On the future of journalism, seen through the lens of the Technology supplement

It can be quite depressing to be part of a story that’s being about a subject you know about, where people who are ostensibly your peers – that is, equipped with the same skills as you, with access to the same tools as you – are reporting on it. Because it shows how rubbish people can be at simply reading a piece of text and regurgitating it.

If the future belongs to amateurs, one has to really worry. Though the professionals aren’t always doing such a bang-up job.

Case in point: PaidContent. PaidContent UK wrote a story which absolutely correctly said that Guardian management is considering whether to keep the printed Technology section going. Prices of raw paper have risen; job ads, which was always meant to be the raison d’etre of “G3” specialist sections (Guardian 3: there’s G1 – the main paper – and G2, the “features” bit), have moved online, especially for technology jobs.

Nevertheless, the Technology supplement does get job ads, and it does occasionally get display ads. So the idea of closing it isn’t a fait accompli.

Robert Andrews got wind of the review that’s going on, which is part of a far larger look at costs, and wrote about it. (I could argue about the link text – “may” would have been good – but anyway.)

Robert did try to contact me before writing; I was offline (though I had my mobile…). He did speak to the Guardian’s press office. Apart from being finicky – Online started a long time ago and Vic Keegan wasn’t the launch editor – it’s a good piece of journalism: find something out, speak to those who are in a position to speak about it.

(I’d take issue actually with this:

The move is thought to be due to worsening tech ad spend but also the fact that many readers, naturally, are online natives with a voracious appetite for tech news throughout the week… one school of thought has it that a weekly dead-tree edition seems like anachronism.

Actually, it’s very evident that the people who read the print section aren’t exactly the same ones who read the Technology content online. They get something extra. And it’s important for other reasons: it’s easier for a civil servant to show a piece of paper to a minister; easier to wave in their face than a website.)

(Note also that Azeem Ashar adds some detail in the comments.)

Next up: Press Gazette. Following up the PaidContent story, they actually did contact me – we spoke by mobile. Look, there are my quotes in the story. Accurate. Journalistic. Good. Can’t argue with the headline or intro. Though I would say that there aren’t any staffing implications. We’re more than busy anyway, and we could be just as busy even without the print section – we’d be writing stuff for the main paper, the features section, and so on. (And again, interesting comments.)

And now we begin the slide downhill – and the depressing thing is that it’s the lousy reporting that actually gets bounced around the blogo/twittersphere.

First, MediaWeek, which has a story that was originally headlined “Guardian to close Technology supplement”. And then an intro: “The Guardian is considering dropping its Thursday Technology supplement, according to Paidcontent.”

Exactly how crap is that? Intro and headline completely disagree. And it’s a complete ripoff of PaidContent’s er, content. I emailed to complain, and the headline was changed. Otherwise it wouldn’t have been. (MW says it came from Brand Republic. Thanks a lot, BR.)

And finally we come to the World Editors’ Forum, which wrote:
Headline: The Guardian reconsiders Technology supplement
Intro: The Guardian is due to drop its Thursday Technology supplement, paidContent:UK reports.

I mean, come on. That’s just incompetent. I’m sorry, but it is. The headline is correct; the intro, wrong. That’s not what PaidContent said.

Some more:

It is also feasible that the printed edition just could not compete with its online counterpart, which is updated daily. Technology enthusiasts, moreover, are presumably more inclined to log on regularly than wait for the Thursday paper to land on the doorstep.

“Could not compete”? What rubbish is this? Have they bothered to find out who runs the online content (me) and who edits the physical section (me)? Apparently not. even though I’m all over the internet like a rash. Hell, my mobile phone number is on this site. I’m not a hermit.

Nick Passmore launched the Online supplement in May 1994. In 2005 it was rebranded Technology with the arrival of new editor Charles Arthur, and its science counterpart supplement Life was merged into the paper when the paper adopted a berliner format.

Nice – they’re read the comments on the PaidContent story. Except they didn’t research this blog. I didn’t arrive until November 2005, two months after the September relaunch in Berliner format.

So let’s see, that’s a slew of factual errors, a basic subbing error (headline doesn’t agree with intro), in a piece just four paragraphs long. (I haven’t bothered to fisk it all.)

The trouble is that this leads to people saying “Oh noes! The Guardian is dropping technology coverage!” NO IT BLOODY WELL ISN’T. Which I pointed out (and they then corrected.)

So the score: two lots of good reporting, where sources are checked (PaidContent, Press Gazette); two of crap reporting (MediaWeek/Brand Republic, WEF). Trouble is that the meme that gets passed around Twitter (for sure) is the idea that it’s going to close – no doubt, none of the subtlety in the original story.

