Leaving The Bad News Trail

You can understand sometimes why people think old, mainstream media don’t get it. As journalists we’re trained to really cover bad news. It’s a cliche, but it’s true, though up until recently only born-again types or folk with dandelions in their ears would say it: The way traditional media covers society is deeply skewed towards the bad. Take this RSS feed from the BBC UK news website:

Bbc1

Admittedly, this was taken from a feed designed for Northampton, UK, readers (don’t ask why I subscribed to that particular feed. I guess I got nostalgic for a second.) And yes, this might actually tell us more about the Midlands than we’d like to know. But it strikes me as very distorted to have the last 12 new stories about death, robberies, fires and drugs. How reflective is that of society?

Until recently this question would be one of those which would elicit a response of shoulder-shrugging, and then some old hack like me would pipe up about how, yes, it would be lovely to write about nice stuff, but try getting that into the paper. The way newsrooms work is that bad stuff sells.

But things have changed. The newsroom has gone. Well, not gone, but it’s under threat, not so much from citizen journalism, which always struck me as a bit of an oxymoron, but from bloggers. We write about stuff that interests us, and people read us. Or not. But we aren’t governed by any particular agenda, and we have no heavy-breathing editor looking over our shoulder and telling us to sexy the lede up a bit. Or that our story will be spiked because no one died/cares/took their clothes off/was arrested/is famous enough/is American.

Why is this? Well there’s no doubt that scandal and strife sell. But the filtering process starts very early on; any journalist worth their salt will quickly develop a sense of what a story is, and will be composing the lede in their head even before the event has happened. If they’re really good, and have a good editor and broad enough brief, they might be able to write a positive story — a good guy does a good thing, a company turns itself around, a community grows — but the chances of that getting in the paper are slim alongside the opposite kind of story — a good guy goes bad, a company hits the skids, a community dies. Those latter stories need telling, of course, but as the BBC feed above shows, they tend to be the only stories that get told. Especially, ironically, when budgets get cut.

I don’t think that blogging is going to be as big next year as it is this year, in the sense that the number of people blogging will probably tail off. But there will be no shortage of readers, and commenters, for the simple reason that bloggers write about stuff the old media has long ignored. Old media thinks it’s learning this lesson by bringing the community into the news gathering process, by taking their photos, their writing, their videos, their comments. I’m not sure that’s right.

At least I don’t think it’s the only part of this. Old media should look for a way of using its reporting strengths and resources and tell those stories themselves: devote time and effort to finding stories that reflect the community, the good parts and not just the bad parts. They’re harder stories to tell and they run against the grain of every newsroom lesson we’ve learned, but if we’re serious about connecting to the communities around us, we need to understand them better. And that means taking the good with the bad.

Bloggers Bash Into Chinese Walls, Part XVI

Once again, the non-journalist end of blogging is finding that its world is surprisingly like the old world of media. TechCrunch, a widely read blog of things going on in the social media world of Web 2.0, has run into the kind of conflicts that traditional media grappled with (and are still grappling with) since time immemorial (well at least since last Wednesday.)

The story, in a nutshell is this: TechCrunch sets up a UK version of its site. TechCrunch, itself heavily sponsored by Web 2.0 startup advertising, co-sponsors a Web 2.0 conference in Paris. TechCrunch UK editor attends said confab, which ends in controversy and accusations that the organiser, one Loic Lemeur, messed up. Organiser lambasts TechCrunch UK editor’s own accusations. Sparks fly, one thing leads to another, and TechCrunch UK editor is fired by TechCrunch owner and the UK website suspended. Much wailing and gnashing of teeth within blogosphere and talk of raging ethical debate.

I can’t pretend to have read all of the raging ethical debate (as raging ethical debates go, you want to set aside a good chunk of time for one that rages in the blogosphere: Harrington’s post on the subject currently has 78 comments, a few dozen more here before its suspension. Even Journalist.co.uk and The Guardian wrote about it, although judging from the headline I don’t think it was for the front page.)

Now there’s plenty of fodder for good debates here, and it’s not only Arrington who is getting a fair amount of flack for all this. But there’s an easy way of looking at this: Arrington is the publisher of TechCrunch. He’s Murdoch, Maxwell, whoever you want. TechCrunch is his brand. Anything that damages that brand, or appears to be damaging that brand, needs crushing, and that trumps everything else. You can’t blame him for that; if the editor of The Guardian starts damaging the brand of the paper you’d expect him to come in for some flak from the owner.

