Jay Rosen, Chair of Journalism at New York University
That’s no co-incidence. Nor is it a co-incidence that Fairfax, Australia and New Zealand’s largest publisher, recently moved its journalists from Microsoft Word to Google Docs.
Challenges from a newer, simpler breed of computer hardware and the first serious software competitor in over a decade forced Microsoft to lift its game.
Today journalists have the tools we want. Not for the first time.
The bit where Bennett praises typewriters again
More than 30 years ago I learnt to type on a manual typewriter. At the time there was no such thing as a personal computer.
I owned a portable typewriter long before there were laptops. It made me feel like Ernest Hemingway.
Regular readers might wonder why I keep referring to typewriters. I see typewriters as the gold standard for simple, straightforward reporting.
Typewriters get out of the way of your writing. They don’t come between you and the words. They are efficient. They require discipline; you have to get the words right the first time because editing means hard work. This forces you to think better and to write better.
Computers do the opposite. They encourage mental laziness.
The ideal word processor is simple, essentially a typewriter that puts text on a screen instead of ink on a page. Nothing else. OK, maybe spell checking to catch typos.
Just about everything else is a distraction.
You mean a text editor?
Probably. I could just as easily use a text editor. In fact, that’s what I’m doing now. I’m writing this using the WordPress full screen text editor. There’s nothing on the page I’m writing but my words.
My favourite iPad writing tool works much the same way. It is almost invisible and feels just like using a typewriter.
The first word processors were much the same. WordStar was the first one I used professionally, a few years later I discovered WordPerfect. This was before WYSIWYG screens. Hell, it was even before computers had colour screens.
Both early word processors stayed out of the way. They’d let you cut and paste sections, make text bold, search documents and spell check, but they never came between me and my writing.
The move from MS-Dos to Windows killed the early word processors like a meteorite wiping out dinosaurs.
By the time the dust settled, Microsoft Word was the only plausible option. It was a slow, awkward beast. In those days few PCs were powerful enough to run complex programs like Word, so there was a lot of lag-time — what engineers call latency. Word was horrible to use.
Microsoft needed Word to be all things to all people. Which was a problem.
It meant Word contained far too many features and options that made no sense for a journalist. Mail-merge, page layout, proofing tools, collaboration stuff, indexes and long document features were all no use whatsoever when I had to get a story on an editor’s desk by 7pm.
Journalists don’t even care about changing typefaces. If we altered font sizes it was just to make text more readable on-screen in the days before zoom functions.
Word 2013 fixes all that
Over the years I’ve searched for Word alternatives that better replicate the typewriter’s feel and simplicity. I’ve found good tools including text editors. I particularly like a bare-bones word processor called Q10.
Meanwhile Microsoft did something interesting with Word. Since Word 2007, the company pared away at the cruft surrounding Word’s user interface. All the functionality and complexity is still there, but increasingly it is now hidden from sight unless you need to use it. The result is a remarkable less-is-more return to simplicity.
Word 2013 takes that further. The ribbon bar across the top of the screen now automatically hides leaving a bare clean screen. I use the draft view which is still less distracting and often hit alt-v then U to get the full screen view – like every Word user I’ve learnt a number of shortcut key codes. This one gives me a perfect white page, just like a sheet of paper in a typewriter.
Word is now close to my gold standard.
Word 2013 beta woes
We’re not quite there yet. I’m writing here about the beta version of Word 2013 and found a couple of flaws which mean the word processor falls short of perfect.
First the early betas would have spectacular crashes. They wouldn’t just temporarily stop the computer working, damage the application or lose documents. In one case I had to reinstall Windows. Since those early days I’ve only seen one or two minor gliches, so presumably Word is largely stable now.
A problem with disappearing cursors remains. Sometimes the cursor drops out of sight completely, it makes it almost impossible to navigate and edit documents. This can be fixed with a reboot – at times two reboots – but that’s clumsy. Hopefully Microsoft will fix this by the time the official software launches.
Word 2013 on a tablet
Perhaps the most exciting feature of Word 2013 for a journalist is that it will work on a Windows 8 tablet – in fact Microsoft promises versions next year for other tablets.
It looks as if the PC era is drawing to a close, tablet sales are rocketing while PC sales decline, in a year or so tablet sales will go past PC sales. I used to worry that the end of the PC era might mean the end of decent portable word processing, now I’m excited by the prospect of Word 2013, a Windows 8 tablet, a decent wireless keyboard and SkyDrive cloud storage.
Together they add up to the kind of mobile digital typewriter I could only have dreamed of when I started out as a journalist. It took a generation but Microsoft, and me, are just a step away from the destination.
There’s an interesting story from Sacha Vukic at PostPrint on how Twitter can act as an entire newsroom for reporters on the move: Twitter more than a newswire, it’s a newsroom.
I particularly like the idea of using Twitter as a fact-checking tool. I sometimes do this myself when I stumble over ‘facts’ I’m not certain about.
She asks if social media news desks might appear at newspapers and online news organisations to deal with breaking news reporting.
In some ways this is already happening, journalists everywhere are pulling in leads and sources from social media. I just don’t think anyone has formalised the process yet. If you know otherwise, please get in touch.
A basic guide for business owners and others who think they may want publicity. This is an updated version of a story originally posted in 2008.
If you have a product or service to sell, you want the greatest number of potential customers to hear about it.
While word-of-mouth marketing is a great jumping off point when you’re starting, eventually you’ll need to reach a wider audience. This means working with blogs, web sites, newspapers, magazines or broadcast media.
