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December 19, 2004 - The "Trickle Up" Style of Journalism

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World’s Laziest Journalism

Sunday, December 19, 2004

By Bob Patterson


When the major media gets the inspiration to do a story by reading the blogs, it isn’t an indication that priorities have been changed; it’s more a case of a traditional method of gathering story ideas has been modified to accommodate the innovation of independent outlets on the Internet. 


In the past, a story might follow this trickle up path: a writer for the weekly Santa Monica Independent (now defunct) paper runs a good story.  The local daily picks up the story and redoes it for their readers with more details added.  (The Santa Monica Outlook suspended publication in 1998 after more than a hundred years in that community.)  A larger paper in the region might then do yet another version for all their readers.  (The Los Angeles Herald Examiner folded in 1989.)  If the story was good enough, it might then be spotted and reused by a bigger paper with a national audience.  (When did the New York Herald Tribune fold?  Does anyone remember the New York paper called PM?)  Ultimately, if it’s a top-notch item, it might be then used by Time or Newsweek.


The tradition of doing re-writes of someone else’s story may not the most shining example of journalistic initiative, but if a story is good, and your readers, who are not in the cusp area with the other publication, would like knowing that information, and since it is a bit more cost efficient, then the practice will continue to be used.  The Columbia Review of Journalism website, CJR Daily, commented on the subject of rewrites recently.


A writer for one of the national weekly magazines complained to this columnist that the LA based writers would submit an idea to the home office in New York and be disappointed when it was shot down.   Later, when the very idea they had suggested would be in the New York Times, the frantic weekly magazine editors in Manhattan would call the LA Bureau and be upset about the scoop and (almost in hysteric) urge a “catch-up” effort be implemented immediately if not sooner.


The Associated Press can take a news story from a member of their co-op and run it all over the world.  Some years back when an Independent Journal editor wrote a feature story about some underground tunnels in the Venice area of Los Angeles, that were vestiges of the prohibition era, a coworker suggested he string the story to the AP


[A stringer sells material to a newspaper or news organization and is paid for the material that is used.  Newspapers used to pay a flat fee for each column inch of material that was used.  When the monthly day of reckoning came the editor would measure out the writer’s successes, using a ball of string, hence the term “stringer.”]


The writer for the weekly Santa Monica paper became a regular stringer for the AP.  He parlayed his part time AP work into a full time job with a different news organization.  Then he came back to Santa Monica and worked for the Outlook.


Doing a good job for the weekly paper, and picking up part time money as a stringer helped enhance the reputation of the small paper and would often help the writer move up to better opportunities.  One of the weeklies editors moved to Time magazine and eventually became their White House correspondent.  Anther worked his way up to a prominent position with Playboy magazine.


Obviously not all the big media stories originate in the smaller publications.  The big papers have their own staff out trying to get new material.  They can attend press conferences and cover fires, and sports events simultaneously.   The use of rewrites (mostly for feature stories) is just a way of offering their readers an even larger selection of stories.




Bloggers can only be in one place at a time and that is usually in front of their computer searching for news links with commentary or criticism added.


The addition of blogs to the news chain is an indication that the blogs and bloggers are earning the respect of the bigger players, and it gives the bloggers hope that they can possibly work their way up to staff positions for the media with large staffs.


Perhaps the day will come when the big media pay a reporter to cover the blog beat. 


Keeping up with trends and new developments in the arts is an integral part of covering the news.  Once Time magazine, in one rather prescient issue (1927, 28, or 29?), had two stories, one about the impact of talking movies on the business aspect of opera and another on the possibility that television would be able to transmit images in color.


In times past, the odds that readers of the Time magazine or New York Times version of a story had also read the local variation in the Santa Monica Independent were very small, but now, with the Internet, it is possible for people far beyond the reaches of a local publication to see the “trickle up” phenomenon at work.


Bloggers were commenting on the possibility that Viktor Yuschenko had been poisoned back around December 2, 2004.  ABC informed the viewers of their evening news program about that story on Monday, December 13.


Sometimes it works in the reverse direction.  We were watching the KNBC local news the other night and saw a great feature story about a flying boat that will be used to fly surfers to remote locations, much as helicopters can fly snow skiers to the top of a mountain without a ski lift.  Thousands of people saw the story on the local news broadcast and they did their job of getting that story on the day the service was announced.  Since surfing is synonymous with Southern California, and since Just Above Sunset online magazine tries to inform our readership around the world (Yes, we have attracted regular readers in Great Britain, Germany, France, Canada, China, and Australia) about items of interest locally because of the civic pride aspect of the LA based online magazine.  People who didn’t get the chance to see the KNBC item, will know about The Billabong Clipper, which will be traveling to Australia, if they read this column.  [Odds are that NBC and other network news organizations will do their version of this particular story.   There’s a good chance that the story is interesting enough to get play in the New York Times, and also the weekly national news magazines, with CNN possibly added to the list.  Such a prediction also depends on what other news happens at the same time.  On a slow news day, a good feature story has a better chance of being used.  On a day which saw events occur, which (to use a Walter Cronkeit phrase) “alter and illuminate our times,” features are (temporarily) forgotten because the news events dominate the space or time available.]


