitors in its first week. In July 1996, CBC launched Newsworld Online, the corporation’s first website to provide breaking news and offer real-time video of CBC Television news broadcasts. At the end of 1998, the same year Google Inc. made its debut, CBC combined its radio, television and Newsworld resources to form CBC News Online. The new site offered headlines, in-depth analysis, regional context, interactive user forums, audio clips and video reports. Today,cbc.ca provides prime-time television listings, sports and entertainment pages and links to cbcnews.ca, which includes full-length newscasts and an extensive Analysis & Viewpoints section. The staff consists of 45 writers and editors, plus a handful of designers and technical support.

Though it’s doing well now, online integration was not always so smooth for CBC. “We don’t get as much money as the other two streams,” explains Jessica Wong, an arts writer for cbcnews.ca, who’s worked for the corporation since 2001. “For a really long time we were seen as the younger bumpkin cousin.”

Mary Sheppard, executive producer of cbcnews.ca, speaks proudly of the site’s rapid growth and evolution. But the day I meet her, she seems worn out. This comes as no surprise-for hours she’s been working on a meticulous plan for election coverage. It’s September 30, two weeks before the big night, and we’re sitting in the basement food court attached to CBC’s headquarters. According to Sheppard, the corporation’s online strength comes from the staff’s ability to keep up with news as it happens. “Newspapers are catching on, no doubt, but they have reporters who are used to filing once a day. I work with broadcasters who are used to updating regularly.” At cbcnews.ca, staff post stories and update them regularly from 4 a.m. until 1 a.m. the next day.

Canada’s newspapers have indeed been slower to adapt to the rapid pace of change in the industry. ThePost launched both its paper and its website in 1998. Before that, the Globe made a feeble attempt at a website in 1996. In its early years, laid out in the style of a grocery list, it offered little, even in the way of regurgitated content from the paper. In 2000, the site relaunched as a breaking-news site with full-time staff. Since then, it has matured significantly. Over the past few years, the paper has developed a new organizational structure. Section editors are now responsible for their corresponding online pages-so one editor oversees the political sections of both the newspaper and its website. Although cbc.ca may have deep pockets-Friends of Canadian Broadcasting puts the 2007 budget at approximately $20 million (CBC would not confirm or deny this number)-competing news sites are still able to push ahead. The public site attracts an average of 4.1 million unique visitors per month according to CBC’s 2007-2008 annual report, whileglobeandmail.com properties boast over 6 million per month.

As the youngest competitor in this battle, the most traffic nationalpost.com ever received in one month was a meagre 942,000 this past December. But according to Jonathan Harris, vice-president of digital media for the Post, the site is growing quickly. Although it lists only 11 online editors, at least 30 to 40 Post reporters and editors write stories that appear online daily, in addition to as many as 100 blog posts published each day. Nationalpost.com has been redesigned numerous times-most recently in November 2007, with a few tweaks this past March-and according to Harris, had an 83 percent year-over-year increase in traffic as of January, making it one of the fastest-growing Canadian news sites.

While newspapers were slow to catch up, their background in ink on paper provides them with some competitive advantages. Marissa Nelson, the Star‘s senior editor of digital news, thinks CBC maintains an excellent website, but believes her staff frequently outdoes the national broadcaster. “Newspapers have a blessing online because we’re writers. We’re not turning scripts into stories.”

On a rainy Friday afternoon, almost two weeks after election night, I meet Steve Billinger, CBC’s executive director of digital programming and business development. He joined CBC over two years ago, after helping launch msn UK’s interactive news service. Billinger smiles and welcomes me into the small meeting room adjoined to his office, where a life-sized cardboard cut-out of Don Cherry immediately catches my eye. And he adopts a firm, Cherry-like attitude when I point out CBC’s mandate is in broadcast, not online. He tilts his head toward me. “Our specific mandate,” he says, “is to reach out to Canadians in whatever means is the most convenient for them.” Although CBC operates under the 1991 Broadcasting Act, which specifically refers to television and radio, Section 3F states that content should “be available throughout Canada by the most appropriate and efficient means and as resources become available.” Billinger boasts that over 20 percent of Canadians
with an internet connection regularly visit cbc.ca.

Ian Morrison, a spokesperson for Friends of Canadian Broadcasting, isn’t impressed with the numbers game. He points out that cbc.ca‘s monthly traffic figures may sound impressive, but when broken down they don’t compare favourably to the number of viewers watching CBC’s Newsworld channel at any given time. Considering CBC is currently projecting a deficit in its television operations, that $20 million might be better spent elsewhere. Competitors are also skeptical of CBC’s online traffic numbers. While cbc.ca may attract millions of visitors each month, the corporation doesn’t provide numbers that reflect the number of users specifically visiting cbcnews.ca.

