Newspapers
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Newspapers

Not the news

Posted February 28th, 2010 by debritz

One of my pet hates has resurfaced -- the way films and television programs depict newspapers. Here's a still from a promo for the pay-TV channel 13th Street. No professional newspaper journalist I know would repeat the word "husband" from the main headline in the subhead, and none of them, I hope, would forget to put an apostrophe on the possessive form of the word.

It'll be all Mike on the night

Posted February 24th, 2010 by debritz

Users of Australian news websites will, by now, be intimately familiar with Mike Van Niekerk. He's the bloke who pops up on video whenever youcall up one of the Fairfax web pages, such as smh.com.au or brisbanetimes.com.au, telling you how wonderful the new page design is. Problem is, Mike just won't go away. If you access the sites from different computers, as I do, you're likely to see and hear him several times a day. And it's been going on all week. Mike, I'm sure you and your team are very proud of your work in redesigning the sites and making the video more prominent (even though I have my reservations about it), but I think you've outworn your welcome.
PS: By the way, Mike, I think you need to do a bit more work on the sites -- unless, of course, you can explain how "Porn star demands apology" is a "related video" to your invasive instructional one.

The art of news

Posted February 22nd, 2010 by debritz

In The Australian, Mark Day writes affectionately about journalist and jazzman Dick Hughes, with whom I had the great pleasure of working at Sydney's Daily Mirror in the 1980s. Day quotes Hughes on the often misunderstood and misrepresented art of newspaper subediting:

"When I sub I am fastidious about making clear what is meant. I try to put myself into the position of the reader; to make the reader an equal who can understand exactly what we're talking about. I like to concentrate on the who, what where and why, and get rid of contrivances. We should be simple and succinct. I believe in colloquial, instantly understandable English. We should tell our stories straight; tell them naturally."

Dick's advice on subbing: "Four letters good, three letters best. Eschew Latinisms. Active voice wherever possible. Talk neither up nor down to the reader. Tell it as though you were talking to someone in the pub."

It's not all bad news for magazines

Posted February 16th, 2010 by debritz

Newspaper circulations might be slipping but, as Stephen Glover, points out in The Independent, print journalism is not dead yet in the UK. He writes

Whereas in the newspaper world there is structural decline, with nearly the whole market heading gently southwards, in the magazine world there are titles performing well and titles performing badly. Given all that has been said and written about the decline of the printed word, who can resist a flutter of pleasure that some grown-up magazines should be flourishing?

What are these "grown-up magazines"? Well, they include the satirical/investigative fortnightly Private Eye and its monthly cousin The Oldie, news digest The Week and The Economist. Here in Australia, magazine sales are generally on the slide - with a 3.5 per cent average fall across weekly titles. (Mumbrella has the figures for the three months to the end of December 2009 here.) Without naming names, I take "a flutter of pleasure" that the losers include some titles that routinely make up and publish sensational celebrity stories. If they wonder why things are so dire, their editors should grab a dictionary and look up the meaning of "credibility".

Flat Earth news

Posted February 16th, 2010 by debritz

Thanks to Paul Colgan (@colgo on Twitter) for highlighting this: according to the latest Newspoll, only 5 per cent of Australians think climate change is not at all caused by human activity. Ninety-four per cent of us think human activity is involved to some degree or other. Now I know weight of numbers doesn't necessarily make a thing right, but why does the media - especially the opinion pages of some newspapers and most talkback radio jocks - give such credence to opinions held by such a small minority, especially when the overwhelming evidence of science is that we are at least partly responsible for climate change?

Not-so-original sin

Posted February 16th, 2010 by debritz

The New York Times has revealed cases of "substantial overlap" between reports by one of its business writers and stories in other news sources. Zachery Kouwe "reused language from The Wall Street Journal, Reuters and other sources without attribution or acknowledgment", the Times has acknowledged. It's not the first case of plagiarism at the distinguished paper, which has 1000 journalists and prides itself on its fact-checking. Reporter Jayson Blair resigned about seven years ago over what The Times called "widespread fabrication and plagiarism". Why do reporters and other writers who ought to know better simply lift copy from other sources without acknowledgement? Well, perhaps there's a clue in the behaviour of young German author Helene Hegemann who, according to Deutsche Welle, stands accused of lifting large passages of her book, Axolotl Roadkill, from several sources including another novel titled Strobo by an author known simply as Airen. In explaining herself to the newspaper Die Welt, 17-year-old Hegemann said: "I think there are good ethical grounds for giving sources for a book - and the fact that I neglected to do so reflects my thoughtlessness and my narcissism. But for me personally, it doesn’t matter at all where people get their material - what matters is what they do with it."
P.S. Many universities now use software that detects plagiarism. I wonder why newspapers and book publishers don't?
(As usual, my sources for this post are credited and/or hyperlinked.)

