Quick, incoherent thought #2: Why most news doesn’t need journos

The world does not need journalists to communicate the vast majority of information that is defined as news.

Most of the news that comes out of media organisations on a daily basis is information that others either WANT people to know or HAVE to admit to. It is just re-written or re-presented in a format that fits that platform.

So, instead of journos, the world needs the generators of this information to communicate it better and to allow for redress to what they say.

So is there somewhere the paid journalist can fit into all this then? Well, I guess journalists should be doing what they’re supposed to do – find out the information that organisations don’t want people to know.

But they can’t do that until they are freed up from the current information processing that they have to do, and that means those that provide information start doing so in formats that are usuable and on a platform that allows redress.

45 thoughts on “Quick, incoherent thought #2: Why most news doesn’t need journos

  1. Might be quick, but it’s not incoherent .

    Huge amounts of ‘news’ is repackaged information without added journalism – if that merly had to be aggreated then there would be more time and space for investigation.

    How about a B’ham Post Delicious mash-up (specific tags from journos accounts aggregated to web page ?) – you gyus could just start taging press releases if they are online, see if people bother with it? – Although this is an incoherent idea, but i think I know what I mean.

  2. And therein lies one of the problem of business models based purely on advertising, as any company who gets its head around effective online communication shouldn’t need to advertise.

    But must admit I’ve no real answer to other ways of financing journalism just yet…

  3. Great post. I am a strong supporter of the idea that non-journalists are better at many jobs currently done by journalists. And I completely agree with you that resources should be channeled to where they are really needed. At present too much is spent on what you call information processing. This can be done much more cheaply and oftentimes virtually free.
    I still feel though that re-writing press releases adds distinct value (if done properly).

  4. I’m in the interesting position of being a generator of PR and keeping my skills honed by being a receiver of it too.

    Sadly most of the news releases I see when I’m sat at my local editor’s desk do need rewriting so they can be a) understood and b) interesting to local people.

    Is the rewriting/subbing a journalistic task?

    Just adding a link to the news release (assuming it’s available online in the first place) wouldn’t be a service to readers and would hardly improve the flow of communication.

    Sure, when I get chance to explore a different angle and do some investigative digging, I get a bigger buzz. But that doesn’t mean that news processing is a worthless service does it?

  5. Yep, I’m in PR but have a role in content delivery and a lot of what is pumped out by the PR industry needs re-writing.

    As we move into a ‘pull’ systems it will become more important for my business to write with the outside world as its focus, not internal audiences.

    Media organsiations have a role as aggregators (see many posts by Jeff Jarvis) but also doing the type of investigative stuff that we all agree used to happen.

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  7. When I first started out (20 years ago!) a journalist’s job was all about getting out and about, digging out proper stories, getting contacts and finding out the stuff “they” didn’t want you to know.

    The main problem is that over the years, news organisations have squeezed resources until the pips have not only squeaked, but given up the ghost completely. This leaves journalists in the appalling position of not BEING ABLE to do the job they want to.

    The job has gone from investing in time-heavy investigations, digging about and talking to contacts in the real world into processing press releases quickly. That is a dreadful situation and certainly isn’t what most journalists went into the job for.

    The only concern is the bottom line, revenue. If the paper isn’t making enough money, the jobs go. The paper comes out the same, but there is the underlying message of “never mind the quality, feel the width”.

    How about newspapers – all of them – investing in writers and time; allowing them to the time to do the job properly? Not just expecting them to be shovellers of information. Anyone could do that.

  8. Hi Jayne,

    Thanks for posting!

    You make the argument that I have, myself, often made in the past but have recently started to find some problems with.

    I’m going to curl my toes and screw up my eyes as I ask this but: why should news organisations give journalists the chance to do the job they want to do?

    Why should organisations that are trying to make a profit out of news need a job that involves “investing in time-heavy investigations, digging about and talking to contacts”. Wouldn’t a cost-benefit analysis suggest that such an undertaking would be a significant overhead?

    When information was scarce – when newspapers did not have the Internet and slick PR/spin machines pushing out press releases and off-the-record tidbits – then there was more of a case to be made for digging out information.

