Hard work for hard news

by Zander Brosky
At allnovascotia.com, work ethic and a narrow focus on local business keep them ahead of the competition

by Zander Brosky

The online news site allNovaScotia.com is housed in a two-room office in downtown Halifax. The brickwork is cracked and the yellow paint is flaking off in some places. A picture of Sir John A. Macdonald is hanging in a corner.

“He was probably one of the labourers on this building,” smiled Kevin Cox, the managing editor.

This is where the publication comes together, six writers producing 15 stories a day, five days a week. The money to publish comes from the $30 a month paid by its readers.

AllNovaScotia.com has successfully maintained itself as a paid news site, despite difficulty by many larger outlets in making that model work. It has succeeded by providing a unique blend of content that even its main competitor, the Chronicle Herald, acknowledges brings information to readers that it does not. Not only has allNovaScotia.com survived, but it has grown and hired more reporters.

“When I came in we were three, myself, David (Bentley) and Andrew (MacDonald),” said Cox.

Readership has also grown. When allNovaScotia.com started in 2002 there were 400 subscribers; now around 3,000 people pay to read it. The goal is the same now as it was then.

“We try and create a unique source of business news in Nova Scotia,” said Cox. “(Our starting goal was that) people would pick it up and they would get news there that they could get nowhere else.”

Originally, the website eschewed covering stories that were already public.
If the Chronicle Herald ran a story, Cox said the attitude was, “it’s public, we’re not going to do it.” But, “We learned that we couldn’t do it every day” he said. “We realized very quickly that we had to almost become a newspaper of record.”

That said, allNovaScotia.com still has an aggressive edge to its reporting.

“Canned News”

However, allNovaScotia.com’s readers such as Roger Miller, Vice President of Northeastern Investigations of Dartmouth, feel the traditional local media lack initiative.

“Company A sends out a press release saying this is happening and the local media pick that up. There’s no investigative journalism,” said Miller. “We’re getting, for the most part, canned news. AllNovaScotia.com is the deviation from that.”

Wark feels the quality of allNovaScotia.com’s reporters is what sets them apart.

“Their reporters have the instinct, not in every story but in many of them, to go beyond the surface . . . taking the routine and going beyond the routine.”

George Caines, a senior commercial lawyer with Stewart McKelvey, said allNovaScotia.com outclasses other local outlets. “The information they have is generally up to date, more accurate and better written than most of the local business coverage,” said Caines.

Even national news organizations monitor allNovaScotia.com for Nova Scotia business stories.

Michael Tutton, Halifax reporter with The Canadian Press said, “they address that local interest.”
The Canadian Press uses the site to find local business stories with wider national interest. These are usually stories about Nova Scotia’s publicly traded companies.

Stories over style

The content of allNovaScotia.com is where the effort goes, as opposed to layout or design. The site’s user interface is “simple and reliable” according to Cox. A subscriber logs in and the day’s headlines appear on the left of the screen. The headlines link to the stories. The stories used to run in a continuous scroll all the way down the page. There are still no hyperlinks or photos.

Tim Currie teaches online journalism at the University of King’s College. Currie said the site doesn’t use the online medium to its full potential.

“Most websites will have lots of hyperlinks that can take you to background on a person when you click their name for example. AllNovaScotia.com doesn’t use any of them. They don’t have any audio or video.”

Currie said the site could use different media to, “tell stories in different ways.”
“Some maps would be useful,” said Currie. “They keep track of a lot of the property that’s changing hands downtown. You could put location markers on all the properties that’s changed hands in the past three months.”

Though Currie feels the site’s interface site is lacking, he likes the work ethic of allnovasotia.com’s staff.

“They work the phones, they go to court, they get the records, they sift through piles of data . . . It’s publicly available but most people aren’t willing to do the legwork. They’re very good at doing the legwork.”

Cox’s Wednesday insider trading column is a good example of the legwork that goes into the website.
Using the System For Electronic Disclosure by Insiders (SEDI) database, on which Canadian insiders disclose their stock trades, Cox analyzes the trading patterns of local insiders. The database is accessible to everyone.

