Feb 14

As online news and comment sites find their feet…editing turns out to be…useful

I wrote here recently about how “pure-play” online news and comment sites were starting to find their feet in greater numbers commercially, and, as they do so, more confidently rewriting the handbook on how journalism gets done most effectively with the tools newly available.

Nothing unusual about this: upstarts, dismissed at first as frivolous, grab large audiences and then work more serious stuff into the mix. It’s happened throughout the history of journalism so far – with the exception of the late 20th century when advertising income was secure. And it’s happening again now. (For a longer version of this argument, see Out of Print, details on the right).

But there’s one aspect of this that gets sidelined in a lot of discussion of new things. And that’s because the importance of editors is an old thing, being rediscovered yet again.

As the digital era began and its opportunities and possibilities emerged, one thing became clear. News media were going to “de-industrialise”. The dominant position held by a small number of print publishers and terrestrial broadcasters was not going to disappear but it was going to be eroded because the power to publish was being radically redistributed. Furthermore, this argument ran, individual journalists would be empowered to become independent of corporate monoliths. Journalism would not just de-industrialise but the newsrooms would no longer be the dominant unit of organisation. The important player would be the smallest atomic particle in the system: the individual journalist.

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Mar 11

More on churnalism, stings and plagiarism

Two illuminating interventions on churnalism and plagiarism (not quite the same thing of course) worth highlighting. First is from Chris Atkins, who produced Starsuckers in 2009 and who has continued to hoax gullible hacks. The second is from Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia and, as it turns out a fan of neologisms. This piece includes Plagipedia and clicktivism. But it’s about the web’s ability to correct its own mistakes.


Oct 10

BBC links and what they tell us about footnotes

BBC Online announced a new links policy for its news website the other day. There was some predictably snarky comment wondering why the BBC had taken so long to catch on.

The rules are a bit laborious, although a masterpiece of brevity compared to Wikipedia’s 5,000-word version. But the BBC’s policy change is a straw in the wind telling us about two important developments just over the horizon.

1.  The more links to external sites that appear on stories on major news websites, the more top tomatoes in the news business are going to be brought face to face with a large issue which most of them don’t want to think about. The BBC or anyone else can’t link to complimentary or connected material without reminding users yet again how many stories are too similar for comfort. This is especially likely to happen if, as is mostly the case, linkage is automatic. Algorithms aren’t yet good at spotting or avoiding overlap.

In the pre-digital age, it was time-consuming and expensive to lay many different versions of the same event side by side and compare them. Only journalists did that. The web now allows anyone to hop, skip and jump between the media of different continents, channels and languages in seconds. The entropic tendency of 24/7 media to converge on the same facts, soundbites and pictures and to rearrange them a little for each “original” version is painfully obvious. The perception of the value of journalism is bound to suffer. And it has.

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Feb 10

Straws in the wind: sublime and ridiculous

Jessica Lal

Jessica Lal

Almost at the same moment, two signals. I’m looking up a story that that was very big in the Indian media a few years ago, the murder of model Jessica Lal. Please note the prim note at the top from the Wikipedia edi- are we allowed to use the antique term “editors” any more? Perhaps Wikipersons would prefer to be “curators”. Anyhow they are being a bit severe with the author of the existing Lal entry: too much story-telling and not enough encyclopaedia-type detachment, they say. Crowd-sourcing comes in for a little correction and enhancement by the old-fashioned method applying standards. Bravely old-fashioned stuff. There’s a link through to a whole section on NPOV, or Neutral Point of View.

Then I see that the University of Staffordshire is offering a course in celebrity journalism. I guess that most journalism courses at one time or another look at celebrity inyterviewing; City University’s magazine course certainly does. But a whole course? Is this a good use of taxpayers’ money? There are some kinds of training that may just not be necessary or important. It’s hardly a complete justification to say that this will help the university’s graduates get jobs.

Put these two signals beside eachother and compare. Over at Wikipedia, once thought to be part of a digital world threatening journalism, someone cares about improving editorial standards. At the University of Staffordshire, some of the least edifying and memorable aspects of newspaper journalism are being enshrined in the curriculum.