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In the news, there’s only so much out there you can report on. But hopefully, with added effort and the willingness to go the extra mile to get comment and a fresh angle, to actually investigate and you know, be a journalist, it’s possible to be a little different. To provide insight and analysis, whether the outlet is being a conduit for those people or providing that itself.

It’s no secret that on any given day, if you head over to Google News you’ll see what it’s picked as the most important stories of the day. We think that the idea is it picks up on what’s being talked about the most and the techies take their pick over what should be on the agenda for the day – changing (and charging, in The Times’ case) throughout, of course. Theoretically Google Wizards can bog about with it and keep the stuff it wants on top, on top.

But that would hardly be fair. The real game is figuring out Google’s complex algorithms. And when you get into the Google News game, you’re playing with those, and you need to start sacrificing good, punchy headlines in the name of pleasing the publisher (see headline).

There are outlets, as the Financial Times has just reported  that there are agencies trying to get the one-up on Google by figuring out the mathematics behind it, hiring dirt cheap writers and getting them to bash out every story out there – interesting or not, old or new, often with no insight, no angle, but straight up reporting the hundreds of other stories online at that given time – in the name of getting to the top spot.

It increases SEO and it inreases traffic. But surely good journalism, not churnalism, should be why anyone comes to a website – unless of course it’s the dedicated Apple following we have chasing Nick Farrell about.

Demand Media, reports the FT, is “part of a wave of online media companies that have risen to prominence with low-cost, high-volume content.” Other household names, says the FT, are Yahoo and AOL which pay writers peanuts to bash out what-have-you to whoever’s Googling that day – and it works. It’s not just sites over in the States but here in Blighty too. Shouldn’t journalism, not churnalism, be what is driving traffic and grabbing the attention of readers? Or even controversial but genuine opinion?

Not having “iPhone 4″ in the title
We asked a few media reporters what they think. We asked: “Online Journalism – already plagued by media outlets struggling to keep on top of Google’s search algorithm to take the top spot every day – is struggling more than the print naysayers would say. How dangerous is this sort of thing for journalism? Are we getting into the age of SEO and low quality, cheap writers with excellent subs all vying for the top spot?”

One reporter got back to us rather quickly and keenly, requesting not to be named. Our source told us:

“As large media outfits jump on the Google carousel, it’s inevitable that journalism will suffer. Publishers are already haranguing low paid journalists to do more and more to hit the Google News top spots. 

“They’re also spending a fortune on search engine optimisation and that goes hand in hand with riding on the Google News carousel. The journalists on their strange online steeds are no doubt realising that when the ride stops, if it ever does, they’re going to feel pretty bloody nauseous.”

We chatted to Jemima Kiss, digital media reporter at The Guardian, who took a sympathetic view on SEO and its ilk. She was quick to correct us when we suggested that everyone who knows all about it must be some kind of terrible, evil wizard: “Web publishing and online journalism are still nascent, and there’s clearly a huge adjustment for traditional media in terms of speed, tone, international audiences and the technology itself – which includes understanding how to optimise content for search engines without sacrificing quality news stories for more search-engine friendly.

“SEO is not a dark, mysterious art. Done properly, it is about labelling your content so that readers are more likely to see it, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Publishers would not be doing their jobs properly if they did not optimise their content for the web. It should mean more descriptive, clear headlines rather than obscure, witty headlines.

“There are well-known websites with very different offerings to their print counterparts, which seek to maximise the number of page views and therefore advertising revenue by publishing as many populist stories and photo galleries as possible. Clearly stories about celebrities, entertainment and top sports stars and always likely to draw big traffic, and that’s one strategy.”

“But most traditional news sites have developed a balance of authoritative, important news and more populist stories which can still be written in the tone of the publication. Excellent subs and writers – the latter who often self-publish – will always be required, and those with an understanding of metadata, SEO and the aptitude to explore new tech are increasingly valuable.”

SEO, Google News and the rest of it can be viewed as valuable tools to make sure you reach the right readers. Like we said right up top, it’s possible – and should be mandatory, really – for different outlets to cover the same story with fresh perspective and an investigative eye.

We don’t like to view ourselves as Luddites at TechEye Towers but we’re still not convinced. If there’s a way for an organisation to start swamping the internet with hoardes of low paid writers, not journalists, but writers, it can’t be good for freedom of information or, even, of the press. We can’t imagine these outlets, essentially wires are training up their journalists or encouraging digging, fact finding and creating and searching for novel opinions and insights.

