There are no stories on the web

I‘ve been pondering that titular mantra for while now. I’ve got to the point where I’m wondering whether my focus on the idea that the web will not just simply cough up a story is really about a broader shift in mindset that journalists need to make or more about me getting my head around the process.

So I’m posting this to get it out of my head.

It got in my head again at the end of last week as I found myself eavesdropping on a group of students sat at their computers.

“I need to do a search for a story for my portfolio assignment” says one student who then proceeds to fire up a collection of news sites including the BBC and a number of different local news providers.

Frustrating as I find this behaviour sometimes, I know it’s not limited to students.

Reverse engineering stories – finding an article online and then unpicking the threads – is more common than I think any of us a prepared to admit. Is that a bad thing? Maybe not, but it happens. But that’s not finding a story, it’s just (re)reporting the story for your audience. It’s also a mono-media approach to the journalistic process. Everything is geared towards servicing an article at a publication point.

Web 2.0 journalism

Working the ‘Web 2.0’ way approaches the story from a different direction. It builds a critical mass of content through the appropriate application of digital technologies. Web searches, crowdsourcing, alerts and all the other good stuff can be weaved in to the ‘traditional‘ journalistic process to serve the increasingly voracious content machine.

But does that process really address where stories come from?

What you will find on the web is data and information. But they are not stories. They can help develop and support a story but they are meaningless without context. You need to know the story you are trying to tell before they become useful. You still need the story.

People make stories

Ultimately, stories come from people. They come from the collective experiences, social contexts and relevence of communities. To find a story and know why it’s a astory, you have to be part of or active in those communities. That’s something that ‘traditional’ journalism is supposed to be good at. Understanding the communities/audience they serve. Being relevant through the intimate knowledge of a patch. Having the ‘in’ at the ground floor of a story.

Of course the web will get you next to people, sometimes in the most direct and immediate way. But the web still won’t give up that story unless you approach those people in the same way you would in real life. That means going to the places where people gather and inhabiting them.

The thing to remember is that people don’t gather in the same place and, more importantly, you cannot force them to.  So even though RSS feeds and alerts will allow you to monitor the conversations effectivley (and if you arent using these tools then you should be) you need to get out there.

Platforms are places for conversation

Web 2.0 is all about platforms. Sites that enable people to do things are real honeypots. But the really successful web2.0 sites are the ones that encourage conversation between users.  We have thise platforms in real life. People will go to the post office to send a letter or the pub to get a drink.  But the conversation in those places could be about anything. The same thing happens online.

Take a look at Pistonheads – a site about motoring. The site has some very popular forums

Over 2 million posts in the general area
Over 2 million posts in the online 'pub'

Lots of good stuff about cars (in minute detail) but take a look at the Pie and Piston (general chat areas in forums are often called the pub, bar or take pub names). 2,401,820 posts. Over 2 million posts and the majority are not about motoring.

Push not pull

The thing I recognise more and more is that’s a challenge in a journalistic environment where strategy and staffing is defined by pull rather than push; the idea that you can bring everything to your desktop could be one of the reasons more journalist find themeselve effectivly desk bound.

But we can still exhibit a bit of that push behaviour when it comes to communities even if it is just virtual. Think of the platform as a place – a shop, a pub or a street corner.

Hang around long enough and someone will give you a story.