Syria vs Cyrus: The Onion on CNN’s editorial judgment

Elegant, pointed rant in the Onion, courtesy of CNN’s decision to put Miley Cyrus’s VMAs appearance in the top slot of their site:

There was nothing, and I mean nothing, about that story that related to the important news of the day, the chronicling of significant human events, or the idea that journalism itself can be a force for positive change in the world. For Christ’s sake, there was an accompanying story with the headline “Miley’s Shocking Moves.” In fact, putting that story front and center was actually doing, if anything, a disservice to the public. And come to think of it, probably a disservice to the hundreds of thousands of people dying in Syria, those suffering from the current unrest in Egypt, or, hell, even people who just wanted to read about the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech.

But boy oh boy did it get us some web traffic.

The argument’s not one that purely applies to online news (see also: recent Sun front pageevery Daily Express splash for quite some time). Appealing to a mass audience is one way of trying to keep generalist news organisations in business so they can also do the harder, less grabby, more worthy news – selling sweets to fund the broccoli business. There’s a strong argument too that people are interested in many things: I can care about Syria and Cyrus simultaneously, and if someone who comes for the twerking can be persuaded to stick around for the complex international news coverage then that can be a valid growth tactic for generalist outlets. But that doesn’t mean it’ll happen organically, without a strategy to convert the Miley fans into long-term readers. And it doesn’t mean that giving the two stories equivalent billing is wise, unless you’re making a Mail-style move towards a very specific editorial tone.

You don’t have to stop doing the fun stuff, the cheeky and irreverent things, the entertainment journalism, in order to be a serious news outlet – but packaging and context do still matter online. People who go to your front page – your most loyal readers – notice shifts in your editorial approach to these sorts of stories, and will judge you on these things. It’s a deliberate, conscious editorial decision to put twerking in the top slot or rosy cheeks on the front page. There’s definite sense in promoting what your readers most want to read, and in using data to guide editorial strategy. But the key word in that sentence is guide, not subvert or overrule. It’s not the traffic play the Onion’s really angry about – it’s the editorial strategy that underlies it.

Stop blaming the internet for rubbish news content

Newspapers and newsrooms generally have always striven to publish stories that are important, interesting, informative and entertaining.  Not every one puts those in the same order or gives them the same importance. But the internet hasn’t changed that much.

The unbundling effects of the net mean that instead of relying on the front page to sell the whole bundle, each piece has to sell itself. That can be hard; suddenly the relative market sizes for different sorts of content are much starker, and for people who care more about important/interesting/informative than entertaining, that’s been a depressing flood of data. But the internet  didn’t create that demand – it just made it more obvious. Whether we should feed it or not is an editorial question. Personally, I think it’s fine to give people a little of what they want – as long as a newsroom is putting out informative and important stories, a few interesting and entertaining ones are good too, so long as they’re not lies, unethically acquired or vicious.

If you spend a lot of time online you will see a filter bubble effect, where stories from certain news organisations are not often shared by your friends and don’t often turn up in your sphere unless you actively go looking for them. That means the ones that break through will be those that outrage, titillate or carry such explosive revelations that they cannot be ignored. That does not mean those stories are the sum total output of a newsroom – any more than the 3AM Girls are the sum total of the Mirror in print – but those pieces attract a new audience and serve to put that wider smorgasbord of content in front of them (assuming the article pages are well designed).

Of course, some news organisations publish poor stories – false, misleading, purposefully aggravating or just badly written – in the name of chasing the trend. That’s also far from an internet-only phenomenon. The Express puts pictures of Diana on the front, and routinely lies for impact in its headlines. The Star splashes on Big Brother 10 weeks running. The editorial judgement about the biggest story for the front is about sales as much as it is newsworthiness. Sometimes those goals align. Sometimes they don’t, and editors make a choice.

It is ridiculous to blame the internet for the publishing of crap stories to chase search traffic or trend-based clicks – just as it’s ridiculous to blame the printing press for the existence of phone hacking. In both cases it’s the values and choices of the newsroom that should be questioned.

News SEO: optimising for robots is all about the people

Some people in the news business get very wary of SEO in general. There seems to be a perception that content farming and low-quality stories are a sort of natural consequence of making sure your stories can be found via Google. But in fact there is a wide spectrum of approaches here, and news organisations make editorial judgements over whether to cover something that’s interesting to the public just because the public is interested. No Google robot forces a newsroom to make that choice, just as no print-sales-bot forces the Daily Star to splash on scantily-clad women and celebrity gossip.

If your editorial strategy is to chase search terms, then you’re not optimising for robots – you’re optimising for the millions of people online who search for certain sorts of stories. Websites like Gawker and the Mail Online create content to attract the potential millions who read celebrity gossip or who want the light relief of weird Chinese goats - and many of those people also care about the budget or the war in Afghanistan, because people are multi-faceted and have many, many interests at the same time.

If your production strategy includes making sure your headlines accurately describe your content, make sense out of context and use words people would actually use in real life, then you are optimising your content for search. Not for robots, again, but for people – potential and actual readers or viewers – some of whom happen to use search engines to find out about the news.

