Being brief

Interesting from Joshua Benton at Nieman Lab on giving reporters the implicit permission to write briefly.

000000;">So I like the idea of giving journalists a structure and permission to share little things — things that don’t need to be expanded into traditional articles, things that can connect a reporter’s knowledge to an audience’s interest without the templatized exoskeleton of modern web publishing.

It’s something I’d like to do more of here – sharing interesting links with a paragraph or two’s analysis. Not everything needs to be short enough to be a tweet or long enough to be a full article. Aside from the issues about it taking all the useful “byproducts” of reporting, as Benton argues, Twitter is a terrible medium for archiving, and not a great one for conversation; if either of those things are important in how you share little things, there are far better options for doing so. Tumblr, for instance.

Conceptualising CMS shortcomings as a “lack of permission” is particularly interesting – reminds me of poetics conversations around line length and form being limited by the size of the notebook or the eventual printed page. Form and content are still married. You can see that too in how hard it is for many news organisations to put up a story that consists only of a single fact. How do you break a single-sentence story in a traditional CMS where headline, intro and article must all say something?

Technology is media’s overwhelming context

Very smart piece on Buzzfeed today from Charlie Warzel, who writes off the back of Ezra Klein’s new venture:

media reporting today is, for better or for worse, inextricable from technology reporting. Tech — the internet, CMSes, distribution and production — is not just a factor for media companies, but an overwhelming context.

This goes deeper than simply CMS issues, though they’ve long been the biggest bugbears of those in the industry dominated by print requirements as they moved onto the web. Journalism and the technology used to distribute it have long been so deeply enmeshed that separating them would be meaningless. You can see that in the launch of things like Inside, which is aiming to aggregate content in short, fact-filled bursts designed for mobile reading but not for grammatical sense.

You can also see the context-blindness that Warzel mentions in the launch of the Saturday Paper, a new Australian print weekly which is relying on entirely different technology to Klein or Inside. The conversations around it have mostly been about editorial quality, with the CEO coming out swinging at the print incumbents. What’s missing from that analysis is any kind of conversation about the technology used, the difficulties of expanding a print model through rural Australia, and the issues of attention competition. Like Inside, like any news organisation on any medium, the Saturday Paper has to compete not just with other attractions using its own tech and distribution method, but also all those using other methods too. Print is no more a monolith than the internet, but the media reports around this new print product aren’t (yet) about innovations in design or in production, editorial strategy (beyond ‘be better than the others’, which is a little nebulous) or how the content will fit the form.

It’s that last part that matters most. Journalism, in whatever form it’s in, is symbiotic with the technology it’s using, in ways that go far beyond 140-characters for Twitter reports or design parameters for print. Increasingly, journalism online is shaped to match or to work with algorithms, tapping into what works to trigger broader pickup on different networks. Snappy front pages sell newspapers because of the technology and affordances of the newsstand; Upworthy headlines get links shared because of the technology and affordances of Facebook; Inside is betting that the technology and affordances of mobile readership will bring it similar success. The content strategy can’t be sensibly separated from the technologies involved.

What is a blog, anyway?

This post by Andy Boyle seems to have struck a nerve on Twitter today. It exhorts news organisations to stop referring to things they produce as blogs just because they use different CMS or are branded differently to regular content. While I don’t think it quite applies across the board – this, for instance, is definitely a blog – Andy makes some very good points.

Sadly, blogs brought along a stigma that people still use  – which is wrong — that they’re done by people in their pajamas in a basement somewhere. Blogs are not the same as regular news content, some media folks thought, because they weren’t in your “main” CMS. They had a wall between them and they are different. They may even be branded differently, with a different header and logo. They weren’t the same as regular content because they were in a different system! Right?

Wrong.

It’s time to stop bifurcating your content as blogs and news because they run on separate systems. It is all content, so why not call it that? Even if you have outside people writing posts on your website that are unmoderated by your staff — that’s still content that’s part of your media outlet’s website. I don’t have any research proving this, but in my short journalism career many media outlets just slapped the name “blog” on something because it lived in a different CMS. We should stop this. Please.

While I don’t have any hard stats or user testing data on how readers react to the word “blog”, my gut instinct is that their readings are very different from the way news organisations tend to use the term. To a newsroom, the word blog might signify a lighter tone than news or feature. It might imply a home for specialised subject matter that might not fit with the rest of the site. It might be used to signify a linked, ongoing set of posts like the word “series”. It might mean “something done through WordPress” or “something put online without subbing first” or “a side project we give the juniors to prove themselves”. To some, in some newsrooms, it almost certainly means “not proper journalism”, despite the (somehow, still ongoing) conversations about whether bloggers can be journalists.

The question is what it means to our readers. My fear is that for them it may have more resonance with the meanings towards the end of that little list than the ones at the start. Blog shouldn’t be a dirty word or one that’s used to put down the effort of the people creating something – but in the minds of many, at the moment it still is. It’s important to set readers’ expectations by what’s on the page, but we don’t need to distinguish web-only or web-first or even tone in this way – there are other words that might make just as much sense to us, and even more to readers.

