Google Improves The News

I came across an article in the online version of the New York Times. It said google is changing the face of journalism online and making it boring. According to Steve Lohr, the author of a New York Times article dated April 9, 2006, google is punishing newspapers for attempts to be original and creative. He says:

“JOURNALISTS over the years have assumed they were writing their headlines and articles for two audiences — fickle readers and nitpicking editors.”

Fickle readers, I gather, require clever, interesting, witty headlines and titles to attract their attention whilst nit-picking editors, I assume, demand good grammar, punctuation and spelling amongst other things.

Mr Scott, the 60-year-old British gentleman who taught me journalistic writing, was a difficult man to please. He was formal, demanding, rigid and uncompromising. As a young man he worked for some of the most highly respected newspapers in England and he could be extremely caustic and scathing towards his pupils.

He would have disagreed with the above mentioned statement and informed the writer he must not have submitted his work to any editor, nit-picking or otherwise, since the sentence was badly punctuated.

He would have rewritten the sentence to read: Journalists, over the years, have made asses of themselves writing for fickle readers who want gossip instead of writing for people who want the news.

Lohr also says:

“In newspapers and magazines, for example, section titles and headlines are distilled nuggets of human brainwork, tapping context and culture.”

Mr Scott would have replied that newspapers and magazines are, or should be, two very different things. He frowned on attempts to be witty or clever. He savaged students for using big words when little ones would have done and for writing two words when one would have been enough.

He would have said the words “distilled nuggets of human brainwork, tapping context and culture” should be replaced with the words “literary works of art” or something shorter if possible.

Then he would have stared at Steve and said (and I quote from experience); “Your job is not to entertain – it is to INFORM! Report the NEWS and leave entertaining to television, radio, magazines and those dreadful rags we call the tabloids.”

Mr Lohr spoke about how google’s preferences have affected online newspaper reports.

“Mostly, they are making titles and headlines easier for search engines to find and fathom.”

He mentions online section titles being changed to pander to google who, apparently, prefers “Homes” to “Real Estate” and “lifestyle” to “Scene” and he gives examples of how headlines must be changed to suit google.

The headline: “Unsafe sex: Has Jacob Zuma’s rape trial hit South Africa’s war on AIDS?” was changed to: “Zuma testimony sparks HIV fear.” and the headline: “Tulsa star: The life and career of much-loved 1960’s singer.” was altered to: “Obituary: Gene Pitney.” to keep the google search engine happy.

Mr Scott would have been overjoyed. Search engines, he would have said, are forcing newspapers, online at least, to go back to their roots. They are having to report the NEWS and leave entertaining people to their print editions.

I loathe it when newspaper headlines try to be entertaining and clever because, more often than not, they only THINK they are producing literary works of art! They are writing to impress someone but, if it is me, they are failing. I am not as unkind as Mr Scott was, however, so I do not go so far as to accuse modern journalism of being nothing more than tabloid writing.

Mr Scott despised tabloids. He believed newspapers were lowering their standards so much they were in danger of becoming tabloids themselves and that was more than ten years ago. Tabloids, according to Mr Scott, don’t report the news. They report gossip. They chase celebrities, sex and scandals and they use sensational headlines to capture the readers eye.

A lot of newspapers seem to be doing those things now. Pictures of celebrities and what they are doing, dramatic headlines, gossip and innuendo regularly appear on the front pages of newspapers.

Celebrities, Mr Scott used to say, are not NEWS. They are gossip. Gossip, he would tell us firmly, belongs in magazines. Or tabloids.

Mr Scott used to say it is a journalist’s job to write for people who hate reading because they either don’t read well or don’t have time to waste on reading. That means keeping it short, sharp, and to the point.

Serious newspaper readers, he said, have neither the time nor patience to work out your witticisms or decipher your “distilled nuggets of human brainwork, tapping context and culture” they want the NEWS and they want it unadorned!

People with feedreaders may be taking the place of serious newspaper readers. They have too many “feeds”, or newspapers if you will, to waste time. They may be more and more attracted to the old style of news reporting. It appears, if what Mr Lohr says is true, google already IS attracted to it.

I prefer my news unadorned but perhaps I am the only one, apart from the ghost of Mr Scott and search engines, who wants news rather than gossip and sensationalism from newspapers.

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