Well, what a news day Friday 24th August was. We had former Bundaberg surgeon Jayant Patel’s conviction overturned (and a new trial ordered) by the High Court, Norwegian killer Anders Breivik declared sane and, in the cycling world, the news that Lance Armstrong had decided to end his battle against the United States Anti-Doping Agency over doping allegations.
It’s this last story that I’ve chosen to do a coverage review on, for several reasons.
- As a law student, I don’t think could cover the first two without getting side-tracked into legal analysis (which isn’t really the point of this blog).
- The Armstrong story was the first time I’ve actually seen a story break on Twitter before my eyes (as in, one moment nothing, then whoosh – news!) and I followed the ABC story as it was written and updated.
- I used to watch the Tour de France in the Armstrong days, with my father, and he was/ is one of the few athletes I’ve come close to semi-admiring. So the story had a tiny bit of personal connection for me.
For this review, I’ll be comparing the coverage of two news sources: The ABC Online news story, and the article posted to the Courier Mail’s online site later that day. I will also be loosely judging the stories based on a few of the Dozen Online Writing Tips, suggested by Jonathan Dube, from Cyberjournalist.net and the Poynter Institute.
1. ABC Online story
Here’s the tweet which first alerted me to the story. I was idly browsing Twitter when it popped up in my news feed.
And here’s a clarification tweet that came up a bit later. Take note of the clarification – as one commenter said, it really is almost a completely different story. I suppose this is a good example of “Speed vs Accuracy” at work. But at least the first tweet told me the story had broken AND the ABC did clarify/ correct the error pretty quickly.
And here’s the article that appeared on the ABC’s website. There wasn’t a link to it from their Twitter feed, but I knew once I saw the tweet that I could head over to their website. I was actually there before the article was put up.
As I mentioned previously, I literally watched this story come together over a few hours. It started with a very basic couple of sentences breaking the news, and then I watched as more detailed was added (until the full story was up by the time I got home)
Overall, I think this story is the better of the two, for two main reasons:
1. The ABC has (in my opinion) the better story.
At just a quick read, the reader is able to understand the gist of Armstrong’s statement and why he has made his decision. However, the USADA’s position is put forward to counterbalance, with quotes from the USADA chief executive. Further, the entire USADA’s case is outlined in the fact box, which helps present their side of the story.
Overall, the article is probably more biased in favour of Armstrong. He’s the most extensively quoted person, though this may be because the author seemed to be at the announcement (the way the story went together showed me a good example of how a running story pans out).
The story’s lead is nice and clear and there doesn’t appear to be any instances of “pile on”. Although the story was continually updated with new information, the article remained perfectly understandable for new readers (see hints for online writing #6 & 7). It also neatly follows conventional journalistic structure, with the most important information at the start, with everything under the pull quote as background information for the interested reader.
Finally, the story is a good length. Once the fact box is taken out, it’s just under 700 words, which seems a good length (hint #8 suggests keeping stories under 800, as a guide).
2. The ABC has told the story well.
They’ve clearly thought about how to best ‘Tailor their news gathering’ (see hints for online writing #3) to tell the story.
I think there is excellent collaboration between the writing, visual and interactive elements. The completed article has a nice picture slideshow (mostly of relevant images from his Tour de France wins). The USADA’s case against Armstrong is comprehensively outlined, but in a summary box next to the article, so the main story isn’t burdened with the extra detail. It ends with a few links to Youtube videos of Armstrong’s cycling career (which I thought was a nice touch). There are also links throughout the article to other relevant stories, and importantly, the link to Armstrong’s statement is in the first couple of paragraphs.
If there’s one criticism I have of the layout, it’s that it could maybe be broken up better (the paragraph spacing could be bigger), although the addition of the pull quote gives the reader a place to pause. There’s also a link to a Google Map of the United States, with (I’m assuming) the location of Armstrong’s press conference marked? I’m not really sure that this adds anything to the story.
2. Courier Mail online story
Note: The Courier Mail may have posted an improved/ different article later. However, I selected this article, as it was the one first linked to in their twitter feed and the one used to break the story.
