Media Monday Edmonton: Gastropost Alberta & the Future of Newspapers

In the summer of 2012, Postmedia launched two experiments to explore the future of newspapers. One launched here in Edmonton, and their task was as ambitious as they come: to transform the way the Edmonton Journal does business.

They’ll operate much like a tech start-up, with no pre-determined outcomes. They’ll be testing some theories about the growth of the news business, and working to identify, customize and build new products to serve our community.

The Edmonton Experiment, as it was affectionately known in the early days, eventually launched as Capital Ideas Edmonton. Focused on helping local entrepreneurs share what they know, it has grown into a vibrant and active community with events that regularly attract nearly 200 people. The project has also started to figure out its business model, landing a partnership with ATB Business recently. They haven’t yet transformed the Journal, but the initiative has been successful enough to grow beyond the experiment phase.

The other experiment that Postmedia launched was at the National Post. Rather than unlock the expertise of the community or focus on an under-served niche, they decided to share pictures of food with Gastropost. No, really!

Last week, We asked a group of food lovers in Toronto to eat something delicious every day and tell us about it. Some dined out, others stayed in — all made our mouths water. Interested? Get involved!

Chris Tindal, a member of the National Post Labs team that launched Gastropost, described it as much more than just sharing food pictures:

We’re not sure exactly what this is yet, but there are a few things we know (or hope) it’s not. First, this isn’t regular user-generated content. The closest analogy we’ve come up with is to say we’re looking for expert-generated content from the voices within a community. Second, in the example of food, this isn’t designed to replace or compete with what food bloggers, restaurant reviewers and Yelp and Foursquare users are already doing, but should instead surface new value that will ultimately strengthen those existing communities and improve the food experience of the whole city.

As great as that bit of marketing-speak sounds, when you get right down to it Gastropost is all about user-generated content finding its way into the newspaper. This reality has been cemented by the way Gastropost finds its photos (and by extension, its members): via social media services like Twitter and Instagram, services which have helped to define user-generated content.

What is true is that Gastropost does not compete with food bloggers or restaurant review sites. It simply can’t – there’s only room for photos to be shared. Though the weekly missions add a game-like dynamic to Gastropost, it would seem that it’s the chance to see their photo and name in the newspaper that drives people to share and become members.

Gastropost Edmonton

Maybe that’s enough. Gastropost has since expanded to Vancouver, Edmonton, and Calgary, and now has more than 10,000 members across the country. Still, I have a hard time visualizing the future of newspapers looking through Gastropost-tinted lenses.

Gastropost Alberta

Gastropost started its expansion into Alberta in October when Gastropost Edmonton launched. It was a small blow to Capital Ideas, as Brittney Le Blanc shifted experiments to become the Community Manager for Gastropost in Alberta. I can’t think of anyone at the Journal better suited to the role than Brittney, and in just the first month she had already attracted more than 1000 members. Clearly a wise decision by the powers-that-be.

I visited Brittney at her office at the Edmonton Journal recently to learn more about Gastropost Edmonton. Here’s what she had to say:

For more on Gastropost Edmonton and how it works, check out Linda’s excellent post.

Last month, Gastropost expanded to Calgary, with Brittney once again leading the charge. I’m fairly certain that Gastropost will find success here in Alberta just as it has out east. Sharing pictures of your food has become so accepted (and even encouraged) that restaurants that ban the practice seem unusual.

But will Gastropost change the way Postmedia does business? Of that, I’m much less certain.

The future of newspapers?

Maybe it’s unfair to paint Gastropost with the future-of-newspapers brush. The initiative did grow out of Postmedia’s desire to figure out the newspaper’s role in the future of media, however. The initial objective was very clear: “to transform our cities by inspiring everyone to share their expertise, something we think newspapers are uniquely positioned to do.” So, what can we learn from Gastropost about the future of the newspaper? 1

Basing the success of Gastropost on a reader’s desire to appear in the newspaper seems fraught with risk. The first time your photo is selected, of course you’ll get the warm fuzzies. But that experience is fleeting, and the next time it happens it’s much less exciting. With two full pages of tiny food photos, it won’t take long until yours is featured. Then what? Surely Gastropost can offer more than a whimsical “look ma, I’m in the paper!” moment.

It is often said that newspapers should reflect the communities they serve. Others go further and suggest that newspapers should actively be a part of the communities they serve. I think that’s where Gastropost fits in.

Gastropost Edmonton

Here’s what Brittney wrote in the blog post introducing Gastropost Calgary:

Food is a connector. It’s a common ground that you can share with nearly everyone. We have family dinners, cookie exchanges around the holidays. We share new dining experiences with friends and trade recipes and ideas at potlucks. Food helps us connect through the good times and bad, sharing communal memories and bonding over allergies and sensitivities. Strangers bend over from the next table, wondering what you’re eating and whether they should order it.

Viewed as a way to connect with the community, selecting food for the National Post experiment was a no-brainer. In decades past, a shared food experience might have come from recipes, restaurant reviews, or other food news printed in the newspaper. Today, it happens all the time, on Twitter, food blogs, and other services. Gastropost is a way for Postmedia to remain relevant in that world, to be a part of the food community in which its readers are active.

It won’t be long until the thrill of getting your food photo in the newspaper wears off. The trick will be for Postmedia to figure out how to make money from participating in the food community before that happens. If they can do that, perhaps Gastropost can tell us something about the future of newspapers after all.

Thanks to Brittney for being a good sport and doing the video! The music is “Chords for David” by Pitx.

  1. Note I’m using the phrase “future of newspapers” instead of “future of journalism” on purpose. Despite the worldview of Gastropost’s creators, I look to Clay Shirky’s seminal post from 2009 on the matter. 

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