Today marks the launch of the Toronto International Film Festival. The event is a big one for the National Post, which is not only one of Canada’s national news outlets, but also one of Toronto’s local papers. And with this year’s festival, in addition to the typical vehicles for event coverage — guides, write-ups, pics of the celebrities in town for the festivities, etc. — the Post is adding a new platform to its repertoire: Foursquare. Partnering with the platform, says Chris Boutet, the Post’s senior producer for digital media, the goal is “to build an insider’s guide to the Toronto Film Festival.”
The premise of the project — and the promise to the paper’s Foursquare followers — is a simple one: “We want to help you discover the story behind the places you thought you knew.”
The festival makes a nice laboratory for testing Foursquare and its potential usage among news organizations. For outlets venturing into geo-targeted news, the key is to find a way to integrate Foursquare — or, more appropriately, to integrate themselves onto Foursquare — in a manner that will complement the user experience, rather than violate it. It’s a balance the Post is trying to strike by leveraging the journalistic powers of the paper — the expertise of its reporters, etc. — and applying it to the physical event that is the festival. “We have a really strong arts team,” Boutet notes — one that includes name-brand journos like Shinan Govani and Amoryn Engel. “They know where all the best parties are, they know where everybody’s going to be” (not to mention, of course, “the best places to eat, to drink, to see celebrities, to shop, to see movies”). The idea with the Post’s TIFF venue is to highlight locations that aren’t widely known. “There’s the stuff everyone writes about and everyone knows about,” Boutet says — red-carpet, celebrity-strewn events — “but what should you really be doing if you’re going to spend time at TIFF?” And Post journalists, due to their interests and their day jobs, “are the authorities on the subject.”
Used in this way, mixing physical context with context of the more rhetorical variety, Foursquare offers a nice mix of authority and serendipity. “We wanted people to be able to check into TIFF — and not to be expecting something, but to be surprised by something,” Boutet says. “I love being able to check in somewhere and find out what’s going on,” he notes — the “push” element of Foursquare, in which, for the price of a check-in, information is automatically provided, with no added effort on the part of the user. “The thing I really love about Foursquare is that element of surprise,” Boutet notes. And, on the platform, the surprise is social. While Yelp, for example, may have more comprehensive, practical information about a particular place, recommendations on Foursquare are more socially serendipitous: They’re curated for you by the people (and organizations) you follow. The experience is much more tailored — and much more personal.
It’s also shifting toward the informational. “People now check in to tell other people where they are,” Boutet notes; “eventually, though — and soon — people will check in to find information.” A newspaper, with its rich archives, is particularly well suited to information tied to physical places. “There’s history behind everything,” Boutet notes. And, for media outlets, Foursquare makes redistributing that information to users relatively simple. “The thing that we really love about Foursquare as a platform is its ease of use,” Boutet says. To write a helpful tip or an interesting bit of history, and then offer it to users who are near a place of interest, “it’s a matter of a couple of minutes for one of our editors to find that location.”
The Post has been experimenting with Foursquare’s geo-location news-and-context capabilities for a while now — spurred along by an online production team that began playing around with the platform and quickly became enamored of it. There’s an entrepreneurial work environment at the paper, Boutet notes (evidence: strategy meetings often take place around a newsroom ping-pong table), with staffers often teaming up to test potentially useful new tools. And they’re betting on the increasing popularity, and prevalence, of geo-targeted journalism — if not with financial resources (Foursquare, like Twitter and Facebook, is currently free), then with those more ephemeral goods of time and energy. “We just really like the idea of location-based information,” Boutet says. “We think it’s a growing area; we think more and more news organizations are going to clue into the value of it. And this is a great opportunity for us to start experimenting with the platform and get ahead of the curve.”
While the traffic play for nationalpost.com is minimal — Foursquare, in general, is less about sharing links than sharing discrete tips — the idea is to grow the Post’s audience and to build a stronger user base. (At the time of this posting, the paper has just under 4,500 followers.) Boutet and other Post-ies are hoping the Foursquare integration will help them not only to attract new users — but also to reward the old. “Ultimately, we’re trying to provide a little bit of extra value for our readership,” he says. And blending information with location could be a winning way to do that. As one user put it: “Love the way @nationalpost uses Foursquare. Great blend of tips, fun facts & links to natpo articles.” Its film festival coverage is an experiment, but it’s also, likely, a step toward an even bigger commitment to geo-located news. TIFF, Boutet says, is “our coming-out party.”