There are no stories on the web

I‘ve been pondering that titular mantra for while now. I’ve got to the point where I’m wondering whether my focus on the idea that the web will not just simply cough up a story is really about a broader shift in mindset that journalists need to make or more about me getting my head around the process.

So I’m posting this to get it out of my head.

It got in my head again at the end of last week as I found myself eavesdropping on a group of students sat at their computers.

“I need to do a search for a story for my portfolio assignment” says one student who then proceeds to fire up a collection of news sites including the BBC and a number of different local news providers.

Frustrating as I find this behaviour sometimes, I know it’s not limited to students.

Reverse engineering stories – finding an article online and then unpicking the threads – is more common than I think any of us a prepared to admit. Is that a bad thing? Maybe not, but it happens. But that’s not finding a story, it’s just (re)reporting the story for your audience. It’s also a mono-media approach to the journalistic process. Everything is geared towards servicing an article at a publication point.

Web 2.0 journalism

Working the ‘Web 2.0’ way approaches the story from a different direction. It builds a critical mass of content through the appropriate application of digital technologies. Web searches, crowdsourcing, alerts and all the other good stuff can be weaved in to the ‘traditional‘ journalistic process to serve the increasingly voracious content machine.

But does that process really address where stories come from?

What you will find on the web is data and information. But they are not stories. They can help develop and support a story but they are meaningless without context. You need to know the story you are trying to tell before they become useful. You still need the story.

People make stories

Ultimately, stories come from people. They come from the collective experiences, social contexts and relevence of communities. To find a story and know why it’s a astory, you have to be part of or active in those communities. That’s something that ‘traditional’ journalism is supposed to be good at. Understanding the communities/audience they serve. Being relevant through the intimate knowledge of a patch. Having the ‘in’ at the ground floor of a story.

Of course the web will get you next to people, sometimes in the most direct and immediate way. But the web still won’t give up that story unless you approach those people in the same way you would in real life. That means going to the places where people gather and inhabiting them.

The thing to remember is that people don’t gather in the same place and, more importantly, you cannot force them to.  So even though RSS feeds and alerts will allow you to monitor the conversations effectivley (and if you arent using these tools then you should be) you need to get out there.

Platforms are places for conversation

Web 2.0 is all about platforms. Sites that enable people to do things are real honeypots. But the really successful web2.0 sites are the ones that encourage conversation between users.  We have thise platforms in real life. People will go to the post office to send a letter or the pub to get a drink.  But the conversation in those places could be about anything. The same thing happens online.

Take a look at Pistonheads – a site about motoring. The site has some very popular forums

Over 2 million posts in the general area
Over 2 million posts in the online 'pub'

Lots of good stuff about cars (in minute detail) but take a look at the Pie and Piston (general chat areas in forums are often called the pub, bar or take pub names). 2,401,820 posts. Over 2 million posts and the majority are not about motoring.

Push not pull

The thing I recognise more and more is that’s a challenge in a journalistic environment where strategy and staffing is defined by pull rather than push; the idea that you can bring everything to your desktop could be one of the reasons more journalist find themeselve effectivly desk bound.

But we can still exhibit a bit of that push behaviour when it comes to communities even if it is just virtual. Think of the platform as a place – a shop, a pub or a street corner.

Hang around long enough and someone will give you a story.

16 Replies to “There are no stories on the web”

  1. Of course, another reason for how journos increasingly find themselves desk bound is how, at least, online journalism has become centred around traffic, best achieved by volume, and rewriting stories, be they from competitors, PRs or newswires, is an easy way to achieve this – it sounds like your students are not too different from many journalists in this respect. In fact, in today’s media reality many editors don’t dare to let their journos out of the office, as it might bring down their production due to time spent travelling etc, unless it’s to some big conference they know will generate plenty of copy (in which scenario, you might not find time to actually TALK to people while there).

    I’m a big advocate of how journos at least should learn how to tap into virtual pubs – and using twitter, blogs etc can make up for that to some extent, (unfortunately, at least in my part of the world, this desk bound state is focused, not on tapping into virtual communities but rather, on what newswires and competitors write) but it’s no subsitute for actually taking time to meet people in real life at least some of the time…

  2. I think that you have hit the nail on the head Andy but its not students and its not the web that is the problem.
    We have become a society where we don’t wish to inter react with each other anymore other than by sitting in front of computer screens,mobile phones etc.
    The web is excellent for research,for picking up leads and developing ideas but it wont spark that first bit of imagination.
    Kristine-your correct it is very easy almost too easy for journalists to sit in front of computer screens but I’;m not sure whether its the fault of the organisations or the mindset of the journalists.

  3. Nigel and Kristine.

    Thanks guys. Just to say I wasn’t having a pop at the students there. In one respect thats just an example of the poacher who has yet work out that they are gamekeepers now. That will come (i hope). That’s what you’re at uni for, to learn and experience.

    The idea of technology having an impact on social cohesion is a really important point to ponder – as loads of people do. Perhaps we need to bring that closer to home with journalists.

    As the personal brand of journalists becomes more important, their personal interactions become more important and more like social interactions.

    That sometimes gets lost in the profession of journalism

  4. I don’t quite get your drift in this post Andy. Surely the web is no different from any other medium as far as what you describe goes; students, journalists or anyone else can re-report from a newspaper, a magazine, a radio or tv bulletin or documentary. All media forms cannibalise all other media forms and always have. It is a common experience to read something in a paper one day and then hear it as a Today piece the following day (rarely the other way around, oddly). What makes digital delivery different? Nothing. It’s the same.

    News is people, as a wise man said not that long ago.

  5. I agree Tim and not getting my drift is a common problem with my posts 🙂

    I was less interested in the idea that the media has a parasitic relationship with itself. You’re right. That’s a given. It was more the idea that the way the web was being embraced meant that some of the value of the journalists relationship with the audience was being lost.

    That doesn’t mean that the web was killing it or that the old way of doing things was redundant. I was just pondering that the real value (and the stories) was in the interaction and that can happen online and off if you keep the idea that people have the stories.

    So it was more that relationship I was talking about then the way the each section of the media relates to each other.

  6. Really interesting article Andy and ties in with the session at the Society of Editors Conference last week about journalism training. The NCTJ survey on the skills gap between trainees and employers found the most common complaint from the latter was that new journalists lacked the fundamental skill of being able to find their own stories.

    Much was made of the fact this is a traditional skill rather than a new demand thrown up by the online revolution (something like video editing capability) but I think the speakers failed to appreciate that the ways in which we should hunt down stories has changed.

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