Edmonton Journal launches 2D barcodes with ScanLife

Yesterday the Edmonton Journal launched 2D barcodes throughout the newspaper, enabling readers with mobile devices to scan the codes for access to related information. They chose ScanLife to provide the technology, the same company that Metro Canada chose back in September. Here’s what The Journal had to say about the barcodes, known as EZcodes:

Want to vent? Send a letter to the editor? Tweet at one of our writers? Find a map to that great new restaurant? Just scan the code and that information stays with you and your phone to take wherever you want. The standing codes attached to our regular columnists and bloggers stay under the history button in the ScanLife application on your phone, so you can read their latest columns and blogs even when you don’t have the paper with you.

Mobile barcodes are another technology that Canada (and North America really) is behind on relative to the rest of the world. In that respect, I guess you could say that Metro and The Journal are adopters of the technology. ScanLife isn’t the only player, another popular choice (at least in North America) is Microsoft Tag, which uses high capacity color barcodes rather than the black-and-white EZcodes.

To get started with the codes that The Journal is using, simply visit http://2dscan.com on your smartphone to download the free scanning software. Then whenever you see the 2D barcode, just scan it! There are more detailed instructions here.

Edmonton Journal ScanLife Launch

The Journal hosted a party last night at Earls Tin Palace to celebrate the launch. The patio was packed with people wearing nametags with EZcodes on them. Bistro columnist Liane Faulder was the host, appropriate as her section was the first to launch with the new codes. Here’s a video of Liane, Edmonton Journal publisher John J. McDonald III, and Caritas Hospital Foundation President John Boucher (the first advertising partner for the codes) talking about the launch of 2D codes in the paper:

It was a fun party! I learned that Sandra Marocco planted the seed for the idea after a trip to New York. She noticed the tags being used outside Saks on Fifth Avenue, and decided to explore them further. After she found that Esquire magazine was using them, she realized they might provide value to the Edmonton Journal. The rest, as they say, is history.

Edmonton Journal ScanLife LaunchEdmonton Journal ScanLife Launch

You can see a few more photos from the party here. You can also see some photos and a video at The Journal.

Thoughts on 2D barcodes in the Edmonton Journal

I have mixed emotions about the 2D barcodes now found inside the Edmonton Journal. I think it’s great that they are continuing to experiment, trying new things, and I hope we see additional innovations coming from The Journal in the near future. Having said that, I wonder if too much emphasis is being placed on the barcodes by management. More than a few times last night I heard “this is just the beginning” or as was printed yesterday, “the possibilities for connection are endless.” I have three main issues with the barcodes:

  1. Putting the barcodes inside the newspaper reinforces the importance of the physical product. It emphasizes the “paper” part of “newspaper” rather than the “news” part. It’s short-term thinking, not long-term thinking. I think The Journal is very much facing the innovator’s dilemma, and even though the smart people that work under management know what needs to be done, they hit roadblocks at every turn. Here’s a rough analogy for you: The Journal is like a long-time smoker, addicted to paper. Connecting the physical paper to the digital world with barcodes is like a smoker using a nicotine patch, even though we know cold turkey is the most effective way to quit.
  2. Speaking of reinforcing the paper, the barcodes give you more information than the actual website does. That’s just completely unacceptable. Take yesterday’s Bistro article on sliders. The EZcodes provide access to “a list of Edmonton restaurants with sliders on the menu…a tasty recipe from local foodie Shauna Faragini… and where to get slider buns and pre-made sliders”. The online story? Completely devoid of links. There are so many things wrong with this picture that I don’t know where to start. Writers need to do some extra work to create the codes, but I would much rather see that extra work be put into links on the website (and I’m positive that doing so would provide greater value to The Journal).
  3. Less of an issue but still important is that the EZcodes are somewhat generic. Columnists get a code, and some special features like the Bistro get a code, but individual stories do not get their own codes. This is partly a technology issue, but mainly a cost issue. I think that makes the EZcodes a little less useful (an option to “tweet this story” after scanning a code simply isn’t possible, for example).

Again though, I want to reiterate that this is a positive step for the Edmonton Journal from the perspective of trying something new, and working to provide more value to readers (and advertisers). Congrats to the entire Edmonton Journal team for making it happen!

