Bill Hulet Editor


Here's the thing. A lot of important Guelph issues are really complex. And to understand them we need more than "sound bites" and knee-jerk ideology. The Guelph Back-Grounder is a place where people can read the background information that explains why things are the way they are, and, the complex issues that people have to negotiate if they want to make Guelph a better city. No anger, just the facts.

Friday, August 16, 2019

Does News Need to be Topical?

I've built the brand of the Guelph-Back-Grounder around the idea that it is never meant to be "topical". By this I mean that I am specifically trying to not respond to the "news of the day". This is heresy to reporters, who's job it is to go out and get the story before the other guy. But I'm not that sort of beast, instead I'm a long form journalist. The difference boils down to the relative importance of getting the news out on time, versus making sure that the story is complete.

Both types of news gathering are important and ideally they help one another. Long form journalists rely upon reporters to dig up facts and publish them quickly so the former can then use this information to point them in the direction of other sources. And reporters (at least sometimes) should be reading long form journalism so they can understand the bigger picture when they are trying to understand the individual facts they are collecting.

One of the important differences between the two is the fact that reporting tends to have an extremely short shelf-life. This shouldn't be because the "facts" keep changing (although this sometimes happens because editors feel that they have to publish things before being able to do adequate research), but just because time marches on and what is news today is forgotten tomorrow. In fact, this was such a truism of newspaper reporting that I've had more than one friend "in the biz" tell me that no matter how good a story was she'd written, it all boiled down to not being much more than liner for a birdcage. An ancient television show even build its opening theme around this trope.



This isn't entirely true, as I have learned while grinding through spools of microfilm of old copies of various newspapers. Those articles (at least the ones that have survived the vagaries of time) are important windows into the historical issues that have long been forgotten. But in one point my reporter friends were right. They aren't easily accessible to the general public.

Long form journalism in the modern age is different. It costs very little to keep old articles on-line. And search engines make it easy to retrieve stories on any given subject. This means that anyone who writes in-depth stories about subjects that are of continuing interest can hope that people will continue to read a good article long, long past it has been published. (And long past the point where newsprint has been recycled and the most a glossy magazine can hope for is a twilight existence in a doctor's waiting room.)

I keep track of the hits on this blog and I can see that people are actually using the Guelph-Back-Grounder as an information source. That is to say, my readership is growing at a significant curve and a lot of that increase is driven by people reading past articles. This is exactly what I set out to do. I want to be something of a "news encyclopedia" for the community. Unfortunately, I haven't been able to be as focused on local stories as I'd originally hoped. That's because I need to get something out every week in order to build a loyal readership---and it's far too much effort to research a "deep dig" article every week. (Or at least far too much effort for an old man who, while retired, still has all the aches and pains associated with a life of hard physical labour.) I have been heartened by quite a few readers who have said that they like these editorials just as much as the other stories, though.

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I got started on this subject because I originally was interested in writing some comments about the Jeffrey Epstein case. But once I sat in front of the computer, I realized that I was about to break the rule I set down when I started the blog. Then I thought about the Lavalin issue and the ethics watchdog report that recently came out. I could write a story because I've been researching Parliamentary reform and there is an aspect of that that has direct bearing on the expulsion of Jody Wilson-Raybould from the Liberal caucus. But I decided that would be wasting a future deep dig on what I suspect will turn out to be a minor story.

But it did get me thinking about the tyranny of topicality and how it can damage the way people learn about the world around them. It's often said that "the average person has the attention span of a gnat". I don't agree. First, it simply is a fact that there is a market for long form journalism, or else it simply wouldn't be "a thing". Some journalists have developed extremely successful "franchises" based on long form journalism. The best example is VOX Media.

For those of you who haven't heard of this institution, VOX is something of a "media empire" that is based on getting into the "nitty gritty" of stories instead of just the latest headlines. It has a website with lots of stories like The day Philadelphia bombed its own people, Fracking may be doing more climate damage than we thought, and, The algorithms that detect hate speech online are biased against black people. It also has a series of very popular podcasts such as The Ezra Klein Show and The Weeds which are specifically meant to deal with complex issues in depth over a fairly long period of time (both shows routinely extend over an hour in length). There is also a YouTube channel, (here's an example of one of their shorter videos---I think that they are better than amusing cat videos.)


Netflix created a partnership with VOX to produce a series of documentaries on a variety of subjects, which is titled Explained. (I highly recommend the episode titled Weed, which explains in great detail many of the issues raised by cannabis legalization.) 

Secondly, if you look at people's behaviour you can tell that if someone is really interested in a subject, lots of people can be very focused towards it. To cite one example, I remember hearing Ralph Nader once opine that if the average sports enthusiast invested a fraction of the attention towards politics that they do to following their favourite team, there would be a revolution in American society. Even if someone can't recite baseball statistics back to the 19th century, there is generally something that he can and will focus on. We live in a world of shade-tree mechanics, master gardeners, quilters, home brewers, model train builders, and so on. All of these pursuits seem horribly tedious to anyone who hasn't "caught the bug"---yet we all know someone who devotes enormous amounts of their spare time to them. It's obvious to me that these folks have more than "the attention span of a gnat". If they don't want to pay much attention to the news, it's because it doesn't interest them---not that they are genetically incapable of focusing on it.

Some of these folks probably don't care about the news and there's nothing anyone can do to get them excited. But I suspect that at least a percentage of them just don't like the trivial way the mainstream media follows stories. It becomes something of a self-fulfilling prophecy when an editor constantly tells his reporters to "dumb down" the news. Eventually people who would be interested in something else get bored and look elsewhere. Many of the folks who do stick just expect that the vast majority of what they are watching is nonsense that they should only take with a grain of salt, so they only engage with it in a half-hearted way. That leaves the fraction of people who truly are incapable of "paying attention" as being the only folks who get listened to when it's time to design the latest main-stream media model. I suspect that this is at least part of why we've seen such a decline in real investigative news in favour of blowhards yelling at each other and quick "he-said, she-said" stories totally devoid of any context. (Of course the general decline in revenue for news is another part of this, but again, lack of loyalty to real news on the part of management is probably also another cause of declining support for news organizations.) 

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This whole editorial is something of an explanation of why I think this blog is important, so I'm not going to insert the standard blue-type plea for subscriptions. (But if you do want to subscribe through Patreon or PayPal feel free.) But I will leave you with this last idea. VOX has succeeded because it specifically deals with issues of interest to a huge market---the USA and the greater international audience. Insofar as a news site focuses on local stories (like my deep digs) I am not going to get readers outside of Guelph. That means that I am trying to dance with cement blocks tied to my feet, which suggests that the "smart money" is against what I'm trying to do here. So any support that "proves the business model" right now is going to pay big dividends down the road for creating a vibrant local news ecosystem. If you want to read news about where you live, the motto isn't "build it and they will come", but rather "support it and it will survive".

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Furthermore, I say onto you the Climate Emergency must be dealt with!