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Home » Transcript: Rob Orchard on The Slow Journalism Revolution at TEDxMadrid

Transcript: Rob Orchard on The Slow Journalism Revolution at TEDxMadrid

Rob Orchard at TEDxMadrid

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.

Listen to the MP3 Audio here: The slow journalism revolution by Rob Orchard at TEDxMadrid


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.

Here is a great story: “Livr. A social network only for drunk people.” This is a story which was widely reported in March of this year. It was about a new social media experience: Livr. How it worked is this: You downloaded the app to your smartphone. You plugged in a portable breathalizer. You blew into the breathalizer. If you were drunk enough, if you had a sufficiently high blood alcohol level you gained access to the app. Once you were inside, you could geolocate and see where all the drunk people near you were.

There was a special function, so you could drunk-dial a random intoxicated stranger. And if you woke up the next morning feeling dreadful about all the things you’ve done on Livr, you could push the blackout button, and it would erase every digital memory of what you had done. The news was widely reported. It was, I think almost everybody in this hall has immediately spotted, a hoax.

Two people had invented the idea just to see exactly how permeable the news media is. How easy it is to slip a story in when you send out a press release. But it is not just ideas for stories that get slipped in. Sometimes it’s whole stories themselves. The practice of copying and pasting press releases is called “churnalism”. In 2011 the Media Standard Trust set up a website: You can go there, you can paste in a news story and you can see how much of it is taken directly or in part from a press release. And when they ran the numbers on stories produced in the UK, it was very scary. As much as 54% of all news content generated in the UK comes either in whole or in part from press releases.

But it’s not just PR that rushes in, it’s also speculation. If you’ve got a huge amount of space to fill, a limitless space to fill, and fewer and fewer resources to do it, you just start speculating. We saw it most recently with Malaysian airline flight MH370. 3 or 4 days of blanket coverage, and no facts, and it didn’t stop anybody. That story is now largely forgotten.

And here is another story, that has largely been forgotten: “Turkey coal mine disaster: Desperate search at Soma pit”. This refers to the explosion that tore through a coal mine in Soma, Western Turkey, in 13th of May this year. There was blanket coverage. The world’s media descended on this small town. After 3 or 4 days, minute by minute in real time, you could find out what was happening.

And then the agenda moved on, as it always does — To ISIS, to the Ukraine, to a coup in Thailand. And the story was forgotten. And I don’t know about you, but I often find myself thinking: Whatever happened to the miners of Soma? What happened to the survivors of the MV Sewol in Korea? What happened to the kidnapped schoolgirls of Nigeria?

Here is a story, which hasn’t been forgotten: “Nixon Resigns”. Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein spent 2 laborious years, pursuing the Watergate investigation. It was an iconic investigation, which culminated in the indictment of 40 US Government Officials, the resignation of a President, the shocking of a nation, and the setting of a high watermark for investigative journalism. Woodward and Bernstein came up against many objections and many obstacles along the way. But their newspaper, the Washington Post, thought that the investigation was important, and it supported them.

In today’s era of super speedy news production, immediate reaction, limited budgets, who’s going to back this sort of investigation in the future? Which journalist is going to be given the time, and the space to work on a story so complex and so difficult? And if we are not going to get stories like this anymore, what is the future for news journalism?

Here is another headline, and a little bit of text: “Earthquake: 3.7 quake strikes near Piru, California. A shallow magnitude 3.7 earthquake was reported Sunday evening 7 miles from Piru, according to the US Geological Survey. The tremor occurred at 9:18 pm Pacific Time at a depth of 8.7 miles.” There’s something very strange about this story. I’ll give you a clue. It was written in less than a second. It wasn’t made by an extremely efficient journalist. It was written by a robot, or rather an algorithm. The LA Times uses a piece of software called “Quakebot”. As soon as the US Geological Survey says there is something going on, some sort of activity, it feeds it directly into a template, and within 3 minutes of an earthquake starting, there can be a full story about it online. This sort of thing is happening more and more.

Associated Press is going to start using software called “Wordsmith” to automatically produce 4,000 quarterly financial reports. Now if you are an optimist, you might say: “Brilliant. Journalists will be freed from the menial task of reporting. They’ll be given time and space to go and find real stories and get stuck into them”. If you are pessimist, you might say: “When has automation ever not led to job losses”?

Here is my view. 10 years from now there won’t be a single printed newspaper left in the developed world. Many major news organizations will have closed. Robot journalism and news scraped from social media websites will be delivered to you according to your digital preferences, instantly and for free. News organizations which do survive will continue to write preemptive news stories as with the Amanda Knox case, and 99 times out of a 100, they will get away with it.

There will be a constant unremitting downward pressure on quality. Most people won’t even notice. Most people will be happy enough. They won’t think about what was being lost. But some people will have an appetite for a different sort of journalism. A journalism which values journalists. Which puts them at the heart of stories. Which gives them the time to do what they do best. Which follows up on stories, after everyone else has moved on. Which values perspective and hindsight over immediate knee jerk reaction. Which doesn’t see journalistic content as just something to fill in the spaces between advertising pages, or to subtly sell you something that you don’t need. Which isn’t filled with re-written press releases. Which brings you stories that you didn’t know you wanted to read, but nonetheless changed your world view.

And a journalism which, most importantly of all, isn’t trying to be Twitter, or whatever social media we have in 10 years, to stories. Because it knows that being right is much more important than being first. We call it Slow Journalism. Like the Slow Food and Slow Travel movements, it’s about taking your time to do something of quality.

Fast journalism goes into Soma for 4 days and tells us minute by minute exactly what’s happening and then it leaves. Slow Journalism returns a few months later. It spends time with the community, gets to know their stories. It finds out for example, that miners have been turned against one another by politicians playing games with compensation payments. It delivers something nourishing, and of depth and of interest. If this sounds interesting to you, if you would like something with a bit more quality, intelligence, inspiration, something that provides an antidote to the hyper, hyper speed of today’s digital news production, then I would urge you to support Slow Journalism wherever you see it and in its many different forms. Because that, my friends, that is the news journalism that we all deserve.

Thank you.


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