How journalists write IT "news"

Gutterwatch Random input equals random output

By Mike Magee [ ]
The Inquirer

April 3, 2001

BEFORE WE LAUNCH into this look at how news teams decide what news is, first let us distance ourselves from our US journalistic colleagues. We've no idea how they decide what's newsworthy.

Method One

These days, that's the easy bit. You put together a list of bookmarks of the main news sites, look at them every morning, and copy them during the course of the day. To avoid treading on the very sensitive corns of news editors, avoid using this "copy" word. Instead, apply the unguent made up of the soothing phrases "follow a story up", or "add value to a story" or "spin a story". This lazy way of writing what you choose to describe as news means, these days, an endless series of different wires all seemingly copying, sorry following up, each others' stories. The lazy bones. It's shameless, it's cheap, it's nasty. But it's modern IT journalism and not good for the reader.

Method Two

PR companies, PR spokesfolk and IT journalists live in a symbiotic soup, into which not-so-heady-mix is poured the funds of vendors, who often remain blissfully unaware of how their money is being spent.

Say you're a young reporter on an unnamed title, and the possessor of petty power (the news editor) puts pressure on you to beat PC Flea, or whatever the opposition is, with a scoopette of a story. One way of achieving temporary respite from the bully and bluster is to call your chum who does the PR for a major vendor, and beg him or her to slip you a press release early. The PR can justify this to her or his client, the vendor gets the publicity, the reporter get the bully off her or his back and everyone's happy. Except the reader.

Method Three - The News Editor

This creature may or may not have a handle on IT, technology or news, could have a vast degree of experience in journalism or could be a complete newcomer, might be nasty person or might be nice, but exercises power over what appears on the pages or cyberpages completely out of proportion to her or his job function.

The job of a reporter is to have her or his news agenda which is as pugnacious as the news editor, and to undermine her or him on every occasion possible. This is because news editors generally fear any member of staff on a team who has the slightest bit of journalistic talent, on the grounds that she or he might cause the issue of a P45, toute suite.

Wise editors understand this terrible relationship between a news editor and a news team, and, fearing their own job, which is always on the line, will encourage the news team to disregard instructions, possess their own news agenda and, in short, keep the boss in the dark. Unwise editors will gang up on the reporters using the news editor as a prop. Really unwise editors will hire reporters who are intelligent, enterprising and have the slightest tendency to self-motivation in their bones, because they will cause an endless amount of trouble prompting law suits, upsetting the publisher and potential advertisers, and the rest.

Method Four - the Press Release

The arrival of services like PR wires have put an end to the countless press releases that used to arrive on reporters' desks.

An enormous proportion of these were fit only for the bin, and benefited only the Post Office, which carried them, and the PR company which pocketed money for posting them.

Some press releases, lest you forget, are written by reporters and journalists, who often work for stingy outfits and so have to supplement their income by bashing out crap they may have to write up themselves a little later. PR agencies pay a lot of money for a journalist to write a press release, and even more if they do press training (different topic - we'll return to that in a different piece).

The contents of a press release may end up as a top news item solely because of the symbiotic relationships between journalists and PRs that we've referred to above.

Before the widespread adoption of the Internet, most IT news hacks were largely in thrall to the public relations agency. In the case of a large corporation like Oracle, for example, this meant that whatever Larry Ellison announced and whenever he announced it, as long as said UK IT hacks didn't read the Wall Street Journal, the PR agency could wait weeks before making the same announcement in the UK or Europe, so getting a lot of mileage from a dull announcement. All high tech PR agencies here in the UK played this game.

Method Five - The Hell Option

The hell option for an IT news journalist, because it means doing work, is to cultivate contacts within the industry, ring people likely to know to find out what's going on and what's a hot topic, relentlessly pursue a story, ask difficult questions, don't take no for an answer, don't fear bullying and, once you've got your facts right, be prepared to stand behind them. It's so much easier just to follow methods one to four, and causes so little trouble, while allowing the hacks to collect their dosh and head straight down the boozer.

Copyright 2001