Tag Archives: journalism

Why I don’t trust Glenn Greenwald

Willard Foxton, writing for The Telegraph, on Glenn Greenwald and the creepy cult that surrounds him:

I’m sure Mr Greenwald sees himself as a crusader for justice. It’s exactly that commitment to a cause that makes me wonder if he came across a document exonerating the Obama administration in this scandal, would he throw up his hands and say “Sorry guys, we have to forget about this one”? Or would he quietly bin it, because it doesn’t fit with what he believes as an activist? Journalism isn’t just about writing good copy, it’s about actually finding the truth, and accepting that sometimes it won’t be a truth you like.

This is exactly the problem I have with Greenwald. I don’t trust him not to simply ignore anything he comes across which doesn’t fit with his narrative.

Selective publication of documents only works if the journalist handling them can be trusted to publish the truth of what he finds. That’s incompatible with the idea of “activists journalist” that Greenwald espouses – because an activist, by definition, is batting for one side rather than another.  There’s not a chance he would print “a truth he doesn’t like”.

Why single sourced rumours about Apple should be taken with a pinch of salt

You know, if you wanted two paragraphs to sum up the perils of tracking Apple’s supply chain ‘build plans’, they would be these:

In Nov. 2011 DigiTimes reported that Apple had “slashed” orders for iPhone 4S parts 10% to 15% — a report that generated a flurry of doomsday headlines (Uh-Oh: Apple Said To Cut Orders To Asia Suppliers On iPhone 4S Problems” from Business Insider’s Henry Blodget) and persuaded many on Wall Street that Apple was headed for disappointing Christmas sales.

As it turned out, the company shipped a record 37 million iPhones that Christmas quarter, up 128% year over year.

It needs saying again… and again… and again… single sourced stories just aren’t reliable. 

Fans with typewriters

“It was obvious Lance Armstrong was doping”

It touches on a wider issue in the world of sports journalism – what Walsh describes as journalists as “fans with typewriters”.

“There was a time when it wasn’t cool to be a fan with a typewriter. When you went to a stadium you went as a journalist, and you didn’t express any partisanship for one team or another.

“Because the Armstrong story was deemed to be so good, so remarkable, an inspiration to countless millions, who wants to rain on that parade? Who wants to be the one to say, ‘hold on, it may not be what it seems’. Journalists then begin acting like fans with typewriters.

For “sports journalists” read “tech journalists”. Whether they’re following Google or Apple, we have way too many “fans with typewriters”.

A thought on journalism for Boxing Day

I’ve spent part of the Christmas break reading Andrew Marr‘s book “My Trade“, which is a kind of personal history of journalism. If you like Marr’s history programmes, and have any interest in the history of media, I’d highly recommend it as his writing style, a mix of good research and excellent lively prose brings newspapers and newspapermen to life in a way which is fun to read.

Reading Marr’s account of early journalism is particularly interesting. The first British “journalists” – corantos, because they wrote about “current affairs” – mostly spent their time writing up other people’s stories, lifted from the pages of similar publications across Europe.

Sound familiar? In other words, they engaged in much the same work as most bloggers (and far too many journalists) do: lifting stories from other publications and presenting them to their own audience. Continue reading

The future of journalism? It’s astronomy

There’s nothing more that journalists like than the opportunity to talk about themselves, thinly disguised as a treatise on the future of journalism This is probably why the “debate” (which it isn’t – not enough listening) on “citizen journalism” (which it isn’t) keeps rumbling on and on.

Martin Belam sums up the latest in the discussion, which was apparently all the rage at journalism.co.uk’s news:rewired event too. Like Martin, I wasn’t there, but I can imagine the scene all too well having seen it play out often.

I think the biggest problem starts with the phraseology. The phrase “citizen journalist” is a loaded one, and VERY US-centric. It’s loaded with all that “citizen militia, defending your rights blah blah blah” stuff, and that helps prevent a meaningful debate actually happening. Manning the pitchforks, burning the barricades, beheading the king. All that goes over very well with a certain kind of techno-geek, but it’s really just a provocative mischaracterisation of what’s actually happening.

I’ve long argued that we should look at “journalism” as what it actually is: a craft. As a craft, it’s something everyone can learn – and you learn best by doing. And like every craft, some people will be professionals and do it all the time for money, while some will be amateurs and do it for other reasons – love, fun, or because they feel like they should.

