Days later, this paragraph is still sitting very badly with me:
“I can’t imagine anyone outside of an affluent family pursuing a career with so little room for financial growth. And I wonder: Would that well-to-do reporter shake hands with the homeless person she interviews? Would she walk into a ghetto and knock on a door to speak with the mother of a shooting victim? Or would she just post some really profound tweets with fantastic hash tags?”
Right up until that paragraph it was a sympathetic and poignant post about leaving journalism. But it lost me here.
There are plenty of J-students out there, from both ends of the economic scale, slogging their way through school, creating university newspapers, producing multimedia work for their portfolios, and scrubbing up for work experience.
They know anyone who posted fantastic hashtags but came back without the story would have the career lifespan equivalent of a mayfly.
If you’re in or contemplating journalism as a career you’ll be aware the job market is dwindling and the pay and hours are far better in other trades.
People leave journalism all the time for all sorts of reasons. The pay, disillusionment, the shift towards multimedia, the backlash of said shift, the cutbacks… that’s typical of the workforce in a disrupted industry.
People also left when journalism was a very good living indeed, with an expectation that expenses were works of fiction, lunches with contacts lasted all afternoon, and features meetings included a nice cab sav in the office library.
Over the weekend, some other assumptions were made about why someone left journalism. You should read the repercussions of that, here.
I’ve worked with graduate trainees from wealthy backgrounds who were just keen to get a byline and do a good job – I’m sure we all have.
I sent one to a hellhole estate where readers had found drug needles in the local playground to do the story. I expect it was her first experience of major scale poverty and deprivation as a way of life, but she pitched in to clean up while interviewing the mums and came back with a good story. She accrued even better contacts – they thought she was great.
But journalism – in the UK, anyway – isn’t just attracting the Trust Funded (I don’t think it ever did, to be honest).
It’s not a pursuit of the middle classes; most of my first year as a full-time journalist was spent wearing my mum’s skirts and blouses – and I didn’t even have college debts to blame because I didn’t go.
Neither did being broke make me a paragon of empathetic reporting. When I got sent to do my first ‘flea infestation in council house’ story – that hardy perennial of early summer newsdesk calls – I was horrified to find myself perched on a couch in a sitting room where the walls were covered in living black wallpaper.
I was quietly happy the occupier did not offer to shake my hand. I developed my photos, filed my story, it went in the paper and that was all my employer expected of me.
Go out, get the story, file it on time; rinse and repeat.
If you can do that, rich or poor, you’ll be a good journalist.
It’s a piece of work that, for those of us in print or broadcast. won’t inspire a great deal of joy.
But, among the standout points highlighted by Pew was something that’s being increasingly discussed in my networks: The mainstream content vacuum and the rise of PR and Brand Specialist journalism.
This is what Pew says:
“Nearly one-third of the respondents (31%) have deserted a news outlet because it no longer provides the news and information they had grown accustomed to. At the same time, newsmakers and others with information they want to put into the public arena have become more adept at using digital technology and social media to do so on their own, without any filter by the traditional media. They are also seeing more success in getting their message into the traditional media narrative.”
Pew’s survey says newspapers aren’t carrying the news they want, and our former customers – readers, advertisers, companies and individuals wanting to promote their stories – are more adept than ever at getting their own message across (I pondered the growth industry of brand journalism in a post last year).
Pew also notes the 2008 research from Robert McChesney and John Nicholas examining how PR machines have accelerated to fill the spaces vacated by news-producing journalists.
McChesney and Nicholas wrote that in 2008, the year Nick Davies published his expose of churnalism and fact-failure in mainstream media and in particular the national press, Flat Earth News.
Since then, churnalism has slipped into popular definition as ‘press releases, wire stories and other forms of pre-packaged material…used to create articles in newspapers and other news media’ and it’s logical to conclude the phenomenon is more rife as a result of the PR and specialist company writers who are filling the breach.
There’s a website created by the Media Standards Trust to compare press releases against press articles, to show how much ‘churn’ has been applied.