#jcarn: Dear Santa, please bring us all more time

Given the recent dearth of posts on here, my request in response to this month’s Carnival of Journalism prompt is probably not surprising, though it may be impossible.

Dear Santa, for journo-Christmas I would like more time. Not just for me, but for everyone.

I was lucky enough, recently, to be part of a Guardian hack day. As a result, some awesome tools got built, including three that I started using inmediately. They’re still very much in beta, being improved and worked on occasionally, but I use them constantly. They’ve changed my job. Not by giving me new things to do, but by automating some repetitive, tricky, admin bits of the job and therefore making them require less time and attention – so I can spend more time and energy focussing on the bits that really need it.

That’s wonderful. It’s a gift of time. It means I can work smarter, not just harder. I wish, if I have to be limited to one Christmas wish, that every journalist and everyone involved in making journalism – including developers – could have at least one tool, in 2012, that makes the tedious admin bits of their jobs faster. I hope that every tricky CMS for journalists that contains unnecessary time-consuming admin processes releases an update that makes it no longer so.

And, because this isn’t a one-way process, I hope that every journalist takes the initiative to go find out where their techies live and actually talks to them, in person, about the problems they have. There’s no point griping only to each other about the difficult bits, or in keeping quiet and carrying on doing things that don’t make sense: tell developers what’s wrong, because otherwise they won’t know it needs fixing. Sometimes what looks like a tech problem is actually a communication issue, because the people who need to know that something’s broken haven’t been told.

These fixes often aren’t the big, sexy, exciting projects for devs. They’re the sort of thing that, if it exists, you very quickly take for granted. Things like, say, a spellchecker that also flags up common house style violations, or a geolocation module that understands when you type “Norwich” that you want the geographical area defined by the boundaries of the city of Norwich, not a point at the centre of its postcode area. They’re often small niggles that you’d only notice if you’re doing these processes day in, day out, many times a day.

In an age of cutting costs, one of the most precious resources we have left is our time. Anything that saves it, that means it can be spent doing journalism or making tools that journalists can use, instead of busywork, is a wonderful thing.

Oh, and if you work in a place that has admin staff, go say thank you to them. They deserve it.

Dummy demolition

Alison Gow recently wrote an excellent post suggesting that newsrooms should get rid of the dummy – the page plan that tells print new teams what space we need to fill in the paper and where.

She said:

Everywhere I’ve worked it’s been called something different – The Book, The Plan, The Dummy, the Flatplan – but recently I’ve started wondering if it should be called The Box, because we think inside it.

… the HOW of filling a newspaper can become more absorbing and demanding than the WHAT …

…I would love to hear the phrase ‘How many words do you want?’ replaced with ‘How do you want this told?’ Is that happening on any editorial floors in the UK’s regional press yet? I’d love to know – because that really would be a converged newsroom.

I’d love to know too. As a general print journalist without an official specialism – and as a trainee, too – I’m not yet at the stage where the demands of the dummy consume my day as much as they do the content editors who have to fill its hungry boxes.

But the demands are becoming more apparent. We’re in the process of switching from a Microsoft Word-based CMS to Atex, built around InCopy and InDesign – and designed to allow reporters to write directly onto the page.

In effect, that means many stories have to be written to an exact length. Things weren’t particularly flexible for us before – we were writing to imaginary boxes 30cm or 8cm or sometimes 450 words long – but we could tweak our stories if we discovered they were “worth less” than we thought. That’s still going to be possible, but not as easy. Instead of writing the story to whatever length reporters felt was best and letting subs pick the right story lengths to fill the page, we’re now starting to see a situation where we have to work out how long our story will be before we begin to write it and set pen to paper.

It’s a different way of working and it may well suit some journalists better than it does me. But for me, the psychological impact of writing a story into a box is that I find myself stretching stories to fit, squeezing an extra quote or two in or lopping off a few facts.

And I have to change that. If stories are too long or too short then they’re in the wrong box, and I have to move them to fit. But that process has illuminated for me the problems of writing for boxes in the first place, especially for the web. If we write the boxed-in print version first, the web version will never flow the way it could given the unlimited space we have there to play in.

Allen Ginsberg once said – though I can’t find a cite online for it, I’m informed by a university tutor – that the length of a line of poetry can be constrained by the paper you write on. (Another beat poet, LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka, wrote him a letter on a length of toilet paper afterwards.) His argument was that the words should fit the breath instead.

Boxes constrain and limit us, and force unnatural shapes onto the writing process. No matter how many journalists, editors and newsrooms begin to break away from the dummy and start asking how we can tell stories instead of what shape they should be, if the technology we use keeps dragging us back there, journalists will still be writing 30cm page leads first and thinking about everything else – including innovating for the web – as secondary.

