Granted, there’s not many things more certain than death and taxes but I found one more: any time I started off a declaration with the phrases “Back in my day…” or “When I was YOUR age…” with one of my classes of Introduction to Writing & Reporting at the University of South Alabama, I could pretty much guarantee a room full of collective eye rolling. “Is that when you drove your Model T to school?” one of the class clowns would invariably smirk.
In this particular instance I was explaining to the room of Gen Y-ers that in my first job as a newspaper reporter I went to what is known as a public library and did research…in BOOKS! Well, they were largely unimpressed, and why shouldn’t they be? For the uninitiated it’s much easier to simply Google a topic or go to Wikipedia to get the information you need to write a fairly comprehensive story. The problem is that by no stretch of the imagination can that be considered “reporting” or “journalism." At best, it’s simply laziness. At worst, it’s plagiarism.
Google Journalism actually reared its ugly head when I was a judge for the Eddy Awards in 2010. One of my categories was association publications and I was perusing the pages of a travel association’s magazine when I came across an article on European cruises. The alleged writer of the article was clearly guilty of not picking up the phone to find out more information and it was obvious by what I was reading; the story read like promotional copy gleaned from minute upon minute of research on the cruise line’s website. Worse yet, it was terrible: it wasn’t until five or six paragraphs into the piece that it stated exactly where the ships sailed to and from, pretty basic information, if you ask me. Not only was this lazy writer just Googling his research, he had never heard of our friend, “the inverted pyramid.”
At the risk of being called a hypocrite, I must confess to my own dalliances of Googling info and putting it into a story. It occurred when I worked at a dysfunctional publishing company where the left hand (editorial) seldom if ever knew what the right hand (sales) was doing. One of the sales assistants walked into the editorial suite and asked if one of us could write up 1,200 words on skiing in West Virginia. I stupidly volunteered—I had neither skied nor been to West Virginia—because I thought I would have the luxury of time to make some calls and do some research. “When do you need it?” I asked. “Ummm, around lunch,” was the reply. This editorial was to go around ads in a special advertising section in a national magazine so time was of the essence in order to meet the magazine’s stringent deadline.
I called and emailed West Virginia’s bureau of tourism. Nada. So in order to meet my deadline I had to resort to the very practice I loathed: Google journalism. Not a proud moment but I think I was able to put the info into my own voice enough so that it would not be a direct rip off of www.skiwestva.com or whatever site I came across. In this case, it was more of a challenge as a writer to take unfamiliar material and reinterpret it in your own voice…or at least that’s how I justified it to myself at the time.
The best stories occur when you’re able to get out there and meet and mingle with people and get the lowdown on what it is you’re covering. As I told my students, you need to become an expert on what it is you’re writing about so that the reader won’t have any questions about the story they just read.
Google has its place, but mainly to find sources and background information. It is a crutch that threatens to retroactively cripple our industry, especially the next generation of budding journalists. Cue eye roll.
Mark A. Newman is a Senior Editor with Hanley Wood’s Remodeling magazine. He has spent close to two decades in the publishing world and has been everything from Editorial Director to Editorial Assistant and literally everything in between.