Friday, 27 March 2015

Journalism: Forget the rules

"The dirty secret: journalism has always been horrible to get in; you always have to eat so much crap to find a place to stand. I waited tables for seven years, did writing on the side. If you're gonna get a job that's a little bit of a caper, that isn't really a job, that under ideal circumstances you get to at least leave the building and leave your desktop, go out, find people more interesting than you, learn about something, come back and tell other people about it - that should be hard to get into. That should be hard to do. No wonder everybody's lined up, trying to get into it. It beats working." David Carr, 2014.

That quote from the late, great New York Times writer David Carr, brilliantly encapsulates - far better than I ever could - why journalism is such a genuinely fantastic profession.

Every day is different, you get to learn and write about interesting subjects, you meet fascinating people from all walks of life, and you can experience the thrill of breaking stories and setting the agenda.

Sometimes it doesn't feel like that though.

That's because we don't hear about those things as often as we hear about 'the rules'. The rules of presentation and tech. About how a story must be presented in a modular way, about how it must be a list, about how there must be a large photo every three paragraphs, about how we must churn out x number of stories per hour, about how it must be funny or quirky or grotesque in order to grab attention on Twitter.

This is anathema to journalism. It isn't what it should be about at all. It seems as if we've lost sight of what is important, what has always been important, and what will always be important - the story!

That's what makes people read a piece in the first place. It's what keeps people reading. And it's what gets them coming back. It's what creates an impact. All the rest is mere window dressing, or, in the words of General Charles Krulak, 'Hogwash'.

Anyway, having said all that, here are my rules on the subject (only joking, there are just two):

1. Journalism isn't about rules: it's about taking a story on its merits, thinking about the best way to tell it, and then coming up with the best means to present it.

It's about having an instinct for what makes an interesting story in the first place and then being creative with it. If you go in with preconceived ideas about which types of story will work and how you're going to tell them and present them, then you've lost already.

The story will be formulaic and boring. I've known plenty of recent stories that broke 'the rules' - they were very long and on left-field topics for example.

But they were original and distinctive; they were interesting and intriguing. They were well told and well written, and well presented, with good pics/ video etc. And guess what, they often got almost a million hits in one day. And were widely shared. And people seemed to enjoy reading them and might have even learned something too.

Yes, they needed a compelling tagline for the headline and, as a result, for social media too. But that's always been the case, you've always needed to effectively grab the attention of the reader.

2. It's about the story: good stories are good stories - on any platform! It isn't rocket science. Once you have a good story, it's easy to tailor it for different platforms.

You do have to come up with the idea for an interesting story in the first place though, and then put in the calls and the research to pull it off. And that is difficult.

But as I say, the layout/ tailoring to a platform is the easy bit. Most people can do that! People might make it sound like a science, but it isn't really. Frankly, it's bullshit baffling brains.

A poor story (predictable, dull subject; formulaically told and laid out; no insight) will be poor no matter how well it is laid out.

Some people might like the rules because this is easier than having the nous the instinct to generate, recognise and then tell a good story.

That requires you to think on your feet and make a different judgement every time, because every story is by its very nature different. That's tougher. Easier, instead, to hide behind 'the rules'.

If it were all about rules, then we may as well throw away our laptops and let the robots take over. I'm pretty sure that will never happen though, because a robot will never, ever, have the innate instinct, creativity and deftness to approach every piece differently and produce great journalism.

End of sermon. Amen.

No comments:

Post a Comment