    Also, even if journalists were an overhead, some newspapers were owned by rich patriarchs who could afford to lose money for the benefit of the profile the newspaper gave them.

    The reality is that the business has changed over the years. Unfortunately, journalists’ expectations of the industry have not.

    There is a operational rationalisation taking place where it is hard to define the significant value proposition that investigative journalism can add.

    However, that doesn’t mean there isn’t another business model out there that could support an increased overhead such as investigative journalists.

    It has been done in other industries: fair trade and organic food spring to mind. Consumers are willing to pay more than they would for an equivilent product because of an additional value they believe they are getting.

    But, before it works, I think journalists have to answer quite a few tricky questions such as: who wants this investigative journalism? Is there a market for it? In what subject areas? What format should it be delivered in? How can it make money? Who should run it? What would the business model look like to support it?

    These are all questions I’m asking myself and desperately wishing the UK had a body that was helping to answer them for me. I had hoped that would be the NUJ, but I think at the moment our best bet is universities such a BCU, UCLAN and POLIS at the LSE.

  9. Mmm. We do need investigative journalism – of course we do – but agree with Jo that the argument many journalists seem to make for this need feels more like this:

    BBC commissioner Tony Hayers: There is to be no second series, and I’ve listened to your ideas, I’ve listened to them all, and I haven’t liked a single one.

    Alan Partridge: Tony, I’ve – I’ve just bought a house. It’s got a Buck Rodgers toilet. One yank, all gone!

    Tony: We don’t owe you a living.

    Nevertheless, nothing but sympathy for those who’ve lost their jobs, voluntarily or otherwise.

  10. Joanna, you’ve spent so much time in boardroom meetings, you’ve lost your soul!

    “There is a operational rationalisation taking place where it is hard to define the significant value proposition that investigative journalism can add.”

  11. Hi Cat,

    Don’t get me wrong. I think we need investigative journalists too. I think they’re an integral part of society and democracy – what form they exist in and how they are funded is another matter entirely.

    Agreed with you about the jobs. It’s a scary time to be in newspapers and I am often lead to resent those people who come out with trite like “but think positive”. Hardly the easiest thing to do when you’re going through so much change.

  12. Steve – just seen your comment!

    LOL! Yes, not the most journalistic choice of words, was it?

    I would, however, vehemently deny my soul has been lost.

    I would argue that in this current climate I have a choice:

    1. Sit around with all the other journalists who point at others as the reason they can no longer live up to their journalistic ideals/amibitons.

    2. Try to figure out why it is that way and then try to find a way around it.

    Back when I was a student I almost decided against a career in journalism because it didn’t quite live up to the romantic notions I had about it.

    But I had to make a choice then too – walk away from something I loved because it wasn’t perfect, or try and work with the reality and see if there was a way I could make it better for myself.

    I chose to try and change things. I may (in all likelihood will) fail in that endevour. But don’t be fooled into thinking that my main passion isn’t anything other than the preservation and encouragement of the fourth (and fifth) estate.

  13. Who gets to say what is quality journalism and what isn’t? Are journalists themselves the only ones who are qualified to judge? If so, what will stop them from saying that any old shite is quality shite? If not so, what are the ones who are in a position to judge saying? Management, investors and readers appear to not care much for investigative journalism.
    Not anyone can be a “shoveller of information”. Shovelling information has become quite a daunting task with information as abundant as it is. Digging up stuff on the other hand has become a favourite pastime for amateur journalists and many are doing a great job.

  14. The roles of journalists are to:
    – ask questions
    – write up stuff in clear, simple ways.
    We certainly may have moved on from there being a ‘business model’ for this sort of thing, because the people that fund newspapers (or choose to buy them) aren’t necessarily demanding such a basic service. Personally, I still think that people want basic information written in ways that are new and compelling, but we may need to rethink the protected role of the journalist. That’s where the new ideas of social reporting are interesting – anyone can now build questioning and clear communication into what they do and they can find outlets without cost.
    I don’t know what that means for the wider industry, but it is an interesting journey…

  15. Ignoring, he said cheerfully, the difficult problem about how-to-pay for journalists and journalism in the forms we knew, or know them, I do think there are many reasons to be optimistic. As some posters say, above, a lot is going to depend on the innovation of individuals which will comes out of the economic stress the old business model is going through.