It gets complicated further in, however. Arrington is also an editor and writer. He’s also in the advertising and circulation department, since he’s out there drumming up business (often with the people he writes about, but that’s another story). So his role as publisher clashes with his role as editor, since a good editor will demand the independence necessary to criticise anyone, whether it’s sponsors, advertisers, even (and we’re talking theory here) the owners or publisher. Arrington in his role as editor was in conflict with his role as publisher and owner.

This is why traditional media separate these functions, and why, inevitably, TechCrunch and its ilk will have to too, as these kinds of crises occur. Editorial departments in traditional media have little or no contact with other departments, so oftentimes have no idea whether they’re sponsoring an event they’re attending. That’s how it should be, although it does perhaps contribute to the notion that journalists occupy their own little dreamworld.

Who knows where the truth lies in this particular mess, but if it awakens the blogosphere to the need to have Chinese Walls between advertising/sponsoring departments and the editorial side then that can only be good. In this case, if I were Arrington, I would start building them quickly. TechCrunch has at least 144,000 readers, a very respectable circulation, and that, whether he likes it or not, puts the publication into the realm of an outfit that needs to clearly demarcate the boundaries of its interests.

Being A Reporter And Being A Columnist: The ‘Good Story’ Trap

I’m a journalist. You probably knew that. But since focusing on being a columnist (rather than a reporter) I’ve tried to avoid the journalist crowd. Not because they’re not interesting, dedicated, very smart people, many of whom I count my friends. It’s just that journalists have a certain way of thinking, and I’m not convinced, at least as a columnist, that that is the best way to think. Last night, back in Hong Kong, I think I was able to pin down another reason why.

I was hanging out with some old former colleagues. Nice guys, all of them. We were talking about stuff, and I couldn’t help noticing the habit that all journalists tend to have. They’ll share stuff, anecdotes, things they’ve done, heard or seen, and all the others will be assessing the information in terms of whether it constitutes a story. The biggest compliment one journalist can pay another is to mutter, at the end of a tale, ‘good story’. It doesn’t just mean, of course, that the narrator has spun a good yarn. It means he or she has imparted enough juicy material for the other journalists to realise they’re working on something good. It’s a natural way to think — after all, we’re only as good as our next article — but is it the best way?

I try to think a bit differently as a columnist. For me, the lead in a story — the meat, the point, the angle of the story — doesn’t cross well to a column. Think ‘lead’ in a column and all you get is a bad news story. Writing a story is building an inverted triangle. The meat is at the top, and then you throw in as much other stuff as you can before you run out of space. Sure, you could try to come up with a good bottom — what’s called a kicker — but only if you have a good editor who won’t lop it off because of lack of space.

Writing a column for me is like layering a cake. You have all these different audiences you want to try to capture, so you need to add each layer carefully, not leaving behind those less than interested in the topic while not boring those who already know the background. You need to have a point, of course, but it’s not always going to be the ‘newsworthy’ bit a journalist would focus on — the ‘good story’. You need to put it in perspective, just a like a news piece. But you also need to throw it forward, and not in the way news stories usually do (‘the revelation is bound to cause concern in the market/cabinet/UN etc’) but in terms of what the users might expect to see around the corner, up the road, or over the horizon. As a columnist too you need to pronounce judgement on the trend/product/statement/issue, a luxury journalists don’t have. Your opinion, for once, counts.

I suppose my worry about the ‘good story’ thing is that journalists don’t, or won’t go much beyond that. Calling something a ‘good story’ implies that the angle has already been pinned down, the incremental step forward that the ‘good story’ will push the issue as a whole. But by defining ‘a good story’ journalists also tend to draw a line around the discussion, the issue, the debate, and thereby limit their thinking. There’s no point, journalists know, of taking the discussion further forward because until that incremental ‘good story’ is written, the issue — the bigger story — will stay stuck at that point. News is about angles, what is ‘new’, not necessarily what is really important. To journalists ‘good story’ is a way of saying, ‘interesting. Next subject, please’.

What I’m saying is not new, and it’s been much better expressed elsewhere. Neither am I criticising journalists, who know their ‘good story’ is the one that will pay the bills and please their boss. And, interestingly, journalists not covering the topic they’re talking about will happily debate the ins and outs of the subject till the dawn. The ‘good story’ bit only really applies to topics that might be within the beat of the reporters having the chat. But I consider myself very fortunate to have been given the chance to write a column, not least because it’s forced me to think outside what constitutes a ‘good story’ into thinking about the issue from a much greater distance, and to try to find a way to make it as relevant as possible to the reader. I don’t think I’ve done a very good job, but I think I’m beginning to understand what is required of one as a columnist, as opposed to being a reporter.