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Jan. 23, 2012, 10:30 a.m.

How a tightly paywalled, social-media-ignoring, anti-copy-paste, gossipy news site became a dominant force in Nova Scotia

AllNovaScotia charges $360 a year and seemingly breaks all the “rules” for online news. So why does it have the ear of the most powerful people in the province — and make a profit?

Every morning, the business and political elite in the biggest province on Canada’s East Coast turns to an unlikely source of information about their own world.

Among all the online news organizations trying to find a way to profitability, consider AllNovaScotia.com, which has just celebrated 10 years online and now challenges its historic print rival for the attention of the province’s leaders.

It’s done that by not following the rules: It has a nearly impenetrable paywall, no social media presence, no multimedia, and only rare use of links. It doesn’t cover crime and barely covers sports and entertainment.

However, it delivers up-to-the minute coverage of business, city hall, and the provincial legislature via the web and apps for iOS and BlackBerry. It scoops its news rivals almost daily and has won loyal readers through dogged combing of public records and often by prying into the personal lives of the province’s movers and shakers.

The site is based in Halifax, the capital city of Nova Scotia, a province of just under a million people in Atlantic Canada. Ask 10 people on the street about AllNovaScotia and it’s likely eight will say they’ve never heard of it.

“I think it might be nine people,” says Parker Donham, a former journalist for the now-defunct Halifax Daily News, communications consultant, and blogger. “But the one who did would be an assistant deputy minister or a regional manager. Between people paying for it and a limited amount of advertising, they’ve got a business model that seems to work.”

“On the whole, I think they are the paper of record now,” adds Donham. “I don’t think there are many serious business or political people who don’t see that every morning.”

AllNovaScotia has 5,950 subscribers, whose monthly dues generate 80 per cent of its revenue. The site doesn’t come close to having the broad appeal of its 137-year-old print competitor, the Halifax Chronicle Herald, which has a Monday-to-Friday circulation of 108,389. Three people with different email addresses can share a $30 a month subscription, but they can’t pass the stories on to anyone else without some effort. The publication — produced by a staff of 14, 11 of them reporters — is locked down in Flash, making sharing usually a cumbersome ordeal of cobbling together screenshots. No sharing buttons here.

A representative for 5,200 small- and medium-sized businesses in the region says AllNovaScotia’s influence among her association’s members is narrow but strong.

“I would suspect that most have never heard of AllNovaScotia,” says Leanne Hachey, vice president of the Atlantic Canadian chapter of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business. “However, among those with some influence over politics or public policy or government relations, everybody knows about AllNovaScotia and everybody, as far as I know, pays very close attention to it.”

In many ways, AllNovaScotia is similar to Statehouse News Service, the Massachusetts online outfit that offers “gavel-to-gavel coverage” of state government for lobbyists, government officials and business people. However, AllNovaScotia’s approach is both broader and spunkier.

The guts of each edition are development permits, court documents, and land transfers — and the stories of triumph and failure inside them. One January issue was a typical mixture of hard news and betcha-didn’t-know information about the province’s movers and shakers. The 25-story edition included:

  1. a scoop that a local mall would host the region’s first Apple Store
  2. an alert that a buyer had been found for one of the province’s struggling paper mills
  3. an exposé in text and photos of the $7.6-million Florida mansion purchased by the owner of one of the region’s largest companies
  4. profiles of three new partners at one of the city’s leading law firms
  5. an obituary of a small business owner and minor-league hockey supporter

The news site appeals directly to the province’s tight-knit and family-oriented business community, according to Kevin Cox, AllNovaScotia’s former managing editor, who retired in June.

“The strange thing was they liked to read about other people within their circle. Not in a satirical way…but in a serious way,” says Cox, a former Globe and Mail reporter who still writes commentaries for the site, but who is now studying to be a United Church minister. “How do the Fountains spend their money? How do they make their money? Who did they give it to?”

As it turns out, the Fountains, one of the province’s leading philanthropist families, spent a chunk of their money on a surprise appearance by crooner Tony Bennett at their Dec. 10 Christmas party. The lead story in AllNovaScotia’s next issue detailed the lavish event, Bennett’s set list, and the who’s-who-of-Nova-Scotia guest list.

