It’s too late for me to write too many words. But here’s an idea I have. It’s called Intelligent Aggregation and I think it could create a brilliant news website.
Very much a work in progress. Please click to enlarge the diagram below.
Ever since I first heard about the concept I’ve been intrigued by ‘20 per cent time’. It’s an initiative spawned by Google, who urge all their employees to take out 20 per cent of their day and spend time on something completely unrelated to their assigned jobs.
So, for example, a graphic designer at Google might spend his 20 per cent trying a spot of coding, as he may have had an idea for a new feature on an existing Google product.
The BBC also tried it out, this time giving 10 per cent (stingy buggers) to some of their stuff to try other bits and bobs on the site. Not quite the flexibility of the Google-time, but handy nonetheless — it has so far produced iPhone podcast pages.
All well and good, but how does that relate to journalism? Well let me recall a discussion I had with Jon Grubb, the editor of the Lincolnshire Echo. He very kindly commended me on my efforts with The Linc, and went on to say how it was great that we were out there finding stories. In some cases, we were even making stories.
Now that’s not to say that we were making them up — although there is a University press office that might argue that point — but instead we were bashing our noggins together and saying: “Look, we don’t have a good lead story. What can we do to find something out? Who do we not speak to enough? Who needs a voice?”
It shows: Our last issue was our most successful. Our lead story came as a result of our own research into drugs use on campus. A full-page feature was down to Dan Clough wondering if it’s a ball-ache to get around Lincoln on a wheelchair. It was. So we spoke to a load of people — and Danny even made a short documentary. Another full-page feature came as a result of Sadie Geoghagen speaking to as many single-parent students in Lincoln as she could. None of these stories would have ever come from a newswire. They were all too humble — and nice — to toot their own horns and come to us. Indeed, often the people with the most important stories don’t believe they are important enough. It is up to us to find them.
When I discussed this with Jon Grubb he agreed. But then I stressed that newspapers, particularly regionals, are not encouraging journalists to go out. There is always another press release to get typed up. He agreed. I brought up the example of Andrew Gilligan who is literally given free-reign at the Evening Standard. If he wants to follow up a story for three weeks… he bloody well can. And boy does it pay dividends: the Standard had a triumph with the Lee Jasper debacle (and arguably won the election for Boris), and Andrew won Journalist of the Year.
Gilligan is an exceptional example. I see Andrew’s skill as being rare — you could practice his methods all you want, but you won’t be as good. Just as if you practiced heading a ball for 15 hours a day, you still wouldn’t be as good as Alan Shearer.
What I’m saying is we need to give journalists a chance. If every reporter at every paper had 20 per cent to spend following their own nose on a story, heaven knows what gold we might find. We always hear the phrase ‘more bobbies on the beat’. How about ‘more journos on the beat’? Sounds great to me. If I was a regional reporter I’d want every parent at every school to know my face, and I’d want every copper to know my name, so that if anything happened that the public should know about, they wouldn’t be afraid to call as they’d know me as being an good, honest bloke.
20 percent is roughly one day a week. Is that too much to ask? If newspapers stick strictly to it, I believe the initial stresses of being a person down each day would be over-turned when the lead stories come rolling in by the bucketload.
Let’s see it happen!
As part of my dissertation research, I got in touch with Nick Davies, the author of the utterly brilliant book, Flat Earth News. Or, as I like to call it, the “Naive Journalist Destroyer”, as it will eliminate any romantic thoughts you ever had of the industry.
I wonder if, during my two week Sky placement, I will experience Flat Earth News. We’ll see.
Anyway, in the mean time, I thought I’d share some of the answers Nick gave to me. I sent him three pretty specific questions, but his answers cover many issues. Most interesting, I think, are his comments on “Harry’s War” (I’ve made that part bold if you’re in a hurry).
My questions were:
1. BBC Guidelines state that journalists should seek at least two sources for each story. Do you think this is a reasonable stipulation, or should trust be put in journalists to judge the quality of their sources?
2. Harry in Afghanistan: What are your views on this? This seems to me like another case of Flat Earth News; each news outlet we have is relying on the MoD as their source — isn’t this dangerous?
3. My dissertation focuses heavily on the Hutton Report. With the added bonus of hindsight, do you think Andrew Gilligan was right to use David Kelly as his sole source?
Nick’s (unedited) answers:
Generally: If our primary object is to tell the truth, then our primary function is to check, so that we can sort truth from falsehood. Checking means gathering evidence and, for journalists, just like for detectives, there are basically three kinds: human, documentary (which includes paperwork, photos, audio and video), and specialists (eg commissioning a scientific report). In the world of understaffed and overworked newsrooms, that is very rarely possible. And so journalists fall back on compromises, which are dangerous.
