AllNovaScotia now a ‘case study’ at America’s most prestigious J-school
Two years ago, I pointed to an admiring account of Nova Scotia’s unorthodox online business and politics journal, AllNovaScotia.com, on the website of Harvard’s prestigious Nieman Foundation for Journalism. Halifax freelancer Tim Currie described how a “tightly paywalled, social-media-ignoring, anti-copy-paste, gossipy news site became a dominant force in Nova Scotia.”
Last month, Kelly Toughill, director of the King’s Journalism School in Halifax, fleshed out the story in an 18-page “case study” submitted to the equally prestigious Columbia University School of Journalism. From the abstract:
This case tells the story of a small, online publication in Halifax, Nova Scotia, which has confounded the punditry of the digital era. AllNovaScotia.com (ANS) sits firmly behind a paywall, does not allow its stories to be shared online, and even refuses subscriptions to employees of rival publications. Nonetheless, it has been financially successful. But in 2013, founder David Bentley faced a crossroads. At 69, he was ready to step back. But what should the next step be: sell out? Duplicate the ANS model elsewhere? Go more digital?
Although she canvasses various options for Bentley’s next step, Toughill ends her study as a cliff-hanger, without any prediction as to which course, if any, he might pursue.
She does, however, capture what I believe is the key to AllNS’s competitive journalistic edge:
The traditional organizational structure of a newsroom had been compared to a military organization, with power flowing through well-defined channels from the editor-in-chief or executive producer through sun-editors to reporters. AllNovaScotia was different. All reporters worked in the same room. Even Bentley didn’t have an office. There were no assignment editors telling reporters what to do; each reporter was responsible for finding and covering the news on his or her own beat. Most news organizations relied on a series of daily news meetings to make editorial decisions and to plan future coverage. Bentley did not believe in meetings. In 2010, eight years after founding the site, he proudly boasted that there had never been an official meeting within the organization.
Bentley worked closely with new reporters to help them adopt the sparse hard-??news style of AllNovaScotia stories. As the organization grew, new reporters also worked with a managing editor and several part-??time copy editors. Bentley’s standards were high, and those who couldn’t adjust quickly were let go. Those who stayed were expected to be ahead of the competition on their beat. Journalists who moved from local broadcast outlets or the local broadsheet reported that the AllNovaScotia newsroom had a more positive and dynamic ambiance than the organizations they had left.
“Reporters at AllNovaScotia had total independence,” says Kevin Cox, whom Bentley hired as an editor after Cox left the well-regarded national newspaper, the Globe and Mail.
All stories were self-generated. There wasn’t that top-down direction. At the Globe, you came in each morning and someone told you what to do. At the Globe, you were always double-checking with people up the line about what you were doing. There was no hierarchy at AllNovaScotia and that made for a completely different mood.
The generally meaty quality of its reporting is AllNovaScotia’s great strength (although its journalism sometimes suffers from a habit of nursing hobby horses and unreasonable pet peeves). Its continued success while so many other models are failing is a marvel to behold.
It may be that Toughill knows more about Bentley’s plans than she’s letting on. A note on Columbia’s website says the case has “an Epilogue” and a” Teaching Note,” visible only faculty members.