Overall, I don’t think this article provides particularly outstanding coverage. There are several reasons for this:
1. The headline is inaccurate (at least in my opinion).
It states “USADA strips Lance Armstrong of Tour de France titles.” As far as I am aware, when the article was written, he had not been stripped of his titles (leaving aside questions of whether the USADA actually has the jurisdiction to do so…)
2. The story itself
The article is written strangely and is awkwardly organised. The actual article seems to finish just above the sub-heading “Lance through the heart”. My eyes actually skipped over/ didn’t register the little “-AFP” indicator at the end of it when I read through the first time. The rest of the story appears to be a mix of commentary and reporting from a different author – Philip Hersh from the Chicago Tribune.
However, it’s the overall tone and viewpoint of the article I have the most issues with. The article seems very pro-USADA/ anti-Armstrong. The USADA’s voice and opinion features most strongly and Armstrong doesn’t even get a say until very near the end. The link near the end to Armstrong’s statement almost looks like an afterthought. Also, there seems to be a bit of “pile on” happening in the latter half (see Dube’s hints for online writing #7). A paragraph about other Tour de France winners/ cyclists who have been caught for doping appears before the information about Armstrong’s statement. While this ordering isn’t a “pile on” of “new” information (as the Tour de France background is older news), I still think it creates an awkward mish-mash of the story.
Also, some of the reporting and commentary hardly seem impartial: “But he officially will be known as a doping cheat forever,” and “Armstrong’s statement was still filled with the arrogance and bravado that marked his post-cancer cycling career.” The first video does help provide a little more background for Armstrong’s side of the debate, but not much. However, the article ultimately does seem to cover the story from the USADA side.
The article also might run a bit too long – it’s nearly 1,000 words.
3. The layout
I think the Courier Mail could have done a bit better at breaking the story up. There’s a lot of text to read and very little else. The one photo of Armstrong and a single heading – no charts or tables that might be useful in summarising information (as suggested by Jonathan Dube’s 9th tip for online writing). The standfirst at the beginning of the story doesn’t actually summarise its content, instead linking the reader out to other articles. I don’t think the videos really help to “break up” the story either, given they’re placed before it. There is a link to a larger photo gallery, but it takes you to the Herald Sun’s site.
Overall, it doesn’t look like the Courier Mail put a large amount of time and resources into this article. Perhaps this is understandable, given that August 24th also saw a massive local story break (Jayant Patel’s High Court victory), which the Courier Mail did cover extensively. Jonathan Dube’s first online writing tip is to “Know your audience.” As the Courier Mail is primarily a Queensland newspaper, it makes sense they would given more attention to the Patel decision.
In the wake of this week’s “speed vs. accuracy” exam for QUTOJ1 students, I’ve realised one major thing.
…I’m something of a perfectionist…
By this, I mean I probably spend far too much time considering every sentence, trying to ensure each sentence imparts as much information as possible. I’m also someone who will (usually) try to double check (or even triple check) any facts before I commit them to the page. In essence, I want to make each sentence as an efficient use of words and page space as possible.
Which is probably, as it turns out, a somewhat inefficient use of my time*
But at least I’ll get good marks for accuracy. Right?
However, I do understand the need for speedy writing in journalism, particularly in the online sphere. The news moves so fast nowadays, particularly in the era of 24-hour news channels. We are constantly being reminded that, in today’s world, “the deadline is now.”
Life in the fast lane
But what exactly is driving this “need for speed”
Kendyl Salcito, from the Centre for Journalism Ethics (at the University of Wisconsin-Madison) says the proliferation of news outlets – “bloggers by the millions… but also cable… satellite television” has led to a “multi-media race” to get “the story 24-hours a day. She notes that the public has an increasing demand to see news “as it happens”, particularly for coverage of natural disasters or other breaking events.
However, Salcito also says that “as the pace intensifies, so does the pressure to cut corners,” and that “laziness, lack of rigor and other bad habits” can complicate the ethics of speed and accuracy.
Ironically enough, the public that were hounding journalists for speedy information also expect the news media to create accurate and verified reports.