The BBC Guidelines call for at least two sources. However….. First, they make an exception for Press Association stories, which can be run without a second source – a very dangerous thing to do since PA commonly runs false stories which they pick up and recycle from press releases and other media outlets. Second, two sources also falls a long way short of checking and can be very problematic. This is because, under current conventions, ‘checking a story’ means picking up (or sometimes making up) an allegation, taking it to ‘the other side’ and asking for a quote. If the allegation happens to be true and even slightly embarrassing, the quote from the other side is highly likely to obscure or at least to dilute the truth: we would be better to find the truth and stick to it without running a contradictory quote. If the allegation is false, then, unless it is dangerously libellous, the quote from the other side is used as an excuse to run it into the paper as part of a spuriously balanced story: we would be better to dump the falsehood all together.
What worries me about the Harry story is the instant assumption by all media outlets of the same angle – Harry the Hero. The reality is that we have no evidence about whether he was brave or not; ever came within spitting distance of an armed enemy. Outsiders could be forgiven for thinking that we are instructed to take up this angle. The frightening thing is that we do it spontaneously. It probably has something to do with the impact of the PR deal with the Palace, but there is also something deeper there, an instinctive recourse to safe, conservative ideas.
Gilligan, and the two other BBC journos who interviewed Kelly (Susan Watts and Gavin Hewitt), were way ahead of their colleagues – they were not sitting waiting for the MoD to tell them what the story was, had found a source and got him to talk. But we know, from evidence submitted to Hutton, that none of them actually tried to gather evidence from him to check the story. For example, they could have asked for copies of the different drafts of the dossier or at least the wording of key clauses. Instead, they took his off-the-record allegations and, following current convention, simply bounced them off a Whitehall press office as a second source. That meant they never got to the truth. It also meant that, in the absence of any evidence, when Gilligan was subjected to aggressive and unfair scrutiny, he had nothing with which to defend his story.
If you haven’t already, get yourself a copy of Flat Earth News. For some more background on the book (and a great blog too), visit www.flatearthnews.net.
I must tip my hat to this entry from Stuart Pinfold, who has some facts and figures about the earthquake night.
He notes that BBC 5Live beat the lot with the news. I was aware of this after a radio-loving friend named Gareth told me. But in some ways, this suggests an even greater failing by the BBC. If 5Live had it covered — what were the TV crew doing? Do they not talk to each other? Do they not monitor the output? Insane.
In his post, Stuart says I was annoyed at the BBC not providing “wall-to-wall coverage” of the ‘quake. That’s not what I wanted, and I’d go as far to say that Sky’s coverage was too much.
What I was angry about was that the BBC News, Britain’s public service broadcaster, failed to even mention the earthquake. This isn’t good enough. We pay for this service.
Stuart mentions that the BBC checks two sources before announcing any story. Unless it comes from a press agency like the PA. Which, in this case, it would have done. So there are no excuses. If a source is good enough for 5Live, it’s good enough for News 24.
One argument put forward by Stuart was that the coverage we were watching was BBC News rather than BBC News 24. Simply put, it was the brand of BBC News that broadcasts to a worldwide audience, not just a British one. So does that mean the earthquake fell further down the agenda? Probably, but I’d argue exceptions can and should be made in certain circumstances.
Honestly, it’s awful. Last night I watched “the greatest show on earth”, the Superbowl.
Complete arse from start to finish. Stop, start, stop, start, stop, start. That thing has more breaks than the Hollyoaks omnibus. And every time a player runs three feet, he’ll spend the next two minutes gesturing a bit and shouting “YEAHHH! OH YEAHHH!” at the top of his voice. If he runs four feet, then he’s in for some serious helmet slapping.
I used to think it was really complicated. It’s not. But the commentators make it so much worse. At first, I thought it was just because I didn’t know the game that well. I figured if I watched it for long enough I’d understand what all those numbers meant. But when the commentator mentioned “UK soccer ball” (I’m not even kidding…), I sat up and took notice. Surely, as they’re talking about a sport I know and love (and understand better than that muppet Uriah Rennie), I’d suddenly feel a sense of togetherness with my American friends.
“Since the NFL was over in England, Chelsea club have found playoff success with 16 and 4 with 8 and have reach league cup competition final.”
Horrendous. Just had to get that off my chest.