    Of course, evidence to support this confident assertion is hard to find, but, The Economists’ experience with Project Red Stripe was instructive for me. For those who aren’t in the know about it, basically, the paper locked up six of their brightest and best for six months (with a budget) and told them to invent a digital business model. They couldn’t find a way.

    This is not to despair about things, but the story might remind us, that the solution will come from immediate need and probably not from forced invention. Some one will be trying to tell the story and will invent a form, or a method, which opens up new opportunities. It will all seem simple afterwards – the thinking of course, to get there, probably won’t have been.

    Economist Red Stripe blog

  16. Joanna makes some very interesting remarks, and at a time of such huge change it is good to have status quos challenged.

    But let’s remember that newspapers and their brands online are crucial as records of facts, facts that have been carefully established, proven and then published.

    This would not be the case if organisations, companies, local government, public authorities, etc, were simply allowed to post/publish their versions of facts with no interpretation and checking by a balanced journalist, or no challenge or probe from an investigative journalist. 1984 springs to mind…

    There is great value in the thought, relevance and opinion that news organisations should now spend a lot of time and effort adding to fact.

    But, in my mind, journalism as a profession should never allow the factual beginnings to remain only what a single, often slanted, source can provide. Even on a social network basis, this would be highly risky… imagine allowing a resident to publish as ‘fact’ his rows with the neighbour. Who would check the facts were balanced? Imagine a court story from an untrained member of the public observing! Litigation and huge costs would, quite rightly, result.

    I think social interaction IS a HUGE part of the future, but it should be labelled clearly as just that. Social interaction. Comment. Conjecture. Facts and information within that context? Yes, but not pure, unchecked, double-sourced and balanced fact.

    The latter, fully factual reports must be protected as the domain of trained journalists, as well as all the great, exciting interactive projects the industry must get more and more involved with.

    That’s my humble opinion, for what it is worth. Local newspaper brands have great reputations for reporting trusted facts. Let’s not dilute this too quickly without knowing what we’re diluting it with. Yes, add interaction, online and in print, but let’s clearly label what is what.

    “I can believe it because it was in the local paper,” is a comment I have often heard in reader groups. I do not think we should lose sight of that.

    That’s my humble opinion, anyway!

  17. Steve, you say “fully factual reports must be protected as the domain of trained journalists.” The problem with must is that it needs a how and a why. While the how is another conversation altogether, the why can fit in nicely here.
    Why do we need trained journalists? You seem to suggest we need them because otherwise objectivity will be lost. Apart from being arrogant, that also does not offer any explanation as to why you think there is a market for objectivity big enough to sustain a large number of people trained to be objective by some mysterious standard they alone understand.
    Your example of neighbour rows is incomplete, as it fails to acknowledge that both sides can report their own version of the ‘facts’ and drum up support for their case. That, to me, seems to be more objective than having both parties talk to a journalist who then should write a third version of the story and claim it is the only fair/balanced version possible.

  18. The business of recording and sharing facts is not one that journalists are uniquely qualified to do – neither is it one they do uniquely well.

    When reporting parliament most reporters are reporting Hansard. When reporting courts most reporters collaborate with each other on the facts – to ensure they all heard the same thing. The court also keeps its own record.

    There is no reason why public authorities cannot and will not routinely publish recordings of the sorts of public activity which has, until now, been covered in papers of record. Those recordings will of course be both complete and entirely accurate – unlike almosts all reporting of them.

    So Steve, if a newspapers biggest claim to purpose is as a place where facts are recorded (and I know they are not always checked) then that’s a big hole in the business model.

    What professional communicators need to spend more time on in the future is what those facts mean and how people can/will/should/might use them to make what is wrong right. That is certainly not what most journalists do now.

