The Guardian Newsblog and the Death of Journalism
It is about 1pm GMT and I have been surfing the UK web news sites looking for info about the latest disaster to afflict my homeland: the earthquake that hit Christchurch, New Zealand.
Most of the newspaper and TV sites have treated the story in the traditional way: the “inverted triangle”, with the intro giving the essential what, where, when information, then crafting the story with more expository material of gradually lessening importance. It’s how I learnt to structure a hard news story all those years ago when I first started out in this craft and it’s the tried and tested way that’s served journalism well for over 100 years now.
For some reason, the Guardian website has decided the old way is no good. Its coverage of the story is in the form of a newsblog. We get the who, what, where information as brief bullet points at the top, with the eye-catching photo of the now spire-less Christchurch Cathedral, but what follows has absolutely no structure at all.
It’s a mish-mash of baffling tweets, irrelevant musings from the Guardian’s comments, contact details for those who want to find out about loved ones or make donations (including one from the New Zealand Red Cross, who actually says it doesn’t want donations just yet, and another from the Auckland University Students’ Union, the relevance of which escapes me), musings from a boffin at that world renowned centre of earthquake research, Bristol University, and speculation on how the tragedy might affect the Rugby World Cup, due to kick-off in NZ in seven months’ time. Scattered meagrely throughout, like sixpences in a Christmas pudding, are bits of what you and I might call “hard news”.
For instance, as I write, the first entry is a report from Tony Manhire in Auckland (nearly 500 miles from the centre of action), that starts:
Contrary to early reports of an evacuation, Christchurch hospital remained open, and was operating at full capacity, despite suffering minor structural damage.
What earlier report? Where is it? He then has the comments of a teacher of Peter Rutherford, a teacher who happened to be walking by when the cathedral spire collapsed. It’s pretty meaty eye-witness stuff and would certainly find itself a place in any decently structured news story, but then:
For students who had returned to school just three weeks ago after the summer break, the impact would be enormous, Rutherford said.
I’m sorry, but any decent news editor would have put a big thick line through that. It’s irrelevant, unimportant and distracting. People have died, for the love of God.
Manhire then reports that Daniel Tobin, multimedia editor of the Christchurch Press, was out buying lunch when the quake struck.
Tobin ran back to the Press office to collect his camera and went back outside to collect chilling footage of the immediate aftermath that has since been viewed around the world.
Remember that splendidly-named 90s band Pop Will Eat Itself? Well, in the shiny new world of the Guardian’s rolling newsblog, the Media Will Eat Itself.
After Manhire’s report, comes this:
Well, that’s a blessed relief for Brian Edwards. Just one question, though: who he?
Next comes “Some comments worth highlighting, for which thanks.” First comment is from Claire Nelson:
I’m a NZer who has been living in the UK or 6 years and am actually flying home to Wellington on Saturday for a wedding. Nothing makes me want to get home to family more than something like this. My heart broke seeing the footage of what the people of Christchurch are going through.
And so it goes on. And on. And on. For which, no thanks.
There is no structure and therefore no sense, and the effect is of being in the middle of a room full of loud, shouty and excitable people all yelling at once with all the phones ringing, the fire alarm going off and a drunken old boy slurring in your ear about “what it all means.” It really is a bizarre way to run a media circus.
I guess what the Guardianistas and their shiny new iPads are trying to do is generate some sort of “news buzz” that allegedly comes from 24 hour rolling news “as seen on TV”, as the ads used to say. The trouble is with trying to emulate 24 hour rolling TV news in this way, the Guardian is merely just repeating all that’s wrong with 24 hour rolling news.
And the main problem is that most news does not roll 24 hours. You have the main event (in this case a major earthquake more than 24 hours ago), the immediate aftermath (the rescue attempts, the discovery of deaths and injuries etc) and the slowly evolving denouement (messages of sympathy from Her Maj, the NZ PM and various other politicos and all the rest, the I-was-there-I-saw-it-all-it-was-terrible comments from survivors etc).
That’s why the traditional inverted triangle news structure has been tried, tested and still stands. As Churchill said of democracy, it may not be the ideal way to impart news, but it’s the best we’ve got. It’s certainly beats anything else.
Certainly it’s better than the nonsensical unstructured jumble that’s on the Guardian Newsblog. I do not know, but I suspect that even as I write the Guardianistas are all patting themselves on the back and congratulating each other on what a splendid, marathon effort they’ve pulled off, with all this radical rewriting of the rules of journalism.
But I say, as Cromwell said wearily to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland in 1650, “I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken.”