Welcome to your daily tranquiliser of news

I have grown infuriated again with the news wire service that is the main source of news for my job as news editor with Techworld.com. A huge amount of the information on it is simply unusable, but I still have to read it all to make sure there isn’t a gem in there.

Just a second ago I realised something that was fundamental to its problem, and to much of the modern news media, so I have decided to share it with whoever wants to read this ludicrously self-regarding blog.

I have chosen to call it OSB news, standing for “one step behind”.

I have some example headlines from the news service from today:

* HP extends deadline for Mercury acquisition
* Sony will launch HD laptop with Blu-ray
* Nissan to target road safety with ITS trial

You will note that HP has not actually acquired Mercury; nor has Sony brought out a laptop; and Nissan hasn’t actually “targeted” road safety, it only has a trial with which it may or may not target road safety in the future.

All these are one step behind a real news story. It is all nearly-news. And a tremendous amount of time and effort is expended in finding out about this OSB news, writing it up, editing it, and posting it in order to tell everyone – or, more accurately, no-one – about it. Time that should be spent finding real news.

Clients, clients, clients

And the reason? Press Relations. If there is an actual product, actual news, it usually directly reflects on the company or organisation. As a result, a PR company is at far greater risk of conflicting with their clients’ needs. The client will want to control more how an actual real event is portrayed by their PR team and so will fiddle more, and so the end result will be infinitely duller – classic decision-making by committee mundanity.

PR companies’ effectiveness is often measured by the column inches of coverage they achieve – something that sometimes leads to the perverse situation that a negative review in a publication that their client will never read is just as good as a good review – it’s all inches and you don’t have to show your client the bad stuff.

And so in this search for column inches, PRs push OSB news. News that is harmless. And because of the massive power possessed by PR companies these days and the abject laziness of journalists, combined with the constrained resources of editorial teams, these worthless scraps of nearly-news are reported, leaving everyone happy because no trouble comes of it. A perfect Lotus Eater scenario for the modern media world.

And the readers?

The only people being shortchanged are the readers. But then the readers are only secondary to the advertisers anyway. The only actual use in readers is because advertisers insist, for some ungodly reason, on knowing how many there are of them before they hand over their money.

When will the pendulum swing back the other way and money be put into news, to attract readers that want to know real information, to attract advertisers that want to put their products in front of so many readers?

I say this in the full knowledge that Techworld has today been shortlisted for the AOP Online Publishers Awards for Best Editorial Team 2006. I like to think that at least part of the reason Techworld has been named is because none of the stories above have ever, or will ever, appear on the site while I’m news ed.

  1. Allow me to make some ludicrously self-regarding counterpoints.

    Surely these would be One Step Ahead stories.

    I would say there’s substantial informational value in some of these stories.

    If you’re a consumer electronics buyer you may make a future purchasing decision based in part on which laptop or DVD vendors plan to bring out which products, rather than buying something today that may be obsolete in a few months.

    If you’re a Nissan competitor, there’s value in knowing what the opposition is up to, so you can plan accordingly.

    You could make a case that lazy reporters waste too much time writing up PR-announced stories, or that they don’t dig deep enough into them, but I think that’s a different debate.

  2. Okay, this is it, now I *really* now you’re winding me up.


  3. They seem like perfectly legit stories to me. Not hugely interesting, but still… Better than silly surveys

  4. You’ve got to be kidding me. This isn’t news. One of the best of many definitions of news is: “Something you want to tell someone else.”

    In this strange new bubble Internet world, the media appears to be confusing information for news. And boring the hell out of everyone as it does so. Lotus Eaters, I tell you.


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