Thursday, 17 November 2011

How to (not) kill journalism


I read this a while ago but I had a broken wrist and, while I could have potentially used all sorts of free online tools to get my point across, I really couldn't face it. I was in pain, and I disagreed with this post so fundamentally, that the best thing to do was simply put it in the bottom drawer for a while. 

It's been a while. I'm still disagreeing with this post but the beauty of time passing is that more commenters have arrived to give their point of view too. And what a disheartened bunch they are, in the main 

I'm not sure what I should expect from a post that's titled How To Kill Journalism, but here are a couple of pars that struck me. Let's start with the patronising: 


First, it needs to be said is that the author, a young widow in her early 40s, is extremely earnest, well-intentioned and one of the hardest-working administrators I know.

Bless! A young widow! Possibly facing the prospect of picking coal with her bare hands if she doesn't toe the company line!

And then there's the 'slave labour' kicker 

Unfortunately, she now works for a division of the Journal-Register Company, which is to journalism what a Soviet slave labor camp was to the union movement. In the process, she seems to have lost sight completely of what journalism is supposed to be.

JRC = Gulag. That's not hyperbole in any way, is it? It's the sort of rational thinking that, after just three paragraphs, tells me I'm going to get a reasonable argued, considered, piece of critical analysis. I guess Jack Lessenberry is deliberately courting controversy and doing what a good columnist should - stirring things up. But he's got a lot of 'hear hear' responses from people, who obviously think slave labour is what digital journalism is about. 

I wrote this three years ago because I wanted to explore the different ways a reporter could tell and share a story using online tools; it's now as antique as a Stylophone. I got some angry reaction too, mostly from Twitter and discussion boards, from journalists ex and present who thought I'd written a prescription for what they should be doing, rather than what they could do. 
And they were wrong, as well. As a reporter I always found time for the things I wanted to do; it was the boring, complicated or trivial that would slip down the to-do list.

In her memo to staff, the editor asks her JRC staff if they had...

• Crowdsourced so they could ask more relevant questions of local officials
• Uploaded the City Council's agenda to the paper's website using Scribd.com before the meeting and share it on social media so that readers would know that city leaders were considering raising their own salaries despite a general fund deficit 
• Checked in to the meeting on social media and then Tweet and posted on Facebook some of the discussion points during the meeting?
• Shot video of local residents during the meeting protesting the decision, processed it during the meeting, and posted it on the paper's website before the meeting ended?
• Posted a paragraph on the website under Breaking News about the vote during the meeting and wrote the full story after, posted it online, and then pushed it out using social media, SMS text, or breaking news alert via e-newsletter subscriber list?
• Followed up on the issue by hosting a live chat the next day with local leaders and residents?


For suggesting the above, she's condemned as naive and over-demanding, and of failing to understand just how busy her team are. 
This is more bullshit than I'm prepared to accept. 
Let's consider the evidence...
Did you crowdsource so you can ask more relevant questions? - You did, didn't you? After all, it only takes a "Off to Oxdown council meeting for #oxdowncuts debate - what do you think?" you crowdsourced the issue. If you were a smart journalist interested in writing relevant copy and asking the questions people care about, that is.



Did you upload the doc to Scribd? - This is one of the most labour-saving sites around; most national and regional titles I know of are using it to upload pdfs, reports and more. And they're not alone - the Government Docs section of Scribd has everything from the Fukushima Nuclear Reactor Accident logs to the a guide to UK Crowdfunding. Uploading the agenda of your local council meeting so people can see it is a no-brainer; it's your job as a journalist to share information - especially public realm information that others may struggle to access. 

Did yyo use social media to check in and then update during the meeting? - Journalists regularly and accurately live-tweet evidence in court hearings without keeling over exhausted; tweeting "Labour has failed to win over independents on council over library cuts" and posting it via sms to Twitter during a boring stretch of debate is the work of seconds. 

Did you shoot video before the meeting? - Possibly you did, if you got there early enough. Did you edit and upload it during the meeting? - This one depends on your phone and some in-office co-operation really. I could edit and upload to YouTube (not my employer's cms, but the code could then be copied by a co-worker) from my smartphone in a couple of minutes. It would be rough and ready but it would be a snatched moment-in-time, something the audience could experience only because I shot that video. 

Posted updates on the vote [etc] - Journalists have been filing copy over the phone for years, or in my case handing sheaves of written copy it to the passing bus driver to drop off at head office. Emailing something from your phone or ringing it to newsdesk is not unusual, nor is then tweeting to say it's online.  I wouldn't expect that same journalist to write the e-bulletin; I would expect a colleague on the digital team to push it out. 

Hosted a live chat the following day? - Happens all the time. If it's a big enough issue, why wouldn't you? One popular web chat we hosted brought the Media Wales sports editor and the Liverpool Daily Post&Echo chief sports writer together on a liveblog for a chat about transfers. A. Chat. But it was one readers could be a part of, by posting questions and comments. Thirty minutes flew by, everyone enjoyed themselves and the audience broadly thought our two sports guys were awesome for doing it. Not bad. 

What I don't know - and what I suspect the writer of How To Kill Journalism doesn't know, is whether that memo was sent as a round robin, or to an individual. If it's an individual, I can see why they would feel concerned - without a manager sitting down and taking you through that sort of list and showing you how easy and fast these tools are - it would be daunting. If it's a round robin then everyone involved in that article has responsibility: 

  • The news editor sending the reporter out is responsible for ensuring their workload is reasonable
  • The reporter is responsible for covering the meeting in the way specified (and that includes following the company strategy, which in JRC is digital-first, as well as the line manager's briefing)  
  • The web team is responsible for offering support, curation and unique content to support the reporter
  • The editor, ultimately, is responsible for ensuring people have the adequate tools and training to meet her requirements
On the editor's blog - I can't link because Jack Lessenbury doesn't link or reference her newspaper - one woman apparently posted "Is a reporter going to spend literally days covering one event?" 
To which I hope the Unknown Editor replied "yes, sometimes they do. Sometimes they sit in a court all day without filing anything other than a few pars, and sometimes they spend days on a story for it to collapse because the subject has had a change of heart. And if the event is important enough (and one might suggest a debate involving city leaders who were considering raising their own salaries despite a general fund deficit was important enough) then they would spend as much time as necessary covering it."

Look how long the Middlesbrough Gazette spent on this story outing their local MP as less-than-dedicated - "The Gazette has been making daily calls to Sir Stuart’s Westminster office and Middlesbrough home over the course of several months. Despite making a total of 100 calls, no one ever answered." Often, playing the long game is what garners the greatest rewards in journalism. 

Anyway, it might not mean much but I wholeheartedly support that Young Widowed Editor, whomever she may be. It's not memos exhorting staff to engage more and ask the questions that matter to their audiences that will kill journalism - nothing, I suspect, is going to kill journalism; it's just that some people won't recognise what it's becoming. 



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