Former Washington journalist and journalism lecturer, Don Campbell, gives some good examples of errors that have occurred when journalists were too hasty (and perhaps merely repeated internet rumour without verification…). For instance:
1. Reporting Arizona congresswoman Gabrille Giffords as deceased after being shot in the head. She in fact survived.
2. Reporting an American governor was facing a federal indictment on tax charges. However, he didn’t have any evidence to support his claim and Campbell describes this as clear “character assassination”, with the blogger responsible putting “speed ahead of the basic principles of accuracy and verification.”
However, something Campbell found more troubling was that credible news organisations (e.g. The New York Times or Washington Post) ran one of these inaccurate stories on their online sites. This is the most troubling thing to me – if even these large, respected media organisations are putting speed before accuracy, I do wonder what future there is for someone like me who obsesses over detail?
Fastest fingers in the West?
At the end of the day, I think it’s a fine balancing act I’ll definitely need to learn to walk along (and quickly). However, I still think my somewhat pedantic attention to detail has a place – just maybe not in an online newsroom.
I think Salcito’s article gives me a good question to ponder:
“How much accuracy is too much, when news must be current?”
Or maybe I should just type faster?
*EDIT: my woeful (i.e. “no”) marks for speed prove this!
At the moment, the answer seems to be – probably not.
A recent online journalism lecture served as quite a wakeup call for many of my fellow students (and confirmed my own fears) about the current state of the journalism industry.
John Grey, former online editor at the Courier Mail, used a somewhat depressing Titanic analogy to describe the reaction media organisations have had to declining newspaper sales and the move to an “online future”.
“They’re not just rearranging the deckchairs, they’re throwing everything overboard.”
But before we all sink any further into the icy waters of despair, it’s worth noting consumers clearly still want our product. The following graph, using information from a Ray Morgan poll (and referred to in the Week 2 lecture) shows traffic to online news sources has grown very steadily over the past couple of years.
Further, it could also be said readers still want their news from the same familiar sources, that there remains a certain brand attraction (or loyalty) to specific news outlets. A 2012 “State of the Media” report by the Pew Research Centre’s Project for Excellence in Journalism found searches on (in?) the news outlet itselfwere the “most popular path to the news” (followed by general searching of the web).
However, even though people still want the news, the news organisations themselves are struggling to figure out how to make this pay. According to John Grey, the current online news model is free content, supplemented with advertising revenue. While there are many different ways of raising revenue online (charging properly for online advertisements, website registration with demographically targeted ads, metered access to websites), the most common method appears to be the construction of a “paywall”
Why have paywalls?
According to the Oxford Dictionary of English, a paywall is “an arrangement whereby access is restricted to users who have paid to subscribe to a website.” That little definition was added in 2010. Many news organisations are now making readers pay for online content – most notably big American newspapers like The New York Times and in Australian, local heavyweights like The Australian and Herald Sun.
For the New York Times, the paywall seems to be working, appearing to be partially offsetting the fall in revenue from their print publications. Steve Ladurantaye, a media reporter from The Globe and Mail, said the Times was expecting to earn $85 million from its nearly half a million online subscribers this year.
However, it should be noted that the Times paywall allows non-subscribers access to 10 free articles a month. Ladurantaye also says this “metered” system is becoming the preferred method of online publication. Carrot, then stick, I guess? Maybe “bait” is more appropriate.
Online media advocated and associate professor at New York University says the Times metered method has been working because it can target both dedicated and casual readers.
“We will never get a majority or even a sizeable minority of our readers to pay use directly, but we can design a system in which some of our most passionate, engaged readers pay us directly, and the rest of the readers, the casual readers, we can keep around for the advertising revenue,” he said in an interview earlier this year.
Closer to home, the Australian’s paywall also seems to be working, with around 40,000 subscribers by March 2012.
The other side of the argument
Not everyone is happy with paywalls.
A recent survey suggests only one in four new media professionals believe a paywall increases a company’s revenue. Maybe more alarming for news organisations, the survey also found more than half of the participants said they immediately left the site when they encountered a paywall. However, around 40% did say they at least considered a subscription purchase (and 22% said they tried to find some way of cheating the system).
