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. Karellen said,

    August 31, 2007 at 12:09 am

    Reads good to me.

    Only thing I’d add is that 9 is really just a special case of 8. Flash mostly sucks because it is a closed format controlled by a single vendor, who chooses only to make players for one or two platforms. If Adobe don’t deign to make a flash player for the BlackBerry, BlackBerry users are SOL. If they don’t make a player for your mobile phone, you’re SOL.

    And they’re not likely to make a player for those platforms either. They’ve been saying they’re working on an Linux/x86-64 port of Flash for *months* and still not got round to it. If they’ve not even announced support for your preferred platform, good luck with that.

    The web, and the internet underneath it, was built on open standards. That’s how it got so big and useful and ubiquitous. Flash is the complete antithesis to that. Just say no.

    (All that said, it’s probably worth keeping 8 and 9 separate for the kinds of people you’ll be presenting those arguments to.)

  2. TP said,

    August 31, 2007 at 12:43 am

    If you’re using fireforx download the Flashblock add-on

  3. Filias Cupio said,

    August 31, 2007 at 1:53 am

    Big agreement on 9. I open lots of tabs like you do, and I run Linux which doesn’t have the latest version of Flash. There are several sites I’d much like to use, but they are inaccessable to me because of this.

    I also like 4 and 7 (more detail, not Polly Filla; no registration barriers.)

  4. sockatume said,

    August 31, 2007 at 2:19 am

    *Hits Ctrl+Tab*

    Holy shit, I had no idea I could do that.

    Anyway, I massively agree on the “small screen” thing. The main news website for me is the BBC one, because they have a low-graphics frameless version of all the same news content which scales beautifully onto my DS (free public wi-fi on it), or my Wii browser (one-handed with breakfast), or anything else which isn’t a PC. Everything else is a pain to navigate.

  5. Ben Goldacre said,

    August 31, 2007 at 2:29 am

    i think editors are really important, it’s strange how they’re such unspoken heroes, and never get namechecked.

    they’re not just curator/DJ’s (although some, like ian katz i would say, are very good at that indeed).

    a fair amount of the stuff that comes in to features desks from journalists is unreadably awful: there are people with a genuine gift for making that stuff readable, and restructuring it. it’s a weird accident of history that this job is not publicly championed, and i suspect that this public praise blindspot is a real barrier to newspapers opening their hearts to the joy of unmediated expertise.

  6. NickConnolly said,

    August 31, 2007 at 2:31 am

    Agree about the BBC site – works consistently. I’ve an old Mac laptop in my kitchen – I used to read the Guardian website on it but can no longer. Apparently ‘improving’ the layout involves making it utterly incompatible with a browser more than a few years old. For wht? Largely static text and a few web images – hardly earth shatteringly difficult to layout even browsers from 1997…

  7. henbane said,

    August 31, 2007 at 2:33 am

    To add to your PDA, Blackberry advise, make sure it works in text browsers like lynx and links. This should also mean that it satisfies any accessibility requirements too.

  8. physics_geek said,

    August 31, 2007 at 2:51 am

    Good stuff Ben,

    I’d add one more: Don’t make up shit. It’s so easy for us to check sources online that there’s just no excuse for lazy journalism.

  9. rob said,

    August 31, 2007 at 5:42 am

    I hope the Guardian people who designed CiF take note of points 1. I have never seen any useful comments there, but quite a bit of good writing.

    Another comment, based on my experience with the Guardian – make sure your stuff still works when the font size is ratcheted way up. I’m sure I’m not the only one who likes to browse at least a couple of font-sizes above standard. The Guardian even got around to putting an ‘increase font size’ button on their page – just not to checking that that button didn’t break other bits of the page!

  10. mike772 said,

    August 31, 2007 at 6:46 am

    Good, practical advice. I would add
    “use effective graphs and charts instead of text” unlike paper, reproducing graphics on line doesn’t cost any more!

  11. woodchopper said,

    August 31, 2007 at 7:01 am

    Agree absolutely with 1. Places like Comment is Free are just full of irritating shouty people. And people writing parodys of irritating shouty people.

    One slight worry. IMHO one of the main skills of journalists is producing redable copy to very tight deadlines. Experts can also write very interesting copy, but frequently its weeks late. (I speak from bitter experience).