Creative accounting for yourself

Posted February 10th, 2010 by debritz

A British nurse, Greig Ferguson, reportedly got a top job with a "drastically embellished" CV which included the claim that he had worked at County General, the Chicago hospital featured on television drama ER. Since he got caught out, I've decided to erase the Daily Planet, the Hill Valley Telegraph, the Daily Prophet and the Canley Evening News from my resume.

Brangelina not so jolly

Posted February 9th, 2010 by debritz

Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie are reportedly suing Britain's News of the World for its erroneous report that they had separated. The paper claimed the couple had visited a divorce lawyer in December and agreed to divide up their fortune and custody of their six children. Media Guardian quotes the couple's lawyer, Keith Schilling, as saying:

"The News of the World has failed to meet our clients' reasonable demands for a retraction of and apology for these false and intrusive allegations which have now been widely republished by mainstream news outlets. We have advised them to bring proceedings, which they have now done."

Should the Australian publications that reprinted the allegations be worried?

Juxtaposition of the day

Posted February 9th, 2010 by debritz

No booze for kids; let them have soft drinks and get cancer. From news.com.au:

Who wants to be a billionaire?

Posted February 9th, 2010 by debritz

It seems Senator Barnaby Joyce isn't the only one having trouble distinguishing between billions and millions. The couriermail.com.au website can't quite decide, between the headline and story intro, how much the Moranbah ammonium nitrate plant is worth.

Bigger's not necessarily better

Posted February 4th, 2010 by debritz

The Telegraph in the UK is reportedly moving away from chasing more and more hits. Media Guardian quotes the Telegraph Media Group's digital editor, Edward Roussel, as saying:

The big focus for us now is yielding a sustainable business model. Rather than focusing relentlessly on the aggregated numbers of unique users and page impressions, we are now looking more at channels.

The Telegraph's mantra, apparently, is "content, commerce and clubs".

Murdoch's strange love of newspapers

Posted February 4th, 2010 by debritz

"How Rupert quit worrying and learned to love the iPad" is the title of this opinion piece by the ABC's Media Watch host, Johnathan Holmes. He says the big issue in media this year "will be whether the so-called heritage media - and especially those substantial bits of it owned by Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation - will start charging for content online, and if so, how". But, as Holmes points out, when Apple boss Steve Jobs launched the iPad, it was with an app designed for the New York Times, not part of the Murdoch empire - although News Corp was very quick subsequently to jump on the iPad bandwagon. Drawing on Murdoch biographer Michael Wolff, Holmes argues that Murdoch's apparent strategy is flawed. News Corp, he says, wants to sell an electronic newspaper compiled by his journalists and editors to an audience that has already become too used to setting its own news agenda. And, of course, he wants to sell news to people who are accustomed to getting it for free. I guess the question is, will Murdoch - who has survived and prospered longer in the cut-throat media world than anybody in modern times - prevail again, or will he ride that bomb towards extinction?

