I read a lot of stuff on the Internet.
In fact, with the exception of the free daily tab I get every morning on the way to work and books, nearly everything I read is online. Along with the day-to-day news, some opinion pieces from people I like and weird stuff my friends send me through links, I read a whole bunch of sites that deal in, for lack of a better term, nerd news: coverage of stuff like video games, comics, TV shows like Doctor Who and LOST, movie and music snobbery, and so forth.
I enjoy reading most of that material (otherwise it would be pretty stupid to spend my time on it, right?) and think a lot of it has value, but I can’t help but notice its largest deficiency, which is nearly universal. On most of these sites, it is impossible to find what I might call the basis of real journalism: Reportage.
There’s plenty of stuff masquerading as reporting, but very little of it is genuine, shoe-leather journalism. (Though there is some real reportage going on in some corners of the web, like this recent example.) It’s other things. Not all of which are without merit, by the way. Still, I see five areas where these sites could do a lot better.
1. Commentary is not reportage.
When you read a comics news site or a gaming blog, what you’re getting, by and large, is commentary. Whether it’s a column by a staff writer or a guest piece by an industry insider, it’s often one person’s opinion about some trend or a particularly momentous event or whatever else that person finds interesting that day.
And that’s fine. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with commentary whatsoever. There’s a reason newspapers have had opinion pages since time immemorial. People want to know what informed commentators think about important topics. But here’s the thing: Without smart, tough reporting to inform commentators, opinion pieces often end up being about topics that just aren’t that interesting. Or at the very least, they’re about topics that could be enriched through a little investigation. Call it Feature Column Syndrome. (And yes, I am fully aware that I am making these points in an online commentary piece.)
Hell, the best and most-read newspaper columns are sourced, just like news stories. But we’ll get to that in a minute.
2. A press release isn’t a story.
My biggest complaint about most online nerd-news sites is their unyielding and infuriating habit of posting a press release wholesale, with “FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE” and all, and calling that a news story. It ain’t.
At most, you should use a press release as the basis for a lead, maybe a quote or two. But it can’t be the whole story, else you become nothing but a mouthpiece for your corporate sources. Which is great for those sources, but is a pretty terrible disservice to your readers, especially when you don’t even bother to label those posts as press releases in your headline. The practice makes you a PR clearinghouse, not a news agency.
The bare minimum for a worthwhile story is to call someone and at least ask if what’s announced in a press release is important. Or why anybody should care. Or if it’s really going to be terrible and that nobody should care. Something other than just to say that something new is going to occupy a shelf in a couple months.
Maybe the biggest problem is that a lot of sites and their proprietors don’t care about breaking real news or questioning the companies that send out releases. They’re OK being the mouthpiece. They just want to be liked, and they dig being able to talk to important people, who, oh boy, know their names. Good for them, but I don’t see that as a very good reason to call yourself a journalist.
3. Rumors aren’t news.
And they should never be presented in the same context as news.
I know, it’s partially the nature of the beast. Blogs don’t really allow for separate rumor pages. Every post just goes into a feed that pops up in a page with a set template. And there’s more competition to get the story now now now now even if it isn’t confirmed. But, honestly, that’s no excuse.
If you’re going to report rumors (and there are plenty of regular old mainstream news outlets and political blogs that do the same thing), separate them somehow. Label them. Throw them all into one big post that clearly categorizes them as rumors. And, if they’re too dangerous – that is, they could be considered libelous, they could cause huge problems for a relatively innocent victim or you reporting it might make you a target – don’t report them.
And hey, why not do a little verification and try to confirm those rumors? You may not be the first one to get the story, but you’ll be the first one to get it on the record from a real, named source. That gives you credibility, and saves you the embarrassment of having to retract something after you post some unsubstantiated nonsense. Plus, if you do get something wrong, and others can prove that you’re wrong, how about owning up to it? Posting a correction? Doing anything other than just saying “oh well” and moving on, or worse yet, maintaining that you’re still right?
You know, professionalism.
4. Q&As aren’t stories, either.
I like reading Q&A pieces. If the subject is someone I find particularly interesting, I can get a lot out of them, especially if the questions are focused, well-researched and incisive.
But they aren’t news stories. Essentially, they’re just variations on commentary pieces, just with prompts from an interviewer to get one person’s point of view. They are one-source pieces.
Sometimes, those are worthwhile. If someone’s at the center of some big event or can offer perspective on a larger trend, a Q&A serves a needed function. But even then, it’s within the context of a bigger, ongoing story. Perhaps they serve a different purpose in entertainment journalism, as they tend to be one of the biggest building blocks of that arena. The good ones get inside the mind of an artist, show a bit of his or her process and maybe give some idea of how he or she views the world, in a way that’s not obvious in his or her art. And that’s great. But to describe a Q&A, even a good one, as a news interview is something of a mischaracterization.
Which brings us to…
5. Sources, research and background are the basis of news reporting.
Let’s say a particular video game didn’t sell as expected. What does that mean for the developer who designed it? Get a comment. What about the distributor? Call them. What about other developers that make games in the same genre? Talk to them, too. Is this a change from the sales figures of similar games? Find out. Does it mean something for the industry as a whole? Ask an expert.
That sounds hard, right? Who are you even going to call? And when you do, will those sources say anything even remotely worthwhile? For a while, they probably won’t. But the more you talk to them, the more they hear from you and get used to your voice, the more they’ll loosen up.
It’s regular old source development. And yeah, everybody within a given industry is on some company’s dime. And they have reasons not to talk. But they might have reasons to talk, too. There’s no reason a comic book creator shouldn’t be able to give you a quote just like a government department head can. They both know the risks. And government wonks and business insiders have been talking to the press for decades.
But you have to ask.
Of course, the big dangling question here is whether anyone will care enough to read reportage on the comic book industry or game makers or other nerdy pursuits, and whether the return is worth the cost. Maybe it isn’t. Maybe people are satisfied with only commentary pieces, press releases and rumors populating their RSS feeds. Maybe those things aren’t as important as politics or the stuff that’s on the business page or the celebrities that pop up in the lifestyle section.
But a lot of people feel a lot of passion for these topics. They even devote their whole lives and careers to them. And many want their passions to be taken seriously as valid ways to spend one’s time. Shouldn’t, then, the people who gather and report information about those topics treat them that way, too?