Brexit, meet Timbit.
Back in June, when the British Broadcasting Corporation announced it would be adding a digital outpost in Canada to its growing, globe-straddling news operation, a press release pledged “an increased editorial focus on news and features to give Canadians better insight into the world around them and their role in it.”
While the U.K. is preparing to cut itself adrift after a majority of its citizens voted to leave the European Union, the BBC is going the other way: Searching for new territories to colonize, in a brash effort to build a news and content empire after the country’s political one shrank to nothing.
And so, following in the viral footsteps of BuzzFeed, which launched its Canadian division last year with a video comparing Tim Hortons to Dunkin’ Donuts, the Beeb trumpeted its arrival here on Thursday by leading the new Canadian section on BBC.com with an upbeat video pegged to Tims entry into the British market that featured man-on-the-street interviews with Londoners stumped by such foreign terms as “Timbit” and “double-double.” One schoolkid asked about “Timbit” replied, “Isn’t that like a dating website?”
From off-camera, a friend explained, “No, that’s Tinder.”
The video then helpfully crossed the pond to a series of Torontonians struggling to explain the coffee chain’s local appeal. One fellow who looked a little down-at-heel croaked to the camera, “I’d rather spend $4 for a latte at Starbucks than go to Tim Hortons. … If you drink it black, you might as well be drinking puddle water.”
That evening, at a cocktail reception in a VIP room of the downtown Toronto restaurant Jump, a BBC executive praised the piece, and especially the 500,000-or-so views it had racked up so far. “The poor video journalist, Dan Lytwyn, has set the bar ridiculously high with one of our most successful videos in months,” crowed Ben Bevington, the digital news editor for North America, who had flown up from his base in Washington, D.C., for the event.
Lytwyn, a Huffington Post veteran, is one of three young journalists hired for the new bureau, situated at King St. W. and Spadina Ave. Robin Levinson-King, who just left the Toronto Star amid job cuts there, will serve as the audience engagement producer; Jessica Murphy, a former Sun News Network staffer, is the bureau chief. They will try to grow an audience estimated at 5.6 million monthly Canadian users, while the sales and marketing staff of five will try to monetize it.
Waiters circulated among the guests – city councillor John Fillion, CBC’s Matt Galloway, Laura Lynch, and Anna-Maria Tremonti among them – with trays of corn hushpuppies, vegetable samosas, and chilled prosecco. Over at the buffet table, the CEO of Postmedia Network, Paul Godfrey, his Order of Canada pin placed with geometric precision above the aviator sunglasses in his lapel pocket, cast an eye across the antipasto meats and popped a wedge of cheese into his mouth.
He looked tanned and svelte after what he described as a “strenuous workout,” as healthy as the Postmedia balance sheet, newly invigorated after the company shed hundreds of millions in debt in a recent manoeuvre that wiped out shareholder equity but kept the lights on.
Godfrey, who earlier this year urged the federal government to financially assist private news organizations, said he welcomed the new entrants into the market.
“I’ve always believed that competition helps everybody,” he said. “I remember when the National Post started, there was great concern by The Globe and Mail, the Toronto Star, ‘Oh, what are we going to do? The world’s going to come to an end.’ In fact, everybody made themselves better, because that’s what competition does.”
I asked whether competition had made Postmedia bond holders better; he seemed to not hear the question.
Lyse Doucet, the BBC’s Acadian-born chief international correspondent, recalled that when she first moved to the U.K. in 1988, Canada rarely rated any press coverage. She hoped the Calgary Olympics that year would change things. Instead, she said, a British columnist, writing from Calgary, declared, “If there were an Olympics for being boring, Canada would get the gold medal.”
“But suddenly, a lot more people are talking about Canada, The world is changing. Canada is changing. The BBC is changing. And journalism is changing.”
“Take a look at the kind of office we’ve set up here. It’s not the traditional office with a TV and radio correspondent, and a video editor. We’ve got a video journalist, we’ve got an online editor, and we’ve got a social engagement producer.”
The new staff haven’t spent much time in Britain – in fact one has never visited – but they’ll soon be inculcated in the BBC culture. “They’ll all go to New Broadcasting House [in London], have some training, get to see the BBC, the size of it, the scope of it,” Bevington said. “It’s a massive building, and when you go in there, you get a sense of why it’s got the global reach that it does. It’s quite an intimidating place.”
He wasn’t worried, he said, that his new charges weren’t steeped in British culture. Their job is to help bring British and world news to Canadians, and Canadian news to Brits.
“They’re not looking every morning at, ‘What’s the news story I must write?’ ” he said. “They’re looking for, ‘What’s the most interesting story in Canada today? Is it something that our Canadian audience would be interested in? Is it something that a global audience is interested in?’”
“And that could be something like, you know, Justin Trudeau seen shirtless again. Or it could be something about Canadian peacekeepers around the world.”Report Typo/Error