Monthly Archives: December 2008

When good bloggers go bad

Stephen Glover’s article at Mail Online today  almost makes an interesting point.  Almost.

He’s talking about Robert Peston and the old ‘when does the reporter become the story’ chestnut. It’s a complaint about the recent Panorama, which pledged to investigate whether Peston had too much power where the Northern Rock/banking crisis was concerned, but was  in reality a program about Peston himself.

He then goes on to complain about the increasing number of BBC correspondents who double up as pundits, telling us what we – and everyone from the government to the tax payer – should be thinking about the story they’ve just told us.

Now here, I agree wholeheartedly. I hate the way BBC bulletins don’t just tell me the facts any more. I hate the way reporters editorialise from almost the first word. I hate being told that the government thinks this or that tax payers should be angry because of this.

It’s not that I object to reporters writing or broadcasting their opinions. I think well-thought out, well-versed opinion can be a great complement to a factual story. I just want the choice about whether I read/hear that opinion. I don’t want it – ever – as part of the story itself. And if you want opinion about the stories, why must it always be from the correspondents? Why not give us an alternative voice every once in a while?

That’s why I don’t watch BBC bulletins anymore.(radio bulletins, by their very brevity, tend to be confined to the facts.)

This tweet here sort of illustrates the point. As does this blog post by Amy Gahran about not taking the reporter’s word for it when they’ve quoted something factual.

Editorialise too much, and people stop trusting you to give them the news. They assume you have an agenda, and that your stories will be influenced or driven by that.

Where I do take issue with Mr Glover though, is here:

“This [punditry]increasingly takes place on the blogs which he and a bevy of other reporters write on the BBC’s website. The point about these blogs is that they are not simply opinionated. The opinions they offer are often Leftist or bien pensant.

In recent years BBC reporters have been giving us the news on screen or on the radio, and then regularly providing their own ‘take’.

When they come to writing their own blogs, which generally are subjected to the most cursory editing, if any at all, they become freer still in disclosing what they believe.

A couple of months ago, for example, Mr Peston announced in his blog that Thatcherism was dead. He may he right, or he may be wrong, but in either event the BBC business editor should not be making contentious judgments of this sort. It is the type of opinion one expects from a newspaper columnist, which Mr Peston quite recently was, not a reporter on the BBC. In a recent blog, he handed out bossy advice to Lord Mandelson about Land Rover and Jaguar.

The old distinction between reporters and pundits has widely broken down. Nowhere is this more regrettable than at the BBC, which is enjoined by its charter to provide objective and neutral coverage.

The danger of blogs is that they encourage reporters to let down their hair. Indeed, it is impossible to write a half-readable blog without peppering it with opinions.

I think it’s perfectly reasonable for a reporter to supplement factual news reporting with a blog that contains some opinion. I think it develops conversations and I think it helps readers connect with a writer. It lets them ask questions. It lets a reporter respond to criticism.

I don’t really like Robert Peston’s blog; like his news reports it’s a bit self-important for my liking. But I don’t think there’s anything wrong with him writing it – or there wouldn’t be if he kept his opinions to the blog didn’t add them to every story he produces.

My friend and former colleague David Ottewell, chief reporter at the MEN, is very good at this. When I first read his blog, a post that outlined his opinion about a major news story, I wondered if it would undermine his impartiality. But – and this is especially true where the congestion charge debate was concerned –  David is very good at making it clear that his opinion doesn’t influence his writing.

It’s possible to do both. What Stephen Glover has failed to realise is that the problem at the BBC is not with blogs but with the news reporting.

I don’t think blogging encourages reporters to be freer with their opinions. It my experience it makes them more careful about how they express them, when and why.

It makes them more accountable for their opinions and so work harder to separate those opinions from their reporting.  And it’s the separation that makes them valuable.

Like a comment or sketch piece in paper, a blog can give an added perspective on a story – but it’s a clearly labelled perspective. Everyone knows what they’re getting; it’s what they’re there for. It’s when you can’t tell the opinion from the news that there’s trouble.

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A quick thought about story comments

Anyone who follows me on Twitter (or who’s read this post) will know that story comments and the negative atmosphere they can create has exercised me recently.

But here’s a quick thought. Maybe the ‘quick to criticise’ aspect isn’t so bad after all. Frustrating, yes, but also a challenge.

Take this, for example.  I like this story: How Bournemouth Christmas Tree raised the roof From Bournemouth Echo.  It’s quite funny. It’s seasonal.

But as one commenter points out, it also includes a pointless adjective (don’t ask me who subbed it, I don’t know) and there’s no mention at all in the copy of the firefighters in the picture, why they’re putting a smoke detector on the top of the tree or how dad-of-three Grieg persuaded them to take part.

Two things I think this illustrates: the web DOES need subs. Whatever you call them or however your system works, somebody has to have quality control, final checks, removal of lazy cliches.

Point two: We can’t get away with the kind of reporting my old tutor, the legendary John Foscolo, would have called slapdash (actually I don’t think I ever heard him say the word slapdash. Would definitely have been a D- though.) If we do half a job, people WILL pull us up, in public, and immediately. And that’s no bad thing.

Frustrating and annoying and embarassing, yes. But in the long term, maybe it’s good for quality?

When I was a news editor, under the equally legendary Anita Syvret, I made sure our copy was as good as I could make it before I showed it to her, because I knew what she’d say if I didn’t.

