Three years of headlines, three years of lessons
My first day as a professional journalist was Oct. 1, 2012 at the Beaumont Enterprise. I wish there was some sentimental reason I remember that, but Oct. 1 is also my birthday.
A year in, I wrote this, reflecting on what I had learned.
Now, after (about) three years, here’s some more things I’ve learned:
1.There are two jobs in digital journalism: You are either a copier or a creator. A creator is, naturally, anybody who comes up with and publishes original content, whether that be a tweet, article, etc. A creator is the reporter on the ground, but is also the person that came up with the funny tweet, GIF or meme.
The copiers on Twitter accounts are pretty easy to spot and vilify. Their purpose is to find eye-popping or funny content and then pass it off as their own. More on that here. Just read the description:
Copiers outside of social media compile content from the creators and package it to serve a target audience. For example, take the website “Saturday Down South.” The folks over there figured out that many, many people enjoy SEC football and created a website just about that. SDS’ staff page lists seven employees with the titles CEO, Chief Technology Officer, Director of Distribution, Editor and three SEC Analysts. Most content on the site is either opinion (rankings, predictions, columns), stories sourced from other outlets or embedded videos from YouTube or Twitter. For example, a story entitled “Sister of Georgia assistant coach murdered” -which was shared 6K times on Facebook- is made up of reporting from two newspapers:
Before I start going all in-depth or calling for a mob armed with voice recorders and reporter’s notebooks, let’s look at one of the best copiers in digital sports media -Sports Illustrated. I went on to SI’s Twitter account and clicked around on their most recent tweets which linked to stories. “Patrick Kane attorney denies settlement talks with accusers” is sourced to the Chicago Tribune, “Report: Mets RHP Matt Harvey to start against Yankees” is sourced to ESPN, “Ex-NFL RB Lawrence Phillips claims self-defense in cellmate death” is sourced to USA Today, “Redskins new kicker was practicing in public park with his wife last week” is literally just this tweet and three paragraphs of background:
So your first inclination may be to think I’m trying to call these folks out. On the surface, they’re taking other people’s work, putting it on their website, gathering those eyeballs and justifying it by saying “according to __” and linking back to the original story, which is kind of like looting somebody’s house, taking the electronics and jewelry, but leaving the socks untouched. It’s taking the key reporting points and then linking back to the original story as a favor, as if the majority of people will click it (they won’t). It’s especially shitty to think somebody put in the hours to report a story -or even put in a lifetime to develop the sources to break a story- and once it’s online, that work can simply be copy and pasted onto other sites ad nauseam.
The natural inclination is to scoff at the copiers, but think of a world in which only creators exist. We would never get all the news that impacts our world. Let’s say copiers didn’t exist and a big story broke in Atlanta (or really anywhere you don’t currently live), with that story and information only living on the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s website. How many people would that story reach?
The Internet is simply too big for readers to navigate creating a need to have some sort of filter for the gobs of information, which copiers can do.
In March 2013, I witnessed a father with brain cancer win a marathon in Beaumont while pushing his daughter in a stroller. The story went viral. Huffington Post, Bleacher Report, Business Insider and all the usual suspects aggregated the story, with the Wall Street Journal, ESPN, NBC News and probably more doing their own pieces. My first reaction to my story -my reporting- being copied elsewhere was being pissed. But as the story spread, an online fundraiser went up to raise money for the daughter’s college fund since the father could no longer work and medical expenses were draining any savings. The result? $15,000 for this little girl to one day go to college. It took the creator to strike a match and then copiers to keep the fire burning.
In the “old days,” copiers went by another name -the wire. That’s how readers could get the country’s news in their local newspaper. The big difference between the wire then and copiers now is that newspapers actually had to pay for access to the wire’s content. With no regulatory/governing body, now it’s everybody for him/herself.
Sites like Saturday Down South had it figured out before most newspapers knew what hit them. In our digital world, stuff on the internet is supposed to be free (more on this later). That’s just the expectation. Copiers figured out they cast a wide net out to a group of readers (anybody that is in their 20s, anybody that enjoys SEC football, anybody who runs, etc.) and then hire less than 10 people to monitor the web for anything pertaining to that audience. A newspaper is paying a reporter to cover one team while SDS has an editor and three analysts covering an entire conference of 14 schools from an office in Orlando. Copiers figured out a website doesn’t need an sprawling newsroom to function.
