Friday, April 25th, 2008
When I started in online journalism, we struggled with aspirations that far out-stripped our resources. We were small teams passionate about creating a new medium but still dependent and subservient to legacy media - newspapers and radio and television stations. We yearned to do original journalism but often had to settle for ‘re-purposing’ other journalist’s content. We did as much as we could that treated the internet as its own medium, that developed multi-media story telling methods that simply weren’t possibly in print or in linear, broadcast radio and television. But most of it was simply shovelware: TV and radio scripts transcribed and thrown up online and print stories chucked on the internet. Or as Whatis.com says:
Shovelware is content taken from any source and put on the Web as fast as possible with little regard for appearance and usability.
It’s sad to see that so-called integration sometimes isn’t really about integration at all. It’s about a maintenance of organisational and internal political status quo. It’s about maintaining the dominance of print and broadcast and the subservient, derivative position of the internet. It continues to miss or ignore the opportunities the internet provides for journalists, which now isn’t defensible in terms of audience numbers, advertising revenue or future prospects for growth. And as my friend and former colleague at the BBC, Alf Hermida, says, it just doesn’t work. The BBC is advertising for a “web conversion producer”. I wonder if this is a position to produce web-literate producers from television and radio journalists. But seriously, Alf says:
This is a flawed concept and risks undermining the reputation for excellent online journalism that the BBC News website has built over the past 10 years. In any case, we tried in the early days of the site when I was a daily news editor, and it didn’t work.
It also implies that online is an after-thought, picking up the scraps off the broadcast table, rather than considered an equal.
Now, I’m not arguing for internet primacy over other media. This is not a zero-sum game. The legacy media still make most of the profits in real money terms, despite the double digit growth rates in online revenue for the past few years. Just as I say that the internet and on demand digital medium need to be understood on the basis of their own strengths, television, radio and print still have unique strengths. As Steve Yelvington says, the internet is one of the centers for a successful media business. He adds:
My rule of thumb is a simple one: Use the right tool for the right job. The Internet’s strength is collaborative interaction; print’s strengths are linearity, focus and serendipitous discovery.
But as news organisations struggle, some for survival, they will fail if, due to organisational in-fighting, they repeat the same mistakes of the late 1990s. Those few of us in online journalism who survived the dot.com crash have seen this before. Unfortunately, while we have a decade or more of experience, we digital natives still don’t have the political capital when we go head-to-head with the powers that be in our own organisations. If media bosses want to engage in Shovelware 2.0, they can use that shovel to bury their own businesses.