Rob Orchard is the Co-Founder and Editorial Director of The Slow Journalism Company. Here is the full transcript of Rob’s TEDx Talk titled ‘The Slow Journalism Revolution’ at TEDxMadrid conference.
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Rob Orchard – Co-Founder and Editorial Director, The Slow Journalism Company
Everybody in this room deserves better news journalism. I am here to tell you that the fundamental nature of news journalism has changed for the worst in the last 20 years, almost without anybody noticing. And many of the things that we looked at journalist to provide us with accuracy, impartiality, context, depth are all under threat.
I would also like to try to convince you that an antidote might come in the form of a new slow journalism revolution. I’m going to make my case to you with the aid of 7 headlines.
Here is the first. “Guilty Amanda Knox looks stunned as her appeal against murder conviction is rejected.” It’s a headline from the MailOnline from October 2011. The MailOnline is the world’s single most read English language newspaper website. It has just under 190 million unique visitors every month. The story refers to the court appeal of Amanda Knox, who is found guilty of the murder of British student, Meredith Kercher in Perugia, Italy in 2009. The court appeal generated massive international news interest. But as many people in this room will know, there is a problem with this headline. It is the complete opposite of the truth. Amanda Knox’s appeal was successful. Her conviction was overturned and she returned to Seattle, where she’s been living for the last 3 years.
So, how did the MailOnline get the story wrong? They had prepared two versions of the story in advance. One for if the court appeal was successful, one for if it was unsuccessful. Their representative, in the court, heard the word guilty. Pushed the button, and the story went up online. But it wasn’t guilty to the charge of murder, it was guilty to the much lesser charge of slander. And for 2 or 3 minutes, the world’s single biggest English language news site had completely the wrong story on its site until somebody switched it with the other story.
But it wasn’t just the headline. It was actually several hundred words of description and invented quotes. So for example, we learned that as Amanda Knox heard the dreadful news, she sank into her chair, sobbing uncontrollably. That the Kercher Family stared directly ahead, looking across only once at the distraught Knox Family. We learned the prosecutors were delighted with the verdict but they said that on a human level, it was sad that a young person would be spending so much time in jail. None of this happened.
But in order to understand why this sort of thing happens, why this sort of mistakes occur, we need to understand one very fundamental thing about a change in the news media recently. Which is that being first, has become much more important than being right.
Here is the second slide: #Amydead. When Amy Winehouse, the famous singer, died in Camden, London in 2011, news of her death started trending on Twitter within an hour. 10% of tweets during that hour concerned her death. That’s 20 million people speaking about an event, before a single news organization has published or broadcast a word about it. It’s the equivalent of the entire population of Australia beating every journalist in the world to the story.
Obviously we all know about the extreme speed of diffusion of news, and rumor online. But for journalists, it is a major problem. For centuries, they have been the ones who broke the news. They have been the funnel through which the news passes. But what they are realizing now is that if they want to keep up with the speed at which news breaks online, then they need to jettison many of the things that they thought were fundamental to their craft. Taking a bit of time. Speaking to some people. Finding out some facts. Getting some proper quotes. And giving their first best approximation of the truth.
Sadly, the declining fortunes of the news industry and the algorithms which govern online news distribution mean that things are unlikely to get better anytime soon.
Here’s another headline: “El País sacks 128 journalists.” In 2012, El País sacked almost a third of its editorial staff. And it requested the remaining journalists to accept a 15% pay decrease. But of course, they are not alone. In American newsrooms, the number of reporters has fallen by 31% in 10 years between 2002 and 2012. News organizations are sacking journalists because they are losing money. My favorite newspaper, The Guardian, lost 30.9 million pounds in 2013. That’s 122,134 pounds every single working day.
But people haven’t stopped reading the news, they’ve just stopped paying for it. Free online news organizations are extremely popular, but as publishers move their attention from print products to online products, online advertising becomes much more important. You are not selling somebody a physical product, you have to sell it through the advertisers. Because of the low yields of online advertising you have to be read by millions of people in order to make money.
The gateway to millions of people is Google. 80% of us search for news stories online using Google and 60% of us will click on one of the top 3 hits. If you make it into those top 3, then you make a lot of money. But Google doesn’t really care if you spend a month researching the story, if you’ve checked every fact, if you’ve revisited every quote. It doesn’t even really care if you’ve made the whole thing up in advance. It does care if you are first.
So if you are the MailOnline, it makes perfect sense, if you have a story which is A or B: Knox is innocent, Knox is guilty, to prepare two stories in advance so you can be first to the story.
Google also cares about volume. The more new stories that your news organization puts out there the higher you will come in the rankings. Which means that journalists around the world find themselves having to write more and more stories with fewer and fewer resources and less and less time. It’s a recipe for disaster. There is less time for original reporting, less time for research, less time for both sides of the story, less time for journalism. It doesn’t make any sense at all to commission a 4,000 word feature that takes someone 2 months to write. You might as well commission 150 words that took 10 minutes to write. You’ll get the same amount of money for a click on that page. Virality and clickability make perfect commercial sense, but they don’t build into a journalism which informs and inspires.
The other thing that happens, when you have a huge amount of space to fill and not enough resources to fill it, is that public relations gets involved. PR. Latest figures from the Pew Research Center in the US show that there is 4.6 PR executives for every single journalist in the States. That’s an increase from 3.2 to 1 just 10 years ago. But as we all know, PR is not a good news source. All PR has an agenda, and it’s not the impartial telling of the truth.
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