So, the conversation turned without premeditation to passing wind, or farts (sorry…). It had been this moment, when this most talented of journalists had decided to quit the profession.
On a quiet Bank Holiday it was revealed to those hard-working Trinity Mirror souls that a story about farting having health benefits was trending and they should publish a version of this story and build content around.
For the journalist, the whiff of wind story was the straw that broke the camel’s back. They decided enough was enough and planned their great escape.
Cut to many months down the line and a student of mine expressed their despair at the quality of the stories on the Birmingham Mail web site.
I asked, ‘what kind of stories do you expect then?’. The answer was based around the need for ‘proper’ news stories. Mmmmmmmmm.
OK, sleeves now rolled up, ‘what is a proper news story?’, I asked.
And this is the issue. My view has always been that the online audience and the newspaper readership is fundamentally different, they want different content.
The problem newspaper executives have been fighting with is, how can they provide great online content and keep newspapers ticking over as sales disappear while drastically reducing staff?
Now we have the chance to find out. TM’s Birmingham Mail is separating online and newspaper content and has different teams to do the work.
In a blog, the newspaper’s editor Marc Reeves, outlines his plan and states that this may help save the newspaper.
While I think this is a brave claim, the paper only sells just over 18,000 (it sold 130,000 in 2000 and more than 200,000 in the 1990s), the ideal of separating the content is absolutely right.
Online content is different as is the audience, so why feed them content from newspapers?
On the other side of the coin, it is difficult to copy and paste a lot of the content from online and hope someone can turn it into content for a newspaper.
So what are the issues? Can the Birmingham Mail sustain two news teams? It’s a tall order but I hope they give it a chance and not pull the plug too soon.
Also, there maybe problems in convincing anyone to work for the print version when clearly TM is fully focussed on the web, but I digress.
The concern is that this online/newspaper divorce may be possible when you are a big operation based in a cosmopolitan city, but in the sticks it might not be sustainable, or even possible.
So how do you provide specific content for online while maintaining a newspaper which also has its own content?
In a way, what the Mail has decided to do is finally put to bed the row over the definition of what a story is.
Clearly, the online audience has one view of what kind of story they would like to read and the newspaper readers another, and that is fine.
Also, online readers are their own editors, so often set the news agenda for the newspapers who are chasing the audience.
Meanwhile, those in charge of a newspaper provide the content they think the paper readers want by bundling the news up for them to digest.
Of course, there are old-style newspaper stories which do well online, but many don’t, or at least they don’t get an audience.
I return briefly to a blog I wrote where it was decided that many health stories didn’t work online…unless they were of a certain type.
So those difficult stories from health meetings, while important, just fail to engage the audience, but a warning/scare story on scarlet fever flies online.
One of the most obvious reasons for different content is that there are so more many tools available to tell a story online such as video, audio, slideshows and aggregation of content, a rich seam.
This is why the skills of the 21st century journalist are so varied. Compare this to when I started with just a typewriter and one job to do, write a story.
So, back to farting… is this a story? You can’t really blame anyone for reporting this, academic research showing that sniffing farts is good for your health…
For me, this is a story. The disappointment I have is that most of the stories around it that I have read only quote the researchers, there’s no balance or another opinion.
This is a problem. The demand to produce endless content to feed the online beast means little time is spent on exploring in depth the stories about to be published.
Here’s an example. When I was in newspapers I demanded at least three quotes per lead story and these shouldn’t just be councillors or any other usual suspects…that was too easy.
Today, as a journalism lecturer, I demand this from many of the articles written by students.
They often point out that this requirement now doesn’t always match that of the professional standard when often there are fewer quotes.
The students are right. So my three quote rule has had to become an academic standard to test their ability to interview people, it is no longer or at least a necessary professional standard. That’s unfortunate.
Journalism is about balance, even when it comes to passing wind…
Finally, it has come to my attention that there’s a rumpus going on in a regional newspaper newsroom.
According to sources (love using that expression) some editorial staff are looking bored and disinterested in the news conference. Whoops.
The boredom is so transparent, that senior editorial executives have been moved to send out a memo telling the staff to basically…not to look bored and stop staring into space. There’s a telling off.
I’m baffled. Conference was always grand theatre and the star performer was the editorial head honcho. If they are unable to inject some enthusiasm into their staff, I think there must be a problem.
The only way to rectify this is to make it interesting and engaging. Some of the conferences I have attended were pure genius.
News editors telling stories while climbing over desks to relive the drama, editor’s showing their disapproval at the news list by leaving the room and minutes later being spotted driving past the conference room on their way to the pub.
OK, this was drastic, but we laughed long and hard about it and the editor’s act of mutiny made sure we produced a set of sparkling stories.
Lively debate, great humour, brilliant ideas, amazing photographs/video. This is conference. It is where the editor’s voice is heard and the philosophy of the newspaper is developed.
It is also great for team building and allowing the creative juices to flow. One thing, it was never was boring.