I also find it interesting that even those who are training to be journalists are often turned away by a paywall. While that article is anecdotal evidence, with a very small sample size, I personally can’t help but feel it’s a good indicator of what might be happening. I know myself that I will often leave a news site once I’ve hit my free-article limit. It’s for that reason that I usually visit those organisations that don’t have a paywall (most notably the ABC, for obvious reasons). So if even journalism students are being turned away by paywalls, I can’t help but wonder how viable they are in the long-term.
And not every news site that erected a paywall has stuck with it. A large regional daily newspaper in the UK scrapped its paywall earlier this year after only nine months. However, it did replace it with an iPhone app, which suggest there may be plenty of other ways to get readers to buy content online.
Finally, but of the most concern to me, it’s also been suggested that paywalls will change the way journalists write. According to journalist Tim Burrowes, the traditional format (pyramid structure, layering of information etc) doesn’t work for “paywall journalism”. He says that as most paywalls allow the reader to see the headline and first couple of paragraphs, before asking for payment, the traditional model doesn’t prompt people to subscribe (as they’ll have gotten the most important information anyway). Instead, introductions need to written to intrigue the reader, or be deliberately vague and only get to the point in the 3rd paragraph (which is safely ensconced behind the paywall).
However, Burrowes says this new method of writing is dangerous as it fails to put the reader first and could perhaps drive readers away.
“Each time creates a minor annoyance, until the reader starts to subconsciously associate that with the publication in question,” he said.
For me, this seems the most alarming thing about paywalls. Asking for payment is one thing – needing to deliberately compromise your writing styles and key journalistic principles seems far worse.
I’m sure there’s a better way to make online journalism pay (but I don’t have any ideas). I just hope they find it quick.
While this may seem a strange title, I think it accurately describes my initial reaction to:
a) The compulsory use of social media for Online Journalism (there’s this thing called Twitter, apparently?)
b) The changing face of journalism and its move to the online world.
Before I go any further, some background might be in order. Many years ago, when I decided that my future would include a Law/ Journalism double degree, I had a vision of being a successful print journalist and seeing my name under headlines in the weekly newspapers (Crown Prosecutor was/ is the other vision, by the way). However, the more I learn about journalism and the state of the industry, the more it becomes clear that seeing my name in ink may be nothing more than an old-fashioned fantasy. The reality is (and has been written about by much more authoritative people) that print journalism is on the decline. Not yet dead, but certainly looking quite pale and reaching for the life support. The Reaper’s scythe which recently fell on Fairfax’s Sydney and Melbourne printing plants are good examples. Recent statistics given to us in lectures show print readership is rapidly disappearing – down 12% per year in Fairfax’s case.
So where does this leave me? Well, while I may not be seeing my name in ink, there’s a good chance I might be seeing it online. According to statistics from Newspaperworks.com, traffic to newspaper websites was up 42% in September 2009. I wouldn’t like to guess what its up to now! Further, 75% of the world’s population apparently now has access to a mobile phone,* with more and more people using them to access news websites (along with these new-fangled iPad things). One thing is certainly clear – the modern journalist cannot afford to be stuck in the past, in the world of ink and paper. They must adapt – ready to deliver breaking news in 140 characters, but also able to write a story that is accurate and meaningful.
Which, in a roundabout, rambling way, brings me to the point of this blog. Over the next 10 weeks (and beyond), I will be sharing my experiences as I try to come to terms with the world of online journalism – my attempts at analysing online journalism, comparing coverage of stories and issues (and maybe a couple of my own), as well as learning to use all this new technology. I’m someone who still enjoys sitting down and reading a newspaper, so the thought of using Twitter, Storify etc is somewhat intimidating. There may be tantrums along the way.
*And I bet at least 50% of that 75% have better mobile reception than me!
NB: future posts will hopefully be much more structured, on specific topics and issues – today’s was very much a jumble of thoughts
NB^2: The blog will become prettier over the next few weeks, as I fiddle around with WordPress.