I also want to commend The Journal on the way they did the launch. They had videos prepared online demonstrating the technology, and every article I read asked for reader feedback and suggested a variety of ways to provide it. I really do believe that they want to know how to shape their use of the technology based on reader feedback. The party was a nice touch as well. Most interesting to me though, was the use of the @EJ_Cares account on Twitter. It has been actively monitoring and engaging in discussion about the 2D barcodes and the ScanLife application. The online community are most likely going to be the early adopters of the barcodes, so it’s smart to engage with them right away – well done to the @EJ_Cares team!

I hope Journal readers find the barcodes useful, and I look forward to many more interesting ideas in the future!

UPDATE: Here is Jeff’s take on the party and the barcodes.

UPDATE2: Turns out the information is on the website, just on a different story page (this is another issue with The Journal’s online stuff). I think the link text could have been more clear than “Slider tips and toppings” but the point is the information was online – my mistake!

20 thoughts on “Edmonton Journal launches 2D barcodes with ScanLife

  1. “Speaking of reinforcing the paper, the barcodes give you more information than the actual website does. That’s just completely unacceptable. Take yesterday’s Bistro article on sliders. The EZcodes provide access to “a list of Edmonton restaurants with sliders on the menu…a tasty recipe from local foodie Shauna Faragini… and where to get slider buns and pre-made sliders”. The online story? Completely devoid of links. ”

    You’re visiting an incorrect version of the story; all the content you’re mentioning is available along with the story here. (http://www.edmontonjournal.com/life/huge+craving+mini+sliders/3158699/story.html)

    Nice discussion of the technology and overall suggestions, however.

  2. Even that story doesn’t link to the information that the EZcodes provide, though it does contain more links. And it highlights another issue with the website – multiple copies of the same story.

    If I worked at The Journal, I think I’d walk around every day with a t-shirt that read “ONE PERMALINK TO RULE THEM ALL” until it was a reality.

  3. Hi Mack

    Generally I found this to be a good article, with a couple of reservations.

    First, the “paper” part of the newspaper is never going to go away. Just because the Journal is trying to reinforce the importance of the physical portion of the news isn’t a bad thing. As a young man, recent graduate, I read a physical copy of the Journal every day, do the crossword (which I can’t do online), possibly write some notes in the margins and cut articles out to save for a later date, or possibly some future research.

    Second, the issue with the Bistro section of the paper yesterday with a lack of links is something that is going to be remedied according to the people I have talked to, for the first couple days as the new feature is being rolled out, the online links to the features it isn’t a part of Scaners, yet. But it will be.

    Just thought I’d chime in


  4. Thanks for the comment Kyle! I agree that the “paper” part will never go away. But I firmly it will have to be a secondary or lower focus before long. The barcodes aren’t going to make that happen any faster.

    As for the links – I have heard many times that the issue is going to be remedied. Has it happened yet? No. I have also heard many times that resources are an issue. Yet here we are, with a new technology and all the time and effort that had to go into it. Somehow that was prioritized over improving the online experience.

    So basically, I’ll believe it when I see it.

  5. Hey Mack,
    Lots of good thoughts here.
    You’re right about our difficulty with multiple versions of the same story, but, as Dave points out, the optimized version of the slider story has lots of links AND links to all the content we otherwise provided via EZcodes. It’s packaged a little differently, as it should be given that it’s a different medium, but it’s all there.
    Thanks for the feedback.

  6. Actually, all the information IS there if you actually do, you know, click on the links. But analyzing this much further is likely going to turn into an Internet pissing match.

    Point made about permalinks, though.

  7. I see it now Dave. I was looking for “Click here for a list of Edmonton restaurants with sliders on the menu” or something like that, not “Slider tips and toppings”.

  8. Really interesting point on permalinks!

    That I can still click through from the link Mack has in his post is the problem.

    Either update the story at the same link (however your website template works) or don’t post it until it’s pretty much what you want it to be. Links that are still live (like the one here) can clearly confuse or give people different stories. And don’t get me started on links that disappear.

    Mack’s also bang-on in pointing out that “It’s coming…” can’t continually be an answer for something you deem a priority if you’re putting out new and different items that take as much work. (This certainly applies well beyond the Journal.)

    And I agree that this can’t be seen as “the answer,” but it’s great to see something different being tried.

  9. People have been predicting the demise of the newspaper for generations. Radio is here, instant communication, newspaper is on its last legs! Didn’t happen. TV is here, communication is instant, and we can see pictures now! Newspaper is dead! To borrow from Mark Twain, “rumours of ‘newspaper’s’ demise has been greatly exaggerated.” Just saying, I’m not convinced that a printed newspaper is going to go the way of the dodo.