Expect more

Posted February 2nd, 2010 by debritz

I heard a story recently about a police officer who pulled up a taxi driver for a minor traffic offence. The cabby pleaded with the cop: "Give me a break. I'm driving all day, every day. I only crossed a double line, it’s not so serious – and I can’t afford to lose any more points." The policeman looked him in the eye and said: “No, you don’t deserve a break. You’re a professional driver; this is what you do for a living. And if you can’t do it properly, you don't deserve to have a licence.” Harsh? Well, maybe. But what if the cab driver in question was a repeat offender who used that excuse every time, and often got away with it? It would mean there’s a dangerous driver on the road. And if the police routinely cut cabbies, truckers and other fulltime drivers some slack, the roads would be full of people who drove as if they had immunity from the law. Now, to the not-so-life-threatening business of journalism ... I’m sad to report that an increasing number of people in my profession are just like that taxi driver: they believe the rules don't apply to them. I’ve done lots of jobs in newspapers, and I’ve worked in the electronic and online media, and I’ve met quite a few cowboys and girls in my time. Now, with resources becoming scarcer, it’s time to weed them out. I’m not talking about the people who make the occasional mistake – we all do that, so please don’t comb through my blog to shove my unedited errors in my face – I’m talking about the people who demonstrate no professionalism whatsoever in undertaking the job they are paid to do. At one prestigious newspaper I could but won’t name, there’s a specialist writer who can’t spell the names of the people involved in the industry he (or maybe it’s she) writes about. The bosses laugh it off as if it doesn’t matter because it’s “the subs’ job” to fix it up. Another person I’ve dealt with blithely ignores deadlines, despite having a small workload and a round where late-breaking news is very much the exception. “Don’t worry,” these slackers seem to be saying, “the subs will just work harder to get it through. Oh, yeah, and I’ll make sure I fire off a complaint when they make a mistake even if I file my last copy more than an hour after the page is supposed to be complete.” Oh, and in case you’re an indignant reporter reading this, there are more than a few slack sub-editors, too. But because jobs – especially subbing jobs – are being cut across the board in journalism, everybody has to lift their game. If you’re in a round, the absolute minimum requirement is being able to spell the names of the people you’re writing about. If you can’t do that, how can anybody trust the other “facts” in the story? If you have a deadline, you stick to it. Preferably, you beat it wherever possible. If journalists want respect – and if they want secure jobs – they have to start behaving in a professional manner. The vast majority of my friends in the media do their job very well, but many of them are moving on. They are retiring, or they are taking up jobs in government and commercial PR. It would be easy for their bosses to replace them with cheap workers who aren’t very good – but that would be a false economy. What I believe should be happening is that the onus for accuracy is put on the shoulders of those who originate the copy, not those who have to handle it down the track and often don’t have access to the first-hand sources of information. This will speed-up the production process and lead to savings all around. If a mistake is made, it is worn by the person who made the error and corrected as soon as possible. Only when journalists are prepared to “own” their work, rather than palm off irritants like spelling and grammar and accuracy, will they be able to distinguish themselves sufficiently from the bloggers and enthusiasts who are threatening the viability of professional media. The punters don’t care what school you went to, who you know or who designed your outfit, they just want to read, and hear and see news and comment that informs and entertains – and is trustworthy and reliable. The time-wasters and amateurs will, hopefully, fade away, but the people who do the job properly and are willing to adapt their working practices will thrive whatever “delivery platform” they end up working on.

Not so think as you dumb I am

Posted February 1st, 2010 by debritz

Are journos getting dumber? That's what Meshel Laurie asks on her blog. The Nova 106.9 breakfast host and standup comic uses an example from news.com.au where the expression "may of" is used instead of "may have". It's a subject I've addressed a few times in this blog and, to be fair, it's not just the newspaper and online journalists whose standards are apparently slipping. The quality of TV and radio journalism, especially on the commercial stations, is often comically appalling. Here are some of the mistakes that irritate me the most:
+ Confusing "deny" with "refute". One means to simply gainsay, the other is to prove something incorrect.
+ Writing or saying "try and" instead of "try to".
+ Using degrees of "uniqueness". Something is either unique or it isn't.
+ Dangling participles and other errors of syntax that attribute an action or quality to the wrong person or thing. For example: "Having killed the woman, pollice then chased her husband to an alley, where he turned his gun on himself." I'd like a dollar for everytime I've heard this kind of construction on the television news.
Standard escape clause: unlike the professional media, this blog is not sub-edited and is written, often hastily, by me in my own time. May contain mistakes. Headline contains deliberate error.

Des puts down his pen

Posted January 27th, 2010 by debritz

Des Partridge, photo from Courier-Mail websiteBrisbane journalist Des Partridge has retired after 53 years in newspapers, mostly at The Courier-Mail, where he has been the film reviewer for four decades. Spencer Howson spoke to Des on his 612ABC breakfast show, and you can hear the audio here.

Paywalls: food for thought

Posted January 27th, 2010 by debritz

According to this New York Observer report, the Long Island daily Newsday spent US$4 million relaunching its website and putting it behind a paywall. After three months, only 35 people have so far paid the US$260 annual fee for unlimited access to the site.

The pain in "reign"

Posted January 27th, 2010 by debritz

I just read a wire story on a news website where the word "reign" was used when the entirely different word "rein" was meant. Now, of course, "Muphry's law" will almost certainly mean I make some sort of error in this post*, but I've got to say (and by that, I mean, write) I'm disappointed that mistakes like this are becoming increasingly common on professional news websites where the copy ought to have been edited at least twice -- by the originating service and by the person posting the story online. The rein/reign distinction is one that every sub-editor ought to be across. Not everything on the web has to be wrong; especially if you're trying to build a credible, paid-for website in the face of free competition.
* And, as always, my excuse will be that I am writing and editing this myself, and I'm reading what I meant to write not what's actually there.