“It takes about four or five hours every Wednesday, but you get some really neat stuff. You find out who’s buying, who’s selling, you get all kinds of names of lots of prominent business people,” Cox said.

Sometimes the legwork of allNovaScotia.com pays dividends for its readers.

“They collect information on upcoming foreclosure sales,” said Michael Sherwood, an investment associate at ScotiaMacLeod. “The only other place to get that information is to go down to the law courts and check the bulletin board.”

The website also gets a daily list of commencing lawsuits from the court bulletin board. The “who’s suing whom” list is one of the most read and contentious sections on the website.
“A lot of businesses don’t like being mentioned,” said Cox.

Lawsuits are public documents; anyone can look them up at the courthouse.
“The way businesses look at it is, ‘it may be public but who’s going to see it other than a clerk if you guys had left it alone.’ I’ve heard that so many times it drives me crazy,” said Cox.

AllNovaScotia.com has an eye on government as well as business. The website publishes a list of all the provincial government contracts.

“If someone’s pork barreling we’re going to know,” said Cox.

The website now has a full-time political reporter to analyze the government. Brian Flinn wrote politics at the Halifax Daily News until it shutdown in February 2008.

“I wanted to work here,” said Flinn. “They were investigating stuff that no one else was really looking into. That’s exciting.”

The stories all get the same prominence on the site so no article is buried on the bottom of page 10.
“We can write longer if we have to. In a newspaper you’re stuck with the space you have,” said Flinn. “You can add a lot more detail.”

Wark feels Flinn takes advantage of this extra space.
“Flinn seems freer than he was at The Daily News to analyze and so forth.”

On their own terms

Flinn has also come to appreciate the leeway of working for a small publication.

“Everyday we’re setting our own agenda on a number of fronts and that’s a lot of fun,” adds Flinn. “It feels like we’re doing something really worthwhile here.”

Cox notices the freedom at allNovaScotia.com as well.

“I came through the Globe and Mail system and I also came through the Southam system. There was always someone over you,” said Cox. “There was that Globe thing of ‘this is how we see the world’ and we don’t have that. We see the world any way we want to and the way we see it can change.”

This independence also leads to vulnerability. Unlike the large publications allNovaScotia.com does not retain a legal team to defend libel cases.

The direct feedback enables staff to correct mistakes quickly before they become serious issues. Quick corrections also allow allNovaScotia.com to publish more information.

The downtown location is essential for getting these valuable insights.

“People will sometimes tell you things on the street that they wouldn’t tell you in their offices or at press conferences,” said Cox.

If someone tells it to them, Cox, Flinn, Macdonald and the others will publish it.

“(At the end of the day) I’ve thrown it all out there, everything I know is out there and we’re not hiding anything,” said Cox.

This is a risky strategy though. Once, Cox wrote a story about a possible privatization of the Empire group, one of the region’s largest companies which controls Sobey’s grocery stores and Empire Theatres among other holdings. Cox saw a large number of shares moving within the company and wrote a story saying it could lead to the company being taken off the public market. Private companies are more secretive about their dealings.

“I made a jump in logic,” said Cox. AllNovaScotia.com ran a correction and the matter was settled. “Our readers understand that we make mistakes, it happens to them all the time.”

“They also say, you’re entitled to speculate all you want but I’m going to deny it.”

Speculation allows allNovaScotia.com to be ahead of the curve on some stories. For instance, allNovaScotia.com was talking about Transcontinental Inc. turning The Daily News into a free paper two years before it happened.

“That was one of my beats, covering Newspapers,” said MacDonald. “We consistently and constantly put this matter to Transcontinental executives. They scoffed at the idea; they got upset at the idea. But in the end, the proof is in the pudding.”

AllNovaScotia.com will continue to speculate from its small two-room downtown office as long as people keep paying to read it.

“People tell me we could go to the suburbs to find nice office space. I said ‘but then we would spend all that time on the road,” said Cox. “This is about all the space you need, there’s no wasted space in here.”
No wasted effort either.

“People are always agog who come here from other places and say, ‘How can you get 15 stories a day out of Halifax business?” said Cox. “I say to them, ‘The challenge is keeping it to 15.’ I’ve never had a day when I couldn’t have written more.”