    If you are going to replace journalists with literate experts its going to be difficult for the editors to manage people whose jobs don’t depend upon delivering on time.

  12. Skick said,

    August 31, 2007 at 7:07 am

    I completely agree with all of your points, except – and it seems against other readers also – number 9. I do empathize with the frustration of websites that are slow to load and difficult to navigate (especially backwards), but for the first I think you actually need to put the blame on JavaScript and the for the latter poor programming in general. Flash is easily recognizable, so of all the sites out there that are poorly programmed, those written in Flash will stand out the most.

  13. Munin said,

    August 31, 2007 at 8:59 am

    I’d add another suggestion – encourage your writers to engage with the readers.

    Despite the failings of linear commenting, there are often some fascinating and well-informed responses to articles (even on CIF), but the writers very rarely bother to engage with them.

    This would not only help to elucidate an argument, it keeps readers interested in the to-and-fro of debate. What is more, sites can win dedicated readers by responding to their comments (I for one cherish my Goldacre moments).

  14. Littleshim said,

    August 31, 2007 at 9:13 am

    @13 Skick

    I run Firefox with the Adblock and NoScript add-ons, which does pretty well – NoScript blocks a lot of unwanted script-based ads/pointless fancy bits, and Adblock lets you screen out annoying adds on sites you use a lot (it’s not really worth using for one-off visits). On the other hand, you have to watch out because NoScript blocks ALL scripts until told otherwise, which is great for removing annoyance but can stop things working.

    @15 Munin

    I agree, if readers are making good points or bringing up ideas then it’s nice to see the authors paying attention.

    One problem with comments is that people generally complain either way. If you allow fairly free commenting then it turns into a soup of ignorance and puts off genuine debaters; if you vet comments they complain about censorship (what’s wrong with that?).
    Reader feedback on comments might help, but it relies on people actually rating the existing posts, which is a lot of work on long discussions. Also it could lead to worthwhile but unpopular/counterintuitive comments being shut down by trolls or people who don’t know enough to make the judgement (or populist comments being voted up, for that matter).

  15. Munin said,

    August 31, 2007 at 9:30 am

    The Slashdot karma-based moderated comment system works quite well. It’s evolved significantly over the years – read down for details:

  16. maninalift said,

    August 31, 2007 at 10:33 am

    sockatume: -wait for this- hit CTRL-SHIFT-TAB and you go the other way.

  17. maninalift said,

    August 31, 2007 at 10:58 am

    All of the points (except perhaps #1) could be largely summed up as:

    Don’t try to engineer the way a site is used or design it for your own vanity just provide content in a way that can be efficiently and flexibly searched, browsed and accessed.

    I don’t know whether I am being naive in this supposition but it seems to me that the internet has brought about a shift in the palate of the consumers of news. We are not happy to have a “balanced account” we want to make our own judgement based on the sources.

    Nothing could bore me more than “good journalism” of the New Yorker essay variety as much as I admire the skill of the writing.
    When I find a news story that I am interested in, most of my time is taken up with wading through the tens of articles based on the same 200-word press-release to find the root of the story.

  18. outeast said,

    August 31, 2007 at 11:13 am

    Can’t believe you left out the three most important things:




    3) (you can see this coming) LINKS TO SOURCES

    Whenever any source material is in the public domain there should be a damned link. Apart from anything else, being able to check the accuracy of reporting on what we can check might help restore our confidence in reporting on stuff we can’t (such as stuff citing unnameable sources).

    Otherwise, the list is pretty good. Content is the most important thing, though – technical weaknesses are irritations, but crap content is fatal. So 2, 4, and 5 are at the top in importance to me.

  19. maninalift said,

    August 31, 2007 at 11:14 am

    How about this: A browser plugin that allows you to add links to a page. Links are stored on a server so that anyone with the same plugin can see the links. Digg-style voting. The mission statement for the community of linking to original sources and content-rich articles. Would it save a lot of duplicated research or would it be just another 90%-braindead web2.0 creation?

  20. Teek said,

    August 31, 2007 at 11:25 am

    @ outeast: nice.

    not sure newspapers would take the risk though, so many sources are either “protected” or “unofficial” that i wonder how many links the average story would actually show…

    still, good idea, would enhance the reputation of publications that chose to go down this route.

