The Cyberbrains

Research and contemplation in new media

Is it news fit to print — or post?

The greatest challenge for news folk may be that title itself.

I cashed in on one of the great benefits of being a Missouri School of Journalism professor this week by spending several wonderful hours with arguably the most powerful editor in the Internet world. Steve Herrmann is the editor of BBC Online, a complex global system staffed by hundreds Clyde and Steveof journalists.

BBC’s Web site consistently rates among the top in the news world and is often held up as a model of what we could all do with the resources and flexibility of the British non-commercial system. All that is in play, of course, with the massive reorganization announced last week. Whatever shape radical BBC’s reforms take, Steve will be in the thick of it.

He, I and our wives struck up an acquaintance when I taught in London in 2006. I’ve since enjoyed talking family, hobbies and our professions with him leisurely in both of our homes.

A continuing discussion during his special teaching visit here this was the definition of “news.”

As a citizen journalism advocate, I’ve taken the word to extremes. I find audiences hungry for stories about neighbors’ dogs, tributes to dead relatives and explanations of faith. Especially when the audience itself tells those stories.

The BBC has embraced citizen journalism in a very big way, but only in the context of traditional news. When normal reporting methods broke down in the Burma uprising, Steve focused his news staff on sifting, excerpting and sourcing the thousands of emails and text messages sent to the BBC by the Burmese themselves.

The result was truly astounding coverage of a truly horrific situation. It was news.

Steve takes issue with me, however, that the soft information that once was the fodder of country weekly inside pages is really appropriate for a modern news operation. My example was the reader appeal of a legislative story versus a story about school children’s art project.

The kid story is interesting, but not news. That’s not just the BBC Online chief’s verdict, but that of most traditional journalists.

I don’t know what to call this non-critical information. But unlink many others in my profession, I believe with all my heart and mind that we must find a place for it in the news stream.

The reason is two-fold. First, the readers love it (even Steve’s wife Vera sided with me on that). But critically for our survival, we cannot let others take the genre away from us.

We are in a crisis of eyeballs. If more people continue to find their information interest elsewhere, the economic foundations of journalism as we know it will collapse.

If I knew the secret of journalism success in the 21st century, I would be basking in the Caribbean sun rather than haunting the halls of academia. But I know that we must use every technological, managerial and journalistic device we can conjure to expand what we offer to the public.

And it has to include the dogs, the dead uncles and those crayon-wielding kids.

October 25, 2007 - Posted by | Clyde Bentley


  1. Hi Clyde, I wouldn’t quarrel with “dogs, dead uncles and crayon-wielding kids” being on a news site, it just depends what your readers want from you. The BBC site has a wide agenda and plenty of human-interest, personal stories. In the end though no one site can be everything to everyone and some of the stuff out there can be left to others. We can always link to them. PS “arguably the most powerful editor in the internet world”? Surely some mistake?!

    Comment by Steveh | October 28, 2007 | Reply

  2. After spending weeks filling Mymissourian with citizen content (and having fun doing it), I feel like a traitor admitting that I’m still on the fence about “dogs, dead uncles and crayon-wielding kids.” But, it’s not the news value I’m on the fence about. I wonder how far the dogs and dead uncles will go toward helping the online news pay for the print news, that holy grail of “print” media.

    Comment by Joe Kokenge | November 1, 2007 | Reply

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