Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Five phrases to outlaw in newsrooms

I was reading a translated version of the Internet Manifesto (you can find it here) when I was suddenly and unexpectedly struck by an attack of cynicism. Because I agree with the statements it makes but the huge, clanging problem with the 17 stated fundamental points, basic as they are, is that they are on... the internet. And, for too many people in too many newsrooms, things on the internet really don't seem to be considered that important.

Exactly why this is depends on who you're talking to. Higher up the editorial food chain the internet might not be on their radar because the focus is on the money-making print product. At reporter level, it can be a whole different set of issues, although workload is probably at the forefront.
So writing down journalism manifestos and putting it online isn't the answer, because too many of the people who need convincing aren't looking there that often.

It's a serious problem and, I think, it's the new elephant in the newsroom. Do we really know how far a rival's newsroom has embraced multimedia? Every regional paper in the UK talks Good Digital but the reality is somewhat detached from that, I'd be willing to bet.
Now, there are moves to create a new Internet Manifesto here so I'm not going attempt to reinvent the wheel here. But, for me, there are five comments that are - at one time or another - heard in a newsroom, which all the manifesto pledges in the world aren't going to solve; these are the issues that newspaper execs need to start addressing right now.
 

1. "I'm too busy to.."
Someone who says "I'm too busy to..." (shoot a video/record some audio/set up a survey...) is limiting themselves to one avenue of story-telling - text. By committing to a traditional interview - a reporter writes information down, then writes it up - the newspaper closes off new ways of exploring the issues and finding out what is relevant to its readers.
Time is obviously a consideration - you still have to edit video packages, or create that survey - and a journalist who is juggling three other page leads they need to write for the next day's paper is going to look for savings somewhere. But it shouldn't be the multimedia aspect of a story. I would say: take responsibility for your workload; if you're filming a video package to run with the online version of your news story, the  newsdesk needs to budget for you being out of the office to do the interview, write the copy, and then edit said package. Whether the issue is reporters speaking up, or news editors listening to them, or editors being clear on what the agenda is, it's not an insurmountable problem.


2. 'I don't know how to use/make that'
Saying 'I don't know how to use/make that' is pefectly ok - so long as you follow it up with 'so will you show me?' No one is born knowing how to run an rss feed into a widget, but plenty of people in your newsroom have learned how it works and will help you out if you ask. Blogging isn't a mystery, but why some people in a newsroom view it as a chore to be avoided it at every opportunity is. The internet isn't going away and advertisers are not going to start hurling money at newspapers like they used to; this means that anyone planning on staying in journalism should want to be learning new skills - not only do these open up whole new ways of story-telling, but they make sense from a point of self-interest. After all, in a multimedia world, who is more likely to find themselves valued by an employer?

3. "No one asked me..."
If you're asked why you didn't (grab some cameraphone footage/record audio/write a blog post) the reply "No one asked me for any" is possibly the worst one you can give (other than "I didn't have time" - see point 1). Don't wait to be asked - think! Plan ahead in the same way you marshal your questions in advance for a planned interview, and if it's a breaking news story then the scope for instant digital journalism is even greater - tweet, post photos of what's happening to your own or your newspaper's Twitter stream, livestream action using Qik or Bambuser, and be proactive. Text is the least creative part of any news story; ultimately, no matter how well-written your colleagues tell you it is, it's simply 350-plus words to fill a space in a news page. If you supplement your text with still and moving images, a podcast, an interactive Q&A, or a liveblog, how much more dynamic and memorable will your complete package be? How much more valuable will it be to the audience? The answer is simple: A lot.
Stop thinking in terms of words and pictures for a printed page because this happens anyway if you're doing multimedia journalism the right way.

4. "It's only the website
If you believe "It's only the website" it tends to show. I suspect any digital editor can reel off the names of those in their newsroom who 'get' the web, and those who Can't, Don't or Won't. Those that do are the ones who update their blogs without thinking, are comfortable joining and conversing in online communities, whose toolkit extends further than notebook and pencil. They may turn to Twitter when there's a breaking news story to ask for people's help in covering it, and they are likely to commit spontaneous acts of multimedia journalism. The Can'ts need time, training and encouragement; at its most simple, digital journalism is just publishing instantly, instead of waiting for a press to start rolling.
The Don'ts and the Won'ts usually revert to Stress, Morose or Baffled mode when asked to do something vaguely digital, and then don't do it, citing various problems, from technical to time. The main problem, of course, is that their chosen industry has evolved, and they haven't, yet.

5. "Digital doesn't make money" (variation: "Print is profitable")
Any journalists who use the phrase "Digital doesn't make money", or its evil twin "Print is where the money is"  when questioning (aloud or as part of an inner debate) the value of a newspaper's website need to stop and consider this question: Why does suddenly this matter to you?
Someone raised an interesting point with me recently by asking why newspaper journalists - who have always viewed themselves as above the sordid business of making money - have suddenly started wielding digital  income statistics like a shield.
Ten years ago, the Advertising department was a newsroom's mad wife in the attic - we all knew it was there, but didn't really like to think about what it was up to. Frankly, most journalists neither know nor care what the industry's print advertising revenue is. What you, as a journalist, probably do care about is that things are changing, you're unsure about the future, and you have no idea whether you chose the right career or not.

I agree that updating your work blog is unlikely to turn around the financial black hole our industry is attempting to extract itself from at the moment.
But that work blog might help your future prospects, it definitely allows your audience to start conversations with you and it's certainly one of the more rewarding ways of sharing facts, opinions, photos, videos, links, slideshows, audio, word clouds, tweet clouds, timelines, interactive widgets - and those are just the things I can list off the top of my head. And more ways of telling the story are being invented all the time.
Online journalism shouldn't be a chore, it should be exciting, different, interesting, and fun. If you're working as a multimedia journalist you have the opportunity to be a real pioneer in the art of online storytelling, audience engagement, and new ways of sourcing, sharing and developing information. That has to be worth being a part of.
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