Pyle: New rule for online newspapers: First, add no noise
Indianapolis, Ind. • Given that the Internet has been eating our lunch for the last several years, it seemed only fitting that the convention of newspaper editors and writers I attended last weekend should invite one of Google's primary algorithm authorities to address our opening midday meal.
We members of the National Conference of Editorial Writers may sometimes curse the Internet for distracting the next generation of readers away from our upstanding work and toward all those time-wasting games, blogs and social media sites.
But Google Fellow Amit Singhal seemed to share a basic goal with those of us whose job has always been to edit and write good opinion journalism: Cut through the noise.
As proud as Singhal is of what Google has so rapidly accomplished, he is quick to argue that there is a big difference between providing people with data "There are 67 grams of fat in that can of soup." and getting to wisdom "Don't eat that."
That's why one project that Singhal is working on at Google is refreshingly retro.
It is a process by which writers who have established that they are accurate, reliable and, if not objective, then fair and honest spokesmen for their point of view, will find their way to the top of future Google searches.
Thus bolstered in our view that the world still needs good journalism to move from data to wisdom, we went on to explore just how we might turn the brave new online world to serve us, and our readers. So tweet, they told us. And have a Facebook page. And help Google find you, and not someone else, by writing SEO (search engine optimization) headlines.
And, while you are helping your readers cut through the dross and cacophony of the Internet, we might also adapt the first law of the medical profession: First, create no noise.
And, according to the consensus of writers and academics gathered in Indiana, the first step in that process would be to reform, if not dump, the unfiltered, anonymous comment boards that most newspapers have added to their online versions over the past few years.
That development was, according to journalism professor and ethicist Bob Steele, "one of the worst decisions we made in journalism in the past 50 years."
These pits don't add wisdom. They subtract from it. Because people don't have to convince an editor that they have something of worth to say, because the "facts" they offer go through no review at all, and because they post their comments under assumed or funny names, comment boards have become hives of invective, insult and so's-your-old-man back and forth.
Journalism pros shrug it off. But the people we write about, the people we quote, are not fair game for the sort of "I'm glad he's dead" comments that are far too often part of the mix.
Dennis Ryerson, editor of The Indianapolis Star, and a former editorial writer and editor, told us that he had hoped the comments would bring useful information, tips for future stories and necessary corrections to past ones. They haven't.
Good editorials don't just condemn, though, they suggest an alternate course of action. So the NCEW has launched what it calls The Civility Project, which hopes to curate and promote means for people to have their say without making our websites, and our readers, feel dirty.
And, though I wish someone could come up with a meatier word than "civility," I'm among those eagerly awaiting its recommendations.
In the meantime, you can add your comments online. Be nice.
George Pyle, a Salt Lake Tribune editorial writer, is a professional. But he is still fully open to the idea that you should try this at home. Email: email@example.com. Twitter: @debatestate.
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