Rules of online reporting


What the web is creating is a world in which the details can be erased but nothing is forgotten. It is a distinct change from when only that of broad interest could make it to the widely distributed vehicles of traditional media.

It was with that in mind that I told a reporter of mine earlier this year one of the golden rules of online news — take screenshots first, ask questions later — after something we were reporting on was removed from a source website. Reminding her of that prompted other rules that came to mind and after sharing them still others came to mind.

Here are some of the rules I find for online reporting — certainly a part of news organizations of the future.

  1. Cats > lists > bullet points — Hate Buzzfeed or not, web analytics have proven what should have always been known: that magazine-style feature prose is just one tool. Lots of ideas are better served being in other formats — like lists or broken up in easy-to-digest bullet points. Oh, and, yes, people love animals and cute (animal) photos.
  2. Take screenshots first, ask questions later — As mentioned at the top, though the web remembers, individual pieces of it can disappear effortlessly. That’s why when you see something shocking, your first instinct should always be to screenshot it — of an inflammatory article, a strange image, an unexpected announcement, a controversial social media posting or the like. Prove it was there and then deal with why it was and what it means.
  3. Everything online is public — Setting aside privacy issues, a reporter needs to understand and act as if any communication she has online is simply public — emails, direct messages and the like. Similarly, this rule can remind us that open and essentially free publishing means almost any piece of information can be available for anyone with the skills to get it. You need to be able to provide context.
  4. When everyone is competition, no one is competition — Everyone creates media and breaks news and offers opinion in the publishing world of the internet. That means reporters have competition all around them. On social media and in RSS feed readers like Feedly (RIP Google Reader), there is simply nothing to distinguish between news, people and other groups. That means everyone is competition for news — and maybe new players are your competition for business — so that also means no one is competition, so you might as well find some partners.
  5. We are writing the history of the world together — A reporter at the business desk of a big daily newspaper in one of our markets once told me, after she heard we published a story about a subject she was working on, that she purposely avoided reading ours, “so it wouldn’t influence” hers, she told me. That, of course, has it backward. Collectively, the web, by virtue of search, is writing the history of the world, and the daily news that we all are creating is driving those broader trend narratives. Our work must reflect and be influenced by everything that is around us. Running the same story multiple places — and ignoring what has been contributed elsewhere — is lazy and redundant. Add something, context or analysis or commentary, or just share to what has already been done.
  6. Transparency, not objectivity — This is just cliche at this point, but I will keep saying it until I’m blue in the face. You can’t over-disclose in reporting, and during the process of reporting, being transparent is endlessly more important than veiled objectivity, which is something to strive for but is not often a truly attainable ideal.
  7. Link economy — This, too, is as old as the hills of the web. To the point of not ignoring other sources of similar content, the best value for the audience is to share all the relevant and interesting information that ties to something you’re sharing. Drop your ego and share.
  8. Be always available and endlessly aware — We encourage our team to have lives, but reporting has always been an all-the-time kind of job. You are always looking for people, sources and ideas relevant to your work. With the web, that kind of round-the-clock interest has only grown and was one of my favorite journalist rules from Poynter.
  9. Publishing is no longer the end of the publishing cycle, but the middle

What else?

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