Meanwhile, some privately-owned publications remain unconvinced that the corporation should be competing online in the first place. In 2007-2008, CBC received $1 billion in subsidies from the federal government, while Canwest Global Communications Corp., which owns the Post, reported a loss of $1 billion over a three-month period last summer. And this past January, the Globe announced it would be cutting 80 to 90 jobs from the newspaper through voluntary buyouts and layoffs. About a month later, 60 employees took severance packages and 30 full-time workers were laid off. Globe publisher and ceo Philip Crawley told The Canadian Press that a sharp decline in print advertising revenue made the cuts necessary.

Terry O’Neill, who writes for westernstandard.ca, an online magazine based out of Calgary, believes CBC is unfairly competing in a commercial industry. “It can have a web presence,” he says, “but don’t compete commercially with the people out there who are trying desperately to make money.” O’Neill is particularly concerned about CBC’s revenue gains from advertising sales on its website. The bbc, another taxpayer-funded broadcaster, also runs advertising on its website, but is more restrained: it displays only one ad on its home page, while CBC typically runs up to three.

From a business perspective, CBC is doing the right thing: online banner ad revenues increased 18 percent during the 2007-2008 fiscal year, for a total of $3,119,000. Jim Sheppard (no relation to Mary Sheppard), executive editor of globeandmail.com, believes CBC can afford to accept less money for advertisements than the Globe-and it does. The Globe charges $35 to $37 on a cost-per-thousand-readers basis for space such as big box ads embedded in stories or skyscraper ads that run across the tops of pages. The cost for standard ad units on CBC’s site is $25 per thousand.

Many CBC employees are unhappy about the online ads. Last spring the corporation did away with a large, imposing big box ad that, for an entire year, appeared within the body of most cbcnews.ca stories. According to Mary Sheppard, it took up too much space and really troubled the staff. “To us,” she says, “it didn’t make for good journalism.”

Private newspapers are also unimpressed with the presence of ads on cbcnews.ca, but for very different reasons. In his small office above the marble and granite lobby of the Globe, Jim Sheppard tells me he relishes the news competition with CBC. But at the mention of advertising, Sheppard crosses his arms and leans back in his chair. “I don’t think that you could possibly argue that they don’t have an unfair advantage,” he says. “Not only do they not have to turn a profit, they can turn a blind eye to losses.”

Sheppard says he would love to be able to hire as many employees as CBC does, but that’s simply not financially viable. “There’s an element of unfairness with anything CBC does,” he says. “They can spend money as if it grows on trees.”

As if the financial advantage wasn’t enough, CBC is also blessed with an abundance of content. The corporation’s extensive archiving system offers 12,000 radio and television clips dating back to the 1927 national broadcast of the Canadian Diamond Jubilee before the CBC was even formed. Globeandmail.com, on the other hand, has archives dating back to 2000, but readers can only access news articles from its print edition for a week. After that, the site charges $4.95 per article or an annual subscription fee of $159.95 for GlobePlus, which includes Globe Archives, Globeinvestor Gold and Globe E-edition. Craig Silverman, blogger and editor of regrettheerror.com, understands why the pay wall exists, but is concerned about the consequences of locking up content. “Papers that have a pay wall are going to be cut out of the discussion that takes place online,” argues Silverman. “How much is that going to impact their bottom line in the short term?”

While cbc.ca offers a large selection of archival content for free, locating it can be a chore. The home page is more cluttered with information than the Globe‘s organized and selective layout. Aesthetics aside, the quality of the content at cbcnews.ca often lags behind globeandmail.com. The Globe‘s online documentaries provide users with in-depth coverage of hard-hitting issues. In addition, the multimedia centre, which appears near the top-right side of the home page, offers the latest in photos and video and its clips play more smoothly than the audio and video on cbcnews.ca.

“Talking to the Taliban,” a six-part series featuring footage of interviews with Taliban foot soldiers in Kandahar, is one example of the outstanding coverage that’s earned praise for globeandmail.com. Reporter Graeme Smith provides a confident and authoritative report in each of the six sections, delivering stand-ups that match the quality of a broadcast reporter’s, and narration accompanied by clips of Taliban interviews and photo slide shows. Part one includes a link to 42 raw, unedited, videotaped interviews with a sidebar featuring the 20 questions asked by Smith’s Afghan researchers. In the first part of the series, a gritty-looking video emerges from a grid of 48 other clips. We see a Taliban foot soldier sitting, draped in blue cloth, with only a narrow slit exposing his eyes. His responses are subtitled. The video fades back into the grid and Smith’s voice begins. He guides us through the rest of the series, speaking over photo slide shows and talking on camera between between clips of the one-on-one interviews.

In another globeandmail.com documentary, Peter Power and Jessica Leeder marked the death of the 100th Canadian soldier in Afghanistan with a tribute to Sergeant Robert Short, the first Canadian soldier killed by enemy fire. It explores the depth of grief and loss experienced by those closest to the deceased soldiers as a fiddler’s version of “Danny Boy” plays in the background. Toward the end, Short’s widow, Susan, talks about her husband learning to play the song on his own fiddle and how he had been singing the song when the vehicle he was in hit a land mine. Then the short, powerful, 10-minute video documentary fades to white and the credits roll.

