People get uneasy when internet journalism is examined – after all, we are the ones doing the examining, aren’t we – but Donald Mahoney makes some good points:
Content farms are parasitic websites that produce stories on commonly searched topics, and often offer tawdry “how-to” guides or act as celebrity news storehouses. Farmed content only enters our lives because these websites know how to exploit Google’s reliance on links and keywords in fixing ranking. Their production line is draconian: after programmers decipher the Google trends of the moment, poorly paid writers and videomakers convert the subject matter of those trends into stories over and over and over again.
Trouble is – there are quite a few really poor writers out there in the sphere, mixed in with the damned good ones, including those who might not have been writers to begin with but have learnt along the way. Basic grammar, spelling, a sense of succinctness and a certain level of English seem not as important to some as being good at production lines and getting that story out, no matter what.
That’s what Mahoney is basically saying and he has a point in a very uneven medium.
When I was introduced to journalism in fifth grade – or the age of ten – I was told the beginning of every news story must contain five W’s: who, what, where, when and why. It was a rudimentary but enduring lesson in reporting. But the internet radically altered the architecture of news reporting. More and more, an online news story must rank. This often means compromising the facts of reporting with the language of Google, a compromise that has consequences for the way readers perceive the world.
Algorithms are now as important as editors in determining what gets covered.
Contemporary web journalism is blandly, if forcibly, full of pointless trivia and drowning in stupid hyperlinks. The link, for instance, to “French” brings you to the Wikipedia page for France, while the link on “God” brings you to the Wikipedia entry for God. Are there really people in Marietta, Georgia, who require contextualization for these concepts?
The issue of hyperlinks was one we looked at at Orphans and couldn’t see any reason why not. What we hoped, of course, is that the links would not be spurious, as in that France reference just now but would point to further reading or else justification of a point made.
Most of us appreciate hyperlinks, as long as the piece is not crammed with them for the sake of having them. Enough links, well placed and even a little Further Reading below often make for a good article.
The changing news paradigm
This evolution in newswriting has occurred within a general shift in the way news is consumed. Our connection to the morning ritual of newspaper reading is disappearing. Many newspapers have tried to launch e-papers – purchasable PDFs that look just like newspapers – and all have failed. We are turning away from trusted media websites as our first destination each morning for the essential news of the day. The endless volume of online news (and the gradual rise of pay walls) means that people rely on social media sites like Twitter, or even news curating sites like Storyful, to filter what we read.
Well, golly gosh – I wonder why. I just began on Twitter and it sure delivers many topics of interest and it depends, I suppose on how it’s used. I’ve about a dozen areas I seek info on and the Tweetdeck is good for running quick searches – there are a hell of a lot of tweeters our there.
Not many of us are MSM writers who’ve been taught writing technique and frankly, slick articles aren’t all that trusted – almost as if the writer is trying to pull the wool over the eyes. The sphere prefers the honest, down-to-earth opinions of amateur writers who launch into print over some grievance or other and the ability to write smoothly can be seen as a bit of a handicap really.
If Orphans is anything to go by, it’s a good idea which shows no sign of going away – in fact it is expanding. There are some points of concern though with this format. What we’d like to see and perhaps what various bloggers’ regular readers would like to see is the same “let her rip” style which they employ on their own blogs. In other words, the thing which attracted readers to them in the first place is what those readers would like to see continued at the multi-author blog.
The thing is – there’s a certain respect which bloggers bring to the multi-author blog, almost a deference to the commons. It’s almost a “guestposting” mentality. For example, DK wrote on my blog a few times and toned it right down, writing about Prions, which was well received but many readers were surprised. People are reluctant to swear at my blog.
Respect is good but the multi-author blog is not exactly someone else’s blog – it’s the blog belonging to all who write there. The reason that person is there is because he/she is a known known. Feel free, let rip, say what you need to. We’re big boys and girls.
It’s hard for me to separate myself from Orphans but if I could, if I could stand back and ask, dispassionately how it’s going, I’d say it’s going well. This area of the political sphere needs as much output as possible. We’re not the only blog in our field but we are one of them and feel the message needs to get out. There’s a post in the making, for example, using Subrosa’s and Edward Spalton’s input and I’m looking forward to that.
I enjoy having all these posts in one place and being able to scroll through them and click. Then again, I’m biased.
We’ve been thinking about whether we should just let contributors post when they want. The reason we didn’t was because we feared that if everyone posted at once, some writers would be swamped. There could be a dozen posts one day and none the next.
Someone emailed me – so what?
We’d appreciate your thoughts on this and on anything else you think needs commenting on.