This focus on people and their wealth makes AllNovaScotia a different beast from typical business coverage that focuses on companies. People’s names are bolded in stories, frequently paired with their corporate compensation and the assessed value of their house. An almost-daily feature is Who’s Suing Whom.

“We wrote about property. We wrote about local stocks. We wrote about the old families,” says Cox, of his time managing the site beginning in 2004. “We wrote about the big business deals and the little business deals. We wrote about the breweries and the coffee shops. Some of it was micro-news that no one else was paying any attention to.”

The character of the site can be attributed to its creator, David Bentley, who co-founded a gossip publication called Frank Magazine in the 1980s. Frank is an irreverent print and online journal that chronicles everything from local celebrity divorces, petty scandals and social faux pas. Many in this conservative province read it, though fewer would admit it. Bentley had started a separate newspaper a decade earlier that would become the Halifax Daily News. That paper, a scrappy tabloid that became the first Canadian newspaper with a website in 1994, folded in 2008, two decades after Bentley sold it.

Bentley, who no longer operates Frank, says AllNovaScotia’s readers are business people, government officials, academics, and health-care administrators. They are people who need to know what’s going on but who also read the publication “just to keep an eye on who’s in the courts and owing people money.”

Cox says AllNovaScotia writes about personal lives of the province’s business elite if it affects the way that business is run.

“Just because you’re Colin MacDonald of [seafood giant] Clearwater doesn’t mean we’re not going to pry a little bit to see what’s underlying the value of that stock or the lack of value of that stock. And it’s not to say that we won’t pry into people’s personal lives,” says Cox.

That approach hasn’t rankled MacDonald, chairman of the international shellfish company that does about $300 million in business annually. Clearwater received extensive coverage by AllNovaScotia in 2011, when it was the target of a hostile takeover.

One AllNovaScotia story in August, headlined “Colin Goes Fishing,” asked whether “the most committed Clearwater founder was losing his passion” after MacDonald went salmon fishing in Newfoundland during the takeover challenge.

MacDonald stated in an email that AllNovaScotia “provides me and I suspect other business leaders with a real-time heads up on what is happening in the business community” — an advantage over other news media in the province, which he said are slower and “lacking the business focus and insight.”

In reaction, the Chronicle-Herald played catch-up in 2011, launching a rival morning business newsletter and hiring additional business reporters.

But a major component of AllNovaScotia’s success is style, not just substance.

“We speculate about an awful lot of stuff — this could happen; that might happen,” says Cox. “We write about it with a certain amount of self-righteousness that a lot of business publications won’t take to.”

How much of this style can be attributed to Bentley’s roots with the gossip magazine Frank?

“I think a substantial amount,” adds Cox. “We’re criticized harshly in the [local] journalism school for using anonymous sources, because we do. But we have people who talk to us who won’t talk to anyone else. If they’re going to give me the legitimate news and I can verify it somewhere else, I think that’s my job to get it out there.”

For Bentley — who co-owns AllNovaScotia with his daughter, the publisher — “getting it out there” simply wouldn’t happen without the site’s uncompromising paywall.

“We’ve got to do that, otherwise they won’t buy the bloody thing,” he says flatly. “Our competition is people who want to read it for nothing. That’s the great big overarching thing that attempts to suck our blood every day. It sounds a bit paranoid. But that’s the problem.”

The result, says the consultant and blogger Donham, is a web site that would appear not to get the Internet at all, by today’s online news norms.

But that’s fine with Bentley. He knows what his content is worth to his audience — in contrast to many media excutives who “think what they’ve got is more valuable than it is.” He acknowledges the value of social media in the Arab Spring uprisings, but insists, “You can’t be in the content business and not get paid for it.”

Even so, he cautions against viewing AllNovaScotia as a model. “This thing has been going on for 10 or 11 years. It’s one little place,” he says. “What sort of success is that? It’s not as though it has taken off like wildfire and spread across the continent, has it?”

Note for transparency: Cox is a sessional instructor and colleague of mine at the University of King’s College School of Journalism.

POSTED     Jan. 23, 2012, 10:30 a.m.
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