If video killed the radio star the internet is killing the writing star

 

Hands up if you have retweeted some silly video of someone doing something daft somewhere, or shared a link to an article promising to be the definitive Top 10 of all time of some spurious list of films, books, quotes or favourite James Bond moments.

Yes, we are all guilty of indulging in that acceptable form of voyeurism where we can take innocent pleasure at someone else's expense.

 

Sharing must see clips of films on social media are the cliffhanger equivalents of the Saturday morning matinees

Sharing must see clips of films on social media are the cliffhanger equivalents of the Saturday morning matinees

 

If we didn't then all those forms of popular entertainment we have enjoyed over the years probably would not have seen the light of day. From Laurel and Hardy, Movietone news, the cliffhangers in the Saturday matinees, the Goon show, the National Enquirer, the women weeklies to the increasingly naughty and out of control tabloids.

We can plot that journey all the way through to the phenomenal success of what are effectively social sharing sites like Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, Snapchat or Periscope.

The one key driving factor behind all those different forms of populist entertainment has been technology.

From the first spoken word on film, to radio, to television, the arrival of colour, desk top publishing, all the way through to the greatest populist medium of all time. The internet.

Now whilst I enjoy seeing the latest viral video to hit my Twitter or Facebook feed, it is also becomingly increasingly harder to find regular serious, informed content that is actually worth clicking on.

 Digital stories are the equivalent to newspapers becoming tomorrow's fish and chip paper

 Digital stories are the equivalent to newspapers becoming tomorrow's fish and chip paper

 

Content that is just the digital world's equivalent of the next hour's fish and chip papers.
We have never had so much access to content online, but as the quantity increases, the overall quality is going down at just the same rate.

If video killed the radio star, the internet is doing the same to the writing star.

 

Race to the bottom
Content online is fast becoming a race to the bottom.

Yes, there is still lots of quality writing and access to must have information online, the difficulty is wading through all the rubbish and the noise online to find it.
 
It is only going to get worse. Everywhere you look across the traditional media, be it newspapers, magazines, or standalone websites, all are cutting costs, shedding staff and looking to produce more with smaller budgets and fewer writers.

In the past two years just over 10% (6,000) of journalists lost their jobs.

Yet, tellingly, there have been 18,000 new PR hobs created since 2013.

 

Journalism becoming ‘churnalism’
As a result journalism, in many quarters, is in danger of becoming nothing more than what has become known as ‘churnalism'.

Namely the rather dubious art of simply cutting and pasting press releases or accepting any media information you receive and publishing it - no questions asked.

PR spin is increasingly taking over from quality journalism. Journalists are either too stretched or too under resourced, or most likely both, to have the time to do quality work.

A worryingly growing number of publishers are not prepared to pay, or see the point in costly investigative journalism. Particularly when they can rely on the PR world to provide them with cut and paste press releases. Commercial interests have taken over editorial integrity.

We have seen the phenomenon of 'click bait' stories take over much of what passes as journalism online. Stories designed to just drive huge levels of traffic to websites.

The ground breaking success of sites like BuzzFeed, that specialises in click bait stories, has had an enormous impact on the publishing industry since its launch in 2006.

Click bait style stories where the headlines are written to attract social media users to click, read and share

Click bait style stories where the headlines are written to attract social media users to click, read and share

 

Websites not run just by journalists producing content, but with the help of data analysts who will change and tweak headlines and text based on how many people have clicked on that story in the last hour.

Take any industry and the most read story online is likely to have been driven by click bait tactics online.

Take wine. Whilst the wine trade might believe the average drinker will be influenced by grape varieties, how they taste, and what sort of food they are best served with.

Search for the most shared story about wine online and you come up with the following headlines:

21 Reasons Why Wine Drunk Will Always Be Your Favourite Drunk: 822,200 social media shares

A Glass of Red Wine Is The Equivalent Of An Hour In The Gym, Says New Study: 790,900 shares

Wine Ice Cream Is Now A Thing You Can Drink And Get Drunk On: 601,400 shares

Wine As A Bedtime Drink Helps With Weight Loss: 600,700 shares

 

Falling standards of wine trade media
We are now seeing elements of this click bait-style journalism enter the business press and wine trade media.

It pains me to say it but standards are definitely falling across the traditional wine media.

Increasingly at my time at Harpers there was a growing pressure from above to do more, both in print, and particularly online, but with less staff and smaller budgets.

Content pressures were exacerbated by the commercial need to put on more events, seminars, conferences, or roundtables. Where it was expected the editorial team would find speakers, chair the events and then cover them extensively in print and online.

Whilst all those aspects are now part of any trade journalist's role, particularly so for editors, they can't all be done without cutting corners unless they are properly resourced. And those days are long gone.

As a result we are seeing, at the extreme end, standards slipping so badly that I have known so called journalists on a rival drinks title actually take stories and direct quotes from interviews I have done and then pass them off as theirs on their own site.

Such are the pressures to find enough stories to get up online to feed sponsored newsletters that have to be sent out at set times of the day.

Or we are seeing the increased use of Top 10s and click bait tactics like putting One Direction in a headline designed to drive a huge spike in online traffic that, in turn, will convince a gullible advertiser, that does not ask many questions, to spend more money online.

 

Celebrating quality journalism
But, I stress, those are the extremes.

There is still lots of great quality journalism across both the mainstream wine media, particularly the paywall sector, and personal websites and blogosphere - which, I guess, this site is now part of.

Great examples of quality writing online but also reveals large numbers of average writers

Great examples of quality writing online but also reveals large numbers of average writers

 

I was able to see that quite clearly whilst chairing this year's Born Digital Wine Awards. The results of which I helped announce at this weekend's Digital Wine Communications Conference conference in Plovdiv, Bulgaria.

The shortlisted entries and ultimate winners are all great examples of the diversity of work being created in the wine press and it is a genuine pleasure to see such talent rewarded.

But equally there were a lot of entries that either did not get to the final judging stage or fell by the wayside very quickly when they did.

It has always staggered me how many people there are trying to make a living out of writing about wine. I like a free drink like the rest of us, but surely there is not enough free wine to go around to justify the number of average writers out there.

 

To write about wine, you have to know how to write
Equally I am frustrated by the number of wine writers who have willingly spent hundreds, if not thousands, of pounds on taking professional wine courses, and yet have not spent a penny on knowing how to write.

Why would you think you need to know about wine in order to write about it, but not think you need to know how to write to make a living out of it?

As the traditional media is cutting back on the numbers of journalists and has smaller budgets for commissions, it is vital anyone serious about making money out of writing about wine is at the very top of their game.

Now I am also on the freelance trial I know first hand how hard it is get commissioned for articles that I would quite happily have published last year in Harpers. Such is the pressure on space and budget.

 

You have to be the best
It is important to know the target audiences of the publications or websites you are looking to pitch stories to. You need to understand what their editorial needs are and where they might need some help to fill them.

Most importantly of all you might have to adapt your writing style to suit different websites or magazines. There is no room for a one size fits all writing style.

But I guess if all else fails if you can come up with 10 pictures of cats or kittens sipping wine then you might be on to a winner after all.

* This article is part of the talk I gave at this weekend's DWCC conference in Plovdiv, Bulgaria. 

* Sorry if by reading this article you have a certain Buggles song going through your head. 

If it helps, here's a trip down memory lane for you...