But there’s still a competitive advantage the creators have over copiers with in-depth features; stories so deep with meaning and detail that a tweet or extracted quote could never tell the whole story. As an example, let’s take Wright Thompson’s feature on Johnny Manziel from Aug. 2013. It was a textbook example of profile writing -which Thompson does better than anybody. It took a public figure who had been turned into a character and humanized him by examining the transition Manziel was undergoing from teenager to Heisman-winner. The reporting gives readers a glimpse of Manziel’s life never-before-seen even with hundreds (thousands?) of previously-written stories. The copiers -in this case, Bleacher Report- gave their SparkNotes version, but it’s clear that if you’re not reading Thompson’s piece, you’re missing out: I think part of the answer to the copier/creator dynamic is a balance. A media company should have copiers to make the layups that account for most of the team’s points and creators to make the three-point shots (does that analogy make sense? I suck at these). A company with only creators simply can’t produce enough quality content to fill the modern-day news cycle. A company with only copiers will never produce unique content to stand out in an overly-saturated market. When everybody is just posting the same “can’t miss it” YouTube video, the Wright Thompson-esque feature-bomb will cut through the noise. Differentiate or die, y’all.
Sports Illustrated and Buzzfeed figured this out in reverse order. Buzzfeed started with copier content that made the journalism world scoff, then got big, then got rich, then hired creators and now has a seat at the White House press room next to the Boston Globe. Sports Illustrated already had the creators and then realized it needed the copiers to compete online. The key difference is that Buzzfeed began with a low-cost operation befitting of a new website, while SI had to adjust from having a budget befitting of the most iconic sports magazine in American history to laying off all its photographers.
2. Twitter is sorta overrated
I love Twitter. One of my favorite parts of my job is controlling and growing an account with 43K people following it.
But here’s the thing; Twitter is good for some things and not others. Specifically, it’s a great way to connect media folks with readers (and really, connect us all to each other), break news, be witty and maybe even get story ideas since it’s an unfiltered window to sports figures. However, I think a big misconception is that 1) the general public is on Twitter as much as journalists and 2) it’s a good way to share and promote stories.
Journalists tend to do this thing where they form their own little journalist bubble and stay inside it, effectively losing track of what it’s like to be a normal person. We forget people have 9-5 jobs, their kids’ soccer games to coach, a date to go on and -ya know- lives to live. They’re not on Twitter all. the. time. like reporters. So if you have 2,000 people following you and you tweet out something, guess what? Only a portion of those 2,000 people saw your tweet. Will they see it an hour later when they check Twitter? Maybe, maybe not.
The second point -and this is a biggie- is that folks generally do not log on to Twitter because they want to be redirected to another website. Getting readers to click on a story from Twitter is like trying to cook made-to-order steaks for a drive-thru line. Give ’em the news, give ’em a laugh and then move on.
I was overjoyed when this tweet got over 100 RTs because, dammit, I put a lot of time and effort into photoshopping a cheeseburger into Chris Jones’ hand:
But when you go back and check the analytics of that tweet, it reached 54,183 people (impressions) with a mere 380 actually clicking on the link to the article. Granted, it was 380 more views than we had before, but that’s small potatoes for what a story’s total viewership typically is.
So what is Twitter good for? I think a lot of it has to do with indirect benefits as opposed to direct. It helps grow the brand of a reporter or news organization, it makes people aware of the type of content you’re producing and can reach potential new readers that way. You give them the free sample of a tweet in the hopes they come back for the paid meal on the website in the future.
But if what helps keep a website up and running is traffic -drawing readers- Twitter isn’t the end-all-be-all. Facebook is a heavy-hitter for that direct benefit. As a reporter, I can see why Twitter is paramount, but at the end of the day, your employer isn’t making money by the retweet.
3) Your job is laregly a charity case
Media companies tried paywalls and then realized that was like kicking the ocean in the hopes the tide would rescind. So, for the most part, news is free. The New York Times gives you an allotment of articles every month before you have to pay and most recruiting websites have free and paid, premium content with their message boards/forums and stories.
But in the bigger picture, most content online is free and I have no idea how that’s a sustainable business model. Literally nothing in this world costs money to produce and is then given away without a cost. OK, the exception being anything backed by the government, but even libraries and public schools are paid for with our tax dollars.
Some news organizations have used “native advertising” which is probably what your grandparents mistook as a real story last week:
Advertising helps and if you have a print product, that will pay some of the bills, but the point still remains. Creator or copier, you cost money but the fruit of your labor does not. That’s scary as hell.
Drawing visitors to your site may be the goal on an editorial level, but what then? Hope they click on banner ads? Congrats, your story got views in the six- or seven-figures, but what about tomorrow and the next day? Journalists will pat themselves on the back till their hands fall off, but that’s not a sustainable solution.
I used to only think about my job in terms of how to write and report great stories, which was fun and something I have a passion for, don’t get me wrong. But it’s rewarding to devote that energy and creativity to ensuring that others can write the same great stories in the future.