  10. I don’t understand why they selected “EZscan” rather than QR or Datamatrix. Neither of the apps I have on my iPhone (QR Reader, MobileTag) read this format. Moot point for me as I don’t look at the pulp-based Edm Journal anyway, so I’m not their target. Eventually the world will standardize, perhaps, on one 2D code, but I’m not holding my breath.

  11. The ScanLife codes are interpreted by a central registry that presumably provides meaningful analytics to the publisher, albeit at a cost per code. Also the scanners track and provide history and personally identifiable data to the publisher.

    For information density, reliability, and wider appeal, they should have used QR codes. ScanLife is the kind of technology that gets sold to committees rather than adopted on merit.

    Ultimately scannable codes are a means of connecting the physical to the online, and using open and widely interpretable formats like QR or Datamatrix would have been a win.


  12. Like all early adopters, the current incarnation is not going to be the final one. I think a quick bridge between the physical and digital world is just the beginning….

    But as for pushing the paper side of things being a mistake, I think the issue is more complicated than you let on. News papers make their money through advertising revenue, a model that has worked very well in the past. Currently, online versions of newspapers are just extensions of their printed product. They try to utilize the same advertising models, charging outrageous CPM rates when compared to specialized advertising distribution networks ($20-$30 CPM compared to $0.50 – $1.50CPM with Google) and it’s getting more and more difficult for advertisers to justify the ROI of “the brand”. Then there is that whole pesky issue of social media taking the power away from advertising mediums and giving it to people.

    Having said all that, I think a lot of traditional news networks are still trying to figure out how to adapt. Similar to the music industry 10 years ago …. they are reeling, unsure of how to survive with web 2.0 around.

    I commend the journal for being the more progressive and trying new things. Hopefully this technology blossoms into a use that nobody has thought of yet, that in the end, enhances OUR lives. But your argument that they should take the emphasis off the paper and move it online … I just don’t see it happening … anytime soon.

  13. So here’s the thing with the permalinks. I agree with you wholeheartedly — we need one URL per story, a link that never dies. But wishing and hoping doesn’t make it so. Neither does patiently explaining or intemperately complaining, apparently, as I’ve tried all of those things. T-shirts would be similarly ineffective, I’m afraid.

    The CMS behind all of the newspaper websites in the chain allows us to do more than we’ve ever done before, and for that I am grateful, but it also prevents us from doing some things we ought to be doing. There’s nothing we can do about that locally, aside from continuing to press our case for changes.

    In the meantime, we’re left with workarounds. So here’s my choice:
    1. Two versions of a breaking news story: one that we tell you as soon as we know it, and keep building throughout the day with more information, links, pictures and all; and one that is the linkless version that went into the newspaper and is automatically spit out onto our website at 2 a.m. MT;
    2. One version of a breaking news story, which I can’t share with you until 2 a.m. when the robot spits it out, and which won’t get links until my morning staffer gets to it after 6 a.m.

    I choose the first option.

    A feature like the sliders extravaganza for ScanLife is obviously not breaking news, so maybe one could argue that we should have waited to package up the newspaper version for the web.

    But when? Should we start work at 2 a.m. so we can grab the newspaper versions of every feature story in our paper and add the links and size the pictures and allow comments (all of this is manual) before you get up to read it? I suppose that’s possible. I’d need at least one, maybe two people working 2 a.m. to 10 a.m. every day. Not sure how we’d staff the web when most of the news is actually happening. Our resources are considerable, but they are not infinite. Thus we make choices.

    So, Mack and Jeff, your points are well-taken and they will help me bolster my case when I bring it up again. But it’s not an easy thing to fix and the fixing can’t be done by anyone here. I think we do a damn fine job of reporting and sharing the news despite such obstacles, and we are constantly striving to do better. I guess my T-shirt would read “Doing my best under the circumstances. Will try harder next time.”

  14. Karen – thanks for the thoughtful comment. I think you’ve made the right choice, I’d choose option 1 given the circumstances and available options too.

    I think you and the rest of the EJ web team do a fantastic job with the resources you have to work with. I don’t think you can “try harder next time” because I know you work incredibly hard as it is!

    Whatever I can do to help you press for change, you know I’ll do.

  15. T-shirts might be similarly ineffective but awesome. Because everybody loves hilarious t-shirts.

    Great explanation Karen. I love that Journalers are sliding out into webspaces and engaging and explaining.

    Also, if I’m not always clear about it in discussions like this, I think the Journal is this city’s best newsroom. You’re the best online too.

    I would argue both with anybody, anywhere. Especially if there’s beer.

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