Leah Borromeo, journalist and filmmaker, is critical of bolstering traffic at the expense of quality journalism too:

“What makes journalism tick is its craft, the ability to turn a phrase into a story that entertains or enlightens or politicises people.  A journalist is a conduit for information, fact and perception. Good journalism uncovers issues and changes the world. 

“Focusing on click rates and SEO means people write to key words and tags, not to stories and events that really matter. A good editor values a journalist whose copy they don’t have to mess around with to make sense. A good editor is also a journalist. 

“It’s up to the publication. If you have something that calls itself a news site and you hire people who aren’t journalists, you are lying to your readers. You are regurgitating PR copy and saying what governments and companies want you to say. You are a parrot. You are not news. 

“We are already in the age of low-quality journalism where kids fresh out of journo school are told to write stories, block quote press releases and put it out as news. The danger of this is that not only is the public subjected to substandard and untrue information, an industry [news] that is in place as a check and balance to the overlords of power becomes a lapdog to power in order to stay financially alive.

“News organisations have a history of hiring non-journos…providing they are executing non-journo roles [administrators, technicians etc]. Hiring non-journos to do a journo job is like hiring a potato to fix your car. It’s not going to work.”

Leah raises an interesting point about journalism graduates. The degree is more popular than ever and how a junior reporter’s content turns out is as much part the responsibility of what they have learnt and how their employers train and mould them. We remember overhearing a new journalist telling us that they were being told how to pander to PRs. 

We talked to two graduates who disagreed. Danielle Goldstein, of City University, who is now working for Time Out but who has also worked for a heap of music mags,  told us that in her experience – both at uni and in employment – she has been encouraged to actually be a journalist:

“We were always told to research as far as possible into a story, beyond Google. The one thing our course tutors always told us was to phone people, get right to the source and get a direct quote because that was the one thing you could rely on. And if the story is false, at least you won’t be the one to blame.

“Regarding PR however, I’ve never had to pander to them. If anything, the papers I’ve worked for have told me to skirt around whatever the PR request is regarding, what questions you can and can’t ask bands or to ignore them when they say ‘don’t include anything about X in the feature’.”

Another, Leonie Cumiskey at Goldsmith, mirrors this:”We had to go to court and everything and have to write up a whole court case based on information which we had to get ourselves just by listening to the case… It was well f***ing boring.”

Both are encouraging although neither have had to venture into the murky world of driving content and traffic to web, instead working for print titles with different departments for their online presence. It seems the online press ticks along very differently.

A friend of TechEye’s, Eric Doyle and a self confessed iLuddite (check out his blog, IT Scribblings), has had to adapt to changes since he began working on the home computing technology boom in the 1980s.

“It’s a dangerous game and linked to the dire financial environment of the Web. I’ve been writing as a freelance trade journalist for almost three decades and find that I’m earning less now per story than I did several years ago. This is discouraging experienced writers and opening the door to the kind of press release paraphrasing and wholesale plagiarism that is rife today. A scoop is only a scoop for about three minutes after publication. The good reporting is still there but buried in a morass of mediocrity. 

“When it comes to SEO, a search results in a list of likely articles but there is no measure of quality or originality. Publications try to attract advertisers and often the first question is about the number of hits the site gets per day. Eyeballs are everything and the more that stare at your pages the better. Many of the readers care little about the quality of the writing. It could be written in texting abbreviations just as long as the content matches their expectations. 

“Choosing the bon mots for the search engines to pick over may well be a science but personally I think a lot of the talk about optimising for the optimisers is self-defeating. When the algorithms are unravelled, the search engines will change them and the whole discussion moves on. The keywords for the future are informed content, community and viral exposure.”

Doyle also pointed out to us that as far as SEO is concerned, it doesn’t always do the trick. Type in a request for “neotheism” into Google and the first result is headlined “NEOTHEISM: The Dangers of Making God in Our Image” which does not provide information but instead is a critique from hardliners. The problems for the more experienced and the old hands who have had to adapt to reporting online overwhelmingly is the search for clicks and traffic, sidling up as mates to the search monster Google does mean there’s a chance content gets watered down as publishers and media outlets battle for backlinks and mentions.

But it’s also encouraging that journalists are aware of this and they don’t like it. Or, in Jemima’s case – aware of it and believe that it’s possible to live side by side. As long as good writers and journalists know about the perils of falling into the search trap, maybe we’re not all doomed after all.