Once you phrase it like this – with “amateur journalists” and “professional journalists” – a lot of the conflict that the “citizen journalism” debate engenders just goes away. You don’t get debates about whether the existence of amateur astronomers endangers the livelihoods of professional ones.

And in the future, the same pattern will emerge with journalism. Some people will make a living at it; some people will do it because they enjoy it.

My gut feeling is that the model of journalism as a craft will end up more like astronomy, where amateur astronomers are a vital part of the progress of the subject as a whole. Amateur astronomers produce vital data that the professionals use and build upon, as well as creating the odd “exclusive” themselves.

Of course, this idea – professional and amateur journalists working together to improve the quality of news and reporting – doesn’t make quite such a good headline. So I expect this tedious and counterproductive debate to continue for a while.

After all, what journalist – pro or amateur – can resist a good, conflict-based headline?

(Image used under Creative Commons license from Zen)

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If people don’t want journalism, we have no right to make them have it

I’ve been partially watching, partially taking part in a debate on Twitter over the future of news (what else?). It began with a tweet from John Robinson:

Tired of the media obsession with Tiger? Me too. Yet people are fascinated with it. Serve the audience or ignore ‘em & move on?”

I’m bored of Tiger too, so amen to that. Then it got interesting, as my blogging friend Mathew Ingram added his perspective:

that’s the eternal debate — give people what they want to read about, or give them what you think is important?”

Jordan Furlong added this:

It’s not a debate: you give people what they need. That’s journalism. Giving them what they want is entertainment.”

Mathew responded:

so giving people what they need is journalism — how do we know what they need?”

From my perspective, deciding what people need is simple: They tell you what they need through the merry actions of the free market. There are other ways of deciding of course, but the only other valid one is “one person, one vote” – otherwise known as democracy. And that tends not to work well for deciding what should be lead story on page six.

Mathew’s response was to differentiate between “need” and “want”:

I disagree when it comes to news – I think more people would pay for news they want (gossip) than news they need (reporting)”

And that, I think, is where the real problems start. Once you start to divide things into “what people want”  and “what people need”, you end up in a kind of paternalism, where you decide as a journalist what people should be reading. Jordan actually summed up this perspective on what journalism should be in another of his tweets:

Journalism is exercise of judgment on deliverables for civic literacy. Not a market need; it’s an enabler of effective citizenship”

If ever there was a description of how to suck the life, soul and fun out of journalism, that is it. It moves journalism out of the real world and makes it into something like a branch of the civil service, spooning out “the truth” into ears that don’t really want to listen. It basically says “people don’t want to buy it, so we’ll give it to them whether they want it or not. They’ll be grateful!”

Would you read a newspaper that was all about “civil literacy”? I’m interested in politics and society, but even I would avoid something like that like the plague. This is a form of puritan reductionism for publishing, dividing the world neatly into “things people want” and “things people don’t want but need to hear, so by God we’ll sit them in Church on Sundays and read it all out to them. They need it.” It treats readers as children, who need to be spoonfed their medicine because it’s good for them, but don’t understand why they need it.

The fact is that the best journalism has always been about entertainment as much as information, because entertainment is story telling, and story telling is about provoking an emotional response – and that’s the first, best way to help people understand and engage with the world. John Pilger’s reports from Cambodia were incredibly good journalism not only because of the facts he uncovered, but because of the tools that he used to provoke emotional engagement. He told the story.

Yes, sometimes people don’t know what they want until they hear it. If your idea of deciding what should be in newspapers is just “whatever the readers say they want in a focus group”, you’re in the wrong business.

But if you treat journalism as some kind of “enabler of effective citizenship” you will never produce stories which are compelling, interesting, provoke real emotion – and yes, which entertain too.

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How I’ve spent my career getting it wrong (and don’t regret a thing)

From 1995 to 2006 or thereabouts, I was a full-time journalist mostly working on the Mac market. I did pretty-much every kind of writing you can do about Macs, from help and advice to sermon-on-the-mount editorials. But most of the time, I was that most oft-critiqued of animals: a reporter, a writer of news.

