Copy-paste journalism wants to be free

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.

About Pekka Pekkala

Pekka Pekkala is a freelance writer and Visiting Scholar at USC Annenberg, writing a book “How to Keep Journalism Profitable” on a grant from Helsingin Sanomat Foundation.

Comments

  1. There’s nothing new about good journalists having to find the real news and report on it well. With the enormous financial cutbacks at major media companies the number of journalists have been reduced as well as their pay. This pressure has made many media properties simply churned content farms particularly when it comes to new product launches where they do not have the time and individual expertise to provide needed insight. You my have hear of http://churnalism.com – a British site that matches the original press release with the actual story.

    I think the other bigger problem is that many good (customer need to know) stories are not being told because of the lack of writers and time. I suspect that most product introductions never really see the light of day and in a world of incredible innovation and creatively we cannot let this continue.

    To be clear, I do not blame the journalists who find it very hard to get new jobs and pay their bills.

    I believe the biggest trend you note is that (new product) information wants to free and with more direct to customer communication it will be – so long as it’s authentic and trusted – something that the Public Relations industry recognizes as the bedrock of their long-term professional value.

    We are watching the beginning of PR Journalism. The tides have dramatically turned. There are now 4:1 PR professionals to journalists. The good news is many of these journalists have gone to the PR side to create quality content and keep an income.

    You are right that maintaining quality readership will pressure media properties to distinguish themselves as deep and thoughtful thinkers. Their survival depends on it!

  2. Hi Brian,

    and thank you for the comment.

    I am painfully aware of the 4:1 ratio of PR people and journalists. Even worse, I see my very professional ex-colleagues moving to PR side of things. Better pay, job security and I am sure it is a challenging, fun job. But not journalism.

  3. Nicely said.
    This fits with my personal adage that, “News is a commodity. Perspective is not.” I agree that for journalist to create genuine value, they need to dig deeper and show their unique value that attracts the audience to them.
    I’ve also always found Mr. Brand’s name to be ironic. Because as a marketer myself, this is what marketers have always tried to do to distinguish their brands: make them more valuable than the commodity.

  4. I would strongly suggest reading the suggested rules for cutting and pasting in The Digital Media Pyramid. http://digitalmediapyramid.wix.com/bendavis
    Also, look at section dealing with media curation.

  5. “who is the Andrew Sullivan or Kara Swisher of your newsroom?”

    More to the point – Who is the Walter Cronkite of the Internet? Who is the Howard K. Smith of Twitter?

  6. Mark Schlack says:

    I work in B2B journalism. I agree you with you about voice, but it is very clear in my field that for an event like CES, there are 100s of unreported stories. What at CES will change healthcare delivery (like tablets for doctors)? How will it impact mobile commerce? And so on. Take it a step further: rather than be part of the CES echo chamber, go talk to people who buy and use these things — do they work? do they do what they want them to? are they reliable? what do improvements do they want to see?

    And, btw, if you do that kind of reporting consistently, whether for a general or niche audience, you’ll be in a much better position to have an opinion or a voice that anyone cares about.

    Better to write 3 thoughtful stories than 5 copy-paste ones, IMO. As journalists, we should avoid commoditizing ourselves and our product.

  7. I agree with you absolutely. Thanks to a very great article.

  8. I think that the major problem lying behind this practice are those financial issues that editors have to face every month. Maintaining monthly editions is costly and editors rely mainly on big advertisers. In the situation where a good amount of content producers practice self-censorship to protect the financial interest of both the owners and the major advertisers of their publishing company, i think that is reasonable for them to completely rely on the “safe” press releases to fill up the pages.
    And of course, there is also the issue of inexperienced, lazy or completely unresponsible ppl. who simply can’t or won’t put the required effort in the writing of an original article.

  9. I think the problem revolves around the fact that people are trying to do too much in too little time. Hence spinning and copying of content without actually adding any value to the topic is all we are left with for majority of topics that are present, be it any kind of media. People need to realize that perspective, the fresh point of view makes things to turn into great from average and from insipid to engaging.

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