Why online headlines matter, a lot

Huffington Post South Africa engaged in an interesting but flawed experiment this week.They published a story with this headline: ‘Donald Trump Praises Jacob Zuma as “The Best, Ever”‘ . Very clickable it is, combining two big names in online traffic generation. However, what you get when you open the article is a discussion of fake news – a “we make you click and now we will teach you something” story.
Huff Post’s news editor Deshnee Subramany and columnist Rebecca Davis had an acrimonious debate on Twitter about the article, but otherwise it seems not to have generated much discussion, which is a pity because there’s an important issue highlighted in the exchange.
Continue reading

What makes for a perfect paragraph?

Enter key

Picture by Artur Cimoch, freeimages.com

Long ago, at school, there was probably an English lesson about how and where to break text into paragraphs.

As I remember it, the idea was that one thought meant one paragraph, like this in a story from the Guardian:

“The Gambia is in financial distress. The coffers are virtually empty. That is a state of fact,” Fatty said. “It has been confirmed by technicians in the ministry of finance and the Central Bank of the Gambia.”

There are two sentences there, but they both relate to the question of how much money may be missing in The Gambia.

Compare that to the same thought in the Daily Mail:

But amid growing controversy over the assurances offered to Jammeh to guarantee his departure, Barrow aide Mai Fatty said the new administration had discovered that millions had recently been stolen.

‘The coffers are largely empty,’ he told reporters in the Senegalese capital Dakar.

Here, the Mail is applying what seems to be the modern trend, particularly in online articles: the end of every single sentence is a sign to hit the enter key and make a paragraph.

That makes for easy, fast editing and writing, and there is nothing wrong with that. Continue reading

Good taste does not equal good governance

This is going to be a very irritating few days – on Facebook at least.
On Friday, Donald Trump is going to be inaugurated as United States president. Barack Obama and family will take their bows and move on with their lives. My Facebook echo chamber, populated with journalists and eco-warriors and people of a politically correct persuasion, will be filled with shared photo essays of the gorgeous Obamas and many, many WTFs as our favourite American news websites (think Washington Post here) document all the varied failures of The Donald and his flashy family.
Here’s the thing though: the whole thing makes me uncomfortable. Continue reading

Why I still believe in journalism


Picture: freeimages.com

When I was a teenager I was intense and clever, a misfit loner. I went off to university pretty much unchanged and emerged four years later a little more sophisticated but still essentially a right pain to be around.
I was about to get lucky – I was offered a job at the Cape Times. I was sent off to cadet school in Port Elizabeth, spent six months working on the EP Herald, and then returned to Cape Town as the most junior of junior reporters in a big and busy newsroom.
I didn’t know it then but I had found my home.
Continue reading

Rights and wrongs in training

I spent last week training a small group of interns, teaching them to use my company’s multimedia tools. It’s a long time since I trained a group of people, in a room, with the luxury of time and a training plan. And I realised again how much I enjoy it.

Reflecting on the week, there are some things I did wrong and some things I did right. Perhaps a short list of those would be helpful for anyone else who has the privilege of being a trainer.

Three things I did right:

* I knew what I wanted my group to learn to do, and I had a written plan, with times attached, working though the building blocks we needed to cover to get them where they needed to be.

* I had exercises aimed at getting my trainees to do things, rather than lecturing them

* I asked them at the beginning of each day, and at the end, if they had any questions about what they had already learned

Three things I did wrong:

* I talked too much. I always do. It’s important to leave spaces for the people in the group to have their say.

* I went too fast for some of them, and too slow for some of them. A perennial training issue – and one I still don’t know how to solve.

* I didn’t have the supporting notes ready for them, and they still don’t have them. I plead the pressure of my day job, getting in the way of customising my existing notes for this particular group. But – they should have had the relevant notes at the end of every day, and they didn’t.




Back to blogging

In response to The Daily Post’s writing prompt: “Image Search.”

The prompt said:

Pick a random word and do Google image of on it. Check out the eleventh picture it brings up. Write about whatever that image brings to mind.
So I found the eleventh image for the word “tree” and decided to see how complicated it would be to do this on my phone.

The image is beautiful but formatting and working on this tiny screen is not.

It’s the reader, stupid

I have been a journalist for a long time, enough to have some thoughts about the meaning of what I do. And there are some things I find I feel quite strongly about, after all this time.

I entered journalism with an English degree, rather than any academic training in the profession itself. So a lot of what I am about to say is based on pragmatic engagement, rather than lecture-room learning. Nevertheless, I have covered a lot of ground. So here is how my learning curve went.

At first, as a reporter on the Cape Times in the Jungleland that was apartheid South Africa in the 1980s, I thought journalism was about changing the world. I thought if you went out there and reported all the evil doings of the bad guys (and they were bad, then), the world would change. In the end, the world did change, perhaps a little bit because of the work of better reporters than I in that time. But to me, it felt like I wasn’t making a difference. I took a few years to study and work in community organisations, and eventually began to think that the only way to change the world was through small, personal action and individual responsibility.

I came back to journalism, reinvented as a sub-editor. At that point, I thought newspapers were about informing people and about carrying the important stories of the day and about story-telling to satisfy the narrative-loving apes that humans are (thank you Terry Pratchett for pointing out how we all love stories).  Mostly though, journalism for me was about making the newspaper. That’s it: the publication of the paper, on time, accurate, and nicely laid out, was an end in itself.

I got tired of that too, in the end. The endless fixing of things that were wrong began to weigh heavily. And there was this interesting new thing called the Internet. So I reinvented myself as an online sub-editor, and after that general production person. I still had, in the back of my mind, the idea of the important story, the idea that ultimately journalists decided what was important and presented that news to some vaguely apprehended reader out there in the world where journalists did not live.

But in all the myriad changes that the Internet brought to all of us, it brought this to me: the rapid and at first shocking realisation that readers were not people “out there”. They were here, in my face, resolutely choosing not to click on the dull but important story about educational initiatives in rural areas. No sir – they wanted sex and cannibals and bloody crime. I threw out my ideals and gave them what they wanted, but always in a mix with the important stuff which I tried, when there was time, to rewrite so that it spoke in ordinary tongue.

And it was fun – which journalism had not been for some time (journalists, thought, are always fun).

Over time I came to understand that The Reader can’t be reduced to a caricature of a sleazy, uneducated sensation-seeking pleb, as so many of my colleagues in print seemed to think (I had been brought low, they seemed to imply). In addition to the cannibals, readers showed a deep interest in love and relationships, food, parenting, television, sport, and yes, politics. They were complex people with complex needs and so my journalism became a dialogue, a constant experiment to find the right mix of serious and frivolous. Endlessly fascinating, that is.

My current model of journalism is that I am a servant, using my skills to curate information for readers who are intelligent people with complicated and sometimes hard lives, who want to make their own choices in finding information and fun which will their lives clearer and easier.

There are still very important things that journalists do: they hold the powerful to account, they dig up the dirt, they inform us about the world around us, they make newspapers and websites, they satisfy our deep need for stories.  All the things I learnt about journalism over the years still hold true. But now there is one over-riding question for me: does any of this serve the reader? If  the things we produce only serve the ego of the journalist, what use are they? Can the story/gallery/video be presented in such a way that the busy yet engaged person here with me as I work will read it? And I’m sorry, fellow hacks, if you look at much of what we do in the light of this over-riding duty to readers, it does not pass muster. If you know in your heart of hearts that your next-door neighbour who works in the supermarket and does a 12 hour day (when you add the commute) would not be interested in what you are producing, then you are wasting her time. 

And that is the worst thing a journalist can ever do.