    Ben, not too shouty at all IMHO – especially like the emphasis on not having jokers contributing meaningless axe-grinding comments to an otherwise considered and balanced news piece – the bain of CiF…

  21. Electric Monk said,

    August 31, 2007 at 11:27 am

    Not to appear contrary Ben, but isn’t your point no. 1 a little inconsistent with the whole concept of blogging? Or is a national newspaper so fundentally different from, say, the Bad Science blog that comments on this blog are OK but not on a newspaper blog, e.g. CIF?

    I agree that lots of what is on sites like CIF is garbage but at least some of what is on the other blogs is not, e.g Sports, Music, Books (i.e anything not to do with Israel or George Bush).

  22. DrJ said,

    August 31, 2007 at 11:34 am

    I quite enjoy comments – particularly on papers like the telegraph and the mail where no attempt is made to hide prejudice.

    I know that a lot of comments end up with annoying shouty people, but it is interesting to hear their views and to try to understand how they can hold such outrageous views and still live in society – it is like a window into their world, and once I find them too irritating I can close the window and they no longer exist.

  23. Munin said,

    August 31, 2007 at 11:39 am

    Should you ever get around to implementing user moderated comments on this site, can you please back-date it and give 50 manna to outeast for post #20.

  24. Alan Cann said,

    August 31, 2007 at 12:50 pm

    I like it. Just a couple of points.
    Tow days agao, i’d agree with your advice to start a blog a wordpress.co. Now I’d say use www.tumblr.com/.
    Oh, and when I wanted to comment on “Ditch all registration barriers”, your site told me:
    You must be logged in to post a comment.

  25. Ben Goldacre said,

    August 31, 2007 at 12:57 pm

    that’s registering to make a comment, which is a different and good thing: but there are lots of newspapers that make you register simply to read an article. i don’t read them.

  26. ShatterFace said,

    August 31, 2007 at 12:59 pm


    Yes, links to PRIMARY SOURCES as well, not links to Wikipedia.

    At least pretend to have read the original sources!

  27. ShatterFace said,

    August 31, 2007 at 1:01 pm

    Isn’t registration there to prevent robots?

    It’s a pain in the arse though, particularly if you get banned as often as I do.

  28. HenryS said,

    August 31, 2007 at 1:26 pm

    Interesting points Ben.

    Especially interested in what you say about podcast editing.

    Although we’re not a ‘news’ site, we’re not far off, and the podcast i work on (info.cancerresearchuk.org/news/podcast/)
    pretty much follows the ‘magazine’ format. its got lots of good feedback, but we’ve been toying with the idea of discussions, possibly between the scientists we fund, for a while. I guess it all depends on audience – online newspaper readers are, as you say, geeks, and will likely be happier with a rough’n’ready approach to editing. we’re reaching for a broader audience (including offline people, via CDs and stuff..) so i guess sticking with the ‘slicker’ radio format for now will be the way we continue.

    re. registration – i agree, but what do people think about registration in terms of personalisation of content? you never want to hide your articles from people, but giving people the ability to log in and select the content they want to see when they re-visit the site is very much the trend at the moment, no? i guess its just a less-geeky way of achieving 9 (tailored RSS feeds).

    tum ti tum…

  29. Fan Gao Rui said,

    August 31, 2007 at 1:45 pm

    “Make all of your content work on mobile phones, blackberry browsers, and PDAs.” … or produce an avantgo feed – same idea, no GPRS/3G data fees. Please don’t load it with adverts.

  30. nekomatic said,

    August 31, 2007 at 2:36 pm

    I’m quite clever and I still don’t properly understand how slashdot works. You need to make it a lot less geeky if you’re going to use that kind of system on a national newspaper website.

  31. Ben Goldacre said,

    August 31, 2007 at 2:51 pm

    slashdot might not be the best possible model for nesting/moderating, but if the system was everywhere you’d understand it fine, just like you understand email, web browsers, door locks and dishwashers.

  32. CommanderKeen said,

    August 31, 2007 at 3:29 pm

    Can I just second (or third or fourth) the comments about linking to original sources. The best way to tell if a journalist is spouting uninformed opinion is to check the source of the story their banging on about. Something poor Zoe Williams regularly gets caught out on.

    Oh I slightly disagree with point 1. Despite the bilge and shouty types on CiF you occasionally get a good conversation going. Politics, Iraq and Israel/Palestine are generally best avoided though.

