Large printouts of proposed site changes sit on CBC.ca editorial director Jonathan Dube’s desk at CBC headquarters in downtown Toronto. Just prior to its tenth birthday on July 4, the award-winning website will receive a makeover. Dube says the new design will be modern, lively and put more emphasis on exclusive features. A new “Canada and the World” page will be integrated into the redesigned website. “It will give us a lot more flexibility,” Dube says, “and the navigation will be a lot more useful.”
Although the redesign process was well underway by the time Dube arrived from Seattle in July 2005, he’s given a lot of input since accepting the newly created position. In order to keep up with the daily workings of the website, the American online journalist has become a chronic BlackBerry user. In fact, he says, he’s often found himself so immersed in his tiny handheld screen that he ends up on the wrong floor of the CBC building. He also admits to getting in trouble with his wife, Rebecca Cook Dube, on more than one occasion for using his BlackBerry at the dinner table.
“I may have once or twice threatened to kidnap the BlackBerry,” Cook Dube jokes, “or drop it from a great height, or otherwise do bodily harm to the thing.” She says Dube tends to focus intensely on his tasks, “Which is great in a lot of ways but can make it challenging to grab his attention when I want it.” But Cook Dube says she benefits too because he’s just as dedicated to other things, like planning their vacations or designing her personal website.
“I don’t know where he gets all his energy from,” Cook Dube says, “but he’s the type of person who’s happiest when he’s figuring out solutions, coming up with innovative new ideas and juggling a million different things at once.” Dube more or less agrees, saying, “I don’t know what else I’d want to do right now – I love it.”
It’s an old love affair. “Jon has always been really interested in online journalism,” Cook Dube says, “even back when it was barely a blip on most people’s radar screens.”
Dube, who grew up in New York City, brings more to CBC.ca than his master’s degree in journalism from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. He also brings a long history in the online news industry. He is founder and publisher of CyberJournalist.net, an online resource for journalists, and has worked as a national producer at ABCNews.com. When hurricane Bonnie hit in 1998, Dube, who was working for The Charlotte Observer at the time, used a blog to cover the breaking news – something news sites had never done before.
At the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Florida, Dube also taught online storytelling and collaboration skills as a visiting instructor from 2000 to 2003, and he still writes a column on web tips for the school. He also did a stint at The New York Times, has written freelance pieces for the Columbia Journalism Reviewand The Washington Monthly, and won a number of awards for his online work.
CBC.ca senior director Sue Gardner says Dube wasn’t the first person she thought of when she began to look for someone to fill the editorial director position. “I started on a hunt to hire someone,” she recalls, “and it took me about eight months. My first instinct, obviously, was to look around Canada.” But online journalism is a young discipline and hasn’t had a chance to develop a deep pool of talent, and Gardner figures she can count on one hand the number of Canadians that could fill the role. “I know them all,” she says, “and I talked to them about it.”
Gardner says one difficulty is that CBC.ca has one of the country’s largest online news teams, so it would have been a steep climb for anyone coming from modestly sized Canadian sites. She also considered bringing in someone with a background in print or broadcast, but she felt she already had a large enough talent pool at CBC. “What I needed,” she concludes, “was someone with a strong online background and good craft skills.”
Dube heard about the opening through a friend in Halifax who had been a former CBC employee. He’d already met some other CBC people through his involvement with the Online News Association (a Bethesda, Maryland-based association for journalists who produce news on the Internet and other digital platforms), and done some training sessions with CBC staff on convergence and online writing.
Gardner was delighted when Dube expressed interest. “He was exactly what I was looking for,” she says. “We’ll sit in meetings and he can say, ‘Well we did this at MSNBC,’ or, ‘We tried this and ended up going down some other road,’ or, ‘I know folks at CNN who can do X or Y or Z.'”
Dube arrived in July 2005 to take over responsibilities for all CBC.ca editorial programming, including news, arts and sports sections, and he has made a number of online content changes already. One took effect just in time for the January 23 federal election. Riding Talk, a series of moderated forums for each riding throughout Canada, allowed voters to discuss local issues directly affecting them. Over ten thousand comments from across the country were published. An online version of “Reality Check,” an election segment on The National, was also created. It examined what candidates said and tried to take viewers beyond the spin. CBC.ca also provided live analysis during the debates. “They took a detailed look at everything candidates were promising,” says Dube. “They added up what all the promises were, what all the spending was, and tried to compare what they were promising and what they weren’t.”
Dube also introduced an early version of the coming redesign for CBC.ca’s winter Olympics coverage in Torino, Italy. The new Olympics site not only proved to be popular, it’s also up for a prize in the Excellence in News, Information category at the Canadian New Media Awards.
These changes might be clicking with the website’s audience. According to a report released by ComScore Media Matrix, CBC.ca was the most popular media site in February 2006, with over five million visitors at home and work. CTV.ca came in second place with three million visitors.
Based on the company’s own WebTrends traffic logging software, on the January 23 election, the site had 1,329,500 unique visitors. It was the first time the site had broken the one million mark in a single twenty-four-hour period. It then broke its own record twice after that, with 1,381,076 unique visitors the day after the election, and 1,549,054 unique visitors on during the Torino Olympics on February 22.
Catering to its online audience has become a priority for CBC as the Internet becomes the preferred way to consume daily news. A national segmentation study conducted in 2004 by WashingtonPost.com in collaboration with Nielsen//NetRatings and Scarborough Research found that forty-seven per cent of respondents had increased significantly their usage of online media for news and information over a twelve-month period. The poll also found that sixty per cent of users accessed online resources daily. The top reason for their preference was “24-hour availability, ability to multi-task while browsing, breaking news, easy ability to search and free access.”
According to Statistics Canada, “Of the nearly 6.7 million households with a regular [Internet] user from home in 2003, an estimated 4.4 million (65 per cent) had a high-speed link to the Internet through either a cable or telephone connection.” This two-thirds penetration gave news providers the market they needed to invest in fancier websites. “It used to be that you were designing things knowing that the majority of people were going to be accessing it Monday to Friday, while they were at work where they have the best Internet access,” says Joyce Smith, assistant professor at Ryerson University’s School of Journalism, “but that’s not true any more. They can do it at home as well.” Also, users can now routinely handle larger files, which means media outlets can design interactive material, stream videos and generally produce higher quality website for a larger audience.
Online news sites have come a long way since they were first created. Smith says that although most major news organizations have had a web presence for some time, it wasn’t until the late 1990s that breaking news became a part of it. Before then, newspapers simply posted online replicas of stories that had appeared in the paper. “So there’s the point at which people had sites up,” she says, “but then a point at which they started to morph into breaking news sites with actual dedicated staff.”
Dube has dedicated himself to thinking about the transformation of news dissemination for the past decade. Cook Dube says that when she met her future husband at The Charlotte Observer in 1997, his passion for online journalism was already obvious. “I remember thinking,” she says, “‘Gee, he sure is enthusiastic about this online stuff, I wonder if it will really go anywhere?'”
“Now, of course,” she concludes, “journalism is all about online, and here we are in Toronto! What can I say, he was ahead of his time.”