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“Ha ha! Your medium is dying!” or, Print is Withering

January 7, 2008

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The Simpsons has been none too kind to print media, with the clip above showing Nelson mocking a Washington Post reporter. It’s quite a catchy little taunt. Oh dear.

Coincidentally (or is it all the media itself is interested in these days? Can’t really blame ‘em), Roy Greenslade has a big piece in today’s MediaGuardian about the digitisation of newsrooms.

First, he hits up The Telegraph’s flash new offices in Victoria. A move that involved a lot of job losses and general upheaval. However, the consensus of those who’ve visited seems to be that it was all worth it. Placing more emphasis on online reporting has led to 7-day weeks – how else to remain competitive? – and a complete change in how a story is published:

Stage one: a quick text story on the website to break the news. Stage two: updates as and when necessary on the site. Stage three: if a video or audio clip seems appropriate then he/she will go into the studio, located on the same floor. Stage four: as the day progresses the writer gets both extra background and reaction, some of it from contributions to the site.

That sounds much better than simply bunging it into the next edition, and your story quickly growing out of date as the next day’s events unfold. Also, how cute, they make a big thing out of working on two monitors. Sweetheart, I had three monitors at my last job, and kept an eye on a few TV screens as well. It’s the only way to work (and makes hiding emailing/general surfing much easier).

The Royster is “unconvinced by the double-screen approach.” I’m not sure what he finds so offensive about it, but hey-ho. Maybe it’s not executed v. well at the Tel’s offices? Who knows. Having more screens and being able to keep more windows up does make life easier, because you’re always cross-referencing when you’re writing online.

The last word on the Telegraph? “Meanwhile, all the staff know which are the most popular stories online from a projected wall screen which provides instantaneous feedback.” SCARY, but also kind of cool. Will make those journos who got into it to outscoop the world even more competitive. Which could be amusing to see.

Onwards to the FT’s offices, which surely must be pink. The point is made that “fact-based scoops” have a greated impact when first published on the interwebs rather than on paper. Their editor, Lionel Barber, said: “We’ve been talking the language of integration here for eight years,”which is probably longer than the nationals have been doing so.

Still, back in the year 2000, were that many people already into reading news from the web? [I'd only just discovered the internet, and newspapers were the last thing on my mind. Then again, I was 16, and the internet, for me, was about email and IMing rather than reading.] It’s become clearer in the intervening time which medium is more likely to pull in the readers.

Gideon Rachman, the FT’s foreign affairs columnist, had just asked his blog readers what they thought about a topic before writing at length about it himself, he explained.

That’s really interesting and a good way of going about things. It can worry people, too (more specifically, established journalists), because it’s one of the aspects of online news that blurs the demarcation between journo and “citizen journo”/blogger/pleb. Although the FT had its share of job cuts and problems during the integration period, it seems to have done it successfully.

Last stop is The Times. Dear old Wapping. Roy turns up at an interesting moment, just before Lord Murdoch swaps one editor for another. The then soon-to-be-ex editor (what a comfortable phrase that was), Robert Thomson, said: “The secret is to create an environment in which to use them appropriately. Nor is it about how newsrooms look [a dig at the Telegraph] but how it feels and produces.” Ooh, burn. Also:

Though serious papers have never resembled news agencies, a great deal of their content did tend to consist of stories that recorded a set of bald facts.

That is no longer good enough. “We are not a news agency,” says Thomson. In an echo of Lionel Barber, he refers to the added value that newspaper websites must offer, whether it be analysis, specialist knowledge or writing ability.

That is a genuine concern, not least because news agency copy is syndicated all over the web, and pops up in Google News searches alongside the newspapers, BBC, etc. To ensure people don’t just bypass the papers to check out the various versions of news from the agencies, papers have to bring some expertise or comment or whatever else they can think of to the material.

Greenslade says that, at The Times, there is a four-hour gap in uploading each day, between 3am and 7am, which needs to be addressed. Thanks to some work experience I did there this time last year, I know that there was a system of news reporters doing a few weeks of normal hours, then a week of 6pm-2am, then back to normal. Odd Sunday shifts were thrown in as well. I’m not entirely sure if this is still the case at The Times, but that schedule sounds like murder. The move to 24-hour news has to avoid exhausting the staff (I know of what I type: 10-day weeks without break, 7 of them 5pm-1am, the others 1pm-9pm. That’s news agencies for you).

The article ends on an abrupt and ominous note:

So somewhere down the track it is likely that the logic of some kind of merged staffing will strike Rupert Murdoch’s News International as a good idea.

Well, Roy kind of has to, it’s The Guardian talking about The Times; he’s gotta snark. It’s a shame that this really interesting and informative piece of writing doesn’t take in The Guardian’s own plans, but that is a bit off-subject as they haven’t made the move yet. It’s scheduled for this year though, and they’ve certainly had their own problems with moving towards a 24/7 working week. For more info, click here and here.

This whole print-to-online thing affected pretty much every paper in 2007. You can’t help thinking that Nelson Muntz has a bit of a point. Print is withering, and it won’t ever fully die, but the change from one system to another will be a protracted process, and probably fairly painful.*

Some more Nelson to cheer you up…

*Much like that sentence was to read!

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