Paywalls 'a hunch': Rusbridger

Posted January 26th, 2010 by debritz

Alan Rusbridger, the editor of The Guardian, says the push towards paywalls will remove the newspaper industry from the digital revolution. In the Hugh Cudlipp lecture (reported here in The Guardian), said paywalls were just a hunch and they could cut good journalism off from its audience. He attacked Rupert Murdoch, saying the media mogul who now backed paywalls had "flirted" with free newspapers and "ruthlessly cut the price of his papers to below cost in order to win audiences or drive out competition". He continued:

"If you erect a universal pay wall around your content then it follows you are turning away from a world of openly shared content. Again, there may be sound business reasons for doing this, but editorially it is about the most fundamental statement anyone could make about how newspapers see themselves in relation to the newly-shaped world."

So, how then do newspapers provide free content online and still make enough to pay for the product they are producing? Well, The Guardian editor said it was too soon to write off digital advertising, adding that his "commercial colleagues ... can't presently see the benefits of choking off growth in return for the relatively modest sums we think we would get from universal charging for digital content. Last year we earned £25m from digital advertising – not enough to sustain the legacy print business, but not trivial. My commercial colleagues believe we would earn a fraction of that from any known pay wall model." You can read the full text of the speech here.

Brave new world

Posted January 25th, 2010 by debritz

In an article headed "End of the world as we know it" in The Australian, Robert Thomson examines the future of journalists and journalism. The Wall Street Journal managing editor is furthering News Corporation's arguments about the need for newspapers to charge for access to their online content, and in doing so he takes another shot at Google (not for "cornering the content market" but "over their attitude to advertising and advertisers"). Among many good points, Thomson identifies what I also think is the main challenge for practitioners of journalism:

Journalists have to be flexible, they have to understand that readers' lives have changed and that unless we are responsive to those changes, and tailor content for these new templates, journalists will have made themselves redundant.

I've said on many occasions that, as a consumer, I will pay for content as long as I think the content is worth paying for. However, it seems to me that only a few papers, The Wall Street Journal and The Australian among them*, are doing anything at all online that would tempt me to part with my hard-earned cash. As for the others, well ... exactly what their online strategy is I don't know, because the headline news, celeb rumours and galleries of underwear models that they seem to confuse with good journalism will always be available somewhere else for free. They should be in the business of providing something substantial that can't be had elsewhere - whether it be "hyper-local" news for their immediate community or groundbreaking investigative journalism that brings down governments.
(*The former, of course, already charges for some content and the latter will soon.)

Is The Oz going online only?

Posted January 23rd, 2010 by debritz

The big rumour doing the rounds in the Australian media biz is that The Australian, which was recently separated as a business unit from other News Ltd newspapers, will soon become an online-only, but still paid-for, product. For those of us who love newspapers, that would be a great shame, but it could guarantee the survival of the title in difficult times and prove to be a blueprint for other publications. And, as I've already speculated (here), the expected announcement of Apple's new tablet computer next week could provide the perfect delivery platform for internet newspapers.
PS: There's a thread on Twitter about newsagencies closing down in Brisbane -- a sad casualty of dropping sales of papers and magazines, and of rising retail rents.

It's just wrong ...

Posted January 20th, 2010 by debritz

The Times website, timesonline.co.uk, is going to have to do a bit better than this if it hopes to start charging for content.

All change at the Courier

Posted January 19th, 2010 by debritz

The Courier-Mail has announced a raft of changes to its features pullouts. In confirming that MasterChef star Matt Preston will write a weekly column for Tuesday's taste liftout (a national product with local inclusions), the Courier also revealed that its existing CM2 features section on Friday and Your Money on Monday would be complemented by a rebranded TV liftout, Switched On, on Wednesdays, and a music and movies section, Hit, on Thursdays. The changes seem to fit in with moves to streamline the production of features sections across the News Ltd group.

Is big media finished?

Posted January 18th, 2010 by debritz

"The future is individual journalists, not big media."

So said Greg Hadfield in announcing his resignation as head of Telegraph Media Group's digital development during a keynote speech to a conference in the UK. Many in the media would agree with Hadfield's assessment - although probably not those running the big media companies. Roy Greenslade's story for Media Guardian is here.

A new Australian

Posted January 14th, 2010 by debritz

Update: Just a thought: I wonder if The Australian's announcement is in any way connected with Apple's expected launch on January 26 of a tablet computer that, among other things, will be an e-reader capable of displaying newspapers in a reader-friendly fashion?

Changes to the structure of News Ltd mean The Australian has become a separate business entity. As the paper itself reported:

The move will position The Australian for further growth in print and online, as well as through emerging digital platforms such as smartphones and electronic readers, at a time when the media group is looking to charge for online content.

