Long form journalism thoughts inspired by Doctor Who

Interesting stuff on the Guardian site this week, courtesy of Dr Who commenters.
An article on the Media section about the lower-than-expected stats for the show’s latest outing led to a host of comments, with three that particularly caught my eye.

First teganjovanka who highlighted Moffat’s contention that “TV programmes are really just publication dates”

Then feelinglistless* who suggested the combined ratings figures should be reported once we have the stats, the whole stats and nothing but the stats.

And finally madbloke points out that newspapers are shifting away from ABCs to overall reach across multiple platforms

I can take or leave Doctor Who but I thought the point (especially the ‘publication date’) being made here was interesting – that multiple platforms allow greater audience discovery, and offer a longer shelf-life than ever before- and one that you could easily apply to some stories on digital platforms.
There are articles which have the potential to live and shine online far beyond that of their print counterpart simply because they become promoted by audiences elsewhere, and draw in views for months – sometimes years – afterwards.
And it’s the wordy features – the so-called Big Reads – that do the best. These sort of stories aren’t what you’d necessarily see as the sonic screwdriver in the digital toolbox, but it would be a shame if the opportunities inherent in long form or narrative journalism were overlooked by digital teams as we scramble to be the first, or the most innovative, or the most data-driven.
Long reads can disappear into the black hole of the news lists, further down than the hard news, where they may not get the SEO love, added content or promotion of the more in-yer-face news articles. Or they are channelled into Features or Lifestyle where a dedicated reader might hunt them down.

I’m going to experiment with some of the WalesOnline long reads over the next month or so – I want to see how they perform when we showcase them on our site, promote them elsewhere, maybe think about putting them together a bundle that would work as an zine or on an e-reader.
I want to see if it makes a difference when we promote the bookmarking/Read It Later tools more heavily for the narrative pieces, maybe try offering print-as-pdf options and generally look at giving people more ways to tackle the 1,000+ word articles that we have every day. I like the Longform.org site very much; maybe we should try our own sort of site using Tumblr or WordPress.
I’m not pretending this is a wildly original scheme but in the world of regional newspapers extraordinary stories are told every day, which don’t get near the front page because they aren’t current, or contain shattering facts. They are just good reads, and they are, in almost every case, about people.

I blogged  recently that I can get most of the information I need off Twitter and link sharing and that still stands. I get the gist of everything from the Royal Wedding to the situation in Libya, with information broken down into chunks and supplied to me with in-build peer recommendations.
But I still read novels at the rate of around two a week. I’m a sucker for wanting to hear stories (why else do we become journalists?) and when it comes to fact or fiction I  like a good long tale, with flowing narrative and identifiable characters.
The newspaper industry contribution to long reads is usually made by feature writers and found in supplements, or on the centrespread of your local paper. On that paper’s website, you might find it in any number of sections (if you’re lucky or patient).
I like the idea that long reads can have a place in a busy, link-driven, mobile world. I’m not sure where they fit yet, but I’m going to have a go at finding out. And I’m open to suggestions about how to go about that.

* Although he doesn’t know he features in this post, feelinglistless is a friend of mine, Stuart Burns, and a bloke who who knows his media and his scifi. He’s also a pretty awesome blogger

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Back to school

I wrote a post about how I felt like it was time to start learning again in March 2010 and now, finally, it’s going to happen; next month I start up where I left off with UCLan‘s Journalism Leaders Course, with the ultimate goal being an MA.
The first assignment pack arrived this month, which has made the whole thing seem more real and brought home to me just how much work it will entail.
It’s a bit daunting but I think the pressure of studying, combined with getting to grips with my not-quite-as-new-as-it-was job, will probably be a good thing.
There’s a phrase I tend to overuse and it may not make much sense but it means a lot to me: “We don’t know what we don’t know”. 
Last time I was at UCLan, there was so much I didn’t know I didn’t know that it was a pretty life-changing experience – how I work, where I work, what I think about a job I’ve done for years have all changed as a result of a 12 month course. It propelled me into a future I hadn’t really thought about too much. 
And now I’m going to start finding out a whole bunch of new things I don’t know I don’t know. It should be fun; I hope it will make me a better journalist.

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A bleating of minds (updated)

Updated 13/4/11: I posted this here by accident and I was going to delete it but frankly it’s too cute.
On the right is the Superlambanana my lovely colleagues at the Liverpool Daily Post & Echo bought me when I vacated the premises; on the left is an inflatable Cardiff Bluebirds ram, which was given away by the South Wales Echo to mark Cardiff’s foray into the FA Cup (although the miserable sods at Wembley apparently wouldn’t let anyone with one – and there were thousands – into the ground until they’d binned the blow-up sheep).