  33. Alan Cann said,

    August 31, 2007 at 3:57 pm

    Ben, you can leave a comment on my blogs anytime without registering, logging on, or anything else. My WordPress blog uses Askimet and on Blogger I use a catchpa plus comment moderation.
    And on ajc.tumblr.com/ … oh wait, tumblr doesn’t do comments 😉

  34. Surtur said,

    August 31, 2007 at 4:06 pm

    It’s interesting to me how you use the words “Old Media” in the title of this post, and then outwardly shun many of the most promising and cutting-edge web technologies. Flash and “other complicated animated web nonsense” sounds an awful lot like what the old-school media might say about the internet in general. I believe that a variety of mediums is one of the things that keeps information delivery sharp, interesting and enjoyable to a wider audience.

    I also am confident that these “slow to load” and “irritating to browse” sites are a result of bad Flash design – little reason to fault the medium and its industry as a whole. You probably peruse a number of sites daily that contain technologies such as Flash without ever knowing it – oftentimes the applets that work well are rarely distinguished from traditional HTML. I am in agreement that such sites should offer plain HTML equivalents for mobile devices (before they catch up with the technology), but crippling the evolution of media by removing one of the most versatile and powerful front-end web technologies (alongside Ajax) is a ridiculous notion, in my opinion.

    I agree with most of your other points, though.

  35. Cobwebs said,

    August 31, 2007 at 4:18 pm

    I couldn’t agree more about #9, and doubly so if they don’t include a “skip intro” link and force you to sit through their little show. One thing that’s different about the Web vs. traditional media is that there’s almost always someone else offering something similar to what you’re offering, so you have to make sure not to drive your users to someone else’s site.

    I’d also add, “treat bloggers as legitimate journalists.” Traditional print journalists seem to view bloggers as amateurs with no credibility, no matter how qualified they are to write about a particular subject. (They’ve also been known to “borrow” items from blogs without mentioning the source.)

    (And in defense of tombola, I had to register to comment here too.)

    Also, instead of Akismet, let me recommend Spam Karma: unknowngenius.com/blog/wordpress/spam-karma/ which I love to the point of inappropriateness.

  36. Cobwebs said,

    August 31, 2007 at 4:22 pm

    Oh, pooh. Ignore that last parenthetical bit; I’d misread the comments thread above.

    (I still recommend Spam Karma, though.)

  37. Surtur said,

    August 31, 2007 at 4:23 pm

    Tombola – Good points. Personally, I think that the issue with a lot of Flash-based websites is their desire to encapsulate the entire page in a single Flash file. This does, as you say, drastically limit the browser-based navigational abilities of the user. In certain cases, such as art projects, photo galleries, and other creative works, this is fine, but in terms of news, this is indeed a fault. Flash, however, is one of the few (and in my opinion most streamlined) technologies that can offer real-time client/server communication without page refreshes, and there’s a lot to be said about that (hundreds of uses in news-based media alone.) As I mentioned earlier, though, these elements shouldn’t encompass the entire site – simply act as applets to regulate the flow of data and visual elements on the screen. But of course, if static text is all that one needs for a given site, then I would agree that there is no reason over-complicating things, and HTML is the way to go.

  38. h2g2bob said,

    August 31, 2007 at 6:55 pm

    99.9% of the time JavaScript and Flash should not be required. When websites as complex as Google Maps work without JavaScript, you have to wonder why some news sites don’t. And given that more than 1 in 20 people – and Google’s webcrawler – don’t use JavaScript, it’s probably a good idea to make it at least somewhat functional without them.

    The World Wide Web Consortium has a Web Accessibility Initiative which make a number of recommendations on how to make web pages work for everyone (so there’s no excuse). W3C create the specifications for almost everything on the Web, so it’s worth listening to them.

    On a slightly unrelated note, Ctrl+PgUp and Ctrl+PgDn switches between tabs on Firefox. (Plus, Ctrl+Tab switches between desktops on KDE).

  39. dcardani said,

    August 31, 2007 at 7:01 pm

    I must object to #10! OK, maybe I’m biased because I write software for video editors, but hear me out. I started listening to Robert Cringley’s podcasts because he would often interview famous computer scientists – a subject I’m very interested in. The sound quality was awful! I could barely hear what either person was saying because the noise level was so high. Then, during interviews I started hearing his kids come into the room from time to time. Once I heard a phone ringing in the background, I simply unsubscribed. The lack of professionalism was astounding. He did no editing, either.

