Sep 13

Buzzfeed is more likely to regenerate journalism than any number of anxious conferences

This post opens with a hat-tip to Martin Moore, who pointed out to me the other day what a remarkable document is the message recently sent to the staff of the viral video site Buzzfeed by its founder Jonah Peretti. I’d seen mention of it, but failed to see its importance.

It is fascinating and well worth a read. Peretti’s start-of-term pep talk is both new – digitally aware, thinking ahead and celebrating innovation both editorial and technical – and at the same time old. Improbable, even shocking, innovation to grab an audience and income which can later fund journalism has happened before. In fact it’s happened throughout most of journalism’s history with the exception of the late 20th century.

What Peretti’s memo describes is the compressed history of a site begun to make it easy for bored people at work to swop silly videos and lists is now hiring foreign correspondents and investigative reporters, often the two most important and expensive tribes of journalists found in any newsroom. Peretti did not reach this position by waking up one morning and deciding to help democracy be better informed; he put together a team of alpha geeks who built a site which was unbeatable for sharing video of skateboarding cats on smartphones and social media. With that foundation, he can now go out and compete for high-prestige journalism prizes.

Many experiments fail; Buzzfeed might. It uses its not inconsiderable creative skill to make fluent, clever semi-disguised ads for companies which pay for the service. Critics allege that this will blunt the site’s reportorial edge; we’ll see. (In my book Out of Print just published, I record a senior Buzzfeed person who seems to admit this: page 221). The giggling frivolity might simply overwhelm trying to explain what’s happening in Nairobi or Nablus.

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Sep 13

What the comments on my views on online comments have taught me

Yesterday’s post about the rising indifference to online comments provoked replies which undermined one of my assertions: that early hopes of intelligent conversation made possible by easier digital access have evaporated in the face of the everyday experience of insult, aggression and irrelevance.

With only a handful of exceptions, the comments have been useful and to the point. A few pointed out, as I ought to have, that other have been there before me. Here’s one example from Helen Lewis of the New Statesman; in a tweet-exchange with others reacting, she said that the NS had switched its comments system to Disqus with good effect.

One thing I ought to straighten out. I was not arguing that online comments should be withdrawn or stopped. No such thing is going to occur. What I was suggesting is that the simple technique of opening comments has not delivered the results hoped for. That has two great attractions: it’s “open” in a simple, inclusive way and requires only minimal moderation to remove unacceptable material.

So I was hinting that I think this is going to evolve. This is exactly the point which Mike Masnick (of Techdirt) drove home: his site asks users to vote on comments and give prominence to those which come out on top. He sees no connection between anonymity and talking rubbish.

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Jun 13

This post about skim-reading on the web is short because…

We all suspect that people read less on the web than they pretend. Not least because if you blog, you can read the analytics and discover that very few people ever turn the page.

I’ve always wanted to see how few people actually reach the end of even short posts and stories. Now someone’s actually using software which does that and more. It’s all explained in this story by Slate’s technology writer, Farhad Manjoo. At some length.

On the face of it, this skipping, hopping, snacking pattern of reading is discouraging if you write stuff in the hope that people will read it. But I suspect that this is a transitional phase and that these habits may change over time. Each new communications technology which increases the amount of information in circulation creates a temporary explosion of stuff to consume which is chaotic and which splits attention into small fragments. Then, we master the new flow and settle down to slower, calmer absorption of what we want and need to know.

It’s easy to exaggerate how much printed news content people actually read. Yes, the minutes logged as newspaper reading are much higher than on screens. A person reading a paper for 20 or 30 minutes will probably reach the end of at least one piece of several hundred words. But how many people read past the first two paragraphs of a printed news story or feature? The more information in circulation, the more we switch off if we suspect we know what’s coming in the rest of the piece. Formulaic journalism now dies quicker on any platform. There was an editor of the New York Times three or four back who is said to have never quite recovered from being told by market researchers that in the category of the paper’s most loyal readers, no more than 10% of those read past page 4.