Another thing I noticed, was that they were playing in a University stadium. A UNIVERSITY! The size of it. It was massive. Our University ’stadium’ has 40 seats. Still, I’d rather watch Lincoln play Loughborough at footy than that overhyped, overcommercialised toss any day. Rule Britannia!
Today I met Andrew Gilligan. I’d contacted him last month about interviewing him about his role in the David Kelly saga, and to my delight, he’d suggested I come down to the Standard to meet him and have lunch.
So I hopped down to London (not literally…) today. I’d never been to the Evening Standard which, as I’ve now learned, forms part of the Northcliffe Building in Kensington.
And my, what a grand building it is. The visitor entrance brings you through to a tidy little entrance way, where fresh copies of the day’s Standard, Metro and Lite (all edited here) lie neatly on the table. Andrew was running a little late — he was covering a breaking story — so I had a few moments to take in my surroundings in the waiting area. Looking up and around, my appetite for all things internet was well and truly whet — a big screen displaying snapshots of Associated Northcliffe Digital’s finest online offerings was on rotation.
I was impressed. Humbled, even. After all, having made some great progress with university media at Lincoln (founding The Linc) and my reasonable success with this blog, it’s easy to forget just how minute one single journalist is in this vast media world. I’ve never assumed otherwise, but today was a reminder that even media small-fry are plenty of rungs up the ladder from me, and will be for quite some time.
Thing is, I wasn’t even in the proper building yet. I was ushered upstairs by a security guard (at least… that’s what I assume he was…) into the main area. Restaurants, trees… fountains. Walk into that building as a journalist and try not to feel inspired — I challenge you.
I was taken up to the Standard newsroom by a woman named Liz. This was the first person at the paper I had come in contact with so, wanting to appear keen, I attempted some form of related chat.
“This…er…. this place… fantastic!” I managed, sounding like I hadn’t quite grasped how to speak, let alone be a journalist.
Liz sat me down at Andrew’s desk. I took a while to peer around the newsroom — by far the biggest I’ve been in so far . I don’t know if this is the norm with all large newsrooms, but half way across the room is a massive digital clock, like the sort you’d find at train stations, ticking away. Sure, you’ve seen one clock you’ve seen them all, but I imagine that come deadline time (of which there are three a day!), that clock clatters the back of your head, making that noise you hear inbetween scenes on 24. Chu-chunk! Chu-chunk! Aaahhh!
The newsroom was decorated with all sorts of digital gadgetry, including what looked like a rather sophisticated subbing and layout chart that I couldn’t make head nor tail out of. Thankfully, I won’t have to.
Andrew arrived from his story at about 2pm. He took me around the building, through the Daily Mail offices which, for some reason, were a lot more friendly looking than I imagined. It felt odd. At that moment I was among a group of journalists that I constantly disagree with — often very strongly. I could sit at my computer all day and say “this is crap, that was wrong” etc, but yet when actually there, I would have found it difficult to even take the mick out of someone’s tie.
I tried to spot some recognisable faces, but didn’t manage.
We headed out the building to have some lunch. A brisk walk around Kensington (for it was the coldest day since the Ice Age) led us too a cracking little restaurant, and Andrew and I discussed a whole range of topics, mainly focused around the Hutton Inquiry.
He was refreshingly frank with me about the whole affair. He expressed regret at some aspects of what had happened, such as the wording of his answers on the Today show. Given another chance, he said, he would certainly have pre-recorded the segment that caused the uproar.
Most interesting, I thought, was how he said the BBC reacted. Although he was never pressured to leave, Andrew felt that, seeing as the likes of Greg Dyke had resigned, he just had to go, even if it did appear to be an admission of guilt. Which, he stressed, it wasn’t. He saw no future at the Beeb. In his words: “I didn’t want to be the BBC’s highest paid traffic reporter.”
He doesn’t feel responsible for David Kelly’s death, and accepts it was suicide (rather than murder, as it has been suggested, at least between some lines of newspapers). I get the sense, though, that it has taken Andrew a while to swallow that thought.
On the subject of the BBC, Andrew worries that too many people in high positions have come from the producer route, rather than the journalism route. He poked fun at the all too common scene of some hapless reporter stood outside a building at half past ten telling us all that, amazingly, nothing really has happened since this afternoon.
We spoke about a lot more, but I’m going to perhaps save that for another time.
After lunch, we headed back to the newsroom. At this point I wondered how Andrew manages to actually write any copy. His piece in the Standard today was no small effort — especially when considering the delicate subject matter.
