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.

People are all made of stories

The Story program in chocolate
The Story program in chocolate, by Liz Henry

I promised myself I wouldn’t eat The Story until I was done digesting it.

I’m not sure that’s happened yet, but I’m getting there, and I think it’s time to start eating Meg Pickard. Maybe by the time I get to Danny O’Brien I’ll be finished putting all the pieces into place in my head. Maybe not. But I will at least be full of chocolate.

Last year I didn’t have the sort of perspective on The Story that I do this year. For one thing, I was speaking at it, which made it harder to think sensibly about the day, and brought me too close to one bit of it.

This time I got to relax and enjoy one of the best events I’ve ever been to. I tweeted – a lot – and I’ve pulled together a chronological run-through of the day in tweets on Storify. I suspect it may not mean enough for people who weren’t there to be able to decode the day; it was a busy day with a lot of astonishing ideas and people in it.

There are stories we tell ourselves, and stories we tell other people about ourselves. Often, it seems, they’re the same story.’s model of frictionless sharing lets people build identity by doing stuff – the way we would before the internet, before fast fashion and the Kindle, with clothes, class and consumption habits the most available elements of our outward-facing selves.

On the other hand, Ellie Harrison‘s early work quantifying her habits and activities seems to almost reverse that process – aiming to learn more about precisely who you are by meticulously chronicling everything you do. (Though she did also build a vending machine that vends crisps every time the BBC website mentions news about the recession. I’m not sure that quite fits this particular thesis. But the Bring Back British Rail T-shirt definitely does.) The End‘s series of philosophical questions about death also lets you build up an identity around your actions – crystallising things you might not otherwise think about, then plotting you on a grid that includes your friends and major thinkers.

Tom Watson and Emily Bell discussing phone hacking was illuminating, and my most anticipated talk of the day (for obvious reasons). Another big theme that ran through many of the talks was the collision of reality and story – a junction where everyone in news media works, and where the phone hacking discussion and Liz Henry’s talk about fake lesbians provided strong, cautionary tales about what happens when the story takes over. Henry made an incredibly strong point that when someone’s fake identity takes over, people’s real struggles get lost; by attempting to speak for others, we drown their voices.

But  Scott Burnham provided a strong counterpoint, with a glorious tale about an art project in which dozens of people laid out hundreds of thousands of pennies to spell ‘Obsessions make my life worse and my work better’ on an Amsterdam pavement. As time passed people began to play with it, making new words out of the pennies, turning them over. And then the police cleared it up to stop it being stolen. His final point was that the things we do will always disappear, but the stories we create will always remain.

The more I think on it, the more I come back to Karen‘s talk as being the heart of the event, though I didn’t see it at the time. She talked about making something she was interested in, a story just for her – a whole magazine of it, in fact. But the magazine is also an extension of her self, a story she’s telling the world about who she is and how she operates. An externally constructed identity as well as a document of interest – like Matt Sheret‘s playlists, or (on a group level) Scott Burnham’s penny art, or The End’s philosophical mindmaps, or Amina‘s blog. Jeremy Deller tried to heal the wounds of a whole community by recreating events that changed its identity forever, by putting on costumes and playing with being something we’re not, something we used to be. Fiona Raby told stories about a collective future where not just our identities but our bodies were changed. Danny O’Brien talked about – well, about everything, frankly, very fast and with huge energy and expansiveness, but also about delusion and identity and what happens when group identities collide.

And Matthew Herbert made an album out of a pig, in an act which says something about the artist as well as the pig. He talked about the process of art, the investigation and discovery involved in making sound this way, finding out that pig labour is quiet and that tractors are natural bass tones. He talked about recording the sound of towers falling on 9/11, and being sent a recording of someone in Palestine being shot against a wall, and the ethics of making those things, those lives and deaths, into stories in sound.

We are all made of stories. Some of them are our own creations, some we own, some we tell inadvertently through action and through accretion, and some belong to other people, a long way outside our control.