Monday, April 26, 2010

Modern reporters read too much news.

The problem with reporters in the 21st century is that they read too much news.

A big story -- about how California law enforcement officials used a warrant to search the home of a Gizmodo editor for clues about a leaked Apple iPhone prototype -- is making its way around the Internet today.

It's great fodder for many things: First Amendment rights, shield laws, journalistic ethics (paying for scoops), and so forth.

(A small aside: whether you agree with him or not, we ought to thank Gawker Media founder Nick Denton for his attitude and cunning when it comes to operating a media business and showing that "the rules" are just a mirage. Like him or not, the spirit of his efforts should be commended.)

But the constant recycling of watercooler chatter visible from my Twitter perch has reminded me that good ideas are hard to come by.

So very many publications reposted the Gizmodo-iPhone news as soon as it hit.

They did this because:
  • They want to demonstrate that they're covering a beat thoroughly.
  • They want to show that they're a source of breaking news.
  • They want a monopoly on as many readers' eyeballs as possible.
  • They want to fuel as many clicks as possible, which they believe (wrongly in some cases) will help please advertisers, build brand value and pad paychecks
But very few added any real value to the discussion, and most just did a good job of obscuring the real source of the news: Gizmodo itself.

I wish online publishers could figure out a technological solution to reposting others' content and giving them monetizable credit for it, for both byline and clicks.

(In fact, Gawker Media used to practice an in-house way of doing this: you'd see a story from, say, Lifehacker in the Gizmodo feed, and clicking it would take you right to the Giz story -- no reblogging or content swapping necessary.)

If every publication in the online ecosystem stopped spending valuable resources reblogging each others' content, perhaps they could actually utilize those resources to produce original stories.

Of course, that changes the playing field a bit: outlets such as the New York Times rarely need to "reblog" another publication's content because they have a wealth of reporters at their disposal to ensure readers get their fill on their website; conversely, tiny outlets such as The Business Insider would lose regular attention because they don't have the staff to produce enough original news to sustain a reader on a regular basis.

I understand the value of information exchange on the Internet. I believe it is the web's defining characteristic, and limiting it (such as not linking off to external sites) would be of little use to the greater ecosystem.

But I believe there is too much recycling of information going on -- so much so that the original source doesn't get enough credit, and rebloggers get just enough to continue doing it endlessly.

In other words: it's just too hard to navigate the news.

But I'm not approaching this from a high-horse journalism point of view. I'm simply looking at it from a reader's. It's massively perplexing to suddenly see an endless parade of brief, shallow stories about the same crumb of news.

It fosters no loyalty, as far as I can experience -- only loyalty to who can break news first, which, in the age of Twitter, is a tenuous goal.

Which brings me, long-windedly, to my main point: modern reporters simply read too much news. Their coverage is often clouded -- rather than informed -- by previous coverage of the same topic by other publications.

They fail to approach topics by a new angle.

They fail to ask questions.

They fail to offer value to the reader.

The Internet is a wonderful thing. It has allowed us to be more informed than ever before. (Surely I'm not the only one who has spent hours reading obscure Wikipedia entries for my own edification.)

But it has, in a way, served to stunt a reporter's effectiveness. It's too easy to keep an eye -- two, even -- on rival reporters on the same beat. It's too easy to pursue self-fulfilling scoops that dovetail on previously published scoops.

It's too easy to internalize the way others write.

The way others think.

The way others report.

This kind of thing can veer off into plagiarism, which I believe is easier than ever in the age of copy-and-paste -- no malicious intent necessary.

It can also quickly become inside baseball, with reporters reporting on reporters' reporting. (The press release-fueled gadget beat? Full of this.)

But I also believe it makes for a fairly useless reporter.

I want my reporters to be somewhat aloof. I want them to read up on previous coverage and basic facts about a topic, sure, but I also want them to ignore who wrote it, and when, and who else may be covering the topic.

There's a bit of value in having an informed reporter operate in a vacuum, working disconnected from the news cycle.

Let the editor be their tether to it.


Kevin said...

Andrew, I agree that a lot of journalism is becoming aggregation and rehashing, but I think that to a degree, the more a journalist reads, the better off they are.
Take the beat reporters for example, they're supposed to be on top of everything going on in their field (healthcare, education, etc), but can't because those fields are so vast. So, in order to keep up, they read what other reporters have done so they know what's the latest in that field.
Many mediocre journalists stop after reading someone else's stories and written dry, boring copy restating what someone else already covered, but a good journalist comes in, takes that story and expands on it.
Say a study about rising obesity in our children comes out and the researcher's blame soda. 20 mediocre reporters are going to write a story blandly headlined "Study Blames Soda for Childhood Obesity." A good reporter sees those stories the next day, and takes the issue to the local schools and community leaders and sees what their reaction is and what they're doing to combat it.
Is that necessarily a bad story because the reporter got the basics from some one else's story? I don't think so.
I think that journalists have to stay plugged in to other media to succeed, but only insofar as it remains collaborative. If a journalist has nothing new to add to a story, don't report. Plain and simple. But, if as a journalist, you're able to read a story and add information, by all means, go for it. And if you can't add anything, well good for you, you just added to your wealth of background information on that topic.
Maybe I just restated what you said and therefore a big hypocrite, in which case, may Jim Romenesko strike me down, but I think that demanding reporters stay disconnected from the new cycle is ultimately going to hurt your reporting in the long run. If you don't know what the newsmakers are, how can you add value?

aj said...

I don't think Andrew is saying for journalists to be disconnected from all things news but to bring something NEW to it. There is a rehashing of information and as an avid blogger who grew increasingly tired and annoyed with the constant reblogging of the same often trivial stories, I understand exactly where he is coming from. When I started blogging, I wanted to actually write real content that I know can only be good practice for a third year journalism student. But I also noticed how less traffic my blog would get say compared to the ones that posted pretty pictures and brief paragraphs that could be read in 30 seconds or less. Nobody wants to read your page long art review you *gasp* wrote yourself. Is reblogging even about spreading news anymore or just recycling it? I'd have to say the latter. I'm glad for this post. I know I'm no longer crazy.

Lucy S said...

I think that it is interesting the point of view that this blog was written in. I believe that you are completely correct and very few blogs are staying original, it is more likely to read the same thing 3 times than 3 original pieces. Therefore original sources are not recieving the credit that they deserve. Thanks for writing.