Bad journalism didn’t kill newspapers – and it wasn’t the internet either…

Newspaper advertising revenue chart

Newspaper advertising revenue isn’t what it was – but who is to blame? Not journalism in my opinion

 

Even today, when we see tales of woe around traditional journalism, and in particular newspapers, you see the journalists being blamed for writing crap stories or not bringing in enough scoops or editors being too timid and to be honest, it’s gotten a little tedious.

You want to look to where newspapers started to die (not that many of them aren’t still profitable, just less profitable than before), go blame the advertising departments. Continue reading

Newspapers still failing to grasp web, doom UK reporters – SEO to blame

Papers still don’t get the web and just like every other time, it’s the management’s fault, which begs the question of should the webguys be getting even higher positions in papers. Here’s the latest press screw-up and it involves SEO.

Over the last few weeks I’ve been hearing more and more tales from reporters – from the highest titles in the land to the lowest – getting really fed up with the digital newspaper concept (Iain Hepburn has a vivid case study about it).

Why? because all it’s meaning for them is that they go in, spend two hours rewriting copy from other sites (without including linkback credits of course) for the website. And then they go off and do the other journalistic jobs they are allowed to, like rewriting agency copy, perhaps even getting to pick up the phone to speak to a contact (who probably can’t talk back as they are in their office).

But why are they having to spend hours carrying out what is fairly known as churnalism? Because the top brass want to go with the phrases that will boost them in search engines.

Now there’s two problems with this:
• By rewriting copy from elsewhere, you’re just getting the same hit as them
• You’re also hosing it by not providing a linkback, which might actually just do you more good

The main problem though is that by doing this, you are going for the lowest common denominator nine times out of ten – you’ve got a journalist wasting time writing about Britney Spears instead of chasing up their own stories – stories which may matter more locally to readers than what Miley Cyrus bra size is.

As I said the other week on Newsnight Scotland – and this applies to PR as much as any media – fresh, exclusive content is the driver these days. Keep it fresh and others will link to you, talk about you, refer back to you. And that’s the SEO gold. And to get that fresh content you need content providers. In the media industry, they call the reporters. You know, the ones that management keep sacking and letting go.

Oh. There’s a potential problem.

Who is to blame then? Ultimately, the blame for this one has to go to management – but also the web teams and reporters for not standing up and pointing out that using reporters for churnalism is a waste of resource. I can see why it’s done, but that doesn’t mean I think it’s right.

If churnalism is that important to a publication, here’s what they should do: find the nearest media college and get a bunch of interns/work placements in. They’ll be happy to be getting in the door – they may even bring in some stories – but that frees up the reporters to go and find the real SEO booster – original content. Exclusives. Scoops. They may even do it multimedia.

The press has always been, in part, a numbers game, but this is taking it too far.

(And yes, I know churnalism has always been a part of the job too – rewriting agency copy, PA and AP, but at no point did you have to spend two hours doing it every day.)

Polly Toynbee on saving the media: turn back the clock, ask for government help

Polly Toynbee has written a piece over at The Guardian on how the death of local papers is a national emergency. It’s a decent piece going over some familiar ground but there’s a few flaws which I’ll address with Polly’s points in bold.

This jackal financial crisis picks off the weakest, so it’s no surprise newspapers are early fallers.

Newspapers aren’t the profit disasters that many assume them to be. The problem is that the owners are far too used to profits of 20-30% instead of leaner figures that make others happy. The second problem is that so many – especially Trinity Mirror – are beholden to large groups who are only chasing maximum profit and don’t actually have any belief or care in the product. (I was going to add that the likes of The Economist and New Scientist seem to be doing OK but you could argue that they are specialist magazines.)

Comment is free, but serious news journalism is phenomenally expensive – and the web has yet to find a way to generate funds to pay the true price.

To an extent that’s true for daily press – but for years many magazines survived by having quality journalism at their core – Rolling Stone for example. The problem with daily news is that it is seen as a disposable product and also news quality varies on a day by day basis. Perhaps the problem here was as much to do with news judgements and price competition?

The government talks piously of community engagement – and a newspaper with real journalism is the most vital local forum of all.

Totally agree, but there’s another aspect to this – how much do people actually care about what’s going in their area? I have friends and neighbours who literally use their homes as beds and shower places. They work long hours, get home and sleep. Get up in the morning and repeat. Others, just use their homes as places to change clothes before heading back out.

While I agree that local news is important, is it possible that newspapers have still to catch up with the concept of local not mattering as much as it used to for people – and the only local news that matters is what roads are open/closed and they get that from the radio?

Mention subsidy and the regulation that goes with it, and newspaper groups cry press freedom….Many never bother to cover council meetings, let alone key committees, when pensioner-scaring crime stories are cheap and PR handouts plentiful.

But crime is an important factor to many communities, especially inlight of what the Daily Record had today about the recession forcing crime up, causing a creditcrunch crime wave. And some PR handouts can be informative, I hasten to add.

Polly also has to be fair, most council meetings take place out of hours and when local journalism is as underpaid as it is, would you spend an evening in a council meeting – that even most readers probably won’t care about – or spend time with friends and family? The concept of ‘quality time’ has probably been as much of an impactor on journalism as anything else – after all, after being made redundant, “wanting to see my family” is the most common reason I hear for people leaving the the press. It’s certainly been a strong factor for me when I’ve been invited back to the cut-and-thrust. (that’s not to say I wouldn’t ever go back but the terms would have to be a lot more generous than they were a few years ago).

