How journalists can fight churnalism

Jan 27th, 2013 | By | Category: Advice, News

Closeup of running man using treadmill.

Running hard but going nowhere? You might be on a churnalism treadmill. Photo © Ronald Hudson, iStockphoto

By Joe Grimm
Michigan State University
School of Journalism

Twice recently, I have heard people mention churnalism.

Both were talking about online media, but now that all media have online, every journalist is in danger of becoming a churnalist.

Churnalism is the new name for what we used to call feeding the beast.

Churnalism is fast, thin and needs constant updates even when there is nothing much new.

Churnalists work for clicks.

They live-blog events and then Storify what they just live-blogged.

They aggregate what other folks do – for as long as someone is still producing fresh content – mixing a little opinion or insight with a lot of borrowed stuff.

To meet output demands the interview fewer people but interview more of them by email.

They take fewer risks. They know less about what they’re writing.

Churnalists produce five, six, seven, eight items a day, but they can’t tell stories. They might shoot fewer pictures per assignment as the race around to do more, or they’ll be less selective on an assignment, posting 60 pictures in a gallery, but shooting nothing memorable. Their photos are called pringled because people will flip right through them as they do through a can of uniform potato crisps.

Churnalism produces more items than journalism does. But they are shorter, they have fewer sources, the interviews are shallower and there is less editing.

Churnalism is less rewarding for the people who do and it less satisfying for the people who consume it.

Readers who are tired of churnalism can walk away from it. That’s not easy when churnalism pays your bills.

Journalists can decline offers to work in churnalism factories, but that is not easy if you really need a job. And sometimes churnalism overtakes the newsroom you are already in.

These are some strategies for avoiding churnalism:

* Churnalism lives on item count. Rather than create a lot of wafer-thin stories on a bunch of subjects, go deeper on fewer subjects but do it in little stories.

* Learn photography. In newsrooms that count both photos and articles as items, you will be able to spend more time reporting if you submit in multiple media.

* Be selective I. Spend even less time on the simplest items so you can spend more time on some selected ones.

* Be selective II. Mix up your coverage diet by using incredible simple briefs to open the door for complex stories. Don’t make everything you cover be of equal weight.

* Follow continuing stories. Frequent updates on stories that develop slowly saves you from reporting everything fresh and lets you build depth over time.

* Write in takes. The age-old work style of typing stories out in chunks that could be run to the typesetter as each part of a story was written can work online, too.

Be Sociable, Share!

Leave a Comment