I suppose The Australian is best positioned among the group's Australian mastheads to succeed as a paid online product, but there are still no guarantees that the strategy will work. It pains me to say that newspapers are dying but, as I have said before, I currently pay for subscription television, so if the right news product is offered online, I will probably pay for that. The real challenge is for the online "news" sites that currently derive most of their hits from constantly regurgitated gossip and pictures of Jennifer Hawkins/ Megan Fox/ [insert name of currently desirable supermodel or movie star here], which will always be offered for free by somebody somewhere.
PS: Part of the problem is that many people believe that by paying for internet access, they have already paid for the content. Changing that mindset will also be difficult.

Pot and kettle ...

Posted December 30th, 2009 by debritz

It seems news.com.au hit the wrong note with this story criticising "the younger generation" for using their mobile phones to filming a burning car in which two girls died. As many of the commenters point out, it's a bit hypocrtical of anyone in the news media to criticise others for filming a newsworthy event. And, of course, in commoin with other websites, news.com.au often solicits readers' photos and videos.

Another newspaper closure

Posted December 22nd, 2009 by debritz

It's not been a good year for newspapers, especially in America -- and this week has brought more bad news. The Washington Times, which has already announced plans to sack at least 40 per cent of its staff, will close its Sunday edition, becoming a five-day-a-week publication. Several rumours have been swirling around about the paper's future, including a suggestion that it will axe its sport coverage altogether by February. I love newspapers and, having been through and seen a few closures over the years, I hate it when they go to the wall. However, I think we'd be crazy to think it won't happen here again. I also think that the web products that replace newspapers won't necessarily copy their "inclusive" format. News websites are likely to be tailored to suit specific audiences rather than general readers, meaning many of the features we now expect to see -- yes, even sport -- will disappear from some titles altogether. Of course, this will create opportunities for other publishers, but many events and activities will be denied the mainstream coverage they now receive. The big fear is that news will become a popularity contest, and eventually only those stories guaranteed to receive a large number of page impressions will be written and published at all.

Cut the confusion, please

Posted November 5th, 2009 by debritz

As I've said on this blog, and on radio, I am open to paying for online news, if what's on offer is appealing to me. However, most of the websites I currently visit have a long way to go before the deliver something I'd pay for. I definitely will not pay to see picture galleries of Jennifer Hawkins or Megan Fox. Apart from the actual content, I hope the people who are presumably creating the paid-for offering for the big publishers have a close look at the navigation systems of their sites. If I'm going to pay for content, I want to be able to find it quickly. Yesterday, I took my virtual protractor and slide rule to couriermail.com.au, which has one of the most confusing menu systems I've ever encountered. If my counting skills are functioning properly, the menu system offers up 13 main categories, with 12 extras underneath. With the dropdowns, there's a total of 79 options for the confused reader to try to work their way through in an attempt to find the content they want. Now that's just crazy. You'd be lucky to get 79 pages of news in the average daily paper, let alone 79 different categories. One of the things that's great about newspapers is that people know how to navigate their way around them: news up the front, features, opinion and business in the middle, and sport at the back. The website should be just as intuitive, and some streamlining is urgently needed.
PS: By way of comparision, the UK Digital Publisher of the Year winner, telegraph.co.uk has 14 main menu items plus changing "hot topics" links.

Pushing the pay button

Posted November 4th, 2009 by debritz

I've just received an email from the folks behind news aggregator Wotnews inviting me to trial a news service called Team Stream. It promises a "better way for companies to read the news" and says, after the free trial finishes, it will cost "less than $1 / user / day with discounts for larger networks". How much of this will go to the content creators, I wonder.

And the answer is ...

Posted November 4th, 2009 by debritz

My apologies to the folks at Metro. Today, I received this personal reply to my query. regarding the email address on the 60 Seconds column:

Hi Brett,
As strange as it may seem, people do contact us and ask to be interviewed. It is a very popular spot and quite sought after.
Thanks for the query.
Best regards,
Kylie

We're not bothered, but please email again

Posted November 3rd, 2009 by debritz

As an Anglophile, I like to keep on top of news from the UK, so I regularly check newspaper websites and I subscribe to the online edition of Metro, the free London paper. As a journalist, I like to check out the various quirks of other publications, including bits of "furniture" on pages that seem to have no real purpose. Having spotted an email address under the banner for the 60 Seconds celebrity-interview column in Metro, I sent off the following email:

I'm a fan of Metro, but I can't work out why this email address is on the 60 Seconds column. Do you expect celebrities to contact you and ask to be interviewed?

I received this automated reply:

Thank you, we have received your 60seconds request. Due to the large number of emails we receive, we cannot reply to everyone individually. If you do not hear from us, please assume we are not able to use your idea. Thank you for your interest and do email again in the future.

It made my day.

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