Polly then goes on to talk about how subsidies, BBC money and other income streams could be used to save the day but then dismisses local councils (who I think should actually lead the way in providing news to residents while Seth Goodin thinks it should be real estate firms) “Then oblige local councils to stop wasting money on their own Pravda sheets,” which seems to be missing the point – surely that’s the perfect place to provide a newspaper? And here’s the contradiction at the heart of Polly’s piece – she wants the Government to intervene but then stand back which basically means making the BBC model apply to press as well (which seems OK. I’ve been wondering if the licence fee should expand to include some printed press as well as everything else the BBC does).

But the question Polly isn’t asking is this: given how much a pain in the butt and pest the press can be in exposing certain activities, is it not more in the interests of some (not all, I stress) politicians at a UK/Westminster (and US/Washington) level to let the press die a death? The less there is reporting, the less they can be exposed for or criticised about (of course some politicans welcome the debate and Scotland over the last few years as been an incredibly open country, but not enough in my opinion).

Britain without the Mail or the Sun would be a happier place, less biliously nihilist, less miserable, angry and afraid. But democracy without the scrutiny of good journalism is unthinkable. In the end, it’s up to you. If you always read this on the web, go out and buy a copy, skinflint. Use it or lose it.

There’s an element of snobbery in this – and it also misses one rather important point: both The Sun and Mail have broken some incredible stories over the years. The profitabilty of The Sun has also probably helped shore up cash losses in other parts of News International’s UK press operations, notably The Times, allowing them to do their thing.

(her comments about what the country would be like also lead to the old argument of ‘do people get the press they want or does the press shape the people, but I’ll leave that for another day)

Her key argument of But democracy without the scrutiny of good journalism is unthinkable is fair enough but you can have that good journalism without print so she’s moved the goalposts a little.

I believe print should survive – to me, there’s still few things better than a well-designed newspaper page with exciting content (though the web is more convenient for me when on the move) – as there are still generations of people aged over 35 who aren’t fans of news by other methods. To that end, I believe the likes of Metro and Business7 at least have a decent chance of survival.

Anyway, go and read her piece – it’s sparked off a fair bit of debate with 155 comments there at the moment.

Newspapers need the fluff with the gruff

Seth Goodin has written a really good post asking when newspapers are gone, what will you miss? In it, he goes through the list of what makes a paper and what we will actually miss. Now, that’s a totally subjective question, as what I’ll miss is different from you (and it’s going to be a while before print completely dies anyway) but where we see eye-to-eye is this:

What’s left is local news, investigative journalism and intelligent coverage of national news. Perhaps 2% of the cost of a typical paper. I worry about the quality of a democracy when the the state government or the local government can do what it wants without intelligent coverage. I worry about the abuse of power when the only thing a corrupt official needs to worry about is the TV news. I worry about the quality of legislation when there isn’t a passionate, unbiased reporter there to explain it to us.
… 
The reality is that this sort of journalism is relatively cheap (compared to everything else the newspaper had to do in order to bring it to us.) Newspapers took two cents of journalism and wrapped in ninety-eight cents of overhead and distraction.

Now he’s right – there is a lot of fluff in with the ‘proper’ journalism. This is something that drives every professional journalist absolutely nuts. I remember when I worked at various papers and you could have good hard news scoops, but what they wanted was tales about JK Rowling or Prince William.

For years I questioned the wisdom of this, convinced that news editors were completely out of touch with their readerships (a charge that isn’t actually completely unfounded in my opinion) but there’s another way of looking at it: people may be reading the so-called fluff – but while they are reading that, their eyes will be attracted to other stories, more weighty tales thanks to the wonder of page layout (I’ve often believed that the designer of the newspaper page, complete with pics, nibs, downpage and uppage leads was every bit as important to education as Gutenberg).

So it may well be that for the good, quality investigative journalism to continue, we need the balance of the mass-popular items – the celebs on diets, the sex scandals and so on.

For a lot of reporters that may be an uncomfortable truth, but there’s another issue: if the mainstream press is vanishing, to be replaced by niche sites, how do we ensure people are getting quality, informed news and debate. Or is it elitist to try and think that people want news?

What the future of journalism should be (AKA journalist makes new media work for him)

Jim Macmillan is a reporter (and other things) over in Philadelphia and he recently had a call to a fire. The rest of the tale is in the piece Just f8 and be there but basically, armed with an iPhone he was able to go and cover a story, file pics and be paid all before leaving the scene. 

This is the sort of thing newspapers should be looking at. When papers talk about training staff up for the new future of journalism, they should be getting in touch with Nokia and getting N95s for all staff (reason I say the N95 is that the N97 isn’t out yet and I think the N95 has more features than the iPhone as I showed in a review where I used the N95 as a reporting tool for covering T in the Park.)

Calling all UK PR and Media Twitter Users – Mon, Dec 8, 9pm

OK, here’s one for an experiment. Over in the US, Sarah Evans runs a rather nifty little Twitter group called #JournChat for PRs and Reporters- and it’s a good little talking shop. Feels a little more fiddly than the days of IRC but it’s still good fund (and no doubt Sarah will be along shortly to explain more about it), but it doesn’t start in the US until after 1am every Tuesday.

So let’s try an experiment. Next Monday, December 8 at 9pm UK time, can anyone interested start putting in the following with their tweets – #mediachat – and see if anyone out there wants to talk or swap comments with the so-called enemy. Who knows, we may all start getting along a little better…

(and people from outside the UK are more than welcome too)

Hopefully see you next week,

Craig

UPDATE: As anyone used to me being online round the clock may have noticed, I haven’t been due to being floored by a flu and chest infection, which sadly means I won’t be partaking in tonight’s chat – others can feel free to do so and when I’m better I’ll get involved – but I’m out for tonight as even typing this much is leaving me fecked. Apologies to one and all.