Written out of the great newspaper click chase
THE Telegraph has apparently published 13,000 articles which begin “What time…”, feasting on the hits from Google searches in which we write ‘what time is the England v Slovakia match’ or ‘what time does the new series of Strictly Come Dancing start’. I don’t think the same web pull would work with article titles like ‘what time does Camden’s full council meeting start, but maybe we are missing a trick. It’s useful enough, a public service even, but perhaps not exactly what the young journalists working for the Telegraph, with the cred of scribing for one of the world’s famous titles and one of the few that makes a profit, particularly had in mind when they spent £9k a year on a journalism degree.
As it goes, devising ways to crack the Google search system may have its own attraction these days, like winning at some great big strategy computer game, and, truth be had, everybody has got to scratch a living even if that living wasn’t what you imagined it might be at the start. There is some stock in the argument too that clickbait copy can fund more serious journalism in the years to come. But that doesn’t mean the process of chasing hits doesn’t have some losers too, by which I mean what feels like the almost mechanical lifting of stories and quotes from papers like ours. How couldn’t it leave a sour taste in the mouth for those whose work re-appears almost word for word under a different byline and in a different paper’s online edition?
The Telegraph are not unique in their magpie affection for articles in the CNJ, but it seems an almost weekly groan among our reporters that a story which originated from their hard work and ideas has landed on its website. Take last week, Reverend Tom Plant’s decision to bring music gigs to St Michael’s Church, a parochial story enlivened by the priest’s quotes – ‘we think Jesus turned water into wine for a reason’ – found its way to the front menu of the Telegraph’s website, although if you read it there you wouldn’t have known he had been speaking to us.
It’s only through the time, care and hard work which neighbourhood stories like this are brought to life through face-to-face and phone interviews, that time-consuming but fulfilling process of actually speaking to people. It seems only fair for the Telegraph, and others, if they won’t pay, to at least put ‘told the Camden New Journal’ in their reproductions, and yet there seems to be a strange, horrified resistance to doing this. It would surely be no skin off their noses, their online audience would not be appalled.
People who hear our grumbles often say we should ring and complain. If you contact the Telegraph, and this is based on past experience, and ask why your story is running on their website, you will get passed around a few departments and eventually an offer of £20 or so will probably be made, which you can then spend a few more weeks chasing through other departments to actually get. Often you’ll be told the story came from an agency which has spotted it and strung the article often with only a couple of words changed, and that they had no idea that the quotes were the work of a local journalist.
While this may be the case, for big, famous newspapers like the Telegraph to take copy from agencies, with no questions asked about the source of the story, is a strange premise to work on. The editors in movies never allow that.
There’s the other line: well, you should have sold it before it was lifted. Hmmmm. Try ringing around rushed newsdesks and say: I’ve got a story about a priest who wants to have music concerts in his church. The phone conversation will be short, and you’ll almost certainly be giggled off the line as the hick hack who needs to put their stories back into a community newsletter. It feels like there’s a difference: pitch a story with a view to payment and get told ‘that’s not for us’, but if agencies or papers feel they can lift it for free once it’s been published in the CNJ in print and online, then they will run the story after all as a freebie.
The Telegraph, and again I only use it as one example, has, among many examples, run our stories about a man banned from a pub for wearing decorators’ clothes, a driver thought to be deliberately soaking people by splashing through puddles and the complaints about the noise fitness groups make in Primrose Hill. Sometimes they mention us, often they don’t, but what’s interesting is that in the past some of these stories would be seen as too parochial for a national newspaper. Now every bit of copy, especially if there is a celebrity or quirky edge to it, has the chance to fly online. If it doesn’t, so what, try another, no print costs lost.
As it happens, I think the Telegraph’s printed product does well to bring in small stories from across the United Kingdom each day, usually but not always derived from local paper stories, in its News In Brief columns. But it should, more often, say where quotes come from.