  19. I love how some posters pick and choose parts of facts. I guess that’s an example of social interaction. And why a full factual report needs to be labelled as such, and to be undertaken by trained staff.

  20. Steve, you have managed to beautifully illustrate your point about how unbalanced social media can be. The reactions to your first comment did pick parts of facts and did use them to their advantage.

    You also managed to illustrate how being trained gets you nowhere near to being objective: I doubt it you have double-checked your information in implying some of the other commentators are not trained journalists.

  21. Journalists don’t just need the time to engage in investigations, they need the skills (and the support of an audience).

    Our investigative journalism MA with Rosie Waterhouse, David Leigh and Heather Brooke, among others aims to provide those skills. And the Centre for Investigative Journalism – also based at City – does the same internationally.

  22. @Steve Dyson, re:

    “I love how some posters pick and choose parts of facts. I guess that’s an example of social interaction. And why a full factual report needs to be labelled as such, and to be undertaken by trained staff.”

    Could you mention that to Paul Dale? He’s still “picking and choosing parts of facts” wrt Winterval, and refuses to acknowledge criticism of such, or respond to requests to back up his claims with evidence or references.

  23. Steve I was really just responding to your very strong assertion that: “fully factual reports must be protected as the domain of trained journalists”.

    If you believe that only “fully trained” journalists can and have been doing that you are clearly mistaken. If you believe that is at the core of future paid for journalism I think you’ll struggle to turn that case into a financially viable business model.

  24. I agree with Steve that everything published “should be labelled clearly” – which is why the churning of press releases into “news” should be separated out – and labelled as such.

    PR companies that release “surveys” that are then printed with no investigation into their methodology, announcements about the “success” of local initiatives, blind reprinting of “money bought into the local area” figures from events. Label them too.

  25. @Dilyan: “Your example of neighbour rows is incomplete, as it fails to acknowledge that both sides can report their own version of the ‘facts’ and drum up support for their case. That, to me, seems to be more objective than having both parties talk to a journalist who then should write a third version of the story and claim it is the only fair/balanced version possible.”

    OK – what if your neighbour was Nicolas van Hoogstraten? Want to go head-to-head there?

    Or would you rather have an independent media organisation putting your side of the story just as loudly, and perhaps even rooting out the uncomfortable facts that your neighbour (now not NvH, but some adversarial type) is hiding, or using influence to obscure?

    Really worthwhile journalism is about exposing that sort of stuff – which is actually why so many journalists get impatient with the rodomontade fluff that gets pushed through to them. Tearing aside the PR industry to find the issues that matter takes time, and effort, and it repays those who read the results. Even if it’s just reporting a court case accurately (how’s your shorthand, person in the street?), it can make a huge difference. And that’s only a glimpse of two sorts of journalism worth keeping.

    Stuff such as pictures of celebrities doing such important tasks as standing, looking and walking is teeth-grindingly frustrating for most journalists. Moreso because so many readers go for it; perhaps because they don’t have enough neighbour disputes in their life. Journalism always thrives in conflict.

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  27. We still need journalists, of sorts, just about, trained or otherwise.

    The training… that’s perhaps not so much of an issue. Some people have come to journalism relatively late or by accident, without much training, and shine in their profession. And, yes, some bloggers are just as good – if not better than some journalists – at forensically examining information and reporting back. But they’re still in the minority, I think.

    But training is important – be it legal, writing, or other. Everybody benefits from refresher courses in these, and it helps make the story clearer. But I digress.

    Charles, I think, nicely highlights why good, objective journalism is important. And as Steve points out, we need journalists to hold to account and check assorted organisations.

    Now, this isn’t to say bloggers can’t do this better. In some cases, particularly if it’s something they’re really interested in, they are better at this. But then we come back to problems of brands.

    Now, if you’re, say, a council press officer or something similar, it’s far easier to discredit something broken by a blogger than it is by a newspaper – unless the blog happens to be a strong and trusted brand in itself. A newspaper accusation is a little harder to sweep under the carpet.

