Newspapers, Copy Fillers & Sloppy Journalists

I like very much Tom Scott’s Journalism Warning Labels, available to print as an A4 sheet of 13-5 stickers. Scott describes them as a labelling system for ‘sloppy journalism and other questionable content’; he’s sticking them on free papers on the London Underground. You can print-off your own sheet.

Not spotted anything here in Manchester, but my guess is you’d quickly get through of a page of stickers wherever you were in the UK, whatever newspaper you were holding.

Flagging up questionable content is a good thing, I’m less comfortable with highlighting sloppy journalism because I’m not sure there’s much journalism to be found in newspapers.

For me, the reality is that newspapers employ very few journalists and many, many copy fillers. There is a difference. The difference between, say, a Doctor and a Personal Trainer; broadly speaking, both operate in the same field (health) but you’d trust only one on the big decisions. Same with publishing, journalists and copy fillers both fulfil a similar function (the provision of information), but only one can provide a well-researched, water-tight piece of exclusive news.

If we split newspaper content into five categories, copy fillers would be responsible for four.

Opinion piece: Funny/informed/controversial – and topical. Could be your typical daily guff from a grey-flecked commentator on Coalition progress/Tottenham on plastic pitches/easy A Levels, or the cultural review gubbins on music, travel, cars, etc. I‘d also include interviews in this: a series of quotes + some facts on the subject + the author’s opinion.

Dead easy, knocked up in no time, and an ideal way to provoke comments online (return visits & regular commentators make for an attractive commercial pitch). A publisher could gamble on taking an unknown writer and building their ‘brand’, the quicker option is to buy in a big name, regardless of the writing talent. The risk with the former is the small guy is snaffled once he becomes a name (publishers, unlike football teams, don’t receive a transfer fee).

Cut & paste: Supplied by a PR firm on behalf of a commercial interest. At a push the publisher may reword the intro or link the story to similar content.

Standard news: Reuters, Bloomberg, AFP and AP news agency meat and drink. Classic 21 word intro, quote in paragraph three, two supporting quotes plus a mention of wider context. Highly unlikely to be scoop, almost all papers will cover the same story – few will add anything new. I’d include football write-ups in this category.

Practical: the lists, recipes, practical advice. The kind of stuff that magazines used to do, and now newspapers cover. Longer shelf life online: a good recipe doesn’t date, and can achieve a high search ranking.
The fifth category (and certainly the smallest in terms of newspaper space, though not in terms of budget required) would be the ‘well-researched, water-tight piece of exclusive news’. Now, journalists could do any of the above, but copy fillers couldn’t necessarily do category five.

I’d like to see gold stars stuck on works of good journalism.

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