Ten pieces of advice for old media

August 30th, 2007 by Ben Goldacre in not bad science, onanism | 67 Comments »

I have to read a lot of newspapers, and I enjoy doing it. Recently I found myself in a gentlemens’ club, chatting, in passing, with a couple of fairly senior chaps from the better known ones. This is the kind of situation I would generally avoid, but emboldened by the Diet Pepsi I began to offer unsolicited advice on what newspapers should do with the internet: as a punter, as a microfamous internet oligarch and, of course, as a gentleman. These were my words of wisdom, many of them developed in conversation, and therefore not entirely my own.

I’d be properly interested to know your thoughts.

  1. Forget trying to foster linear discussion among your readers. You are a national newspaper, pulling in millions of viewers, the comments threads beneath your articles will always be rubbish, because the community is too large. Nobody will read all the other comments before writing one themselves, so there is no discussion, and in such a large community there is no shared pool of knowledge. At best your discussions might work with threaded comments, or with peer voting, like on bigger communities such as Slashdot. But linear comments – for communities that pull millions of visitors – can never produce interesting conversations.
  2. If you do a podcast, do not make it like an even cheaper version of commercial radio. We already have bad commercial radio. Multimedia is cheap to make and distribute: so take advantage of that. Stick some extremely well informed people in a room, for example, and let them have a long, structured conversation about interesting stuff. Do not edit this. Or interview someone extremely interesting – you have access – as if it were a live event. Do not edit this. Spend the time you saved: look for more interesting people.
  3. Aggregate other peoples content. We enjoy a newspaper presenting a coherent world view, and we like to see that in your choice of stuff from other papers, magazines, blogs, and more. Do not write a long blog post telling us what you think about these articles: just link to them, like the Miniblog (to your right). We can read. We get it. Have more than one: let your best writers or editors show everyone what they’re reading.
  4. If you see anything anywhere on your website which could possibly have been in the paper, if it weren’t for space, delete it immediately. Your website isnt the place for second rate newspaper content, it’s for good stuff that was too narrow in appeal to be worth the newsprint. Give us more detail and obscurity, not more Polly Filla. Link to the other Polly Fillas if you must. Let your economics guy really go off on one about something you find leg-jigglingly tedious. He knows his crowd, and if he doesn’t this time, then nobody will notice or care.
  5. Employ more editors, and fewer journalists. The lesson of this site is that journalists are not good at mediating the knowledge and understanding of experts. Instead, give us unmediated expertise. Do not write about the expert: get the expert to write for you, and get an editor to make it read better, if you need to. Editors are the unsung heroes of print media, not journalists. Understand this: unless you’re a voice, a Charlie Brooker, we don’t actually care if you think you can write “like a professional”. Online we can go straight to people who actually know about stuff, and they can usually write just fine. Give them to us, or we will enjoy them without you.
  6. You are serving geeks: offer them very clever tailored feeds (RSS or better). I want to be told the next time Gary Numan writes about gardening for you. Tell me when he does, and I will come back to your site, which gives you advertising money.
  7. Ditch all registration barriers. You don’t need me to tell you this. You’re not important enough for me to fill out a form and register, simply to read an article on your site. I can barely be bothered to use Bugmenot: if you hinder me, in any way at all, I won’t read your page.
  8. Make all of your content work on mobile phones, blackberry browsers, old computers, and PDAs. You have no idea how many people own these. You have no idea how bored they get at the bus stop, on the loo, and in meetings under the table. Give them all your content, in a simple text format that will work fine on small screens. This will also make your site accessible to the sensorily impaired. Don’t make this feature fancy, and don’t make some silly special “tailored” sub site, with a tenth of the content of the real site. It’s not 1998 any more, we don’t use WAP, and in fact nobody ever did. WAP was shit.
  9. Do not use flash, or other complicated animated web nonsense. It looks good on the developer’s laptop, when they come to show you the site, but it’s slow to load, and irritating to browse. Clicking open a mass of pages from the home page – and then skipping between them with ctrl-tab in Mozilla – is the modern equivalent of skimming a newspaper. If your site stops me doing that, and you make me load pages one at a time, I will leave.
  10. Video production should not require any piece of equipment too big to fit in your trouser pocket. The image will be three inches across on my screen. If any of your staff use the phrase “production values” sack them. Do not under any circumstance employ anyone from TV. They do not know how to help you: they are the problem, and the reason we come to you instead. Concentrate on the ideas.


So there you go. Bit shouty, no surprise, I blame the Pepsi. I’d be very interested to know what you think, I’d really like newspapers online stuff to get better, and I’ll add in your suggestions.