I’m absolutely delighted to say that following our lunch, Andrew has invited me back to the Standard in the new year for some work experience. Of course, the opportunity to work alongside one of the finest investigative journalists in the country is one I couldn’t possibly turn down.
I’d like to publicly thank Andrew for inviting me to London today.
My own thoughts on newspapers, at this stage in my blog/career/life, may not hold much gravitas against some of the big opinions out there, but with my impending trip to New Zealand in May, I thought it’s about time I started actively collecting some thoughts on online journalism.
Over the next few months, I’ll be posting some ideas that I hope will make up a big part of what I can teach when I get over there. As ever, I appreciate everyone’s feedback. I’m toying with calling a new category ‘Dave Lee Down Under’ … but that might be a little, excuse me, shit. But who knows.
Tonight (or rather, this morning… my sleep patterns have been manic ever since that poxy Ricky Hatton fight…), I want to just simply lay down five things that I feel make newspaper sites great. Not all newspaper sites do these things. In fact, only a couple manage them all, so I guess it will give me something to aim towards when I get stuck in out in NZ.
Some of these are probably strikingly obvious; but then I think if there aren’t many sites doing it, then maybe it’s worth being reminded of them.
So here we go…
1. Embedded video. It’s the broadband age. You don’t need to ask me if I want Windows Media Player, or Realplayer… or anything. Stick it in my browser. Make it load quickly. Make it load the rest of it while I’m watching the start of it. And, for crying out loud, give me a volume adjuster that goes beyond ‘on’ and ‘mute’.
2. A special way of telling us something BIG is happening. Odd one, this, but there’s something really brilliant about how the BBC homepage transforms when a big story is breaking. When there’s a big, single headline on the newspage, you know something has really kicked off. I’ll come clean here and admit I’m not sure how the UK papers handle big stories breaking on their sites. My natural instinct is to go straight to the BBC. I think we all do, no? Sky News have great presentation on their site, but the ‘Top Story’ graphic seems to be the same whether it’s a story on a missing dog or a missing serial killer. There’s an element of ‘boy who cried wolf’ about it.
3. Comments comments comments, and NO, I don’t want to sign up… or even sign in. Laziness? Maybe. News is quick. Blogs are quick. Everything about newspaper websites should be quick, and yet, for some reason, I’m forced to sign up in order to add my own view on proceedings. Yes, Daily Telegraph, I’m pointing at YOU. I don’t want to sign up to My Telegraph. If I want to save stories, I’ll use del.icio.us, which does it much better.
4. YES… get blogging, but please, be serious about it. I don’t think it’s essential that newspaper sites have blogs. I really don’t. So newspapers shouldn’t feel obliged to just blog because it’s the “thing to do” these days. Come up with a good angle. A solid background to which you can build. Local papers are god awful at this, when really, local press is perhaps in the best position to fully utilise the blogging world. Take my local paper, The Hunts Post. I learnt an awful lot there in the short placement I had, and it’s a fantastic paper. One of the best local campaigning rags I’ve ever come across. But then there’s the blogs. Urgh. The one I linked to there was the first I came across — but I need not go further. A look at his latest posts brings up such gems as:
First of all, let me congratulate you. By clicking on the links you have, you have put yourself among the elite few who read this blog.
And unfortunately I think the emphasis there should be on few – in the six weeks or so this blog has been online, it has been viewed a total of 14 times. I suspect around half of those are either by me or by people I know, so if you don’t fall into that category you can consider yourself even more special. Well done.
Ouch. Kill it, Archant. KILL IT!
5. Show me who you are. Another fairly random one, but I think this is quite important. In TV, each report is signed off by the reporter: “This is Bob McBobstein, BBC News, Baghdad.” Good. Each newspaper article — give or take the odd one — is given some credit to its reporter. Even better, I find is when we get to see the person. A little photo. It’s strange, but I prefer reading articles on Comment is Free when I can see the person’s face. I’m sure I’m not alone in this… otherwise I guess they wouldn’t bother putting a picture on there.
In local news, this is very important. Although on an entirely different scale, I was stopped at university the other day by someone who said “Hey… you edit the newspaper, don’t you? Have you done something on this…?”. As it turns out, we hadn’t. But now we will. They wouldn’t have known who I was had my picture not been in the newspaper. A small headshot of a reporter speaks volumes to me. It says: “This is me. I’m passing this information to you, and I’m so confident in it, that I’m prepared to put my name and face to it.”
A good example of this? Andrew Gilligan’s latest triumph.*
And that’s it. Easy. Of course, this list is not exhaustive — I could have written about having navigation menus that are too bloody long, or adverts that wobble in from the right hand side and refuse to go away without making lots of noise. But those five seem to strike a chord with me. Maybe they do for you too.