    Had he had just one sound engineer who knew what they were doing, even just to set him up initially and show him a few things to make sure he did, it would have saved him at least 1 listener. I don’t want to see a bunch of awful video with bad lighting, shaking cameras, out of focus subjects, horrible compression, etc. There’s enough video crap on YouTube like that. But surprisingly, there’s some good low budget stuff, too, which means that it can be done professionally looking without spending a lot of money, if you just let someone who knows what they’re doing help you!

    Please, don’t put more bad video on the web. If you can’t at least get the advice of a professional, just don’t put any video up at all.

  40. Ben Goldacre said,

    August 31, 2007 at 7:06 pm

    clearly i am not advocating for podcasts which are actively inaudible.

    give us a link to the interviews where his kids barge in though, that sounds brilliant to me.

  41. raygirvan said,

    August 31, 2007 at 8:11 pm

    > CommanderKeen
    > Can I just second (or third or fourth) the comments about linking to original sources.

    Yep. The BBC are particularly lame about this. With science stories they seem to just pick up journal titles and institutions mentioned in the story and link to the front page rather than anything informative. For instance, in ‘Spider-man’ suit secret revealed, what’s the point of a link to the Italian front page of the Polytechnic of Turin?

  42. dcardani said,

    August 31, 2007 at 9:04 pm

    Ben, it was his “NerdTV” podcast, available at . I don’t remember off the top of my head which one it was with his kids, and I don’t have the stomach to go back and listen! (And for the record, I didn’t say they barge in, just that you could hear them in the background.) It looks like he stopped at about 13 episodes, and it hasn’t been updated in over a year, so I suspect he’s given up on it.

  43. dcardani said,

    August 31, 2007 at 9:06 pm

    Err… let’s try this link:

    Nerd TV

    If the above link doesn’t get posted, it’s at PBS’s website under NerdTV.

  44. Dr Aust said,

    August 31, 2007 at 11:47 pm

    RE. tombola’s post 36 – as a scientist with sort of an interest in writing and editing, I always understood the mannered style in journalism (which journos rather pride themselves on, in my experience) was a consequence of two things:

    1. Rule One: “The First sentence HAS to contain the “nutshell” / hook – if you don’t hook ’em they won’t read the rest”

    {Press releases ditto – the Uni press guy tells us over and over that “If the first line doesn’t get ’em to bite you’re lost, the journos only ever read the first line”)

    2. The newspaper subs cut articles to space “from the bottom up” – so the further down the article something is, the more likely it is to never appear at all. Makes saving the punchline / payoff for the end, or developing a line of discussion, a real problem.

    This is also, I always understood, the reason for all that slightly contrived “five Ws” (Who, what, why, where, when) shoe-horned into para one.

    Not to say I don’t agree with you, tombola, but it is explicable… my own suggestion for “a problem” is way too much writing AND cutting by non-informed non-specialists (see any number of past Bad Sci threads).

    Here’s an idea. Since all the Old Media have websites, why can’t they do what Ben does and have an “extended” (the original?) version of articles online, complete with hotlinks to the original sources? At present the online versions of stories in (e.g.) The Grauniad
    are identical to the printed version, even when that is garbled to the point of silliness by the subs’ cutting.

    As an amateur commentator and blog-haunter, I would also agree to an extent with Cobwebs’ post 41. The science and medical coverage on the blogs absolutely pisses over what is in the papers, including the “qualities”, so the people at the papers have zero to be complacent about. And ditto the national print journos “recycling” blog stories written by people far more erudite, or investigatively-inclined, than themselves. To give one example, what have the nationals ever done to look at the “bona fides” of science-y media “pundits” like Gillian McKeith, or Patrick Holford? Eff all, would be my assessment. And the coverage of healthcare issues is also abysmal, with the journalists slavishly re-hashing press releases and spin from Govt. If you really want to know what is going on the NHS, head for the blogs.