Perhaps our angry story commenters are the virtual equivalent of the angry editor or chief  sub. They won’t accept sloppy writing. And why should they?

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Publish 2.0

Thanks to this post by Scott Karp I’ve been investigating the possibilities of Publish2 as an aggregator.

I’ve been saying for a while that we shouldn’t be afraid to link to other sites (the Rick Waghorn/Jeff Jarvis argument) – whatever the answer to the news crisis is (and if you work for Newsquest things look pretty critical right now) surely it’s going to involve giving our audience reason to come to us and not somewhere else.

So, Publish2 gives you the option to set up newsgroups that other people in your newsroom can join.

You then set about finding the best blogs, links, videos etc on a particular subject, add them to the group (it’s like a cross between Delicous and Digg) – and then Publish2 shows you how to create a widget that you can embed on the site.

I’ve blogged before about the problems the group template gives us – no access to html, restricted widths, no way to design a decent homepage that reflects the paper it represents and so on- but the little cheats I’ve been using seem to have gone down okay with the men in charge.

SO I was hoping this post would be a ‘look what we’re doing’ one….

…but unfortunately Javascript, which makes the Publish2 widget work, isn’t accepted by our CMS. So there’s no way I can cheat on.

Instead I’m just going to bite the bullet and ask: please can we have the facilty to aggregate news from other sites. Please.

Watch this space!

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The news hub – are we even a spoke?

I’ve spent some time this afternoon looking at our web traffic for this week, mainly because our unique user numbers have quadrupled thanks to Laplandgate.

It’s always interesting to see the kind of links people follow to get to us – and, I think, important in terms of working out which networks we should be part of and how our audience consumes its news.

What it often shows is how little attention they pay to our beloved brand name. The idea that we’re at the centre of the news wheel and all roads lead to us is nonsense.

What happens is that everyone’s at the centre of their own wheel. People send them links, and they follow them. They google things. They search YouTube. We even had some clickthroughs this month from a Twitter search.

Our biggest referrer was a Norwegian newspaper. Why they picked us to link to rather than our Southampton sister or any of the national stories I’m not sure (although it probably demonstrates the important of tagging and SEO to make sure we’re top of that Google list.)

We also had refers from countless blogs, forums and a weird spike for a columnist writing about Gordon Ramsay (all the traffic for the last coming via Google News).

I’ve been trying to build an online audience for said columnist for weeks, but so far we’ve only managed a few dozen RSS subscribers and a trickle of page impressions.

Now obviously I realise this week is an anomaly. But the point is refers come to us from the strangest places and we can’t actively be in all of them, or second guess where our traffic will come from. We also can’t assume that people who find us in the obvious places want what we have to offer.  Our Lapland videos have won our YouTube channel variously most watchedin the UK honours (reporter) and most viewed UK news and politics video honours this week.  Our overall video views have doubled.  have any of those people clicked through to our story or petition? According to our software, no. Not one. They know the story. They’re just looking for the laugh.

So what do we do? I guess we just have to make sure we’re in the most obvious places, link as much as we can (in-site and externally) and be sure to plug RSS all over the place.

Then we *might* make ourselves a spoke in that wheel.  A skinny one.  But a spoke nonetheless.

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Comments or no comments?

I’ve been quite busy of late and haven’t found the time to blog – which means that what I intended to say in the post has shifted slightly.

One of the things I’ve been focusing on at the Echo is ways on interacting with our online audience more effectively. I’ll be blogging about it later but basically I’ve been working Twitter, getting involved in our forums, starting an ents blog – and responding to story comments.

It’s the last bit that’s causing me the most grief. Newquest has a register-to-comment policy but doesn’t require any more than an email address and nickname.

So, like almost every other newspaper out there, we struggle with our comments thread being hijacked by anonymous posters who like to abuse the stories, the people we’re writing about, their fellow commenters and the paper itself.

It’s not made easier by a lack of house rules and the fact that if we remove a comment, there’s no ‘removed by moderator’ or ‘reported for breaching house rules’ message. It just disappears. Which often causes its own problems.

As an experiment I tried contacting the offenders to explain why their comments were being removed (the Echo hadn’t been doing this although we do have a standard ‘yellow card’ message we send to people who really step over the line.)

This does have an effect, although it’s time consuming – and there are a certain number of offenders who simply register a new gmail address and have another go.

We’ve got one visitor, from Australia, who’s only comments are about how poor our stories are. There’s another who consistently claims we’re ‘out to get’ whoever the subject of a story is or that we should ‘stop telling him what to think’.

This week’s superstory – the Lapland New Forest extravangza – has had more than 200 comments in its various guises. About 50 are off topic, or are about how no-one in their right mind would have gone there in the first place.

On the one hand, we want to see lots of comments. After all, that’s the sort of audience interaction we’re aiming for, isn’t it?

And I firmly believe that conversation can’t be one-sided: we have to be part of it; the reporters reading and responding to comments on their stories, correcting mistakes when they’re pointed out, or adding polls to a story when what the readers are saying warrants it.

However. The high volume of offensive and abusive comments makes it hard for me to argue this point against reporters who say that by responding to them we give them credence in a way we’d never do with the ‘nutters’ who ring the newsdesk.

There are some days when I look at the comments and my heart sinks. I’d like to ban them all.

So what’s to do? Tougher house rules? Bans for persistent offenders? More moderation? Or just more interaction and hope that if we treat the audience with respect, they’ll treat us with respect?

I’d love to know what you think.

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