Digital Journal has spent the last 20 years bringing the best in real news to its audience of millions across the globe. A commemorative book — Digital Journal: 20 Years of Real News — is being donated to select libraries and provided for free in digital form to our readers. The book features a short biography of Digital Journal, professional photography documenting the publication’s history, as well as articles written by our top writers. To kick off the launch of the book, we are sharing excerpts from the book’s introduction, which details the innovative history of Digital Journal. Enjoy!
20 years of real news
The history of media group Digital Journal is just a humble story.
Over the course of 20 years, Digital Journal has been on the cutting edge of technology and news. It has branched out to work with writers all over the world, and touched the lives of millions of people. But this success was spurred on by a small team, willing to try new things and bring Canada into the 21st Century.
Things stay interesting for independent media in Canada. As the Canadian media pushes further into the digital realm, it does so with a small population base, wedged between the influences of American, European and Asian trends. These unique challenges pepper the efforts of organizations attempting to build towards a new vision of the news.
Fake news debacles and data privacy issues have shown that citizens care about the quality of the news they receive more than ever. And an independent voice, which can call out powerful interests, and provide commentary towards the pressing issues of the day, is more relevant than ever.
From the outset, Digital Journal saw an opportunity in the public’s desire for a powerful, digital-first perspective in the media landscape. Dedication to that insightful, tech-oriented voice is what continues to help the organization push forward with its plans for the future. As former editor-in-chief David Silverberg said, looking back on the early days of Digital Journal’s success:
“Newspapers were trying to make a go of it online with varying success, while Digital Journal was pulling right ahead with 3 million page views, reporters from more than 125 countries and articles ranging on everything from politics to the arts… so when we started seeing that happening, I knew we were onto something important and hitting on the right notes.”
Down to business
The early days of Digital Journal were conducted in a two-bedroom apartment in Mississauga, Ontario. Digital Journal’s Chief Technology Officer, Alex Chumak, came on board in the spring of 2000. His energy and proficiency with all things tech would become instrumental in advancing DJ’s Internet presence and building the tools that put the Digital Journal brand of technology-driven news on the map.
For a young high school student, Chumak showed incredible talent as a developer and designer. Chumak was developing software programs and selling them on the web when contacted by Uiberall out of the blue. The young technology student’s aptitudes would hold him in good stead during his time at Guelph University, where he obtained a degree in computer science, with Masters work done in artificial intelligence and robotics.
When Chumak came on board, Digital Journal was still using the same website coded by Uiberall in 1998; Chumak would later completely redesign and code the website anew. He also found himself at home in the world of publishing software: after just one night of examining publishing software Quark Express, Chumak was designing the second cover for Digital Journal’s magazine.
DJ’s editorial coordinator, Rosemarie Godina, came from the world of communication at Mississauga City Hall. Early meetings between Godina and Uiberall were held in the Mississauga City Hall cafeteria, as the two plotted out the best ways to elucidate the exciting digital culture evolving around them. The encouragement given to them by Mississauga Mayor Hazel McCallion bolstered those early efforts.
Working out in Mississauga was alright for a time, but Uiberall decided to move the fledgling business to Toronto. He took up residence in a studio-style loft across from Ryerson University, working on the publication out of the same space.
The placement of this new location for Digital Journal would be crucial, as it allowed for ready access to Ryerson’s talented pool of young journalists. Two such journalists would bring about great changes for the organization.
Chris Hogg, a broadcast journalism graduate from Ryerson, was interning with the the CBC’s Fifth Estate and CBC Sports when he joined Digital Journal. He began contributing as a freelance journalist, and quickly climbed the editorial ranks. At 21 he was named editor-in-chief, making him one of the youngest editors in Canada to lead a national publication. Dubbed a media “wunderkind” by Masthead magazine, Hogg grew Digital Journal magazine to international scale and distribution and he spearheaded the company’s full transition to a digital news network.
Very quickly, Hogg’s attention to the changing nature of media and tech businesses helped to solidify Digital Journal’s place in the evolving media landscape. Hogg’s stepping into the role of CEO and partner further solidified his vision for the company as it grew.
Journalist David Silverberg joined the team around the same time as Hogg, first as a staff writer, to promote the kind of journalism enabled by technology’s advantages:
“There really was no Canadian publication that was focused on digital technology and how it affected our daily lives until I came across Digital Journal. I knew that to be on the forefront of the trends and latest news was critical to being up-to-date as a citizen of the world and as a journalist.”
Silverberg’s work would help Digital Journal forecast the shape of media to come, and to uncover stories going on all over the world. His discerning commentary on the changing media landscape made him an asset as he became Digital Journal’s managing editor, followed closely by his promotion to editor-in-chief.
As Digital Journal’s stock rose in the world, both Hogg and Silverberg became regularly featured guests on many television and radio stations including: CBC radio, CBC News, CTV, Global TV, BNN TV and CityTV’s Homepage. Canadian media couldn’t get enough of the exciting perspective that Digital Journal’s leaders brought to the world of technology.
Many others were crucial to the formative years of Digital Journal: Christl Dabu was essential as an early researcher and copy editor; writer Jack Kapica of the Globe and Mail contributed substantial features to the publication; Mirek Pieprzyk was the illustrator and art director, contributing many cover illustrations and remarkable magazine layouts.