Additions from the comments:

  1. Link directly to your sources: absolutely, don’t know how I missed this one, it’s what keeps the bloggers honest, since it’s very hard to get away with misrepresenting stuff credibly when the original source is but a click away. This especially goes for the kind of lame comment pieces you get in print, which misrepresent the pieces they are “responding” to: that’s simply impossible when the original is but a click away.
  2. Having a PDA friendly simple text version of your website is also good for the sensorily impaired (inserted into 8, above).
  3. Via email from a good-hearted and anonymous newspaper person who doesn’t deign to use comments like everybody else: “related to 3 and 4, don’t plagiarise bloggers, lift their material, attribute it, and pay them. This makes me particularly sick. TV and radio have always thought that ‘investigative journalism’ means ‘plagiarising print media’, but now everybody happily plagiarises bloggers, who take no wage from anyone and only write for links and reach. It’s just rude.” Quite right too. And there is a certain repeat offender at Radio 4 who has a very public surprise coming from some friends of mine, on that front. You probably don’t even know who you are, foul, insightless creature.
  4. One more from email: if your website makes any noise at all, music, speaking, anything, then I will close it immediately. I will not spend my time looking for the tiny little volume control icon that your developers persuaded you was really cool. It could be the silent dead of night for god’s sake, have some manners. Nothing makes a noise in my house without my choosing it to.


Meanwhile, might I subversively suggest that you start a blog, write natually, and start offering the world your unmediated expertise, on whatever it is you know about the most. They will come. Oh, and click to Digg this, or Reddit, to make the chaps in the gentlemen’s clubs listen up.

Positive Internet are gods.

If you like what I do, and you want me to do more, you can: buy my books Bad Science and Bad Pharma, give them to your friends, put them on your reading list, employ me to do a talk, or tweet this article to your friends. Thanks! ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

67 Responses

  1. NineTailedFox said,

    September 3, 2007 at 10:14 am


    “Adblock lets you screen out annoying adds on sites you use a lot (it’s not really worth using for one-off visits).”

    If that’s because you’re having to block the ads manually, try the Adblock Filterset.G Updater, which does an excellent job of letting Adblock know what you don’t want to see.


    The SwiftTabs extension will let you assign your own keys; I use Ctrl+Left/Right. TabScroller lets you roll through your tabs (or history) by moving the mouse wheel while holding down the right mouse button; All-in-One Gestures provides similar functionality, and a lot more, including the gestures up-left and up-right while holding down the right mouse button to switch to the previous and next tabs respectively. Tabs Menu adds a Tabs item to the menu bar, accessible by keyboard with Alt+a, and numeric shortcuts allowing you to quickly skip to one of the first ten tabs. Even without extensions, Ctrl+1-8 will skip to the appropriate tab, while Ctrl+9 will skip to the final one, however many you have open…

    Apologies to anyone who doesn’t share my obsession with tab switching. You could have skipped the above passage by pressing the Space Bar, Pg Dn, by spinning your scroll wheel towards you, by middle clicking and dragging downwards, by dragging downwards on the right-hand scrollbar, by repeatedly tapping the Down key…

  2. JonnyB said,

    September 3, 2007 at 10:50 am

    Agreed especially with point #1.

    In reply to comment #15 – it’s not so much that individual writers ‘don’t bother’ to engage with readers… it’s just a huge grey area and more for the publishers to sort out what’s expected.

    For instance, if you’re an impoverished freelancer you get paid for an article. You don’t get paid to engage in follow-up debate. Or a staff writer might have an article posted on there… but be out of the office when it appears.

  3. angmoh said,

    September 3, 2007 at 5:29 pm

    1. Is absolutely right. Looked at Times Online today – the Fitzgerald article on MMR. From under which greasy, slime-caked rock do these mongoloids seep up?

    I too vote for banning fancy-pants webstuffs. I have to use ie6 at work and it’s not that up to date on the Flash/Javascript front. I’m quite often buying stuff at lunch too so it means missing out on my purchasing largesse. Flash isn’t terribly useful for the ‘open in another window/tab’ style of browsing, either, in my experience.

  4. Dr Aust said,

    September 3, 2007 at 6:13 pm

    1. [Comments threads will be full of nonsense] is absolutely right. Looked at Times Online today – the Fitzgerald article on MMR.

    Yes, the usual vox pop idiocies – all rather reminiscent of a Radio 5 phone-in.

    Makes you grateful for the linear threads here, which (mostly) still work… barring major side-tracking or mad trolls.

    Talking of which, I’m somewhat surprised that MMR AntiVax Uber-troll John Stone hasn’t shown up on Mike Fitzpatrick’s Times article comment thread.

