Monday, 13 July 2015

Yes, I do call this news

"You call this news?"

Anyone who has ever worked on, or for, or even just near a news website will recognise this.

It is The Great Comment. It is Comment Number One. It is the comment equivalent of the Ford Focus: it crops up everywhere, all the time, so much so that you almost stop noticing it.

But it is there.

You might think it looks pretty harmless. You would be wrong.

You should know, as every journalist knows, it has been written by someone frothing with rage and indignation. So much rage and indignation that if you asked him to italicize the sentence, he wouldn't know where to start. He couldn't choose between

"You call this news?"


"You call this news?"

or maybe even

"You call this news?"

because what he really wants is to italicise every word in the sentence; to say it with such savage irony that any journalist who read it must surely burst into tears and immediately resolve to mend their ways.

Well I'm sorry, but no.

For one thing, the comments are almost always left on stories which patently are news, of a particular sort. It might, for example, be entertainment news - Justin Bieber visiting a nightclub in Birmingham while wearing a funny hat. But how is that 'not news'? If you actually saw Justin Bieber in a nightclub in Birmingham, wearing a funny hat, I daresay it would be all you'd talk about for the next few days. 

It might not be Watergate. That doesn't mean it isn't news. 

For another thing, who ever said all the content on a newspaper website had to be news? Newspapers themselves contain TV listings, cartoons, weather forecasts, sudoku, crosswords, horoscopes and opinion columns. They have TV reviews. They have leader articles. Call any of that news? Nope. So what? It's just interesting content that complements news.

My team, for example, does data journalism. And the scope for genuinely useful, interactive data-based content is huge. Only it isn't necessarily news in the conventional sense. To take just a couple of simple examples: this gadget tracks car parking spaces in Manchester using live data. And this one lets you find out how good your local GP surgeries are.

News? Maybe not. But it is using technology to tell people something useful about their local communities. And surely that is something newspaper sites should be doing.

Actually, though, what annoys me most about 'call this news?' comments isn't either of these things. It is the implied moral criticism. It is the implication that newspapers should only cover 'worthy' news.

Now I don't put 'worthy' in quotation marks to sneer: great investigative journalism that holds power to account still exists, and is still a wonderful thing. I put it in quotation marks because elsewhere in the news landscape, it is less clear to me what is 'worthy' and what is not.

Is covering a court case involving a murder more or less 'worthy' than writing a story about someone doing a fun run to raise money for charity? How much more 'worthy' is a report of a council sub-committee rubbing stamping a decision without dissent, which perhaps a couple of dozen people read, compared to a video of a swearing parrot that makes tens of thousands of people laugh?

The former is somehow more worthy, no doubt. But how much? And, bluntly: how much should newspapers care about these more marginal cases, if the difference in potential traffic is so great?

For the implication of the 'call this news?' brigade seems to be that newspaper organisations - commercial newspaper organisations, whose very existence depends on getting eyes on pages and copies on doormats - should put more stock in 'worthiness' than anything else.

Why? We never did before. Newspapers were always about things that interested the public as well as things that were truly in the public interest. We are just better now at measuring what that is.

And maybe Mr 'Call This News?' doesn't like that. Maybe he doesn't like a mirror being held up to society, only for it to show that people aren't all clamouring for detailed line-by-line scrutiny of party manifestos.

But that isn't my fault. It isn't the fault of the newspapers. And it isn't the newspapers' job to fix it, if it really needs fixing.

I think people should take a rather different view. I think people should be amazed, as I am, by the lengths to which newspapers have gone to adapt their coverage of politics, civic affairs, health, education, and other 'worthy' topics in order to keep people reading, and caring.

You see more sharp analysis than before, more punchy exclusives, more campaigning journalism, fewer meandering opinion pieces and fewer verbatim reports of meetings. 

And you know what? That kind of journalism is harder, not easier. Anyone can sit through a meeting all day, then write 300 words about it. Getting exclusives people want to read takes contacts, judgement, research, work. It is fulfilling a moral duty journalists and editors impose on themselves; because you could quite easily fill a website with swearing parrots and probably do pretty well for yourself in traffic terms.

One day - one wonderful day - I will open one of these investigative stories and the first comment will say: "Thank you - I call this news!" One day. But not yet.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Thank you - that was worthy comment! ;)