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Responsible Reporting: Foreward

Today begins the serialization of my ebook Responsible Reporting: Field Guide for Bloggers, Journalists, and Other Online News Gatherers before its release into the public domain. I did similarly with Comic-Con Heroes: The Fans Who Make the Greatest Show on Earth. That book goes into the public domain on May 7, after my exclusive distribution commitment with Amazon ends.

Responsible Reporting was a labor of love. My profession is in a dramatic state of transition. I sought to provide a realistic treatise for the new journalism. New it is, steeped in ethical quagmire. I hoped to provide reasonable guidelines that accept how things are, rather than cling to how things were. 

But the book didn’t find audience in the way I hoped, which, ironically, validates some of the problems Responsible Reporting identifies. I will explain more what that claim means in the introductions to future sections. The Foreward doesn’t provide enough context.

Clarification, for what it’s worth: Newsgatherer is a single word, but I purposely broke it into two for the book: 1) To emphasize the acts of news and gathering, and 2) To keep the title from looking unsightly. The usage is deliberate.

Each week, I will post one section from Responsible Reporting until complete, then release the book into the public domain. I may or may not update some portions along the way. My hope is that by serializing the book and making it freely available, the public good will be served.

With that introuction, I present the Foreward.


 

Why I Write This Book
Journalism is a sacred trust. But in the decade 2010, news organizations often fail their responsibility to deliver accurate, timely reports. Two intertwined influences exacerbate long-standing institutional problems and create new ones.

The first influence is easily identified. Because of the Internet and widespread adoption of mobile devices in the so-called post-PC era, change is inevitable. How people consume news, from where and from who changes. Many readers are as much participants gathering news as consumers of it.

As the status quo struggles to adapt, aggregators and bloggers embrace a new era of contextual journalism. During this period of tumultuous change, quality of reporting suffers. Many bloggers don’t know any better, while too many professional journalists forego their training. They are under tremendous pressure to post stories often and in large numbers, while engaging readers across new online venues.

The second influence should be obvious but often is ignored by news organizations. The hand that feeds them, claws in the process. I refer to Google, which search engine brings website readers but which business model undermines the entire news industry. The Fourth Estate is collateral damage of the Google “free economy”—that is giving away valuable content subsidized by online advertising to get high search ranking. Problem: There is too much content, and too much of it alike, for ads to financially support. Excessive ad space means lower page rates and greater competition for advertisers.

The Google free economy casts dark shadows across the news landscape, as advertising revenues per website recede, and the amount of free content increases. Reporting standards weaken in pursuit of pageviews and higher search ranking. So-called linkbaiting and news aggregation lead writers to stray. Rampant rumormongering replaces factual reporting. Tech industry coverage is a glaring example of rumor too often masquerading as news.

It’s a bloodbath; accuracy is the murder victim and readers are the wonted next of kin.

Blogs and news sites run like hamsters in a wheel. The majority chase sustainable advertising revenue they can never catch. Editors and writers obsess about keywords and Search Engine Optimization. Meanwhile, Google baits the chase by constantly tweaking its search algorithm, supposedly to weed out the riffraff, like spammers. Google News plays favorites, too, leading the hamsters to run harder to attain kibble. As the wheel spins, SEO and Google News placement obsession turn around news organization priorities.

Something has to change. The remedy requires reeducation and adaptation—back-to-basics writing and reporting skills applied to contextual content consumption. Most importantly, bloggers and reporters must stop writing for Google and start writing for readers. News organizations must build audience and, in process, trust. They also must abate the age-old practice of “following” competitors’ reporting, which precipitates bad sourcing habits across the Internet. Producing original content and adhering to sound sourcing standards are tantamount.

What This Book Offers You
I frequently complain about poorly sourced stories, inaccurate reporting, and the need for more original content. Responsible Reporting is my call to action—an attempt to identify a better way. The book seeks to be a remedy to the Fourth Estate’s ills. Not the cure, but perhaps one among many.

Responsible Reporting is a practical, realistic writing guide based on a worldview about journalism in context—audience news consumption and participation across a vast landscape of Internet-connected devices and services. You won’t find any advice on Search Engine Obsession—ah, Optimization. Forget keywords! Editors and writers should craft headlines that catch people’s attention, not Google’s. Audience-building strategies should focus on reader loyalty rather than editor or writer fidelity to Google Search. There, old-school tabloids can teach writers much.

This book creatively applies past principles of good editing, writing, and storytelling to what authors Shel Israel and Robert Scoble call the Age of Context. Responsible Reporting identifies problems with online news writing; sets realistic principles for news gathering and writing well; and proposes sensible practices for the new era of contextual journalism.

So there is no misunderstanding, this book does not advocate the status quo. Contextual news reporting requires fresh thinking that takes some of the best past concepts and applies them to the present era of rapid, and often interactive, information consumption.

That said, some traditional news organizations, such as The Guardian, are gold standards for responsible reporting. Every news blogger or reporter should aspire to be like them, while embracing the new world order—where information is consumed anytime, anywhere, and on anything and where writers reach readers beyond their websites’ confines through services like Facebook, Reddit, or Twitter.

Responsible Reporting also advocates concepts that will disturb some long-time journalists or new-media bloggers, such as debunking “ethics statements” as licenses some writers use to justify conflicts of interest. The book also refutes the long-held belief that news reporting is objective. Bias is inevitable. Understanding, accepting, and dealing with this truth is vital for any news writer to report responsibly, to be accepted by readers, and to grow audience.

Some old-guard traditionalists may be unsettled by some affirmative examples, which include TechCrunch when run by Michael Arrington, Gawker Media, and The Verge. The first demonstrates reporting as a process. The second produces lots of original content with punchy headlines. The third adapts news to readers, such as changing a story’s presentation based on the operating system—an approach that caters to so-called fanboys.

Meanwhile, Responsible Reporting highlights several noteworthy startups that hire experienced news writers and promise to raise reporting standards, all while embracing contextual journalism, which is the first of five overlapping categories. The other four: advocacy journalism, conversational journalism, mob journalism, and process journalism. Behind them all are principles for responsible reporting, which are the book’s foundation.

Notes on Convention
1. For convenience sake, I refer to “writing” and “readers” throughout this book. But created content equally applies to audio, photos, or video, and the book presumes that most news gatherers will use different tools and will disseminate reports by various means. Choosing one subject helps keep the writing concise.

2. This narrative is largely third person, but when making certain important points, text deliberately switches to second person. The voice change is intentional, not sloppy writing, to carry stronger emotional context directed at you the reader. Similarly, the text is present tense as much as possible, even when referring to the past. Again, the style is deliberate.

3. Repetition is largely intentional, in an effort to impress certain concepts onto the reader’s synapses.

4. Responsible Reporting is divided into three sections. The first, “News in Context”, is a state of the online news industry. The second, “The Five Journalisms”, examines five categories of news gathering most relevant to the age of context. The last, “What You Must Do”, applies concepts from the other two to present guidelines for responsible reporting.


 

Editor’s Note: In the process of serializing the book, I may update and add two other categories of journalism, data and immersive, bringing the number to seven.

Photo Credit: David Sim

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