The ethics of hyperlocal news, mags and political balance

Journalistic ethics posts all over the place in the past 24 hours.

On Coleen Curry’s blog, there is an interesting take on the philosophy and ethics of small-scale hyperlocal news sites.

Her worry is straightforward – that running a hyperlocal news site as a business may descend into pandering to demographics. While I think the gap she cites between editorial and commercial in print is a lot narrower than she suggests (certainly in Ireland and Britain), it is a legitimate concern.

Howard Owens, of The Batavian, gives an equally simple solution in the comments – “screw the demographics” and concentrate on the journalism. Tell the stories, big and small, positive and negative, with passion and the community will embrace the site and make it pay.

Even more simply, his advice was to go solo — “stop working for the Man” —  and avoid the pressures that may come from working in a keyword-chasing conglomerate looking to “scale” hyperlocal sites.

There is a lengthy post on Media Shift on the implications for magazines publishing in digital format. At times it seems to assume readers are total idiots but does raise the interesting point that digital ads, because they force you to perform an action,  may actually carry fewer ethical pitfalls than print:

” … the new variety of interactive ads, though they still focus on products’ image and create emotions around the products, might in fact be in some ways “purer” than the ads of the past that primarily tried to create impressions of brands in the audience’s minds.”

Greenslade, however, suggests that online journalism has yet to let such earthly concerns prevent it from threatening the established order, unlike print:

“The rise of the commercial press gradually weakened the anti-establishment stance of papers, mainly because their owners – especially the corporate ones – saw no merit in rocking a profitable boat.”

It probably won’t cheer American print journalists though – the bulk of the post is about the “phoney” nature of US papers’ political balance.

Hurling Irish media into the 21st century – no?

While it would have been much more fun to attend, I still immensely enjoyed the #media2020 conference that took place yesterday in Croke Park, Dublin. There could have been a few more “hurling Irish media into the 21st century” puns, but what are you going to do? Those tweeters present kept the geographically disadvantaged at least some way informed.

It also would have been much more expensive for me to attend – €199 for a ticket alone (thanks for the correction, Jack) –  but on balance, the reaction from those present seems to be that it was worth it.

Two reservations from someone watching from across the Irish Sea and solely via Twitter. Firstly, the scarlet Clupea harengus that is “the app”. So far, they are a “pay once” business model – that might prop up some papers, such as the Guardian, but not in any sustainable way. I suspect the Guardian’s impressive figures will drop off once the monthly fee is announced. Apps also depend on that old “closed garden” chestnut. If the PC/open web experience is richer and replicable on a non-Apple handset (android, symbian, mobile windows 7: ie the majority), then there goes the business model. And with it the iPad.

Always a danger at conferences, buzzwords also seemed to take hold – although “the  long game” was repeated so often that it became more of a buzz phrase, and just as annoying. I don’t know if the 2020 irony was intended, but isn’t that what they say about hindsight? Anyone who can predict 10 years hence is a kingmaker – most media outlets would settle for six-12 months, because many know they don’t have 1o years left. The “long view” notion seemed a bit blinkered and aimed at small start-ups rather than established media.

On the positive side, Mulley repeated his vital iteration mantra – Irish media are screwed if they sit around waiting for somebody else to come up with a model that works – they need to find what works and soon.

On the Irish side, I would also have liked to see Fiach MacConghail (the Abbey sounds like a good success case study) and Mark Little (just to figure out what he’s up to – “this shit is wack” – really?).

As I write, I am coming across Hugh Linehan’s take.

And as I tweeted earlier, I think most of Bernie’s predictions have already come to pass, but find it hard to believe that’s a surprise to him.

Blathnaid has a good telepresence summary on the day.

Should anyone figure out what Maeve Donovan meant by short-form, in-depth journalism, I’m all ears.

Well done to all involved. I’ll be booking a ticket to next year’s.

Do it in (house) style

The Online Journalism Review carried a post yesterday on how journalists, especially those entering the profession, would be better advised to learn search engine optimisation (SEO) techniques than the AP stylebook.

The AP stylebook is not that well known in Europe but to American journalism students and educators it has been required reading for years. Any American hack could cross a continent to another newspaper but remain consistent in their use of language. In Ireland and the UK, there has always been a bit more variation – in some cases you cannot cross a newsroom and remain consistent.

I have always been a fan of stylebooks. From the outside, they are a window on a newspaper’s character – for example, the Telegraph’s stylebook tells you how to correctly refer to the eldest son of an earl. It’s information I never needed in the Irish Examiner but we had enough inconsistency in style to prompt me to write my own guide. It has yet to be adopted – some people are less incensed by using about/around interchangeably than I am.

From the inside, stylebooks can be a vital training tool in enshrining an identity and improving quality control. You haven’t seen passion for words until you’ve seen a great sub argue why the naming convention for Royal Navy vessels should remain different to that for Royal Navy bases (he lost – both now take HMS).

The joy of a good stylebook was always in the arguing for exceptions, the behind-the-scenes ridicule attracted by archaisms such as the Irish Times’s rendering of first and second World War (in the knowledge that as a third may be on the way, it would be a bit premature to award them a cap).

Some people do actually get into journalism through a love of language. While SEO is undoubtedly an essential part of modern digital journalism, if you place more priority and garner more joy in making text readable by a machine than by a human, then you’re not a journalist – you’re a computer programmer.

If you believe that only Icelanders can go berserk, only Malays can run amok and only arms can be akimbo, then read on:

Telegraph Media Group stylebook

Simon Heffer’s Style Notes

Guardian Style Guide

The Times (of London) Style and Usage Guide

BBC style guide [PDF]

Economist Style Guide

Reuters Handbook of Journalism

And finally, before they start paying  journalists based on hits, go learn SEO.