Google News is a depressing read for a journalist. It shows you how many news outlets depend on copy-and-paste reporting, regurgitating the same press releases and quotes in an infinite loop. Who needs all these clones of the same story, with the same basic facts and sources?
This occurred to me a few weeks ago when I was sent to the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) to cover it for an IT magazine in Finland. The story assignment was the typical “go around, see what the trends are, find a couple of non-mainstream gadgets.”
Events like CES used to be fun for gadget-loving journalists. You walked around, talked to people and filed a story once a night or at the end of the show. But in 2013, everything is different.
It is almost impossible to break any news at the event, because there are tens or hundreds of journalists covering the same press events, tweeting or live-blogging them with video. Speed is everything. How could I write anything significant for a monthly IT magazine that comes out two weeks after the show?
For PR departments in technology companies, this is a dream come true. Your press releases are not buried somewhere in the “news” section of your company web site, which has probably three unique visitors a week. Instead, your products get instant publicity in Gizmodo, Engadget, The Verge or CNET. Tech enthusiasts share those stories in social media. Eventually they are translated and copied to smaller tech websites around the world.
During the CES, I followed the most hyped topics on news.google.com. It was somewhat heartbreaking to see how many almost identical copies all the journalists covering CES produced. A search for “LG OLED CES” produced 1,307 sources. “Self-driving car CES” — 1,247 sources. “Lego EV3 CES” — 234 sources. This is just the English-language media.
There is nothing inherently wrong with having 1,307 LG OLED stories to choose from. However, when they all look the same, we have a problem — hundreds of copies of the same press release, slightly tweaked. And the more you have copies, the less value a single copy has. In the old days, when all the publications had their own, small print market, readers did not realize they were reading copies. Neither did advertisers.
But the Internet made all this transparent, and this is the main reason why traditional publishers are losing audiences, especially paying ones. Readers will not pay for stories they have already read elsewhere. It does not matter if your brand is 100 years old or you used to be the IT or business publication for the decision makers. A copy is a copy, even behind a paywall.
What is even worse, advertisers realize this as well. They are not willing to pay a premium for a product that is a duplicate, no matter if it is a digital or a print copy.
From a journalistic perspective, this is both good news and bad. The bad news is that fewer stories are needed overall as more and more people cut out the middleman and go straight to the source. This means fewer jobs in traditional media. So if you notice yourself writing the same stories as everyone else, or even worse, using copy-paste more than before, run. Your job will become extinct.
However, there is some good news, too. The abundance of copies forces journalists to find their own voice, niche and style. This is why opinion pieces and columns are doing pretty well on the “most-read” story lists. A personality, at least for now, cannot be broken down to zeroes and ones and copied to hundreds of other sites. It is no coincidence that in the exclusive story of Google Glass in The Verge, there were more pictures of the editor-in-chief, Joshua Topolsky, than there were pictures of Google Glass.
The new idea of “more personal” journalism is a challenge, not just for newsrooms but for journalism schools, as well. When I was in journalism school at the end of last century, I learned that journalists create similar stories when they are based on pure facts. You put 10 journalists in a room, give them the same information, and get 10 identical stories.
Nevertheless, as we are moving from an industrial age to a digital one, this notion of a journalist as a kind of “fact mechanic” is slowly transforming. The Internet still needs a few good, solid news pieces about CES that are based on facts. But we don’t need the massive overflow of copies or near-duplicate stories. A computer already does that faster and better with some of the business and sports news.
With computer-generated journalism, the old quote “information wants to be free” is becoming a reality. And it is happening exactly the way Stewart Brand predicted: “the cost of getting it (information) out is getting lower and lower all the time.”
Luckily for journalists, the free part is only half of the quote. It actually begins with “information wants to be expensive, because it’s so valuable.” As Brand points out, some of the things you read or see can literally change your life.
Finding life-changing stories every day might be an impossible task. So start from the other end of the quote, by dumping the low-cost stories. Stop making copies – unless they are produced by a computer.
Start to look around in your organization for things that cannot be copied to zeroes and ones. Humans with personal style are a good start: who is the Andrew Sullivan or Kara Swisher of your newsroom? Or think about adopting a voice or style that is distinctive just for your publication. If you are a local newspaper, be fiercely local. Passionate about food, a sports team or cars? Let it show.
If nobody in the newsroom is wasting time making copies, journalists have more time to dig deeper, make that extra phone call and find another source. That is when you start producing the expensive information. As Brand would say: information so valuable that it might change lives.