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.

#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.

If you don’t want to talk to people, turn your comments off

Advance warning: long post is long, and opinionated. Please, if you disagree, help me improve my thinking on this subject. And if you have more good examples or resources to share, please do.

News websites have a problem.

Well, OK, they have a lot of problems. The one I want to talk about is the comments. Generally, the standard of discourse on news websites is pretty low. It’s become almost an industry standard to have all manner of unpleasantness below the line on news stories.

Really, this isn’t limited to news comments. All over the web, people are discovering a new ability to speak without constraints, with far fewer consequences than speech acts offline, and to explore and colonise new spaces in which to converse.

Continue reading

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.

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.