In Defence of Online News by Sophie Black

Crikey editor Sophie Black

Crikey editor Sophie Black

Dwarf’s penis gets stuck to vacuum cleaner

That was the headline that made me hate the internet.

Were you one of thousands of readers that clicked on that link three years ago? After all, it was asking for it. Just blinking on the Top 5 Most Read stories list on the Age website. Can’t remember?

Here’s the lead:

A dwarf performer at the Edinburgh fringe festival had to be rushed to hospital after his penis got stuck to a vacuum cleaner during an act that went horribly wrong.

Come on, you can admit it.

You weren’t the only one to go there. It was one of the most popular stories of that week, that month even. You clicked, you read, some of you even rated it out of five.

But admit it, you felt cheap and dirty afterwards. It’s headlines like that that got online news our reputation. It cheapened us, it robbed us of our credibility, it chipped away at our self esteem.

We were the cheap date, the fling on the side, the guilty secret. Newspapers were still the one you woke up next to, and the evening news was always waiting faithfully for you at home every night.

And every time you clicked on a cheap link like that, a wire story that was only there to keep the ad sales team happy so they could brag about page impressions, a journalist died a little bit inside.

Celebrities Who Are Fruit

That was a real photo gallery doing the rounds on The Daily Telegraph website around the same time as the embarrassed dwarf.

Stay with me here – it’s a complex concept – it consisted of 22 slides of the heads of various Hollywood celebrities photoshopped to look like pieces of fruit, vegetables and nuts.

Johnny Cash-ew. Tom-ato Cruise. Aspara-Gus Van Sant. The fruit heads, was more clicked on than the story that covered the latest Baghdad death toll that week. That and a Chihuahua named Chelsea wearing sunglasses. Was this really the future of online news?

I was lucky enough to be spat out of journalism school in the early 2000s, teetering on the edge of a very inconvenient tipping point. I was ready for the romance of print, which in my mind consisted of a vague amalgamation of All the President’s Men, Citizen Kane, My Year of Living Dangerously… and Superman.

The internet had other ideas.

Of course, newspapers didn’t know that yet, and neither did I but given I found myself in the middle of a technological revolution that would fundamentally change the way we communicate across the globe in ways we couldn’t begin to imagine… really, there was no time for nostalgia.

Instead, I was staring down the barrel of a new news culture that told writers that web traffic was more important than quality content, that could get the editor of Gawker bumped for not sufficiently sexing up his stories, that fired an Australian tech journalist for not generating enough hits.

The New York Times’ columnist and now compulsive blogger David Carr wrote in 2007:

Here at the Times, the Most E-Mailed list on our Web site has gone from being an in-house curiosity to a measure of salience, as much as getting an article on the front page. The list can be wonderfully idiosyncratic — last Friday, a story about using animal training on husbands (“What Shamu Taught Me About a Happy Marriage”) appeared alongside Thomas Friedman’s meditation on the president’s plan to send more troops to Iraq.

Admit it, you like the sound of Shamu.

In the reassuringly prehistoric world of the newspaper you picked the New York Post, the Sun UK or the Daily Mirror for a page three girl and all your celebrity news.

For the naturally superior there was The Grey Lady, the Washington Post, The Times, the Age, the Telegraph, the Australian or the Guardian with only the Wall Street Journal’s stipple pics to whip you into an overstimulated frenzy. Your choice of masthead defined you. You bought into the kudos, or you liked the crap.

But then the column lines began to blur online as editors appealed to readers’ penchant for sex and gore to generate traffic. And where does the next generation factor in all this?

We who grew up with newspapers may know better, but what about the generation whose soft, pink finger tips have never been sullied by ink and have no time for the evening news? Soon, with their attention spans shorter than Bratz' skirts, they’ll have mobiles grafted to their ear lobes and will demand that all news content be delivered on them.

And what kind of content will they demand? That’s the question. If they haven’t grown up with well resourced, in depth, fearless investigative journalism, how will they know to ask for it?

These were just some of the concerns I had about the state of online news during what I now refer to as the Year of the Dwarf Penis.

But while I was lamenting the loss of a journalistic world I’d never known, based on a set of assumptions that were already overblown, the internet just got on with it.

This week a research firm released the results of what they billed the “biggest ever study of global online habits.”

They revealed a marked global shift away from traditional media, with 61% of online users using the internet daily against 54% for television, 36% for radio and 32% for newspapers.

According to Internet World Stats, there were more than 750 million internet users in Asia in 2009, representing more than 40 per cent of global users. This compared to Europe with about 23 per cent and North America with only 14 per cent. China was said to already have 384 million internet users, the largest number of internet users in the world.

The internet, turns out, is bigger than Rupert Murdoch’s ambitions and/or ego. It’s bigger than the Fairfax board’s internal spats, or the Australian Financial Review’s lawsuits over outlets copying their headlines, and it’s definitely bigger than the narrow Western world vision of what media means.

Here are the headlines that changed my mind about online news:

Headline: Iranian Woman killed in protests in Tehran, 20 Jun 2009, YouTube.

The footage of the death of Neda Agha-Soltan drew international attention after she was shot dead during the Iranian election protests. Her death was captured on video by bystanders and broadcast over the Internet. It was described as “probably the most widely witnessed death in human history”.

Headline: Investigate your MP’s expenses, the Guardian June 2009

Following the disclosure of British MP expense claims and the scandal that ensued, the Guardian asked readers to join them in digging through the documents of MPs' expenses.