  5. Robert Carnegie said,

    September 3, 2007 at 11:43 pm

    Speaking of advertising and ad blocking… I feel uneasy about my own browsing style (Opera browser with cached images shown and new page images a keystroke away), which saves me seeing a lot of adverts, because it’s kind of the deal with Web sites that you look at the adverts by way of paying for the content, just as with newspapers. But am I intentionally avoiding them… well, it’s certainly a result of my choice.

  6. Andrew Clegg said,

    September 4, 2007 at 10:29 am

    Robert, the site still gets the money, and you get the content without your brainspace being polluted. I see no moral dilemma there, it’s no different from going for a pee during the ad breaks.

    Re. the original post, point 5 (unmediated expertise) is the big one for me. Between Bad Science, Language Log and a few others I dip into occasionally, I’ve pretty much entirely stopped bothering to buy newspapers. Or New Scientist for that matter.

    With the notable exception of proper investigative journalism (why I still buy Private Eye despite its flaws), pro journalists writing on complex subjects are a bit like those know-it-all bores at parties who think they’re qualified to wax knowledgeable about any specialist subject but just end up talking too much.


  7. Robert Carnegie said,

    September 4, 2007 at 7:55 pm

    I don’t know that a Web site that sells advertising space does get paid for adverts that aren’t shown. So I do have the feeling I’m cheating. (Unless a site uses clever Javascript to ensure that I see the image anyway.)

    And don’t many advert agencies pay for click-through visits rather than for viewings?

    Then again, I consider myself relatively immune to advertisements. But maybe that’s just two strikes against me.

  8. NuttyBat said,

    September 5, 2007 at 2:25 pm

    “Editors are the unsung heroes of print media, not journalists.”

    Thank you Ben – it’s nice to be appreciated!

  9. Andrew Clegg said,

    September 7, 2007 at 2:02 pm

    (Actually, better rephrase that, it’s not so much a principle—it’s just that they’re almost never relevant or interesting enough.)

  10. Helen DeWitt said,

    September 7, 2007 at 3:32 pm

    How about using a website to gather data?

    The Observer recently ran a piece in which 50 writers were asked to nominate underrated novels (observer.guardian.co.uk/review/story/0,,2160520,00.html) .

    Apart from acting as a plug for the 50 novels, this is pretty much worthless. It tells us nothing about how well known the books are, or a how highly regarded. Some may enjoy a brisk secondhand trade. Others may have been ahead of their time; there’s not much secondhand trade because those who own them won’t let them go. (At the risk of stating the obvious, library borrowings and secondhand sales don’t register with the publishing industry; the fact that a book is out of print tells us something about sales of new books but very little about readers’ preferences.)

    If the Observer were to run an online survey (requiring, of course, registration to prevent electoral fraud), this would still tell us only about the preferences of readers who a) read the Observer, b) are willing to spend time online, and c) like participating in surveys. The respondents would not be representative of all British readers, no. But their responses would still be more informative than a one-off trawl of 50 writers.

  11. Robert Carnegie said,

    September 7, 2007 at 7:50 pm

    The book review saves us the trouble of reading them… they didn’t have to be out of print, surely? And the recommendations by qualified writers are better told than those of the plebs, and have an “If you admire this writer, consider their recommendation of…”

    As for online ads: yes, when I do see them, they rarely get my click.

  12. jimbob said,

    September 11, 2007 at 7:17 pm

    Yes , the Guardian breaks the Flash rule,

    The “breaking news ticker” is an utter pain to use, when it was not before. (*Just* better than the BBC’s though).

  13. PlasticManc said,

    September 11, 2007 at 11:36 pm

    Number 8 – Yes, Yes and Yes!
    And while I’m on the subject, have you tried the opera mini browser?
    It’s really handy (even if it isn’t open source).

    Try entering www.badscience.net and having to scroll for miles to the actual content, selecting an article and having to scroll for miles for the actual article, then looking for a different article… (but you get the idea). Bear in mind that phones scroll a lot slower than the emulator applet. Of all the sites I use the browser for (bbc news – low graphics version, wikipedia, etc) bad science is by far the most painful. Perhaps you could follow your own advice and simplify the page? Or tweak your css a bit, put the miniblog after the articles? Even a sub-site would be preferable.

    Of course bad science is worth the hassle (I used WAP even though it was shit) and I heartily agree with 1, 7 and 3 (I’m a big fan of the Guardian Wrap), but the main reason bad science is excused is for the introduction to ctrl+tab and bugmenot (why had no-one told me?!).

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