{The Future of the CBC: Optics Not Economics}

This post is a comment intended for the discussion forum of my Administrative Process class at McGill University’s Faculty of Law. It is in response to the March 23 class on the continued relevance of the CBC.

This comment departs from the topic of the readings, that is the CBC as a crown corporation, and instead follows the tangent begun in class and continued on these discussion boards about the optics of news media. As mentioned in class this discussion necessarily includes all forms of written media from magazines to websites in addition to newsprint.

I am an amateur graphic designer and I view aesthetics as an essential aspect of any message.  Because the medium is part of how we conceive our messages – that is, the same newspaper viewed in print feels very different from its PDF “duplicate” – an essential task for all communicators is to understand the implicit messages conveyed by the form of their explicit messages. Several recent developments in the appearance of important media sources highlight how the CBC’s problem, like many newspapers’, is as much with the form of its messages as it is the structure of its organization.

NO MORE IHT

The International Herald Tribune (IHT) just redesigned its website. Put more accurately, the New York Times (NYT) scrapped the IHT’s innovative website and now redirects IHT traffic to the NYT’s “Global Edition.” The Global Edition looks and feels exactly like the NYT site except with more international content and, to some extent, from IHT journalists. The NYT has drafted dozens of pages to explain this change, which also involved a more subtle redesign of the IHT’s print edition. Yet reading between the lines of the paper’s explanation, one discovers yet another newspapers’ desperate attempt to consolidate and adapt in order to make a profit.

Too many of such media outlets’ decisions are the result of economics when the reason they are losing market share is often more related to optics, sociology, technology and marketing. This is why the CBC’s success cannot be measured by its profits any more than the NYT’s can. In both cases, their brand is as important as their content and this reputation is the result of any number of non-market based decisions. This is another example of how market-economics cannot explain all administrative processes or rules. While some might argue that individual choice is what determines the role of the CBC and NYT in contrast with Fox or the New York Post, there are social and aesthetic factors at play that escape market analysis.

NEW MEDIA

In fact, in some ways, the non-market-based factors that resulted in the NYT’s success have been amplified by new media. The free flow of information facilitated by the Internet has made facts less valuable while increasing the importance of the way they are expressed. The quality of the NYT’s prose, like the CBC’s uniquely Canadian approach to news, both differentiate these news sources in an era when the majority of their content comes from wire services and stringers. Such factors have always made great news outlets great. They continue to do so and should be kept at the forefront by decision makers undertaking the necessary transformations facing print media.

Good editing for instance, could continue to be the determing factor for the most respected publications. This applies both in terms of the quality of the publications prose as well as the selection of its journalists and commentators. Faced with an ever increasing deluge of information, we follow any light that consistently points us towards information sources we appreciate.  In this respect, I read the CBC and BBC specifically because they are Canadian and British perspectives on news that I would otherwise get from the IHT (and now will have to get from the NYT).

Technology can also be harnessed by news outlets to great effect if they are wiling to invest in it. I not only chose the IHT because I preferred its selection of stories and appreciated the manner in which they were written (it was the best of the NYT with an international bent). I also read it because its site was designed to take advantage of the Internet rather than duplicating the layout of a newspaper. This allowed for innovative interactivity. Bookmarks within the site allowed readers to scan headlines and pick the stories they wanted to read while alternative navigation allowed readers to easily change the layout of pages. The IHT used technology to facilitate functionality and customization.

RSS VS. HOMEPAGES

This brings me back to my original topic, aesthetics. While harder to explain from an administrative perspective and oft neglected within the legal community, aesthetics determine to a great degree what information we choose to digest. For instance, in an attempt to include a broader range of news and opinion sources amongst the many being recommended to me, I switched to reading RSS feeds (Real Simple Syndication – I’m really that geeky) which allowed me to download a stream of frequently updated content from numerous websites. While I could quickly scan far more sources this way, I have reverted back to viewing several of my favorite news sources on their homepage because their aesthetic layout facilitates my selection of those articles which I think are important.

Newspapers have spent decades if not centuries perfecting their layout and while, as discussed in class, this often includes an emphasis on advertising space, it also implies a hierarchy based on newsworthiness. The problem, however, is that the rules for layout in print vary greatly from those online and many news sources have not kept up their aesthetics with the technology. Nevertheless, from this discussion it is evident that the questions facing those re-organizing the layout of a newspaper sometimes resemble those facing legislators in choosing how to order statutes, whether based on logic, aesthetics, ideology, etc.

GO FORTH, CBC

At this point the CBC is doing some things right. It is moving towards taking advantage of the internet and its site design is great. Max’s recommendations are dead-on: everything the CBC produces should be streamed for free online, news and Canadian content should be priorities and it should be government funded. If the feds are not inclined to support the CBC, the airwaves have recently been inundated with alternative ways for it to making up the shortfall. These include iTunes-like micro-payments and charging at the internet service provider (ISP) level,  à la cable TV. Further, the CBC should not hesitate to focus on a niche population, albeit a broad one, that is, individuals seeking a Canadian perspective.

In the meantime the CBC must continue to be flexible in terms of its design, content and functionality. The worst web-design decision I have experienced was the federal government’s decision to roll out its current “standard look and fee”,  forcing all websites to conform to their immediately out-of-date and boring current layout. Regulations should reflect their subject. As such, aesthetic rules need to be flexible to achieve their best effect in contrast with the Canadian government’s current model.

In essence, all I am talking about is good design or semiotics. Like the urinals of Schiphol Airport, good design can influence behaviour much more discretely than rules or orders. It can influence what we read and what we read, as we all know, is the best way to influence what we think.

{The Future of the CBC: Optics Not Economics}

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