4: In defence of shovelware

Media experts consider shovelware to be a dirty word.
Shovelware—taking existing content from a newspaper’s print edition and putting it on the web with little or no thought to utilizing the strengths of the newer medium—was the sole source of content in the early days of newspaper websites.
But it may come as a surprise to these media experts that most Canadian newspapers have not only embraced it but are now "shoveling" content from the Internet to the paper.
And that's good news for reporters, editors and readers.
Existing copy is familiar to readers who are used to the paper edition, it is cheaper to produce than writing and editing stories for both the online and the print edition, it provides all the information scanners want (according to Jakob Nielsen, an estimated 79 per cent of online readers actually scan) and it gets the story out faster.
Janice Castro, an editor at Time, took exception to the term in a panel discussion a few years ago.
A good news site is a mix of newness and brand that readers have come to know, she said.
Duncan Clark, senior online editor for the National Post, concurs. He says the Post runs both types of stories—those specifically written for the Internet and those appropriated from the print edition.
“There’s no reason not to put [shovelware] on the site,” he said in a phone interview.
“We are a single entity: The National Post. We have a brand.”
And most papers have always had a desire to scoop the competition.
Giving news tips away to competing organizations takes a backseat to getting the story out fast.
“We’re not worried about getting scooped,” says Larry Johnsrude from the Edmonton Journal.
“We know the other [media] will get to it, so we try to get it up first.”
If possible, that story is then updated for the print edition.
In fact, as Canadian newspaper websites continue their fight against other online news providers, shovelware is running both ways.
At the Ottawa Citizen, breaking stories are written for the web—often only a few paragraphs—and uploaded as soon as possible. They are then updated as information comes in, with the final result being a product that is ready to be "shoveled" to the next day’s paper.
“If it’s breaking, we know everyone will be doing it, so we’re not worried about being scooped,” says Citizen online editor James Orban.
Even in the rush to get stories online, copy at the Journal, Citizen and Post passes through the hands of an editor first, be it a copy editor or an online editor.
In a poll I conducted among Canadian English-language newspapers, 73 per cent said they edited all stories before posting, while 13 per cent said they try to.
“We also use blogs to get news up quickly," adds the Post’s Clark.
“Our philosophy is to break news online.”
Often, blogs are backwards edited. That is, a blog on a breaking story is posted, then an editor is assigned to go over it.
That means some readers will get the news fast but with the possibility of typos and other errors.
Media expert John Pavlik argues that online newspapers go through three stages.
In the first stage they rely entirely on shovelware.
In the second they start to utilize the mediums' capabilities. That is, the journalism is done with the Internet in mind and features integrated links and archives.
In the third stage, original news content designed specifically for the web uses novel ways of telling news.
One example Pavlik gives is a New York Times experiment with omnidirectional imaging that would, in theory, permit online viewers to explore a 360 degree field of vision and actually enter a news event.
In the business world of newspapers, this third version sees limited use.
Conversely, the second has become the norm.
You can always add a link or photo to a story after it’s been put online, but you have to justify it, says Clark.
“We do it for all the top stories.”
The same holds true at the Journal.
As the story of the Interstate 35 bridge collapse in Minneapolis was unfolding, Johnsrude was linking the main story on the world page to local stories, photos and comment from experts in Edmonton. It was a value-added package that appeared online first before making its way into the next day’s paper.
While all three Canadian papers have similar ways of getting copy onto their websites, none are naive enough to believe they have found the perfect solution.
“It’s a constant evolution,” says Clark.
“We don’t know if we’re doing it right. I don’t know if any paper is.”

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