Less news feels like more news

Last year I was a voracious consumer of news on the web and my phone. I would check twitter and facebook multiple times a day, often clicking through to links that people had posted. I was using apple news on an ipad we have and I would often check BBC news and BBC sport websites and apps. At a guess I’d say I was ‘checking’ what was going on well over 100 times a day.

It made me really grumpy and I’m not sure I gained anything more of a deep understanding than just what events have happened. Sometimes even that was tricky to work out.

I’ve gradually broken the habit. Partly it was that I didn’t get data for my phone while we were away on holiday but I also began to realise that even the headlines on more reputable old media outlets were being dramatically spun. It wasn’t even that they were being spun in one particular direction as was the case in the New Labour years. It was that they were being spun to confuse deliberately. The Trump team are masters of layers of misinformation where not only are the stories spun, the way that the stories are put out is spun so that nobody really knows what’s going on.

It has highlighted to me that most of what is reported is what people say (not what is done) and even if it is in quotes in the headline, it has no impact on the world other than to confuse. As the Bureau of Investigative Journalism put it:

“As happened in the UK in the run up to Brexit, lots of American media outlets treated Trump as entertainment — his soundbites, as shocking as they were, provided fantastic content on social media. For months, many newspapers allowed Trump to get away with making blatantly untrue statements — and elevated those untruths to their front pages.”

Journalism as entertainment is unfortunately going to continue to increase for the next few years unless the big media companies that point to it (Google, Facebook, Twitter) decide to stop. It’s just too lucrative. Jimmy Wales is having a go at addressing it as are some of the other big foundations.

Business model wise, I don’t know what the answer is. It can’t be state funded. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism is funded through philanthropy, most notably by David and Elaine Potter who made their money through the founding of Psion. The problem of course is that it’s perfectly possible for people who don’t like the position that the BIJ take to ‘philanthropically’ fund others to muddy the waters or come up with alternative ‘facts’. At worst this is the fake news industry but PR has pretty much the same intention.

My only reflection on all this is that it’s driven me away from the thing that I think it is meant to create — attention. I spend far less time reading news — fake or not — than I used to.

Is it possible to write for everyone?

The way we read and absorb information has changed dramatically over the past decade and I’ve been wondering for the past few days whether the ideal style of writing has changed too.

Ten years ago I was still reading a daily newspaper in print format. While the newspapers and big media organisations had websites, they were semi-peripheral. I remember that BBC News online went down on 9/11 and we had to transfer to the pub opposite to watch on TV. The big name blog and news sites such as Huffington Post didn’t exist yet. There certainly wasn’t a Twitter or a Facebook.

So in general my media intake was pretty simple — and written in one style. It included some pictures and some advertisements but was written to be readable. It didn’t include lots of ‘jumping off points’ in the form of hyperlinks or related content and there weren’t hundreds of tweets pointing me to new pieces of comments on articles to read through.

At the time I felt like it was relatively easy to write for everyone. Whether it was a conference programme, a website or the policy pieces we were writing, the style was pretty straightforward. It was something like that of The Economist or the Guardian Weekend Magazine of the time. Sentences were fairly short, we used speech pretty frequently and were sure to avoid jargon.

But ten years on, following the huge fragmentation that’s taken place, I’m not sure it’s possible to write for everyone any more. There used to be an ‘internet audience’ — now there are a multitude. The cacophony of the written word in the internet age makes it harder to write simple, understandable, informative yet entertaining copy. Everything you write has to be for a particular audience and there are very many more audiences than there used to be.