Anyway,  this pic was taken to test if or how I could post content only to Pixelpipe, rather than to all the sites I use it as a nexus for. The answer is, if you don’t specify where it should go, it goes everywhere you have as a forwarding option. Bah. Or possibly baa.
In other news, I also did some in-phone photo editing using the Nokia N8 tools, and that did work. The more I use this phone, the more I like it. Slim, fast, great camera, nice editing. The touchscreen is nowhere near as good as the iPhone – in my opinion – but I can live with it. Good bit of kit to have in your pocket as a journalist. The downside is, it’s very pricey.

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In a glass house, throwing stones?

This started out as a tweet rather than a blog post but it’s going to take more than 140 characters. If I were microblogging, I’d settle for saying I disagree with Kelvin MacKenzie‘s views on getting into journalism and the mertits of college courses, and leave it at that.
But I think it’s a bit more complicated than he has it. Here’s an except from the Independent piece (the full article on the Indie is here and I notice that over the space of a day it had moved from being described as his article to an interview with him – see Journalism.co.uk’s post on the attribution here):
“The best way to become a journalist is to go down the route I was forced to follow as not only did I not sit A-levels I only got one 0-level despite taking 15 of them over two different examination boards. Only a special kind of talent can achieve that result. So my advice to any 18-year-old is try and achieve three decent A-levels, go to a local paper, then to a regional, and then head out on to nationals or magazines by 21-22″
Disclosure:  It is my personal view that if MacKenzie knew anything worth talking about with regards to journalism the Sun’s shameful and inaccurate coverage of the Hillsborough tragedy would not have happened. This is an editor whose paper published lies, who then apologised for those lies and then proceeded to backslide on that apology; should aspiring journalists really be influenced by his opinions?

The controversial front page of the Sun.Image via Wikipedia

However, I can (just about) see the point he’s trying to make because my meandering journalism career path started when I left school, aged 18, and started on my local paper as a junior reporter. From there I progressed to a bigger weekly (which paid for my training and got me through the NCE) then on to daily regional newspapers; I wasn’t interested in broadcast, or the PA/nationals route. Eventually I wound up where I am now, editing a newspaper and a website. I’m not sure where Nobu is, or been invited to the Ivy, but I have had a damn good laugh over the years, and some corking stories (some of which were even printable).

But as I’ve said before, I got my foot in the door of my local paper because my mum worked there and the editor knew me. Yes I had to prove myself after that but I suspect I wouldn’t have even got the chance without such an advantage.
And from my own experience of interviewing prospective employees, some sort of benchmark is vital; not many candidates without some form of journalism qualification get far in the selection process on daily regional papers.
That’s because it’s a brave interviewer who gambles on someone just because they sense a spark of something, with nothing other than a gut feeling to back it up. 
Probably that was an approach that worked a few decades ago but now? I suspect not.
The traditional ‘promoted-to-a-position-where-they-can-do-no-more-harm‘ roles are dwindling. How many regionals now have full-time writers whose raison d’etre is solely to write a whimsical Saturday column and putter together the Looking Back round-up from the archive?
If you take someone on, you’d better be damn sure they’re good (or willing to monster them until they quit – and that’s something else that doesn’t happen so much now, thankfully) because otherwise you’re adding a passenger to a stretched newsroom.
But what to make of this, from Hold The Front Page, on April 8 (same day as the Indie article)?

The University of the Creative Arts will no longer accept new entrants for its BA degrees in Motoring Journalism or Leisure Journalism, which are based at its Farnham campus, although current students will be able to complete their courses

I don’t know, because the article doesn’t specify, whether these Motoring Journalism and Leisure Journalism courses are tailored towards print (if so, magazines, one would imagine/hope), digital media or broadcast, or whether past alumni have got jobs in their chosen specialities, or whether it’s geared (no pun) towards freelancers, but those are fiercely-competitive, niche roles if you’re planning on working in mainstream media. 

In regional papers where I’ve worked, press trips got handed to reporters as rewards or allocated in a names-in-a-hat basis. Leisure journalism? It’s often part of feature-writing remit, along with the ability to pen true-life stories, wax lyrical about interior design, and make celebrities sound sensible in print. I’ve met one journalist in my life –one – who’s job was to travel the world testing spa resorts; she worked for a high-end lifestyle magazine in the USA.

Similarly, there aren’t that many motors journalist jobs in the regionals; these tend to buy motors copy off PA, retired ex-staffers who fancy tootling around in posh cars and writing about it, or from staffers who are enthusiasts (A colleague and I once set up a motorbikes section purely so we could play on fast, shiny bikes). 
Motors pages for national titles seems increasingly to be the preserve of celebrities, some of whom came through a journalism route. 
That leaves broadcast and digital media, of course, but the number of jobs on offer is so vanishingly small, and the competition so fierce, would you run up student debts on the off-chance that you would get a post in your speciality straight away?

