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Dyson at Large: Publishers’ new gizmos threaten editorial integrity

As the media world struggles to retain its editorial integrity against fake news, two developments in the regional press have got me gnashing my teeth.

First up was the €398,000 grant that Newsquest won from Google’s Digital News Initiative for a scheme designed to help people submit content “ready-for-publication” in its local titles.

Newsquest said its ‘Loquial’ service will provide “a set of user-friendly publishing tools” to enable the public to share their news.

Hold on a minute: there’s nothing wrong with listings, letters and opinions, and we’re all up for building decent news stories from readers’ tips, but what’s all this about what folk send in being ‘ready-for-publication’?

That surely requires balance, legal checks and a dose of plain English, something that trained journalists should be there to provide.

But from what Newsquest implies, they will be devising some sort of bot rather than a human hack to filter content through a flow-chart of whether it can be used or not.

Newsquest said: “It will also provide efficiency for newsrooms – time saved repurposing and repackaging hyperlocal community content will be reallocated to more in-depth reporting from professional journalists.”

Do they not understand that even what they condescendingly term ‘hyperlocal community content’ also needs checking for originality, half-decent news lines, readable syntax and potential libel?

What’s worse are comments that this tool will enable the public to “harness the trusted environment and wide reach of their local news brand”.

The US-owned publisher added: “It’s a service that will … free up our valuable journalists’ time to focus on the sort of high impact, in-depth reporting that remains central to the strength and trust of our brands.”

We all want the latter, but if standards are lowered by automating news feeds, publishers will dilute their overall content to the level of unrestrained social media.

Allowing technology to desk and publish content unfiltered by trained human eyes will at best damage the trust of local news brands, and at worst destroy them beyond repair.

Meanwhile commercial executives at Reach – formerly Trinity Mirror – are also busy kicking editorial standards into touch, according to an email leaked to me by an old contact. Here’s the full text:

Good afteroon xxxx.

Thank you for your email.

Your press release has been forwarded to me and I wondered when you were free for a quick chat?

I work on the Brand Partnership Team at Reach PLC and we have put together some commercial content options where we can place your press release, write a content campaign that will engage our audience or even come up with a completely bespoke creative content strategy (content written by Commercial Editor) then amplify your content strategy on our brand websites (brands list link below – access our huge audience 37 million unique monthly visitors) and then distribute the content out through channels such as social media and display networks.

Within these options we will guarantee a go live date, proof articles to you, guarantee page views and provide a campaign report once the content has ran giving you visible results.

Please let me know when you are free to discuss how we can work together moving forward.

Kind regards,

XXXXXX

Brand Partnership Manager

Or, in short… Thanks for your press release. If you pay us, we’ll pretend that it’s editorial, and will work as hard on it as we would any real story.

Sorry Reach executives, but someone’s got to call out the harm you could be doing to the industry.

Yes, we’ve always had press releases, and on the business desk the weaker ones would regularly be passed on to commercial colleagues to chase for possible advertising.

But they should never be dressed up as editorial unless they are received, analysed, checked, developed and eventually deemed good enough to escape the spike by journalists who know what makes news.

Even suggesting that paying a sum of money could see a press release guaranteed as editorial, with final content approved by the payer, is tempting the end of journalistic independence.

How often do publishers need to be told that editorial means real journalism, and advertising means paid content.

Anything in between is an advertising feature and should be billed as such. End of. Grrrr!

10 comments

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  • April 17, 2019 at 9:51 am
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    Storybot….. WI meeting.PASS, Little Grumbling village Hall ..PASS. Flower arranging demo..PASS, Tea and biscuits…PASS ,Next weeks talk on Mavis’ visit to Syria.. ALERT ALERT…

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  • April 17, 2019 at 10:01 am
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    Trinity Mirror’s commercial sales teams were approaching companies and their PR’s with a view to providing paid editorial over ten years ago so nothing new there.

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  • April 17, 2019 at 10:41 am
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    All it’s doing is offering to turn the press release into an advertisement feature or campaign for a fee, isn’t it? That’s what ad departments have been doing for years – selling editorial space to commercial clients. What has happened, though, is that those ad departments have acquired the power to tell editors they can’t print certain stories unless they’ve been paid for. They’ve gradually acquired almost total power over commercial news and their sticky fingers have taken more and more control over all editorial content.

    However, I wouldn’t worry about this email. It’s so badly written, clearly by an ad person who was never there in English lessons, that any sensible recipient would delete it immediately and hope that the original news release would make into one of the holes on the template marked “free publicity” (AKA news).

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  • April 17, 2019 at 11:14 am
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    a sentence of about 80 words (I got bored counting) in that dreadful e mail. Someone needs some basic instruction in writing. Full stops would be a start!

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  • April 17, 2019 at 11:17 am
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    Think the two initiatives merged into one piece are really quite different. The NQ one is quite alarming – there is a place for submitted tips, photos, letters etc, but all should be checked, polished and re-written by a professional before seeing the light of day.

    The Reach one though seems pretty harmless. It sounds as if a generic press release which holds no editorial value has been passed to the ad rep to see if the company would pay for it to run instead. As long as it is marked up as paid-for content, it seems a rather sensible way of doing things to me and not particularly new. Better that than one weekly which I saw a few months ago try to hoodwink readers that a story about a man buying a new shed from a local business was newsworthy.

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  • April 17, 2019 at 11:21 am
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    To be fair it can’t be much worse than some of the digital journalism floating around at the moment, top of my local newspapers website (Reach) on mobile at the weekend was a story (from another paper miles away from the actual region) about how some people on Mumsnet who were arguing about how plain a baby’s name was.

    It was (a) utter crud (b) not relevant at all to the locality (c) pinched from another paper

    And it took two ‘journalists’ to cobble and paste the article together in the first place.

    It was an awful read and disjointed, dire stuff – I’d rather read robot or interesting UGC journalism if this is what they are knocking out.

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  • April 17, 2019 at 12:01 pm
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    As others have said Steve you’ve missed the point on the Reach email.

    It is very common now, JP does it and I’m sure NQ does also.

    The copy does not appear “pretending to be editorial” it appears as “sponsored” or “branded” or “in association” with content.

    It takes things that would never make the paper in editorial and turns them into money.

    In my case at JP, sorry JPi, it is us in editorial who send on these releases to the ad team saying “we’d never run this in a million years you may be able to get an advert out of them”.

    I didn’t read any of the conclusions you jumped to in that email. Sorry.

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  • April 17, 2019 at 3:21 pm
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    Thanks for the comments. Some good points made re. the Reach email, and it’s right to balance my superstitious mind! As said, as long as any resulting content is marked ‘Advert’ or ‘Advertising feature’, no harm done. My worry is that they are increasingly not. It’s common for ad reps and ad directors to argue why paid content should not have any such commercial nomenclature. So continue to stand firm, editorial!

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  • April 17, 2019 at 4:40 pm
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    “My worry is that they are increasingly not.”
    Have you any proof of that Steve?
    As for kicking editorial standards into touch, a bit off from someone who clearly hasn’t do their editorial research?

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  • April 18, 2019 at 10:42 am
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    It worries me the way local paper management seems to grab money from any source. Editorial must be seen to be independent. I got fed up some years ago with advertising trying to tell the editor what journos cld/shd write or not write. A worrying trend. As for having a page saying “sponsored” – that just puts readers off straightaway. Look at the number of “freebie” so-called papers have hit the wall because readers don’t like being bombarded with alleged stories where nobody does anything wrong. I hated writing something nice bat a business when I know it shouldn’t see the light of day. Why did I do it – otherwise I wld have been out of a job which is not funny when approaching pension age.

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