Monthly Archives: May 2009

Radical or ridiculous? Idea #2: Devil’s Advocate News

Okay, so this second idea in my series of suggestions could well just be bonkers. My office certainly thinks it is (and I can understand why).But it won’t go away, so I need you lot to either pick it apart for me or (less likely) tell me I’m a misunderstood genius.
Here’s my thinking. Journalists are frequently accused of bias, either overtly politcal or simply choosing the ‘wrong’ angle for a story.
Now obviously news writing demands an angle. So we are taught, anyway. And finding an angle usually means picking a side. Getting everyone’s point of view in an intro does not make for exciting reading. We are required to attract the interest of increasingly time-poor readers, so we craft intros and headlines that grab the attention.
But we all know that in doing so, we may be doing a disservice to one side or the other, choosing a relatively minor fact in a report or highlighting bad news in a sea of good. On some occasions finding the angle might mean actively, if not maliciously, misrepresenting the subject or person we write about.
Increasingly, and especially online, readers are not only spotting this but expressing their disgust, cynicism and dislike of the angle or tone we choose on a story.
Some examples from our paper: the surf reef (not everyone thinks it’s a disaster), a new football ground on an open space (some people think it’s a brilliant idea); the disaster plan for a flu pandemic (otherwise known to readers as complete nonsense that shouldn’t have been anywhere near the front page).
So I had an idea. Now bear in mind this idea assumes that a) we’re not going to start writing balanced but boring intros for news stories any time soon and b) is intended as a way of engaging those disaffected readers. Having our well-spun cake and eating it, if you like.
We’d call it Devil’s Advocate and it would work a bit like this. You’re a reader. You’ve seen a report of a meeting, or a decision, and you think we’ve got the angle wrong. We’ve highlighted the good instead of the bad, or vice versa, quoted the wrong people, missed out a tranche of opinion.
So you submit what you think we should have written, whether a complete story, or a section of quotes, or a different version of events. (I should make clear that we’d obviously leave legal disputes and the like out of this service…)
We read it, and if we’re sure it’s safe to publish, then we will. In my head I’d like it look a little like this, where if someone’s submitted something, a little red devil appears at the relevant paragraph, or at the bottom of the story. Other readers could comment on the DAN, we’d link to all the relevant source material and maybe even include a rating system so people could choose which story they prefer.
(Or what about a website where you could go to submit your DAN, complete with links to the original, and the sources?)

And that’s it. I know it could be a minefield, and a magnet for trolls. And I know it would rely on the readers to take it in the spirit we intend it (a sort of news version of Bad Science) rather than an alternative to complaining when they have a legitimate concern about accuracy.

So the question is: is it a) unworkable; b) idiotic; or c) not a terrible idea? Vote now!

Ridiculous or Radical? Idea #1: Stop making video

A few weeks ago I promised that once my editor had cast his verdict on my list of radical or ridiculous (I still can’t decide which ones are which!) ideas, I’d post them here. So this is number one.

I know it’s heresy to say it. But are we wasting time concentrating on video journalism?

On average, in our newsroom, videos take at least six hours to make. They are watched by maybe 1 per cent of our online audience.* So why do we do it?

I’m not saying there’s no place for video in local newsapers, far from it. But say you’re reading a story about the latest in a spate of arson attacks. The story is online, with a video. You finish the story, then click play.

What you get is a reporter reading you the story you’ve just read, over some footage. Maybe a talking head, saying the words quoted in the story you just read. Is there any point in that?

Instead of making a TV version of a story you’ve already told, why not just post a 20 second clip of the fire, and spend an hour putting together an interactive map of the previous arson attacks, with links to pictures and previous stories?

Job done, five hours to spare.

We don’t have the equipment, experience, production skills or staff to be TV stations. So why do we try? We should stick to videos that add something extra – footage of things actually happening and save the big labour intensive jobs for the occasions where it can make a difference – an interview with a controversial figure, or quirkier, entertainment videos.

Instead of a photographer spending hours making a video at your local Race4Life, isn’t it a better use of resources for that photographer to take LOTS of pictures (you know, that thing we used to do because ‘faces sell papers’?) that you can publish on an online gallery and then sell?

The only problem with non-contexualised video is that it doesn’t really work off-site. So if your video for the fire, for example, is embeddable, it doesn’t work so well without the story. But we’re in an era of extreme cutbacks. Surely we should be asking what the best use of staff time is?

The bottom line is: most readers don’t watch them, even the good ones. So maybe we should think about why we make them. Is it for the audience? Or is it because it’s become the thing local newspapers do to show they’re multimedia?

If it’s the latter there are dozens of less complicated, more useful ways to add to our stories. We shouldn’t overlook them in favour of video without thinking very carefully about why.

* (From what I can tell we’re not unusual but I’d like to hear about it if we are – there’s always the possibility we’re just doing it wrong…)

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Stating the obvious: newspapers are not journalism

Newspapers exist to make their owners money. Journalism exists (in its noblest form) to serve a public purpose. Journalists are journalists for a myriad of reasons; public service, nosiness, a desire to do good, a love of the printed product, a need to be part of a community, to tell stories, and sometimes but not often, purely and simply to make a living.

Once, these three things existed in harmony. Newspapers made money, to pay journalists, who created journalism. Now, though, they’re not so in sync.

Making money requires changes that don’t sustain journalism or fulfil journalists. And if you are a journalist earning a wage from a company whose primary concern is to make money, those changes can create a bit of an identity crisis. What are we for. exactly?

While those three goals existed in harmony, it was easy to forget that newspaper owners weren’t altruistic, and that while creating great journalism helped to sell papers it wasn’t the reasons those owners/shareholders got into the business.

But these days you can’t pretend that your employer’s goals are the same as yours. Which leaves this question: what do they pay us for? What do they want?

To sell more papers? To sell more advertising? To maximise profits, whatever it takes?

That sounds obvious, but each of those goals requires different things from us as journalists.

Selling more papers requires a radical rethink of this whole interweb business. Selling more advertising (on the web) requires innovative approaches, open mindedness, and an improvement in the quality of content. Maximising profits means higher work ratios with less thought to quality. (Yes, I know that’s all an oversimplification, this whole post is an oversimplification…).

None of that chimes very well with what I came into journalism for. But the scales are well and truly fallen away. Our reasons for doing our jobs are not the reasons our employers provide them.

So we should stop hoping the big groups will save newspapers, merged or consolidated or whatever.

They might save them as a business. But the saving will be on their terms, and for the most part their terms are not, and have never been, our terms. Our goals sat on the same train for a while, but those days are gone. Don’t like that? Start thinking of an alternative.

Beware the brain drain

Two posts from bloggers/twitters I follow today announcing they’re leaving their big corp jobs for exciting (but to us as yet unknown) web projects.

The MEN’s Sarah Hartley, @foodiesarah and @sarah_hartley, has left her job. And Bauer’s Dan Thornton, aka @badgergravling, is leaving his.

I mention this only because I worry it’s the start of a trend. Without a focus and a forward-thinking spirit, aren’t we running the risk of a massive brain-drain out of the industry?

Faced with the choice of working within the constraints of media groups that seem more focused on profits than products or taking the chance to work with like-minded people on exciting and innovative projects, what would you choose?

Obviosuly I’m not saying that’s what’s behind these particular choices. I’ve no idea what prompted Dan and Sarah’s moves. But it made me think.

Would a brain drain be bad for journalism? Definitely not. Would it be bad for the news industry? Undoubtedly.