No wonder there were only three subscribers for the motoring degree, and none for leisure. Those three have moved to the journalism course which is, I reckon, a far safer bet for them and a much better investment of their time and money. 

Many journalism colleges do a good job of providing entry-level journalists for local papers (I can’t comment on broadcast courses but I’ve seen print colleagues who came through the college route cross into TV after excelling in video journalism while working for their local papers). 

And it’s a sweeping generalisation for Kelvin MacKenzie to describe all courses are ‘make-work projects for retired journalists’. There are a number of journalism educators whom I admire and who definitely don’t need me defending them because it’s an indisputable fact that they are excellent at what they do. 
If and when newly-qualified students do get a job with their local newspaper, of course they will continue to learn. I’ve been doing this for 20-odd years and every damn week I learn a new, sometimes harsh, lesson; I bet lawyers, teachers, civil servants and care workers say the same thing. Learning on the job is not unique to Journalism.
Ironically, in the penultimate paragraph he asks: “What do you need to know about the law? If you want to avoid libel a) be accurate and b) have the goods. If you haven’t got the evidence you’ll get sued”.

So here’s a final thought from me: Just where was the evidence for the Sun’s Hillsborough front page?  

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The Washington Post publishing slip should give us all food for thought

I’m not sure what the hand-wringing is about with regards to the Washington Post prematurely publishing an article that featured the editor’s notes to the journalist, which was quickly grabbed and reproduced on Gawker (where it remains long after the Wash Po took the story down and put up an apology for the mistake instead). 
In the Gawker article, the comments centre mainly on the editor’s question contained with brackets in this sentence: “Each year, about 12,000 U.S. women get cervical cancer and (ANOTHER? OR IS THIS PART OF THE 12,000) 4,000 die.”
The debate rages over whether it was a”stupid question” (as one poster puts it) or whether it’s valid. No one in the comments seems to really know what that sentence means. I don’t. I do, however, find it deeply ironic that people are rowing back and forth on the issue without seeming to realise that the very need to debate it underlines the editor’s original point. 
Columbia Journalism Review says the ‘most writer’s worst nightmare’ moment is a glimpse into the progression of a news story, but I think it actually gives the reader greater insight than just that A-B journey. 
It allows, unintentionally of course, readers to see the level of scrutiny that writers can be subjected to. The sheer number of questions and suggestions here show just how much the person editing that piece cared about not just relaying the correct facts, but about making it an easy read where everything was explained and also – and this is equally important in my view – caring about the writing. 

The person who edited the piece makes all sorts of suggestions that improve the flow of the copy, tweaks and amends that would let the reader just read, without them being jerked out of the story by sudden gearshifts in pace, bad grammar or questions that haven’t been clearly answered. As a former news editor, I know how much rewriting is part of the job – the facts might be there but they are buried so deeply in impenetrable prose that there’s no way you could foist them on an unsuspecting public. Sometimes it’s just faster to rewrite it yourself than send it back to whoever failed utterly to see the glorious story buried under a ton of wordy crud in the first place.
A design editor once suggested a new byline format: “From an original concept by XX XXX” which would acknowledge that while one person had conducted the interview, several others had  been involved in revising and presenting the finished article. I laughed, but now I come to think about it…

Also, it’s great for people to be able to see that articles that appear in print or online don’t spring, fully formed like Pegasus, from the editor’s brow. There are people working across various levels, making mistakes, making edits, making improvements, and you can’t show that with print. Online, there is more opportunity to show edits and progression – I’m thinking blogs just because that’s the simplest platform to clearly show updates but it’s something news sites need to think more of. 
I’m intrigued by the idea of how a wiki concept would work on a regional newspaper’s site. Or an annotation facility that allowed people to highlight certain parts and comment around it. My Kindle can do it – if I want to, I can see the notes and highlights other users around the world have made on paragraphs, sentences or words. Is it really that different?
And if you could do it, would you? Would a newspaper site add the kind of functionality that would hand so much control over to audiences? I like the idea in theory but I wonder if it’s the kind of thing that reads better than it lives – I’ve been bitten by trolls so often that sometimes it’s hard to remember that most of your readers would want the opportunity to engage on an equal footing, and not just use it for mischief and snark. 
On the whole, though, I would like to try this. I’d love an annotating option for text, and I’d really love to see if a wiki community on a regional news site could succeed. I’d also love to know if something similar could be attempted without expensive CMS overhaul. 

I am sure what happened with the Washington Post story wounded the writer’s pride – I can’t imagine for a moment it’s pleasant for all your scribing shortcomings to suddenly go viral – but I also think it’s a little bit great.

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