A news story – at least, a good one – is the tip of a very big iceberg. Actually writing the copy probably takes up a tiny proportion of the time of a good journalist. The rest of the time is spent cultivating sources, gathering information, digging deep into stuff, following up wild hunches and becoming the kind of person who people in your market know and trust. Stories themselves are very formulaic writing, and anyone with any talent can actually churn them out pretty quickly. It’s the stuff that goes into the story that takes time and energy.

My first news editor gave me two pieces of good advice. First, spend as much of your time out and about as possible. Nothing turns contacts into sources more than face to face meetings, the odd lunch and maybe even a small glass of wine (or ten). Second, if you read about it in a press release, it’s not news: that stuff is what companies want you to write about, which is almost exactly the kind of thing that makes a dull story. Read press releases, sure. But then put them in the bin, because they ain’t news.

This news ethos meant we ended up with a pretty good track record of breaking stories and a good reputation in our industry and amongst our peers. It’s a source of constant regret to me that we never really transferred that ethos well into the online space – but that’s another story.

But the thing that you learn from experience is that no matter how good your sources, there is no guarantee that a story will end up right.

As you might expect, one of the companies that I spent a LOT of time cultivating sources in was Apple. And I had some good ones – more than one, in high-enough-to-know positions. No matter how good the source, you rarely took a punt on a story which had only a single source. Heck, if Steve Jobs himself had called me up with story, I’d have preferred if there was a second source.

On more than one occasion, I had a story down cold: multiple sources, within Apple (and sometimes outside) confirming exact details. People who literally had product introduction plans in their hands, reading out details to me.

And sometimes, those stories turned out to be wrong. Sometimes, almost totally wrong.

Why? A variety of reasons: pricing or details changing at the very last minute; products being pulled from a keynote; a super-secret feature which no one outside of sealed rooms in Cupertino knew about. There are lots of ways to get a story wrong.

That is why I gently tweaked John Gruber’s tail in my post the other day. John, having claimed he would never post a report he didn’t know to be true, has found out the hard way that truth is sometimes a little less fixed than it looks. I’m sure his sources are good. I’m sure his sources told him what they believed to be true (and maybe even what was at the time). And he STILL got it wrong.

So why pick on John – someone whose work I respect enormously, and who people I know who know him say is a good guy? Simply because he’s developed an annoying habit of (as Americans say) “calling people out” with posts on “claim chowder” and “Jackass of the week”. It’s snarky, and its probably popular with his readership – but it’s also lazy and dumb.

Journalism looks easy from the outside, because you only see the tip of the iceberg. When you get in the trenches and start actually doing it, it starts to get a little harder. And when you aspire to be really good at it, you’d better be prepared to take some lumps along the way, get things wrong – and keep striving to get the real story, the hidden one that companies don’t want your readers to know about.

(John Gruber image by Presta)

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Why “process journalism” is neither journalism, nor process

Jeremy Toeman, talking about the truly absurd “Twittergate”, sums up why process journalism fails:

“But this is par for the course if your job is breaking news as fast as possible, as there is no reward for being late nor is there a penalty for being inaccurate.”

With process journalism, there is no penalty for being inaccurate. If something is wrong, just go back and rewrite it. There’s no pressure to ensure the facts are right when you hit the publish button.

How anyone with half a brain can think that this is a better method than dull, old-fashioned fact-checking and multiple sourcing I don’t know. Of course, doing proper, in-depth reporting takes time and money and effort – it’s hard, and it doesn’t guarantee that you’ll get the story right.

But it does mean you have a better chance of getting the story right than any other method.

Journalism as beta isn’t journalism. Saying that there’s such a thing as “beta journalism” makes as little sense as saying there’s such a thing as “beta car making”. If your car broke down, would you be happy if the car maker turned around and said “oh, sorry, we’re trying out a new system called ‘process manufacture’. We’ll fix it for you, but sorry you got stranded out in the woods. We got a new set of parts and took a chance on them fitting right without bothering to check the measurements.”

Or to put it another way: next time Jeff Jarvis is flying across the Atlantic to tell newspaper people how to fix their industry, I bet he’d be pretty unhappy if Boeing had used “process plane making” to construct the 747 he’s on.

Of course, news writing isn’t in the same league of importance as the safe manufacture of products which we trust with thousands of lives. But businesses can be hurt and lives can be lost because of news stories. When you have the kind of influence that major news vendors have, you bear a massive responsibility to get it right first time.

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