Anita Kunz, the artist and illustrator known for exceptional covers for Time, The New Yorker, Rolling Stone and Vanity Fair also contributed an exceptional cover on Toronto business leader Moses Znaimer.
Digital Journal has also been very fortunate in its Chief Operating Officer, Grace Krigstin, a highly successful business professional with exceptional leadership skills. Krigstin has been an integral part of Digital Journal’s rise, and continues to guide its course forward with ingenuity.
Over the years, Digital Journal has engaged in numerous exciting projects, engaging people across a variety of media formats.
Most surprisingly, for a digital-first publication, Digital Journal turned to a magazine format in 2001. The success of this new project put Digital Journal’s name on newsstands across Canada and the U.S. As Uiberall said, looking back on the magazine, ”To launch a magazine is an incredible undertaking.”
Noting the importance still associated with the creation a physical product for digital media companies today, it comes as no surprise that Digital Journal would want to create a physical format. But the scope and sustained quality of the magazine bears emphasizing.
In line with this philosophy, the first cover of Digital Journal’s magazine offering was a cartoon of Bill Gates, done in the style of artist Botero, holding a Sony Aibo dog. The cover, done masterfully by illustrator Mirek Pieprzk, poked fun at the tech world at the same time it embraced it wholeheartedly. Microsoft reacted with a brief scowl, followed by a wish to buy ad space in the groundbreaking publication.
The magazine went on to great success from its initial run of 10,000 copies. Impeccable formatting and a beautiful glossy product highlighted not only the technology that was beginning to change people’s lives, but also the hard biting topics of the day. A glance at the covers of Digital Journal magazine provides a veritable who’s who of the names and faces that shaped the 2000s.
“That pressure of getting something done by a deadline, for a magazine to go to print, was a singular kind of excitement that’s hard to replicate online,” said Silverberg, looking back on the magazine days of Digital Journal.
The publication also captured the interest of technology companies branching into the world of media. In mid-2000 Digital Journal was one of the first publishing companies in Canada to switch from popular desktop publishing program QuarkXPress to the new Adobe InDesign suite. The Adobe software has simplified the course of desktop publishing by allowing the easily printable PDF file to take centre stage. In recognition of Digital Journal’s early adoption of the software, the Adobe team showcased Digital Journal magazine across Canada, ordering thousands of copies, to demonstrate the advancement in technology in the area of the magazine print production.
However impressive the magazine was, the writing was on the wall for physical publications. Paper publications were falling behind wherever you looked. The magazine achieved what it had originally been designed to do: to promote the digital offering of digitaljournal.com.
The people in the driver’s seat
The next great project for Digital Journal would take it in a fully-digital direction. The move towards citizen journalism came from observing the dialogue in the publication’s online comments section, and a desire to open the digital forum to a free-for-all format, involving the public to an unprecedented degree.
The reaction was electric. Over a thousand people signed up to become contributors; and this wonderful period of experimentation with citizen journalism is looked back on fondly by former editor-in-chief Silverberg:
“Even though it was a bit of a Wild West in the beginning, I think that the fact that we were one of the trailblazers in bringing citizen journalism to Canada, if not the world, was a seminal moment.”
It was a bold experiment. But in the end, citizen journalism proved to be unsustainable due to the quality control requirements for an independent organization and a lack of relevance to the public interest.
Future of Media
Digital Journal continues to work closely with events surrounding the areas of tech and business transformation. But it was a media-related event that captivated Toronto and brought Digital Journal to a new level of relevance in the world of Canadian media.
Over the course of covering various events and conferences for Digital Journal, former editor-in-chief David Silverberg noticed something missing: “No one was really focussing just on the future of media.”
Established by Digital Journal, the Future of Media event series brought together up-and-coming figures from the world of media, to tackle the pressing issues in the industry. The event gathered speakers that were shaping the new face of media online — not just legacy voices.
The initial event was hosted at the Drake Hotel Underground on September 25, 2009. That first stage held the likes of: Rachel Nixon, director of digital media at CBC News; Richard McIlveen, producer of CTV News’ late-night broadcasting; Keith McArthur, senior director of social media and digital communications for Rogers; and Tim Shore, founder of blogTO. Digital Journal CEO Chris Hogg joined the guests onstage to discuss the issues propelling organizations forward as the industry embraced technology, and editor-in-chief David Silverberg acted as MC.
Future of Media created a wave of excitement, and the events were held for captive audiences of hundreds. It’s no surprise that, two years later, the event hosted notable speakers such as: BBC World News head Jamie Angus, who went on to become Director of the BBC World Service Group; Jon Taylor, senior director of content for CTV Digital Media; Kathy Vey, editor-in-chief of OpenFile; Matthew Ingram, senior writer for GigaOM; and Chris Boutet, senior producer for digital media at the National Post.
After all of these momentous experiences, Digital Journal has ended up right where it began: seeking out thought-provoking news about our changing, technology-driven world. While the media landscape continues to shift and reshape, Digital Journal remains a touchstone of creative thinking and technology-focussed news gathering.
The story of the media group, in its many transformative moments, remains a simple one: it’s about a passion to tell the stories that need to be heard. Whether it’s the advances in AI reshaping our businesses and organizations, or a new insight driving innovation across the globe, Digital Journal will deliver the real news at the heart of our increasingly-digital world.