By comparison, cbcnews.ca focuses on providing small bites of breaking news and a variety of regurgitated content from television and radio. Users can visit cbc’s archives to find clips on the war in Afghanistan or read a story about it on cbcnews.ca. But while most online articles provide links to video clips, they are rarely (if ever) embedded within a text story. Dave McGinn, a Toronto freelance writer, finds this counterintuitive. “The Globe seems to be doing the best job of exploring multimedia’s possibilities,” he says. “You would think that CBC has the most resources to do that sort of stuff.”

The Post, meanwhile, has ramped up its use of audio, video and interactive content in recent years, but still seems like it’s in the experimental stages. During the 2008 U.S. presidential election, the Post used a service called CoveritLive to blog instantly about debates and other political events. Thoughnationalpost.com is certainly not the first newspaper to try live blogging, Harris thought that simultaneously watching the debate at home on television and reading instant analysis by Post bloggers was “cool as hell.” Actually, it was only kind of cool-at least when compared to the live blogs of other news sites such asmacleans.ca. But the Post did a decent job of staying on topic (most of the time) and providing extras, including polls, photos and added commentary from various editors.

Another example of the Post‘sexperimentation was “Rethinking the Reserve.” The five-week-long series, which proposed solutions to problems facing First Nations peoples in Canada, was built on audio interviews, a narrated slide show and an interactive map. The last feature provides users with greater context and history, and lets them smoothly zoom in and out between various highlighted reserves. In the Casinos tab, information can be filtered to show location and ownership. Additionally, the exclamation symbols on the map point to related content such as audio Q&As and related news stories.

The six audio Q&As from interviews and podcasts range in length from about 7.5 to 56 minutes, and are the weakest part of the “Reserve” page. Some clips, such as a podcast interview with Calgary correspondent and series author Kevin Libin, provide solid background on the issues. But in terms of finesse, it isn’t CBC Radio calibre-I could easily tell some of the interviews had been conducted over the phone and Libin’s deep breaths and “m-hmms” are a bit distracting. Overall, only two of the clips were worth a listen. The other four would have worked better as edited transcripts. It’s a good effort, although nowhere near as polished as what’s on globeandmail.com.

Still, the very existence of this type of multimedia, inelegant as it may be, represents a significant change in how newspapers approach the delivery of information-a shift from speed to context and accuracy. For Kenny Yum, managing editor of digital news for the Post, online journalism is a unification of the speed of broadcast with the authority and permanence of the printed word. “Being ahead by two minutes may not necessarily be your true advantage,” he says. “You can do everything mediocre or you can do a few things really well.”

Back in the meeting room with Steve Billinger and the Don Cherry cut-out, I ask what separates CBC from its competitors.

“We do everything better.”

I laugh. Billinger doesn’t.

“We can speak that way because we’re number one,” he says. “CBC is without question the dominant news brand in Canada.” But the most famous brands don’t necessarily create the best products. By providing news online, in addition to its radio and television services, the public broadcaster is upholding its responsibility to provide taxpayers with information. Still, quantity over quality may not be the best approach in the long run.

The battle to be the site of record is far from over, and CBC’s presence in the game has made its challengers especially unhappy. “As long as you have one taxpayer-subsidized major media outlet battling against others that have to survive in the private sector,” says Jim Sheppard, “you’re always going to have resentment.”

That resentment festered last November, when Sun Media broke a story about expense reports filed by Richard Stursberg, CBC’s executive vice-president of English services. One of the expenses was a catered dinner for senior management that cost $2,119.20-that’s a lot of pizza.

On November 21, 2008, CBC president Hubert T. Lacroix sent an e-mail to all staff that said Stursberg had recently announced a $45-million budget shortfall. “If it’s anything less than a bonafide requirement,” wrote Lacroix, “it’s gone.” The money tree faces a pruning.

Four months later, in late February 2009, Lacroix sent an update to his staff. This time, he announced that CBC were projecting a shortfall of up to $65 million in advertising revenue for the fiscal year ending March 31, 2009. “The situation is worse than anyone could have anticipated,” he wrote. But the broadcaster also stated that it has not asked the federal government for “a handout, an increased subsidy or an increase to our appropriation.” Instead, CBC will deal with the “short-term financial gap” by making cuts to its services and programming and through cutting jobs. CBC spokesperson Jeff Keay says it is too soon to say if the website will be affected.

The broadcaster may be facing some financial troubles, but it’s doing a lot better than most Canadian news outlets right now. Free-market competition encourages innovation and this public-private battle could serve a similar function, even if the playing field is less than even. CBC’s budget shortfall this year will also serve as a test of the quantity model of news that its website has been using for years. More doesn’t always mean better.

Regardless, both the quality and quantity of CBC’s food selection is about to change. Fancy dinners-be they the $600 meal shared by Rick Mercer, Stursberg and another guest who CBC refuses to reveal, or the catered buffet on election night-are likely a thing of the past. And if Billinger discovers that cbc.ca is no longer able to “do everything better,” he might find himself eating his words.