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.

3 ideas about the future of print news

McSweeney's San Francisco Panorama amid New York Times & other newspapers at West Portal Daily
Spot the odd one out.

A friend recently emailed me to ask about what print newspapers would look like in the future, for a sci-fi story he’s writing. His words:

“Obviously the It’s The Future! thing to do would be to say they only existed digitally, but I’m reluctant to go right down the route in case it’s a bit too holo-TV and flying cars, so knowing where you’d put your money on this particular bet would be very handy.”

It made me consider the question in a way I hadn’t before – and here’s the response: three sci-fi-ish narratively-useful ideas grounded in reality, about what print news could look like in the World Of Tomorrow.

1. Print-your-own

Berg has just announced a mini in-your-house printer magic box cloud news thing. This is actual wizardry. The evolution of devices like that is basically a personal printed news sheet that you grab on the way out of the door, read on the commute and recycle at the office. Or that greets you with the day’s news in print when you arrive home, or gives you a non-screen thing to read with breakfast so it doesn’t matter if you spray ketchup on it. And it weaves personal/social news stuff in with “proper” news sources. It’s unbundled in a very cool way.

2. Artefact

The newspaper that carries your birth date, or announces your marriage – the one you appear in – is a thing people still want to keep. There will be more cut-out-and-keep, more souvenir editions, and quality of production will go up along with prices, until each paper is a beautiful object in its own right. Something along the lines of some of the really innovative papers at the moment – the prettier ones here are starting to move in that direction – or McSweeney’s San Francisco Panorama.

At its most extreme, this could end up with weekly papers being more like glossy magazines – something to sit on your coffee table for days at a time, something you can dip in and out of during the week, carrying good long reads and beautiful pictures – the sorts of lean-back things you can really do well in print.

This might be the least likely of the three to come in, because even though the infrastructure is already there, the folks in charge of newspapers want to stay mass-market as long as possible so won’t make the design investments to switch to niche. And it’s questionable whether the business model would actually pan out, given distribution costs.

3. Free

People will still read something if it’s handed to them when they’ve nothing else to do. Metro and Evening Standard will still do well, in London at least, as long as there are captive commuters – though when wifi is installed on the Tube that’ll be very disruptive to their businesses and they’ll have to up their game to compete. Free sheets, supported by ads, won’t go away until/unless the last of the display ad business dies.

If free papers can come up with a better way of tracking who actually reads them and what they do, and sell that model to advertisers, then free sheets could end up being the most profitable of any medium. So depending on how near, innovative and prosperous the near-future is, it might be worth thinking about offline tracking in your newspapers – RFID trackers that would let companies see how far their papers travel and how many times they’re read, or giveaway cards that would unlock something extra (rewards online, possibly, or free coffee/pasty/Twix offers) in return for a name/date of birth/postcode.

What else?

What did I miss? I didn’t say local, because I don’t think many local papers will exist in 30 years’ time in forms other than those above. That’s not to say local news won’t – in fact, it’s likely to be much stronger than it is now, thanks to better local networks, horizontal vectors for information to spread, facilitated by but not limited to the internet. Will any news organisations run print papers as loss leaders, for prestige or for other purposes? Or will there be any profitable newspapers that aren’t also artefacts?

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.

Exploring the read/write world

Paper boats carrying prayers across a sea of mapsYesterday, Nick Booth at Podnosh posted a transcript of a conversation on Twitter where he asked for useful analogies to describe the internet to people who’ve only experienced radio and tv.

The conversation – and the comments – got me thinking about the way metaphors limit what we can understand about the online world and affect how we use it, particularly the page/document conceptual metaphor that pervades our language.

We use print language constantly online. Web pages, archives, scroll, above the fold, inbox, email, post. The metaphor is pervasive and often goes unnoticed as we use the language that reinforces it, making it hard to tease out the implications and assumptions of this mindset.

But pages aren’t flat, static, words on the screen as we see in print papers. What happens if we call a page a node? Or a window? Or a stream, a fall, a flow, a conversation, a connection, a junction?

Conceiving of pages as stories, for instance, opens up the idea of letting journalists develop an entire story online, rather than in our notebooks. Posting complete transcripts of interviews, not just the quotes we think are important. Including raw footage alongside the edit for those who are interested. Asking at early stages of a project where users think we should be investigating more. Incorporating links to our research and visualisations of our data not when we think they are relevant but when we stumble across them.

Conceiving of pages as junctions makes flat print-like design stand out as inadequate – not fit for their intended purpose, which is to facilitate forward movement and choice for reader.

And what if, instead of a reader, we have a traveller? The idea of a reader implies commitment, passivity, and above all a text-based medium. A traveller is someone who can leave at any moment, and opens up the idea of the page as a literal place – a location that can be moved through and explored rather than a document.

Thinking of the web as a series of pages gets us print design replicated online, lacking the myriad subtleties that are possible in a space that is simultaneously a limitless sea of connections and a location and a conversation and a lot of other things. Essentially, it gets you the front page of the new Times website – pretty and clean, but flat and without the cues many travellers use to make meaningful journeys through the web.

Thinking of it in any other way at all requires seriously examining the words we use, and playing with putting others in their place. Each conceptual metaphor has its own problems – calling the internet a brain inadvertently implies the organised hivemind that Twitter users protest does not exist, for instance – but we need a library (or bathtub, or pantry) that’s full of different options in order to open up new ways of thinking about what’s possible online.

Greenbelt: print power online

Greenbelt 2009 Friday

Last weekend I went to Greenbelt, Britain’s least-known and friendliest festival, where I have had a wonderful time being very, very relaxed, and engaging with social media as a consumer.

Rather than blogging my personal festival highlights, let’s talk about the innovations that allowed me to pick up on Monday a 16-page newspaper that went to press on Sunday night, two days after the festival opened, aimed at getting me to engage with Greenbelt’s online content.

Sponsored by Hewlitt Packard, the paper itself is a lovely object. It’s called “While We Were Here” and it’s entirely composed of blog posts, images and links that already exist on the web. In theory, the 4,000 free copies are designed to direct traffic to the web, not the other way round.

I don’t know if it’s working universally. I do know that when I got home on Tuesday I logged on and looked at a fair few blogs – I visited many of the ones printed in the paper and bookmarked or followed the profiles and groups signposted from its pages.

And I can say it worked for me. I don’t know if this business model is sustainable anywhere outside a four-day charity festival using volunteers willing to spend every waking hour (and several that should be sleeping ones) making it work. But I do believe it has legs and it could be immensely succesful to clone online content for web as a way of driving the link economy of an event.

Video vs print

Magazines to read Today the BBC reported that video adverts are going to appear in a print magazine.

Yes, seriously. This is the Daily Prophet made real, though with more Pepsi and less Azkaban. We are now officially living in the future. Though someone seems to have stolen my jetpack.

According to the BBC, they use similar technology to singing cards, can store 40 minutes of video and can be recharged.

As long as they don’t use them to wish me a happy new year in tinny voices every time I open a magazine, I’m behind this idea all the way.

Let’s make print more attractive, let’s innovate in meatspace as well as online, and let’s develop easily-accessible video news as a permanent medium and see what happens.