List operators Columbia Journalism Review’s recent feature on “modern-day newsrooms” opened in BuzzFeed’s American head office. BuzzFeed is known for its viral content: cat videos, amusing lists and more. “The 100 most important dog photos of all time” was one headline that caught my eye. CJR reported that Columbia University graduate Rega Jha became a BuzzFeed star with “29 Struggles That Only People With Big Butts Will Understand”. That list scored 4.8 million views in one week but don’t snigger. Jha also writes serious stuff, such as a 4000-word feature on sexual abuse in India. BuzzFeed’s Australian office opened in January 2014. It now has five editorial staff, including “a breaking news journalist”. The site already has enough traffic to be in Australia’s top ten news sites but it was initially classified as a search engine or portal. The website is now classified as a provider of news and information.
Rage against the machine In late 2010, Statsheet set up 345 websites to cover American college basketball division 1 games. The sites publish 15,000 match reports, previews and other stories each month and all of them are written by a machine. Danish journalism academic Arjen van Dalen says “algorithms automatically generate stories on the basis of game statistics and a set stock of phrases”. His essay appears in The Future of Journalism: Developments and Debates (Routledge, 2013). Appendix A is an example of one of these robot-written stories. Again, don’t snigger. The piece is actually fine, if a little formulaic. Here’s the machine’s intro: “Top-seeded Duke got a nasty surprise in the Sweet Sixteen, with a 93-77 upset loss to fifth-seeded Arizona in Anaheim.” Real estate, finance yarns, obits, world politics or national security, van Dalen reckons all these could be automated, eventually. Why not? Sometimes it feels like we’ve got a bunch of robots running the show. Why not get robots to write about them via “a patented artificial intelligence platform that spots patterns”?
Grammar gets groovy Fairfax has offshored the subediting of all its metro newspapers to New Zealand and is getting rid of subs on regional papers but the pretty, accurate, active sentence is not dead yet. BuzzFeed is hiring copy editors “the ultimate symbol of overstuffed print newsrooms of the pre-digital past”, says CJR. Here in Melbourne, The Monthly still does things the old-fashioned way – my August issue piece on neonatal intensive care was rigorously edited, copy subbed and fact checked. Likewise, an essay I wrote for Griffith Review in January was also published, abbreviated, on ABC’s The Drum and the edit was so elegant and clean. In Collingwood, Penny Modra and crew have set up a copywriting agency and opened a shop, The Good Copy. They will offer “grammar classes for adults”. I admit that this idea gives me a little sexy thrill. As every sub knows, polishing copy to perfection is a pleasure.
We’re all curators now Not subeditor. Not news editor. Not copy taster. Not check sub. Not proof reader. Not picture editor. We are all curators now. So queue rate mate! I don’t know why I just wrote that. Sorry.
Thank You For Your Service This is the title of David Finkel’s brilliant 2013 book of “nonfiction journalism”. Finkel, who is a journalist at the Washington Post, tracks the lives of American soldiers (and their families) after they have come home from Iraq. It is such a powerful, honest book about these ordinary people. ‘There is no resonance in the extremes,’ Finkel told ABCs’ Richard Fidler. ‘The extremes don’t teach me anything about myself.’ In his note on sources and methods, Finkel says he did the primary reporting between January 2010 and September 2011 in Kansas, Washington, the Pentagon, Colorado, Minnesota, Iowa, and California. The additional reporting happened between April 2007 and April 2008 in Baghdad, Iraq. David, thank you for your service to the craft of print journalism.
Free as a bird, baby (a) The phone rings. It’s Thursday, late arvo: “Hello, Rachel? Yeah, hi. We’re running a series of essays called The Summer That Changed My Life and we’d really love to get a piece from you. About 1500 words, give or take. And we need a photo too. Bit of a tight one, I’m afraid. We need it by Tuesday morning. Hmmm. Well. You’re the first person to ask about that. Most people are happy to do it for the exposure, but my budget can probably stretch to $140. How does that sound?”
(b) The phone rings. This time it’s Thursday morning. “Hello, Rachel? Did you get my email? Oh, you’re at work. Oh well, anyway, listen that piece you wrote for us [for free], we’d really like you to update it. What? You don’t have time? But if you don’t update it, we’ll have to take it down. No, I can’t update it. I’m too busy.”
(c) The phone rings. It’s Melbourne Cup Day, late arvo again. “Rachel, hey there. We’ve got a bit of a situation. You know that post you wrote [for free], that amazing piece of ‘citizen journalism’ you wrote? I think we’re onto something big. [Editor explains a newsworthy development] It’s all over Twitter. So, can you follow that up? Oh. Right. No. You think someone who is on our staff and is being paid penalty rates for working on a public holiday should actually do that? Okay. Bye.”
We’ll huff and we’ll puff News companies need to make more content for a lower price. That’s where we are at now. That’s the thinking that makes the previous three phone calls possible. Want to know more? Read Piet Bakker’s piece, ‘Aggregation, Content Farms and Huffinization: The rise of low-pay and no-pay journalism’, in The Future of Journalism (2013). Or you can check out the digital sweatshop scene for yourself by taking a job for media outsourcing firm in Manilla, Bangalore or Wellington. I’d go for the last one. The pay will be better in New Zealand. For an exclusive sneak peak of the pay and conditions, read chapters 1 and 2 of Stop Press.
Just give it a blitz The content formerly known as journalism and the content formerly known as advertising will be poured into one big gigantic blender and blitzed. Result? Sponsored content, native advertising, embedded advertising, user-generated ads and content shared and liked on social media by customers rather than companies. Note how I sneaked in a little ad for my book at the end of “huff and puff”? That’s what I’m talking about but maybe more subtle.
Comics, cartoons and non-fiction graphic novels Let me dream. My ideal newspaper would have cartoons and comics on every page. There will be more books as awesome as The Photographer (photographer Didier Lefevre and artist Emmanuel Guibert document the work of Doctors Without Borders in the war between the Soviet Union and the Afghan Mujahideen in Afghanistan in the late 1980s).
It’s a long, long road Not rosy, not bright, not radiant but alright. Good bits? I’ve already mentioned David Finkel but I like the Penguin Specials short books too (Gideon Haigh on car manufacturing, Kate Richards on mental health). Across the ditch, BWB Texts are excellent. You can buy them on paper or as e-books. If you’re going to take that offshored job for Fairfax, reading Max Rashbrooke’s essay – The Inequality Debate: An Introduction – will help you understand the society you are stepping into. I adore N + 1, the magazine produced in Brooklyn, New York. Emily Witt’s exploration of sex (coregasms!) was amazing and challenging and shocking and fantastic but I left my bloody copy on the Werribee line train. You can click here now and read Melissa Lucashenko’s blistering essay on poverty. It’s a bit like Finkel’s work except the subjects are women – all mothers – and they live in Logan City, Queensland. Ex-soldier James Brown’s book Anzac’s Long Shadow was original and well reported and I enjoyed Julie Szego’s book on Farah Jama’s botched trial as well. Welcome to the future guys.