  45. Robert Carnegie said,

    September 1, 2007 at 1:01 am

    [The Now Show] did a good one on radio on David Cameron’s weblog launch. They had the kids – possibly their own, they’ve appeared before, and you could hear them stumbling over longer words – heckling him about his policies and how the party is divided on Europe. Oh – I guess that connects to Hugh Dennis’s latest gig, [Outnumbered], in which he plays father in a household where children (three) outnumber adults (two), and improvise scenes. Adventurous and horrifying. And by the way, Radio 4 has a nice little show coming up where Steve Punt talks to Dennis Norden about writing the funny stuff, which they both do, or have done.

  46. Citizen Deux said,

    September 1, 2007 at 3:07 am

    Good advice for old media – surrender. Thousands – no millions – are doing a better job of first hand event reporting.

    I like the editor. Find a system, develop a vetting process and distill the raw feeds pouring into the web day in and out.

    I love the direct to the experts, but beware! Like network television, the “new” media can build the experts in their own fashion!

    Good on ya!

  47. Dudley said,

    September 1, 2007 at 8:52 am

    >Good advice for old media ->surrender. Thousands – no
    >millions – are doing a better
    >job of first hand event

    Except that, really, they’re not. Maybe it’s true, as someone said above, that science reporting is better on the blogs. But individual bloggers aren’t going to go to the frontline with the troops in Afghanistan, nor are they in a position to mount complex investigations involving thousands of documents, as would be required to expose corruption in cases such as Jonathan Aitken or Shirley Porter.

    All Ben’s suggestions sound like good ones, and avoid that fundamental error of mistaking the medium for the message.

  48. briantist said,

    September 1, 2007 at 6:53 pm

    Great advice Dr Ben – seems you have taken up the role of Dr Jakob Nielsen of useit.com fame!

  49. Dr Aust said,

    September 2, 2007 at 1:06 pm

    I’m not sure I quite agree about “complicated resource-intensive reporting”. The problem is that nowadays the mainstream media nowadays only devotes this kind of investigative attention to a very few subjects: politics (overwhelmingly), crime and punishment (but largely excluding complex financial crime, which they view as too complex and boring), and football. (You could perhaps add “natural disasters”).

    For other subjects, there simply is little or no digging beneath the surface by the traditional media. They don’t think people would be interested in reading about it, so it’s not a story, so they won’t be spending time and money on it.

    In any case, the key resource is often exactly the same as in blog-based reporting, namely the time and dogged persistence of an interested individual or individuals. Brian Deer has done a tremendous job of exposing the shenanigans of Andrew Wakefield, but mostly as a one man band by obsessive blog style digging, FOI requests, etc etc. The Sunday Times and the TV companies gave him a platform, and insurance against “legal chill” tactics, but the style of what Deer has done is now as likely to be found on a blog as in a paper.

    So are the blogs now the true home of Paul Foot-style investigative journalism? Any journalism Professors out there care to comment?

  50. john barleycorn said,

    September 2, 2007 at 8:53 pm

    Agree with everything, particularly the podcast point. I’ve tried the Guardian science podcast a couple of times but got quite irritated with their attempt at replicating an upbeat jaunty radio station. A Times podcast from the Hayes Literary Festival of a discussion with Christopher Hitchens and Nick Cohen stopped just before the audience discussion which promised to be quite feisty and gloves off. Perhaps there were issues of consent there but they could have been resolved with a little forethought.

  51. 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…

  52. 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.

  53. 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.

  54. 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.

  55. 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.

  56. 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.


  57. 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.

  58. 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!

  59. 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.)

  60. 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.

  61. 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.

  62. 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).

  63. 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?!).

  64. longyan said,

    October 28, 2009 at 12:33 pm

    The ugg knightsbridge world is a comedy to those who thinks, a tragedy to those ugg classic cardy who feels.Look not mournfully into the ugg boots past, it comes not back again. Wisely improve the present, it is ugg lo pro button thine. Go forth to meet the shadowy future, without fear, and with a manly ugg bailey button heart.

  65. longyan said,

    November 6, 2009 at 2:31 am

    It is no use doing what ugg bailey button you like ugg boots ; you have got to like ugg classic cardy what you do  My philosophy of ugg lo pro button life is work . When work is a pleasure , life is joy ! When work is duty ,ugg knightsbridge life is slavery .Work banishes those three great evils : boredom , vice, and poverty.

  66. diudiu said,

    December 21, 2009 at 6:40 am

    free shipping ugg
    free shipping ugg

  67. wholesale lingerie said,

    March 11, 2010 at 7:23 am

    Very useful information in this post.