* We think, maybe, not sure yet… perhaps. Probably.
It’s a catchphrase that Bruce Forsyth would envy, but he’s got it spot on.
Jonathan Charles, a BBC foreign correspondent, was tonight the latest in a successful series of guest lectures at the University of Lincoln. His talk was entitled: “Journalism is dead: Long live journalism!”
Throughout his talk, Charles showed us some of his finest moments. And what fantastic moments they are. As you may remember, Charles was given the task of reporting one of the most heart-wrenching accounts of terrorism in recent memory, the Beslan school hostage crisis.
His report was breathtaking. Magical journalism. He intertwined fierce actuality with considered voiceovers. It was made even more impressive when Charles pointed out he had to cut this package together in a mere two hours. Incredible.
“You can’t do that with a Google search!” he repeated. And how right he was.
Although in complete agreement with pretty much everything Charles said, I did at times wonder where his determination to tell us about the woes of Google stemmed from. I don’t recall anyone suggesting Google-reporting is any substitute for the real thing.
Another running theme was that good reporting needs money, and plenty of it. Right again, of course, but at times it felt like Charles was pleading with his audience to keep him in a job. Maybe he was — the audience was made up of potential future journalists.
I’m not sure what Charle’s fear of the web is. Maybe I’m being a little too harsh to call it a fear. I doubt he’s afraid of it, but then like so many journalists, I don’t think Charles is entirely sure what ‘it’ actually is.
In my opinion, ‘it’ is the best platform for journalism in existence. Rather than being seen as a threat, it should be seen as the savior. On at least three occasions, Charles shared his frustration at not being able to cover certain events because of technological limitations. For example, he defended the BBC’s apparent bias to covering suicide bombers in Kabul rather than American bombings of small Afghan villages by stating that by the time a news crew could get there, the story would have passed.
With online, you can be there.
Rather than taking a satellite truck, camera man, sound guy and reporter, you can head down there with a compact video camera and get shooting. Within minutes, it’s on the web. The same goes for pictures. And audio. And interactive slide shows. You can do it all. Isn’t that exciting?
I hope Charles doesn’t see the internet as a threat. I’m sure it will make his already outstanding work even better.
Google doesn’t make a good reporter, but the internet certainly can help.
Well that was a success, I guess! The other day I asked for a few suggestions for questions I could put to Andrew Gilligan, who I spoke to briefly earlier today.
Some interesting suggestions came forward. Some sarcastic — and rather hard-hitting — ideas sprang up. Which is nice, I do like the dry, sharp wit we journalists seem to share among us. Thanks to Roy Greenslade for elevating the debate by linking to me on his blog.
Most interesting was an email I recieved while I was shuffling round Asda doing a bit of shopping (yes, I check my emails in Asda. And yes, I need help). It was from a former Sunday Telegraph colleague of Gilligan’s.
“I think any paper lucky enough to have him as a defence corr should be extremely thankful,” the email read. “His methods may have puzzled the newsdesk from time to time, but I would trust Andrew 100 per cent on any story. He’s a very decent guy who was put through the mill (an expression that scarcely does justice to what he went through) over a story that we all know now to have been in essence completely correct. He’s a good egg.”
A well-put comment that put things into perspective.
Earlier in the day, I spoke with Richard Keeble who, as ever, dropped everything to help one of his students. Without sounding like I’m scrounging for marks here — not that Richard would be swayed by such efforts anyway — there has never been a moment when Richard hasn’t made every effort to help the students he teaches. His efforts are so energetic, in fact, that he had to dash off after our chat for an appointment with an ostiopath… he hurt his back playing football with students a fortnight ago.
Anyway, I spoke with Richard about what he thought. We flipped between one issue: the validity of a lone source. Every journalism text I’ve read has said to get as many sources as you can. If they are anonymous, then this is doubly important. If you get someone come forward with information, find another two to back it up. If not, you can’t trust it.
But, in practice, this would mean that the truth that came from David Kelly would never have been revealed. Or, at least, not as quickly as it was. Gilligan, in this sense, broke the ‘rules’ of journalism. But as his former colleague reminded me, he was “in essence completely correct”.
Back to the original point: What should I ask Andrew Gilligan?
I have decided on some questions. I think they’re good. Despite some of the suggestions, I’ve opted to not be swayed by all the opinions I’ve heard today. My dissertation is on a certain subject of journalism, and I’ll be sticking to that. Doing so will keep me focused on the task in hand, I hope.