In American newsrooms taking quotes out of other papers uncredited, as the Daily Mail did this week from our story about a burglary at author Hunter Davies’s home, would be seen as unacceptable, and when some of the British newspapers tried to expand their web operations overseas they ran into static from some of the key US titles who were not going to accept it. Editors here should surely demand the same quality controls; they should be angry if when they ask a reporter, in print or online, where they got their quotes from, and the reply comes back that they’ve been lifted from another paper without saying so.
Strangely, our nationals seem happier crediting lifted quotes from other nationals than they do attributing words to local papers, almost as if it’s accepted that the caper would not go unnoticed if one big title pulled from another without due recognition.
The consequences of the St Michael’s gigs story jumping from the CNJ to the Telegraph website was that other titles, seeing that the quirky quotes obtained by my colleague Ella Jessel were playing well as a quick and easy web hit, helped themselves too. Not once was the CNJ referenced, and in fact some papers said Father Tom had spoken to the Telegraph. If he did, oddly enough, he used the exact same words as when he spoke to us. In the end, as the wheel made a full turn on a story, the quotes, albeit not maliciously, ended up in the following issue of the Ham and High, our friendly but direct competitor up the road.
Objections like this are often dismissed as the moans of hacks at the foot of journalism’s food chain, we’re told to suck it up, to get over it. There is no obvious concern from up the ladder that lifting and lifting again will harm a paper like ours, because if local papers cease to exist, so what?, there’s now the never-ending barrel of copy and paste stories from Twitter and Reddit comments to feed from in the same way.
And that’s where we come back to the journalists who have spent a lot of money to be journalists. They have bills to pay, sure, but they are good people often with brilliant minds for scrutiny, and I wonder what they really feel about the local newspapers being written out, if they could forget for a moment about the great click chase.
It’s interesting that some who have been to the CNJ or other local newspapers on work experience placements or even as trainee reporters at the start of their careers seem most respectful, as if they realise that quotes don’t come out of thin air and were actually sweated out in somewhere like our messy office in Camden Town. A more common route into the profession now, however, is a direct leap into online journalism, often at the nationals. Maybe that changes the culture of how locals and regionals are viewed, or feeds those sniffy comments you sometimes see on Twitter about it being a slow news week if we dare to publish anything with a low-key, neighbourhood feel.
The solution to at least writing the local papers back into the wider story – crediting them in the text and, let’s go crazy, perhaps even with a web link – may lie in what industry camaraderie truly remains, as ultimately a standard culture of fair credit can only come from within.
It seems to be an unsaid that what we are often talking about is one reporter lifting from another, despite both possibly being signed up to the same trade union. But the National Union of Journalists, to which most of us at the CNJ pay a monthly sub, rarely seems to talk about it; in the monthly magazine you don’t see much discussion about how hard work slips from one page to another, from our website to somewhere else, through the actions of people supposedly banded together, albeit loosely, to safeguard the future of the trade.
So here’s an idea: How’s about, once every five years or so, reporters on the nationals and the copy stringers could come back to work for a local for a week and get a refresher on how it ticks over in a place like the New Journal, to see the source. I just wonder if a peep inside, a reminder, would make them a little less light with their attribution.
Consider how soul destroying it must be to copy, paste, publish and move on to the next copy job over and over again. It’s so lethal to creativity, curiosity and professional development that surely it would be better to quit journalism than do this sort of thing day in, day out. Many hacks in churn factories never enjoy the privilege of making calls, making contacts and getting their own scoops. It’s them I feel sorriest for. Regards to Ella and all at the Journal by the way.
I’m old enough to remember the lively press of the sixties. Great newspapers then like the Mirror and the Manchcher Guardian had legendary journalists writing for them. They were concerned to inform and clarify, in a non patronising manner, difficult political issues to the public. Their modern equivalents are but a sad and pale imitation. Like our political representatives most of these modern journalists are concerned with clouding the issues and concealing the motives of their paymasters from the public.
What has gone wrong?