They posted 458,832 pages of documents. So far 27,198 readers have reviewed 221,729 of them. Only 237,103 to go…

Headline: Collateral Murder, WikiLeaks, 5 April 2010

In April 2010, WikiLeaks posted video from an incident in which Iraqi civilians were alleged to have been killed by U.S. forces, on a website called Collateral Murder. In July of the same year, WikiLeaks released Afghan War Diary, a compilation of more than 76,900 documents about the War in Afghanistan not previously available for public review.

Headline: Election 2010: Day 14 (or waste and mismanagement – the media), Friday July 30 2010, Grog’s Gamut blog.

Grogs Gamut, public servant by day, blogger by night, posted an entry suggesting to all the news directors around the country that began: bring home your journalists following Tony Abbott and Julia Gillard, because they are not doing anything of any worth except having a round-the-country twitter and booze tour.

Each of those stories in their own way represents a major shift in the way media works online. Through the crowd sourcing of the Guardian MPs' expenses project, to the unfiltered dissemination of information from WikiLeaks, to the self examination that a hobby blogger like Grog’s Gamut could provoke among the Australian press gallery.

Right now, across the media landscape, from the little bloggers to the big media moguls, there’s one thing that all of these competing outlets have in common: No one knows what they’re doing.

Good online media outlets and good online journalists accept this vital fact, and for many it informs the way they write and present information. They must write intelligently, logically, transparently, embedded with links to back their story. Then they tweet it. I know I’ve come along way when I can use that term with a straight face.

But there’s nothing cheap about twitter. Social media and the way news is shared on it is one of the most disruptive and exciting developments that online news has seen so far.

As an online journalist, pressing the publish button is just the start. The story doesn’t live and die in a day, it’s hashed over, reread, and commented on as it gets digested across the web, from websites, to Facebook, to Twitter, to Reddit, to Digg.

If you’ve got something wrong, expect to hear about it almost immediately. And publicly. This is one of the most rewarding, and terrifying, aspects of online media.

It’s also addictive.

And it’s the prospect of the front page talking back that’s luring the big guns away from tomorrow’s fish and chip wrapper. Just last week Howard Kurtz, the veteran Washington Post journalist, announced the end of his 29 year tenure at the paper in favour of a move to the two-year-old the Daily Beast. One writer described the reaction to Kurtz’s move as “reminiscent of when Dylan went electric at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965.”

Why’d he do it?

Kurtz tweeted:

@howardkurtz harder to innovate online at big company. Time to take a leap. #kurtzbeast

Online journalism can cut through the fat. Dispense with the niceties. Mock the ego.

That doesn’t mean that journalists should not be held accountable, or be responsible. In fact, it means the opposite. They’re exposed more than ever before, they must be transparent, and reactive.

A good online masthead can’t afford to be arrogant. There’s no room for hubris. It’s too easy to be made fun of. Take the twitter storm in a teacup, in which News Ltd’s Andrew Bolt blogged about a Fake Andrew Bolt twitter account that he’d discovered.

Bolt suggested it was a case of identity fraud and threatened to take action against the unidentified person behind the account.

In the wake of Bolt’s post,over 40 fake Andrew Bolt accounts bloomed on twitter. I’m Andrew Bolt, one said. No, I’m Andrew Bolt, another insisted. By the time they were finished, no one could tell who the original fake Andrew Bolt was.

Poking fun is one of the hallmarks of the culture around online media. Partly because of the very uncertainty that new media is built on.

All of which is good news for you readers.

Newser’s Michael Wolff, wrote recently in Wired magazine:

Reading, it turns out, is not a passive, solitary enterprise; it is deeply tied to social activities. Thanks to the web, readers are no longer just consumers - they are participants and creators in their own right, and they are empowered.

So go on, get in there, get up to your elbows in it, shout back.

Of course, taking the leap like to online like journalist Howard Kurtz is not all clear sailing. There remains that small matter of how to fund the good stuff. Publications like The Daily Beast are by no means money makers. And great journalism is expensive, not to mention time consuming.

But as people like Steve Jobs, father of iTunes, corrals content into iPad sized packages that people seem to be willing to pay for, as fences go up again and control is reasserted on the world wide web, now more than ever there is a role for the editor to make sure the good stuff floats to the top, to ensure that their publication cuts through the noise.

That’s one of the major new learning curves on this great big tipping point that we’re jumping off together: restraint is key.

In the wake of a mind numbing 24/7 election campaign we’re witnessing the media pulling back and reassessing. Vowing to slow things down, to recognise that readers still demand quality, that just because you can fill 24 hours with new developments, doesn’t mean you need to.

That doesn’t mean you don’t experiment. The papers may continue to keep themselves nice, but good online journalism must take risks. To consider all the sources of information to be tapped, and the best way to do it.

Whether that be crowdsourcing, or collaborating on investigations with universities, or other outlets for that matter, to get the story up.

Of course, for every WikiLeaks scoop there’s a video of a cat in a t-shirt playing an electronic keyboard that takes Facebook by storm.

With the magic of Google Analytics, I have the power to see what has made Crikey’s most popular stories over the last five years or so. And there, sitting alongside our big stories on the federal election campaign, the US primaries, the night Kevin Rudd was knifed, and the huge traffic day we had when the independents finally named the new government, there’s a headline that still hovers in the top 5, from January of this year: Has Australia really banned small breasts?

Ah well, who says you can’t have your little bit on the side?

Sophie Black is the editor of Crikey. This is a transcript of her Lunchbox/Soapbox: In Defence of Online News.

Watch the video of this talk

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