Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Don't ignore the Flat Earth warnings

Nick Davies's Flat Earth News revelations have become a real talking point but they shouldn't surprise anyone.

His main finding,backed by academic research, was that all but 12 per cent of stories published by Fleet Street's quality papers is original, the remainder consisting of reworked agency copy or PR material, thereby relegating what we do as "churnalism".

The papers at the heart of this expose, the Mail, the Guardian, the Telegraph and the Independent either failed to comment or dismissed it with a few platitudes.

It was a feeble response. Anyone who's ever copytasted in Fleet Street will know just how embarrassingly accurate these findings are. The only revelation was in the sheer amount of recycling involved.

I do recall on the eve of a threatened strike at the Telegraph a few years back, telling anyone who'd listen that a few subs could produce the first 15 pages for weeks from PA, Reuters, and the massive wave of copy that flows by the minute into the corr-wire basket, probably without anyone noticing.

In fact, not merely once did I take a PA story for a first edition slot, only to get staff copy later and find some big-name byline has simply rewritten the same stuff I'd had subbed earlier. Often, the rewrite was not as good as the copy the sub had produced, so I just stuck a byline on it and slipped the page.

I look forward to studying Davies’ findings more closely but don't assume it'll it be a wake up call. In fact, it's going to get worse as digital becomes more dominant.

The push to web-first will mean that one of two things will happen:

1. Reporters asked to produce more versions of one story in more formats will, ipso facto, produce even less of anything original.

2. They will actually focus their attention on the exclusives we’re missing - and leave the breaking news to the agencies such as PA who are far better geared up to do it anyway.

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