People who want a ranking of the stories getting good play in the blog world should take a look at blogdex, and for a capsule roundup of commentary they can check out daoureport and/or cursor.org


Is this a good trend?  Well, it will be harder for various people inclined to cover up something to get away with it. The bloggers can point out ignored topics and raise a hue and cry.  The major league media will then be compelled to do their duty.


Sometimes the various big news organizations are so busy tending to breaking events they don’t have time to sit back light up a cigar (heck you can’t do that in news rooms in New York or Los Angeles, these days) and think about the big picture.  Well, the bloggers can.


They might, in their analyst mode, think of something that will gather momentum (cue the snowball effect cliché) and eventually wind up as something that can’t be ignored. 


Let’s, just for a hypothetical example, say that some one of the bloggers notices that with all that coverage that the Kevin Sites’ video got, there was no follow-up story about the shooter being identified and named.  This imaginary blogger could point that journalistic error out and with some back up from his comrades bring it to the attention of the major newspapers.  Publications that repeatedly win Pulitzer Prizes should have already noticed that the “who” was missing from the “who, what, when, where, and why” formula for the basic coverage.  When the bloggers point out the omission, newspapers like the New York Times and the Washington Post will then realize that such a basic error on their part should be remedied with an “update” on the story.  For them to fail to do so would be dereliction of duty and enhance the chance that a cover-up could be performed.  If the still anonymous culprit is transferred to another unit the public might never know if the investigation into the incident was pursued vigorously or not, if a “no charges were filed” finding is announced at a Pentagon news conference in the future.


Some blogger will come up with that bit of criticism of the major media, and then his blogging cohorts will augment his attention to that aspect of the story by offering links to the original blogger, and the missing detail for the story will, with enough attention, become a major media story in the new variation of the trickle up tradition.  The bloggers seem to have a strong strain of the “one for all -all for one” philosophy, reminiscent of the attitude of the original thirteen colonies, who realized that there was strength in unity.


Meanwhile the columnists for online magazines will have to settle for far a footnote in history if they are clever enough to coin a new word that gains legitimacy.  Perhaps they can pin the label “promobabble” on the talk show sales pitches that are essentially unpaid commercials. 


Eric Severeid has been quoted as saying, "The best way to get thrown out of the columnists' club is to be uncertain about anything whatsoever on this earth."


Why do newspaper reporters end their stories by using the designation – 30 – ?  It’s reportedly a  throwback to the days when stories were sent by telegraph and they used a triple X XX to denote the end of the dispatch and, in Roman numerals, XXX is thirty.


This year, it seems, Burl Ives rendition of Holly Jolly Christmas is ubiquitous, so our disk jockey will offer up some other items: Stagger Lee (which focuses on the journalist’s mission with the line about Stagger Lee threw seven and Billy swore that he threw eight), the blues song Christmas in Jail, and Santa’s in a Wheelchair by the Kids of Widney High.


Have a good holiday.  We’ll try to unwrap some clever insights in the next column, until then, here’s hoping that you receive a multitude of extravagant presents.  Cheers!


Copyright © 2004 – Robert Patterson



A riposte from Ric Erickson of MetropoleParis –


In this case what can I say?


Take that back.  Are you trying to say that bloggers get in the middle of a small-scale local story and hijack it so that it never gets to trickle up to Newsweek or the NYT because everybody has already read the blog?  Or, are they a new link in the upwards trickle-chain?


And if so, nah und?


I got hung up with Christmas junk for Metropole.  Otherwise I would have passed on the story about the French hunter who got busted for manslaughter, for bumping off Cannelle, a protected bear in the Pyrenees.  The story was that Cannelle was the only female bear, and therefore a protected species.  But it turned out they were mistaken and it wasn't Cannelle who got shot at all.  It was one of her boyfriends.  On top of it, the 62-year-old hunter was looking for wild pigs, and said he shot the bear in self-defense.  He claimed the bear attacked his dogs and then turned on him.  The prefect of the Atlantic-Pyrenees issued an order forbidding dog-walkers in the area until Cannelle's 'orphan' is found safe and sound.  Earlier, on 28 November, a thousand friends-of bears gathered at Oloron-Sainte-Marie to defend the cause of Pyrenees bears, all four or five of them.