JEEcamp thoughts on data journalism

Information VisualizationI spent some time talking to Martin Belam (@currybet) about data journalism and the importance (or otherwise) of journalists learning to code.

He said, as he’s said before, that it’s more important for journalists to know whether something is or isn’t possible than for us to necessarily be able to do it ourselves.

And for working journalists whose day to day job doesn’t carry a coding requirement already – and particularly those of us who are lucky enough to be in a workplace where there are developers or programmers who can take our ideas and make them flesh (ie. not me), he’s almost certainly right.

Those skills are becoming more and more important. With the birth of data.gov.uk and the increasingly open approach to information that the new coalition government is likely to take, sifting and analysing data to find the stories is going to be a vital skill for a lot of journalists.

We need to know our way around a spreadsheet. We need to be able to spot patterns in data and understand not only what they mean but also how we can use them to reveal stories that are not only relevant but useful.

We need to know where our skills can get us. We need to know our capabilities and our limits – and, crucially, we must be aware of what we don’t know. That’s not just knowing that there are holes in our knowledge, but knowing the shape of those holes so that we can try to get our problems a little closer to a solution.

Journalism is about asking the right questions. We research stories before we interview subjects so that we can ask pertinent questions whose answers will illuminate the subject. We need to be able to do the same thing with our data – we need to know what questions to ask and how, so that even if we can’t make the tools ourselves we can hand over the task to someone else without asking the impossible or wasting their time.

But most of the time, certainly for journalists on regional papers and I would wager for many in other areas, those people who know how to make the tools just don’t exist. I have friends who code, but I can’t ask them for a favour every time I want to create a news app, or diff two versions of a stack of documents, or visualise a complex dataset, or tell the story of 100 people’s losses from an investment fund going bust in a way that conveys both the scale and the humanity of the problem.

Regional journalists work on hundreds of stories that could be made vastly easier or more beautiful or more accessible through a touch of computer work (spreadsheets, maps, things that aren’t quite coding but sort of almost are and look like it to the untrained eye). A few of us can create those additions; the rest just write the story, and our papers and websites are poorer for it.

We work on a few stories – and the number is increasing – that are perfect for news apps, web coding, multimedia packages or other more complex solutions that very, very few of us can create. But no one else will do it for us.

On top of that many of us struggle with inflexible content management systems that penalise or make it literally impossible to display data-driven work online. Faced with that problem, some budding computer-assisted-reporters give up before they’ve even started.

So I’m not going to stop learning Python. It’s not a complete solution to the problem – for that we need real, systemic change so that the businesses we work for all value data work, understand its increasing relevance, reflect on current practice and support training journalists to do an evolving job.

But for me, it means that in the future I might be able to create better stories, automate processes within series or campaigns or multiple follow-up stories, make my job easier and make a better experience for the reader all at the same time.

At least, until we all have newsroom developers.

The economy of not linking

Chain linkSo the New York Post printed a story without crediting the blogger who originally broke it – and the journalist whose byline is on the Post piece claimed it was an editorial policy not to credit blogs for scoops.

There’s been some controversy over this, with Zachary M. Seward at Nieman Journalism Lab saying “It’s hard, of course, to defend this rule on journalistic grounds”.

There’s a clear and obvious line between nicking someone’s words and rewriting their story – and individuals and organisations who fall on the wrong side of that line tend to get publicly and appropriately told off.

But news organisations routinely borrow or steal story ideas from each other. Newspaper ideas go back and forth, nationals write up local stories, local BBC newsrooms interview people in the evenings who were in that morning’s paper. It might not be nice, but it’s the way the traditional media world seems to work. It’s even happened to me.

Should it be the case online? Print journalists sometimes get very upset when online news outlets summarise their stories even with links – for example, see Ian Shapira‘s response to Gawker’s write-up of his Washington Post article.

Most papers, though, nick stuff and don’t bother to attribute it. Like the New York Post, they take an idea from somewhere and run with it, usually without crediting where that idea came from.

Sometimes it’s to get individual credit, sometimes to avoid looking slow, sometimes editorial policy, and sometimes – believe it or not – it’s because the journalist in question doesn’t know how to put links on their online stories.

At the moment, where I work, we can’t add inline links within stories. We can only add boxed links, which makes it very difficult to link specific content – I couldn’t link to more than two or three sources without confusing the issue. There’s no way of separating links by category or by subject, so internal and external links are lumped together.

This week at work I trained two people to add links to web stories using our current content management system. Before that, if they had found a story on the web they couldn’t have credited it in the way bloggers expect – they lacked the skills to do so. It takes up to three minutes to add a link – time that some people don’t have.

It’s hard to believe in a time when linking is considered potentially vital to paper’s survival, but for some papers and journalists technology and training – and the financial issues involved in acquiring them – are preventing them from following good web etiquette.

Journalists and bloggers can agree (not that they always do) that online sources ought to be clear and obvious, that raw data should be available wherever possible and that linksharing is both important and necessary.

But when the technology isn’t available, sometimes we fall down before we’ve even started.