There are two ways to get attention; advertising and publicity. Newcomers often confuse the two. That’s a mistake, they are radically different and work in parallel universes.
Advertising and publicity are different
Advertising is always strictly commercial. You buy a fixed amount of space in a printed publication or air time from a radio or TV broadcaster. Online advertising generally comes down to display advertising like banners and boom boxes or text ads. Both can appear on web sites, in electronic newsletters or even as part of an application like Gmail.
When you buy advertising you provide the advertising content, or what people in the business call copy, at your cost.
Use advertising professionals
If you’ve enough budget you can hire a creative team to prepare the copy. This costs money, sometimes a lot of money. The cost is worth it if you’re running a major campaign: clued-up advertising professionals know how to press the right buttons and get results.
Advertising means you get to say where, when and how often the copy will run. You have complete control over the message and its delivery. Well up to a point; some publishers will refuse certain ads and there are laws about what you can and can’t say in an advertisement.
Cost per reader, viewer, listener
Advertising prices depend on the number of readers, listeners or viewers the media delivers. Experienced advertising buyers think in terms of CPM: the cost of reaching one thousand people.
Publicity isn’t for control freaks
In contrast, you have almost no control over publicity. Editors, journalists, photographers and other media professionals make all the important decisions – they won’t consult with you. They may choose to listen to you or read your material, they may not.
In principle it all depends on your message’s newsworthiness. If your story strikes a chord, they’ll take notice.
Surprising though it may seem, journalists have an ethical code. They are not for sale. Their job is to keep readers informed regardless of commercial considerations.
This is why you should avoid applying commercial pressure when seeking publicity. Don’t imply you will place advertising in return for favourable treatment.
At best you will insult journalists or offend their professional pride. At worst you will create a situation where ethical considerations mean they either can’t touch your story. They may even choose to take a hostile approach just to emphasise their independence.
Professional journalists don’t regard aiding your sales as any part of their job. Nor should they.
Media is a business
This may seem confusing, after all media companies are commercial businesses. You might think editors and journalist would jump at the chance to make money. However, taking a longer term view makes good business sense. A media property with a strong ethical code will be held in high regard by its readers, listeners or viewers.
This not only means that more people get to see editorial; it also means they get to see the advertising. A strong, independent editorial product will deliver better, i.e. more involved or wealthier, kind of customer.
At the same time, research shows advertising works best when the editorial is credible.
Who controls the message?
Even when a journalist does respond to your publicity in a largely favourable way, they still get to choose what is said, where it is said and when the story runs.
They choose the angle. They also get to decide how many words to devote to your message and they can choose whether your rivals get to comment or not. An editor might choose to use your supplied photographs or other graphic material, they may not. A journalist – usually a sub-editor, will write the headline and captions.
You wouldn’t normally expect to pay money to a publisher when they use your publicity. However, there are some media properties that will ask for a payment in return for running it.
We call it advertorial
Alternatively some properties might agree to run your vetted publicity material in return for you buying advertising. In fact there’s a whole spectrum of arrangements from total separation of editorial and advertising all the way to properties that are, in effect, nothing but paid advertising.
At the extreme end of the scale you are dealing with vanity publishers – people who will take your money and make you look good. Your mother may like the result, but you won’t sell much this way.
As a rule of thumb, publications that sell editorial integrity are not well-regarded by readers – that’s your prospective customers. Experienced publicity people discount the value of these publications.
Apart from anything else, readers tend to know when they are looking at paid-for editorial and learn to trust it less than truly independent content. In particular, younger, media literate, people are especially cynical about this kind of material.
One commonly used measure is that four of their readers would be worth one reader of a more prestigious, editorially independent title. That also applies to advertising in these publications – you can expect to pay less for space in a publication that isn’t fully independent.
While many businesses organise their own publicity, others hire specialists to do it. The most common arrangement involves hiring a public relations or PR consultant. Their job is to know which media properties and media professionals are receptive to which message.
A good PR company can save you time and trouble. They’ll help you prepare your message and train you in the art of handling the inevitable follow-up questions. They’ll make sure the message gets to the right people at the right time.
Some public relations companies have intellectual property tied up with publication and journalist databases. Other operators keep all this information in their heads, Palm Pilots, even on paper. They cultivate contacts and learn the best way to approach each outlet.
Be warned that public relations companies rarely guarantee results. In fact, you should go out of your way to avoid any PR operator who makes that kind of promise.
One misconception is that publicity is all about issuing press releases or holding press conferences. Both can have a role to play, but most important PR takes place out of sight.
Writing at Reportr.net Alfred Hermida says most journalists approach Web 2.0 services like Twitter with a 1.0 mindset. He’s right, my personal bugbear is that many media organisations insist their reporters use Twitter as a broadcast media and not for dialogue.
Hermida, a journalism professor, looks at a list of best practices guidelines for journalists using Twitter. Top of the list are two I consider the most important:
- Have a voice that is credible and reliable, but also personal and human
- Be generous in retweets and credit others
Too often media tweeters come across as cold and impersonal. In some cases the Twitter accounts feel robotic, because that’s exactly what they are.
And media outlets are often the least generous when it comes to crediting sources. Perhaps they fear they’ll lose readers if they point them elsewhere. Of course, they will lose some traffic that way, but they’ll gain more in terms of credibility by being more open and generous.
Here’s a great idea from Michelle Rogers. A box in the newsroom with coloured strips naming technology tools. Each Friday journalists draw a strip from the box and have to use one of the tools in their work.
This includes ideas like crowd sourcing stories on Twitter or using Storify.
If I was still editing, I’d have my reporters doing this.