Or the Renault story?  Even French cars are bloating in price and size so Renault showed a stripped-down model at the International Auto Salon earlier this fall.  The car, called 'Logan,' was designed to be built by fumble-fingered Rumanians out of local scrap metal, and is aimed at the Balkan car market.  This is similar to the Fiat 124 that was the basis of the Lada, made and sold in the good old USSR.  Except that the Lada was a Moscow-winter version of a sunshine Italian car.  But the Logan, a full-size smaller car, reminds French drivers of a simpler 80s model, like the discontinued R5, and has a price to match.  Renault got quite a few orders for the car at the Auto Salon and belatedly announced that they would sell some in France, despite the risk of cannibalizing the sales of their spiffier models.  The Logan is now the top selling car in Romania, and there are 30,000 orders for it in Romania, Croatia, Serbia, Slovakia, Hungary and Macedonia.  If French drivers are protesting about a lack of Logans here Renault isn't saying.


And then there's the bridge story.  Oops, the viaduct story.  Sorry!


Longest, highest, most snazzy, etc.  Not a 'bridge' because it crosses a valley - with a pesky river in it.  Everybody, from Jacques on down, is happy as sin.


Background - on a holiday route to the south, the town of Millau was a notorious bottleneck.  To overcome this, a bridge was built, spanning the valley - in three years from the laying of the first brick to today's official opening by Jacques.  Put in all sorts of big numbers for the two kilometre-long suspension structure, including using GPS to locate it to the millimetre.  Put in low numbers for the fatalities during construction of the thing, floating hundreds of meters above the valley floor - in fact, none.  Supposed to withstand hurricane winds above 200 kph, it also held up 20 big trucks full of gravel in a test.  It is so marvelous that it has attracted a million visitors just to ogle it; none of whom were in a classic traffic jam at the time.  Will the town survive the lack of traffic jams?  So far, before the bridge opens on Thursday, greedy merchants are being optimistic.


Then there's the 40 escaped fighting bulls story... and the sorry spectacle of French cowboys failing to drive them back to their pasture in the Camarque.  Gendarmes are guarding the trees and the prefect has forbidden walking or hunting in the area.  Residents are upset, the bulls are upset from being chased around, and gendarmes say they will have to bump them off if they don't start behaving by Wednesday.


Top-Up - the plastic explosive hidden in an unwary passenger's luggage on a training exercise by dope-sniffing dog handler gendarmes at Roissy has never been found. The gendarmes have been 'corrected' and will probably be reassigned to Corsica.


… end of trickle


- regards, ric


Yep – no one here covered those stories.


That bridge (viaduct) is getting great press here.  All the networks and the cable shows did pieces on it.  The Guardian has a good collection of nifty photos - AFP, AP, Getty - National Public Radio interviewed the local mayor this week - and he spoke in rather okay English.  Neat!  I'd buy gloves in his town.


As for theories of journalism... what do I know?  I comment on stuff I find in the press in sources that most don't read - but they are mainstream sources.  I act as an aggregator, but that's not reporting.  I just have a different emphasis or something.  If I surprise my readers it's because I bookmark sources they do not.  No leftie Brit would find my stuff startling, as I hit the Guardian daily, and my comments on that fat fascist Berlusconi would be quite flat to most Europeans, who know him all too well.  When I quote other bloggers I am quoting attitude - quoting opinion, not quoting reporting.  I'm just pointing too.  Most folks rely on broadcast, cable and the major domestic press.  I point elsewhere.  But it's not journalism.  It's just - "Look at this!"  I find an odd item in a paper in Lahore so you don't have to.


And my favorite odd items of the week?



Received Saturday, 18 December 2004 16:20:00 GMT


SETE, France, Dec 18 (AFP) - Armed with a high-pressure hose and a bucket of octopi, hundreds of protestors in this Mediterranean town on Saturday pelted a McDonalds restaurant due to open this week with the slimy seafood.


Between 300 and 500 people gathered on the banks of the Sete canal, across from the fast-food outlet, playing music and yelling anti-junk-food slogans across the water, as police barred them from reaching the restaurant itself.


Aiming the hose across the water, they catapulted fresh octopi -- a local delicacy, known here as the "pouffre" -- towards the town's first McDonalds, which had been set to open on Saturday.


The crowd held up slogans slamming junk food, dubbed "malbouffe" in French, as well as work conditions in the fast-food industry.


Driving home their point, the protestors were serving up traditional Setois dishes -- one of which is the tielle, a fragrant octopus, tomato and onion pie prized by locals and tourists alike.


The demonstration caused the opening of the restaurant, the first fast-food outlet in the port town following years of resistance by the former communist mayor, to be put off until next week.


A group led by French militant farmer Jose Bove pulled down a McDonalds outlet that was under construction in the southern town of Millau in 1999, earning Bove a jail sentence, although the restaurant was later rebuilt.


Cool.  And just thought you’d like to know.


Copyright © 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 - Alan M. Pavlik
The inclusion of any text from others is quotation
for the purpose of illustration and commentary,
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