For example, search optimised headlines may well have the keywords for the story right at the beginning. Google lends greater weight to words at the start of a headline than at the end. But it does so because so do people. If you’re scanning a Google search results page, you tend to read in an F shape, taking account of the first few words of an item before either engaging further or moving on. [Edit: via @badams on Twitter, a more recent study backing up the F-shape reading pattern.] Google’s algorithm mimics how people work, because it wants to give people what they’re going to find most relevant. Optimising for the robot is the same thing as optimising for human behaviour – just as we do in print, taking time to design pages attractively, and taking account of the way people scan pages and spend time on images and headlines in certain ways.

News SEO is a very different beast from, say, e-commerce SEO or SEO for a small business that wants to pick up some leads online. Once you get beyond the basics it does not follow the same rules or require the same strategies. Link building for breaking news articles is worse than pointless, for example; your news piece has a halflife of a day, or an hour, or perhaps a whole week if you’re lucky and it really hits a nerve. Social sharing has a completely different impact for news organisations that want their content read than for, say, a company that wants to sell shoes online. For retailers, optimising for the algorithm might start to make some sense – if the only difference between you and your competitors is your website, then jostling for position in the search results on particular pages gets competitive in a way that news doesn’t. For news, though, optimising for robots always means optimising for humans. It’s just a matter of choosing which ones.

Facing the future

I spent a very interesting evening at the Frontline Club for the launch of Face The Future on Tuesday. Judith Townend, Kevin Marsh, Laura Oliver (who’s moved to the Guardian recently) and chair Raymond Snoddy discussed a pretty wide-ranging selection of subjects related to the future of journalism and the tools we’re using to create it.

The evening was an interesting reminder, for me, that those of us who tweet constantly and feel on top of new tech are still, overwhelmingly, the minority. It’s easy to forget, if you spend time learning about social media and talking about new tools for the future of journalism and generally being digitally disruptive, that that’s not the reality for most journalists.The fact that I was the only person tweeting for most of the evening was one small reminder; the demographics of the audience was another; Raymond Snoddy admitting he just about felt like he was on top of the technology until someone mentioned Quora was another.

And there was a timely reminder from Kevin Marsh that in the middle East, where so much information is coming via Twitter at the moment, the same holds true. It’s a specialised tool, and journalists in particular do specialised things with it – it’s relevant and timely and a great way to source stories, but it doesn’t open up access the same way that being there in person does.

But that was another major theme of the evening – that despite major news teams being capable of sending journalists around the world, the pressures of filing to half a dozen places can make it impossible for journalists to do their jobs well. Kevin gave examples from his knowledge of the BBC – journalists doing live broadcasts for the rolling news channels, recorded spots for lunchtime and evening news and possibly breakfast too, tweeting, perhaps doing radio, and blogging too. Where’s the time for journalists to leave their hotels and investigate, go out on the streets and find sources?

Closer to home, too, the debate touched on the problems for domestic reporters – Raymond Snoddy spoke of newsrooms where no-one leaves, not even for lunch, and characterised the reporters as working on “computerised treadmills”, churning out copy to feed the ravenous information machine.

The conclusion was – this type of reporting is not lazy journalism. The journalists involved are working harder than they ever have before, producing more copy, more broadcasts, more information. But the trade-off is in time spent in the field, investigating, asking questions, finding sources, doing the hard work behind the scenes that makes for good journalism. And that’s something I can identify with, too – even in my short career I’ve experienced a newsroom merge and a round of redundancies, and I can vouch for the fact that fewer staff, cutting costs and increasing numbers of platforms for your reporting mean more time at the desk or the phone and less time on your patch or with your sources, no matter how good your intentions.

The panel also agreed that what’s important is support, from editors and from news executives, for the core skills and values of journalism. What’s important isn’t just that reporters want to get out and report – what’s needed is a newsroom structure that supports and encourages that, and a business model that puts this core area of journalism at its heart and gives it everything it needs to thrive.

The discussion wove together issues of verifying information when breaking news is breaking faster than ever before, with the tricky problems of regaining readers’ trust in a world where the phone hacking inquiry is ongoing, with questions of how journalism itself is defined. And in the end, though both Laura and Judith made the point that new forms of information management and presentation have value – that aggregation is important and curation and filtering are vital, in a world where the same sources we use are also open to the audience – it was Kevin’s argument that stuck with me. He said that we have forgotten what journalism is, and in so doing we have allowed it to become devalued.

Kevin’s list of what journalism is and how it works was not exhaustive or scientific. He talked of journalistic values – accuracy, balance, ethics – and of reporters’ traits – curiosity, ability to speak truth to power, perseverance. He talked about a sort of journalism stamp – something that would signal strongly to readers that they were reading something professional, something that adhered to the central values of journalism – a hard task, in a world where no one trusts the PCC and we have no better accreditation. His definition of journalism would cheerfully include a huge raft of bloggers, freelancers and, yes, curators, while excluding half the Daily Mail and all of the Daily Star.

But what wasn’t clear was how we pay for that. One audience member asked, in so many words: where’s the money? And though the response was robust – if the BBC and Sky can’t pay for good journalism out of their enormous budgets, the problem is with the management not the journalism – it was not enough to leave me with any real ideas about how we reach this world where Kevin’s “j-stamp” both exists widely and can be trusted.

Newsroom support, rebuilding readers’ trust, and a journalistic practice that prioritises those core ethics before eyeballs or speed of filing is a lofty aim. There are hundreds of bloggers who are beating “professional” journalists at these things, day in, day out, because they believe it matters. Whether it’s a future that mainstream journalism can hope to achieve  is an open question.