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'Bouillon cube news' not a hearty meal

Back in May 2007, having recently graduated from journalism school, my classmates and I scattered throughout Western Canada to take reporting jobs.

Back in May 2007, having recently graduated from journalism school, my classmates and I scattered throughout Western Canada to take reporting jobs. I wound up at Coast Reporter, and my friend Wawmeesh George Hamilton took an unpaid summer internship with the Metro newspaper in Vancouver. We normally get about 500 words with which to craft a story. It's a good length - it gives me the room I need to cover the five Ws (who, what, where, why, when) and the H (how), without getting too far into the M (mundane). It allows us to report news that the nearly 28,000 people living on the Coast can sink their teeth into.

Working for Metro on stories concerning more than 2.2 million people living in the Lower Mainland, George was usually constrained to just 200 words to delve into the details - in special cases, he might get 300. "It's a limited form," he told me in a recent conversation. "You can compare it to the Cole's Notes - essentially, we got a snapshot." He coined a great phrase to describe the nature of information found in a free daily: "bouillon cube news"."It's a lot of news in a little cube," he explained. "It's got flavour but if you want to savour a large bowl of soup, go buy The Vancouver Sun or The Province."

While his suggestion of turning to Vancouver's twin CanWest papers for reliable news could be a little dubious, I take his point. There's no denying larger papers can offer things the free dailies just can't: context, in-depth coverage and news that goes beyond mere information.

Vancouver's free papers are part of a wider media trend that took off in the mid-'90s in Europe, where it was first distributed in subways. The 12-to-24-page free dailies reached Canada in 2001 and made it to Vancouver by 2005. Anyone who's taken transit downtown can probably relate to the experience of being harangued at the station by the slack-jawed hawkers of Metro and 24 Hours (CanWest MediaWorks' Dose is no longer being printed).

These papers take the "inverted pyramid" concept of news (important facts first, subtle details later) all the way, distilling news down to a concentrated version of events. While not everyone enjoys reading epic-length news features, the free dailies are problematic because they leave little room for analysis, giving their readers little bearing on the big picture. Then there's the trash aspect. Project Freesheet, a British group raising awareness about the trash produced by free dailies, regards the papers as "a product with a designed life span of 20 minutes." It claims printing the world's 42 million free newspapers each day requires more than 9,000 trees worth of pulp, after taking into account their average 70 per cent recycled content. The group claims the recycling train usually grinds to a halt with the publication of a free daily.

While it's clearly a limited media, there is news to be found in the front pages, even if the sole purpose of the back pages seems to be perpetuating Hollywood gossip. And the limited inch count of the stories found within is comparable to the amount of information one can glean from a TV newscast.

"What writing that small did was teach me how to boil news stories down to their elements," Hamilton said, "but adding flesh to those bones was difficult."

Clearly, it's hard to make a meal out of a bouillon cube.