    This may not be entirely fair on the blogger – they may have been just as balanced in their reporting – but there’s still issues of trust that, sadly, go with blogging. That’s not to say that the blogger can’t start the initial groundswell on the story.

    I think things will change, possibly more, towards Joanna’s initial thoughts. But you still need a trusted brand to pull together all the streams of thought on an issue and take a neutral stance. Whether that brand will, in the future, be traditional media or something different, is another question.

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  29. There is no reason why trusted sources (brands) shouldn’t develop good, economic relationships with bloggers who have expertise in niche areas – and who are able to prove it. Infact, and speaking specifically about newspapers here, we might find this to be an effective way of reversing the lamentable decline in the numbers of specialist reporting positions. Independent bloggers and established media outlets do not have to be in competition – I think they are natural allies. Disclaimers allow a legal distance to be maintained, if it is needed – I know this from my own niche in drawn, or, visual journalism.

  30. Charles, your example, I’m afraid, does little to dishearten my enthusiasm for going head-to-head.

    See, the whole NvH business happened more than a decade before I was born, and the world has changed since. Social media now offer everyone an opportunity to put their truth as loudly as any established media, in some cases even louder.

    Alright, maybe your neighbour is someone you don’t want to anger. What exactly will stop him from breaking your legs if you talk to the media instead of publishing on your blog? I can see how this could have been an issue in the 60s, when people didn’t have blogs. But the same publicity that would have protected you then you can now achieve by yourself.

    I am not against investigative journalism and wouldn’t dream of arguing that it is useless. But we really do not need that many investigative journalists to cover all that is worthwhile. What I’m opposing is the notion that because investigative journalism is important, anyone who has been to journalism school is an investigative journalist whose job must be “protected”.

    What I am not only opposing, but, in fact, being appalled by is the arrogance of some journalists who seem to be under the impression they know what readers want just because they’ve been trained to know it. That kind of self-centredness does nothing to help the brand.

    Matt, a solution along the lines of what you are proposing seems very reasonable and I believe Joanna has a post about that somewhere in the archive.

  31. Steve Dyson writes

    ‘But let’s remember that newspapers and their brands online are crucial as records of facts, facts that have been carefully established, proven and then published.’

    Which leads me to ask – where is the Birmingham Mail corrections column? Does the Mail regularly correct errors?

    It is not as if there aren’t any – compare the Guardian – a much better resourced paper than the Mail but they still make plenty of mistakes.

    They publish around 2,000 corrections a year and could publish many more.

    So if I hear the comment that being published in a local paper means it is true I think the reverse. For whatever reason you are not sufficiently resourced to check everything.

  32. I agree that reducing churnalism can only be a good thing. BUT investigative journalism is what drew me to the business in the first place.
    I think that the sifting and filtering, countering and checking of ‘news’ is the most important thing we do.
    I can’t imagine a world where companies who knew their press releases would run unrefined wouldn’t take advantage of that fact. They already get away with so much – Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science column being a prime example.
    News organisations should give journalists the chance to do the job they want to do because it’s the point of being a journalist. It IS what people pay for.
    They don’t buy papers to read badly written press releases with quotes that don’t mean anything. I think there’s a definite case that part of falling circulation is down to the fact that many journalists don’t do what they used to; they aren’t in the community, they don’t have the trust of contacts or a profile in their patch.
    Whether online on in paper, surely that’s the most vital part of being a good reporter?
    If journalists were given the time to ‘create’ (for want of a better word) real stories, there’d be less need for churning press releases and our papers/websites would be filled with higher quality content, surely?

  33. Thanks you all for comments – this really is an amazing debate.

    I think one of the things that seems to be misunderstood between commenters is the thorny issue of the importance of journalism.

    I think there are two areas that need to be unwoven in this debate:

    One is making sure we understand what we mean when we talk about journalism.

    The second is making sure when we talk about journalism being essential, we understand what we think it is essential for.

    OK, so trying to define journalism is an essay in itself and I know I’m going to fall far short with this attempt, but here goes:

    Journalism seems to be a catch-all for many types of writing that is triggered by current or relevant events.