I’m not sure that definition is exactly right, however. Also, many good journalists opt for a press office role. They push an agenda and you, as the news outlet recipient, know that. Come to that, the Sun’s Trevor Kavannagh – an award-winning journalist – also pushes an agenda – that of his employer.
Mouseprice puts out handy quarterly updates using Land Registry Data – it’s checkable, relevant data and it’s useful for readers; if a national title runs that, with some additional content from, say, estate agents and basic cross-checking I guess you have to call it churnalism. Many readers would call it interesting.
PR firms always call media ahead of Budget day, offering 1st person opinion pieces from local experts. Every features desk in national and regional print press knows the national slimming club press offices proffer real life stories of mums who have shed 10 stone and discovered a new passion for kite surfing.
It’s not lazy journalism; a journalist has done the work of putting together quite a lot of the information required – they just happen to work in a press office.
Bad journalism leads to churnalism and flat earth news. There are so many examples, but the one that sticks with me is Blue Monday aka the Most Miserable Day of the Year.
Unchecked and incorrect information, widely reported; the worst kind of pr nonsense until Dr Ben Goldacre questioned the data, and everyone in the media shuffled their feet awkwardly.
Journalists from the BBC down were a party to that and there is no way the BBC was short of resources – cash or journalists – in 2005 when Blue Monday first surfaced.
Maybe no one questioned it because the press release included an equation created by Cardiff University scientists attached to it and boffins, of course, are never wrong.
On the plus side, as a result of that incident any a press release with an equation is viewed in the same light as green ink letters. So, every cloud and all that…
Flat Earth News also says churnalism exists because
No reporter who spends nearly 95 per cent of the time crouched over a desk can possibly develop enough good leads or build enough good contacts
But that was published back in 2008 (using research from 2006), when social media as a mass communication and collaboration tool had yet to explode.
Five years on, Andy Carvin spends 95% of his time crouched over a desk – look, he says so right here with great detail – and he is considered one of the finest journalists of his generation, curating information, repackaging content, interrogating the data it contains, and publishing with confidence.
His network is online, his face-to-face chats are via Skype or Google+ Hangouts, he uses Twitter and Facebook to source information, make contacts, and then checks his sources.
No one is going to accuse Carvin of churnalism – he’s a curator, a writer and (according to his bio a real-time information DJ; I‘m assuming that last part is ironic…) although he has been called a ‘one-man Twitter news bureau’. Not a bad epithet.
So many reporters are now having multiple conversations on Facebook threads with multiple contacts, all at the same time about potential stories. I guess it’s the most open display of journalist conversation with sources – maybe most evident at a regional, local and hyperlocal independent level – that has ever existed.
Basic fact checking takes hardly any time on social media; the biggest danger is the rush to beat the competition.
Be right or be first? The answer’s obvious and you can never get an audience’s trust wholly back once it’s gone.
Anyway, the whole idea of churnalism and the rise of PR, Brand Journalism, Spin or whatever is Relevant To Mah Interests as I’m attending the Polis Journalism Conference on April 5, where the theme is Trust.
I’m taking part in the ‘Churnalism – How to Avoid It’ panel session.
Keynote speaker is – who else? – Nick Davies, and for all those who sigh at the prospect of yet another hashtag for an expensive conference drops into their Twitter stream this one is completely free (registration is here).
Maybe I’ll see you there?
The Daily Post’s Right to Tweet campaign continues to roll forward (we even made Roy Greenslade‘s blog) but since we’ve launched it there have been a number of other instances of newspaper journalists and councillors falling foul of the ‘can we/can’t we’ ad hoc approach.
Some of the recent examples can be found here (Hounslow) here (Oldham) here (Rotherham) and a number of Welsh councils, according to the director of the Electoral Reform Society,
Among the councils named by the ERS was Anglesey. However, good news on that front:
COUNCILLORS on Anglesey are being encouraged to take to Twitter and Facebook to engage with communities – while the press and public will also be free to tweet from meetings.
You can read the full story here; the vote does have to be cast to set the plan in stone, but it’s a really positive step forward and one that sets a standard for others. Da iawn, Ynys Mon. Hopefully we’ll see others following in your footsteps soon.