Frankly, that’s a bit crap all round, and makes one consider the final score.
1) how well can proper journalism (PaidContent, UKPG) survive when you have copy/pasters all around? Copy/pasting is cheaper than finding stuff out. Quicker, apart from anything.
2) look how easily ideas get crunched into misconceptions in being translated into 140 characters, especially if they’re taken from headlines that are just plain wrong.
3) some people can’t read, parse and regurgitate a piece of text.
4) I wonder how many times have I written something that’s unwittingly incorrect because I haven’t been able to get at original sources? Not often, I hope. But this is the sort of experience that makes me even more determined not to accept lazy copy/paste stuff, and to check stuff with sources. Properly.

See you next Thursday in print.

10 Comments

  1. Your last point is the reason I think all of us, not journalists, but anyone who reads or pretends to read any news whatsoever, needs to start insisting we figure out how legitimate news outlets can start breaking even. Open our wallets ? I certainly don’t have time to check the sources for the articles I read (not to mention not having the access to them).

  2. Charles, I think you are doing exactly what you have to do — calling out other news sources when they mess up and, amongst other things, using your online footprint to cast doubts over the trustworthiness of those services. The optimist in me says that if everyone misrepresented by lazy or spiteful reporting starts to do this then it will stop. The pessimist says that there just won’t be the time/resources to do this.

  3. I’ve also been staggered at the amount of misreporting. Having read the original report in PaidContent, it was perfectly obvious to me that Technology would continue to exist, even if the speculation about the print edition might eventually turn out to be true. As an occasional contributor to Technology, I assumed I’d still be able to pitch you ideas, at least for online publication. So I was pretty shocked to see some of my colleagues on a journalism forum – a number of whom have also written for Technology – mourning the supplement’s death as a done deal. As far as I can tell, it’s business as usual unless and until you and the Guardian announce otherwise…

  4. Is this not par for the course? Almost daily one sees Evening standard banners with sensational stories, that is never quite matched in the paper itself.

  5. “headline doesn’t agree with intro”

    An all too common affliction, and one that The Guardian has done more than is good for it.

    The most recent example that springs to mind is the spat about the Royal Society’s decision to fire someone who hinted that the classroom is a suitable venue for discussing creationism.

    “Teach creationism, says top scientist” Guardian, 12 September 2008

    Er, no he didn’t.

    The headline seems, strangely, to have disappeared from the Guardian web site. Fortunately, the old fashioned paper thingy that I scanned into my PC has yet to succumb to the same rewriting of history.

  6. Even my DAD reads the printed edition of Technology. It takes him about an hour to type his username into Hotmail. (Needless to say, he reads the section but his interest in tech could only be described as ‘passing’ at best).

  7. Many of us expect dodgy headlines and connections from some tabloid papers – but it’s when the sources we trust let us down that we’re really bothered. Here’s another recent example. A couple of weeks ago, BT and 3 launched a campaign called “Terminate the Rate”. The campaign is asking Ofcom to force mobile networks to cut so-called termination rates as this could translate into a cut in call charges. The headline on T3.com was “BT And 3 Mobile To Slash Mobile Bills By 80 Per Cent”. The reality, not entirely explained in the story, is that call charges COULD fall by 80 per cent IF the inter-connection ‘termination rates’ were cut. Not the same at all. And then someone decided to Tweet the headline – with its inaccuracy – and, given the person’s status, it’s retweeted by dozens of people who also don’t check the accuracy… and suddenly there are hundreds of people all slightly puzzled and disappointed when the real news emerges.

  8. Well, there’s “copy and paste” from trusted sources, and then there’s “copy and paste” from random web site. Perhaps we need something along the lines of eBay stars, so that when you copy something into a link, the link includes a piece of metadata that indicates the rating of the source: then you could tell your browser to ignore all links below a certain threshold?

  9. Nice piece Charles. Thanks. As it happens, I always buy the paper and particularly enjoy reading Technology which, to declare bit of an interest, I’ve contributed to occasionally.

    I was concerned when I saw the ads falling off and have worried it might migrate online – as Office Hours has. But I’m delighted to learn that the print edition is to remain and I hope it continues.

    You can be as tech savvy as you like and yet still enjoy the essentially intimate experience of reading print.

  10. You’re right about Twitter and I think that the shortened URLs don’t help. The message could be drawn from an incorrect headline and the discreet URL doesn’t offer any weight to the short 140 characters, so unsure what is right or not.

Comments are closed.