    This includes:

    – Information about events and occurances that are deemed to be significant (important, dramatic, entertaining or useful).

    – Interviews with individuals of interest to ascertain their opinions and stances on topics deemed to be significant.

    – Features and background information that place topics of significance into a wider context.

    – Critical assessment on siginificant issues in the form of comment.

    Some of this can be done by people who have not been trained as journalists.

    If you don’t believe me then go ask:

    – Ahmed Bilal, founder of Soccerlens.com
    – Andy Baio, founder of waxy.org (which helped dig out the Miss Alaska video of Sarah Palin)
    – Pat Phelan of patphelan.net who looks at the telecommunications industry whilst operating a business in it.
    And more locally:
    – Pete Ashton, founder of the creative industry news blog createdinbirmingham.com.
    – Steve Gerrard, founder of gig review blog brumlive.com.
    – Nicky Getgood, who is keeping Digbeth residents in the know a bout local issues at “Digbeth is Good“.

    This is news. They do not cover EVERYTHING that newspaper journalists cover, but what they produce is certainly not all opinion and conjecture.

    Therefore, I think its important that we are clear what we are saying trained journalists can produce that these people can not.

    This is important because that defines, in part, the value of journalists in the future.

    We also have to be honest. What proportion of this value do we currently utilise in our products?

    Personally, I think journalists are valuable when they have the time and the training to work with the community they serve, identify and then investigate issues that do not seem to add up. They can then convey what they have discovered in a clear way (and that’s not just by story writing).

    I might be wrong about this though, I’m still questioning.

    But, once we have decided what we mean when we talk about trained journalists, then we have to understand what we mean when we say their work is essential.

    I think as part of this we need to ask two questions:

    1. Is this “essential” journalism necessary for a healthy, successful and sustainable society?

    2. Is this “essential” journalism necessary for a healthy, successful and sustainable news business? (I.e it has strong appeal to a market , makes the business profitable and – if a plc – delivers shareholder value).

    I honestly don’t think these two questions are as connected as people like to pretend they are.

    If newspaper journalists were given time to “‘create’ real stories,” would that really make more people buy newspapers? Would it really make more people advertise with them?

    If it was the quality of the investigative journalism that drove the market would the UK newspapers landscape look like it does?

    I think we need to understand what we’re arguing here.

    I don’t think anyone is saying that the skills of journalists are worthless, unimportant or unnecessary.

    But, I think we seriously need to get past the emotional attachments we have to our industry and ask what skills we offer that are unique and valuable (both in business and societal terms) and then what is the best vehicle for us to undertake them in.

    [Crikey – this is a long comment. I might also make it into a blog post, if no one objects.]

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  37. Has JG ever reported on hard news? How many death knocks, JoJo? Court reporting? Exposes? I think we should be told!!

  38. hi Justaskin, thanks for your comment and sorry this will be a little short as I’m writing on my mobile. Death knocks: two and only one of those successful. Court reporting? None, I’m very sorry to say. Exposes: probably my better attempt was I was the only journo to find out why the Hustler chains failed in the UK. After weeks of digging got an exclusive with the owner of the UK chain. A rather shadowy figure. Uncovered names of creditors and did interviews. Not groundbreaking but it took a lot of digging. I think all the types of stories you mention are why we go into journalism and of course I wish for the chance to do more. If you read through my arguments you might find that part of what I’m suggesting is that we need to work hard to find a financial model that can sustain such work into the future. I might not get my dream of a world exclusive, but I would like to find a way to help others do it.

  39. Fair comment, JG. Your ideas deserve discussion, but I’d advise more factual reporting experience. Are you still reporting news? If not, I’d demand it. And courts. Not because it’s the be all, but because it’s part of. In turn ‘hard news’ hacks like me need to get a blog (or a life!) or a feel other m-meejah commentary. I like the diversity of your debates, attracting / provoking wide interest. Really good stuff. Just reckon when commenting on “Why most news doesn’t need journos” it’d be better grounded if you’d gotten more news pips. Otherwise you stand a chance of Ivory Towers comments.

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