The apocalypsticle: birth of a new media genre?

by Vincenzo Marino – translated by Roberta Aiello

This week’s RoundUp: how the news is reported – or not reported – from the ethical, journalistic, technical point of view. The posts on the Ukraine’s crisis put to the test of writing for the web; live report and verification of sources of social networks; live videos that do not work and “the year most news home pages looked the same”.

How (not) to report the Ukraine crisis on the web

For weeks, protests and street violence in Kiev have dominated the media landscape. This interest of online media in the Ukrainian crisis, and the way (between tragic and frivolous) it has been reported, have prompted Sarah Kendzior of Politico to ask when and how this obsession began, in an article entitled “The day we pretended to care about the Ukraine“. The author points to the trend of digital media to define the situation with the adjective ‘apocalyptic’ and to describe the events through catchy phrases and particularly evocative photos, which tend to make the facts spectacular, aimed at getting more visits. Business Insider, Talking Points Memo, BuzzFeed, Mashable, Huffington Post, became involved in a type of reduction into listicles of events that were not at all light or easy to understand (Kendzior speaks of apocalypsticle), through vivid images in sequence, a few numbers and no explanation of the context. The author believes that these websites use “disaster porn” (the same as that which focuses on photos like those of World War II), ignoring what they could do for Ukrainians through honest journalistic work and paying attention to “what Ukrainians can do” for them. According to Kendzior, just more traffic.

Emily Bell deals with the issue too in the Guardian. The use of images for sensationalist purpose together with disinterest in the general context are not new practices, nor a result of online journalism – which, however, makes the capture and dissemination easier (here a reflection by Steve Buttry on the idea of rigor in digital and classical journalism). Nevertheless the author wonders if is too shallow to use for complex articles the same techniques as for “horses that look like Miley Cyrus”. “For younger audiences or those disengaged from the mainstream media, one thing is sure: that the exploration of an alien topic – such as Kiev’s crisis A/N – will very rarely start with a 5,000-word article on Foreign Policy“. Protagonists  such as BuzzFeed, Vice, PolicyMic have the advantage – Bell continues – to attract young audience and bring it to their subjects – such as the “conflict” – that would not be approached in another way (“we all must start somewhere”). Whether this is a necessary evil intended to desensitize the public and media, or rather a benefit, is an issue for which “more research is needed”, Bell concludes.

Live update and verification of sources

foto via

A lot of amateur content (the so-called user generated content) has been spread from the Ukraine, which needs to be verified for a journalistic use. William Pimlott of Editor’s Weblog asked Alan O’Riordan of Storyful which is the best method to create order – and cleansing – among masses of live, and amateur, content. Storyful is a platform created to help newsrooms (for example BBC, Al Jazeera, Wall Street Journal) to verify the content produced by social media, and which was purchased last December by NewsCorp for 18 million euros. O’Riordan says to use Twitter lists which he follows personally, keeping an eye on the users who are in the field and selecting those who can be considered more credible after a check made through available tools. After that it is possible to rely on a smaller group of people, although one needs to understand – adds O’Riordan – whether the videos they posted are actually owned by them. Most of the material – he continues – is certainly pertinent, but there is no assurance that it was produced by those who publish it online, with consequent problems of copyright in case it is not possible to attribute with certainty the authorship of the material to those who have shared it. It is crucial to get to the original source, to contact it and obtain the necessary permission.

Among the new products which report live events there is also Reddit. The platform is testing the beta version of a tool that will allow live blogging updates to be published – a move which is defined as crucial for the development of  ”opensource journalism”. The platform, which is accessible now only to some users and will later be open to all, has so far been tested on two different topics. An experiment with thousands of people on an old Pokémon video game (“A kind of stereotypical Reddit discussion”, as Mathew Ingram suggests), and the real-time reported uprisings in Ukraine, in the /r/UkrainianConflict thread. Graphic and technical results are still to be improved, but the development seems to be continuous and rather transparent thanks to a public post in which programmers and beta-testers commented on the use of trying to implement new features almost in real-time. Despite the fact that Reddit is often journalistically associated with the erroneous identification of the Boston Marathon bombing suspect, for Ingram this tool can be useful to bring the practice of journalism to a wider audience. As Jay Rosen of FirstLookMedia stated “journalism gets better when more people are doing it” and the “reader help” is fundamental to the process of construction and dissemination of news evoked by Gawker founder Nick Denton, in an interview released this week in Playboy.

The search for an ideal format for the news

Online news always needs new formats and more intuitive methods in order to tell stories, as well as being  economically viable and attractive to readers. One of these is live video, analyzed this week by Dylan Byers of Politico. The author cited some of the most unlucky examples: the Washington Post as well as the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal experimented with how to create live TV that turned out to be economically disadvantageous (the Post had invested millions of dollars) and often not attractive to readers and advertisers (“Video would not be the savior of online journalism”). Traditional TV models simply do not work on the Internet, cost too much, take immense resources and almost always do not correspond to economic expectations: “We realized quickly that (…) we would just be ‘bad CNBC’: CNBC already makes ‘great CNBC’, so there was no reason for us to make a bad version of it”, explained Henry Blodget, founder of Business Insider. An alternative is to look for new formats, to create different content that can survive in the sea of online competition. For example, re-packing segments of videos and posting them on the website after they have aired: this is the technique used by HuffPost Live, which has – according to President Sekoff – 111 million video views (January 2014).

The key is content that is usable on mobile devices, a trend which has become necessary as data shows a growing trend in consumption of mobile news. Therefore, news websites are adapting to the situation. According to Meyer Robinson of The Atlantic (“The year most news home pages looked the same“), the race to responsive design (the construction of websites which can be read on any device) would bring everybody to conform to a single model: “Box. Image. Text”. Joshua Benton of NiemanLab talks of the “plague” of uniform rectangles of BloombergView (just presented and object of the debate), NBC News, Gothamist, TheVerge, Vocativ, Digg, Slate and many others. A phenomenon that wants to build desktop and mobile websites with an easily adapted single structure (geometric shapes), and which risks seriously infecting news on the web. Also on NiemanLab, Joseph Lichterman presents the example of Rookie, a sports website which is searching for a new type of storytelling. There is no lack of rectangles, and inside, after a brief introduction, there are only quotes: choose an event, insert the comment of different characters and build the page (like this) Therefore each element of the news becomes shareable (from the entire article to single phrases), creating a new form of “atomization” of news.