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March 09 2011

18:08

Churnalism.com Reveals Press Release Copy in News Stories

Editors' Note: Martin Moore is the director of the Media Standards Trust, which recently launched Churnalism.com -- a website that helps the public distinguish journalism from "churnalism," a news article that is published as journalism, but is essentially a press release without much added.

Two weeks in, and the public response to Churnalism.com has been fantastic.

churnalism logo.jpg

Since we launched the site on February 23, we have had 50,000 unique visitors, over 330,000 page impressions, and hundreds of press releases pasted in and saved. According to Google Analytics the site has been visited by people in 134 countries.

People have tracked down churnalism about eye-catching new products (such as "Baby Gaga," ice cream made with breast milk), about new research findings from universities (for example, on the "protective properties of green tea"), about new police initiatives (e.g., the recruitment of teenagers by police to prevent cyber-bullying), about the "happiest time of the week" (7:26 pm on a Saturday, says a poll sponsored by a multivitamin company), and about the prose of Jane Austen (which might not be all hers after all, according to an Oxford study). People have pointed us to stores of press releases like www.eurekalert.org and www.alphagalileo.org so we can build up a bigger bank of comparisons. And there have been discussions about what might constitute "signals of churnalism."

As importantly for us, the site has sparked lots of debate about churnalism. Here are some of the top questions that have come up:

Do the public care if journalists are churning out press releases?

Some felt the site's exposure of churnalism would not much bother the public.

Mark Stringer of Pretty Green told PR week he was "not sure why anyone would want to go to the time and effort of producing a website to prove something that no one really cares about."

Others thought the opposite was true.

"If you tell someone who is a punter rather than a journo that it's pretty standard practice to ctrl+C and ctrl+V huge chunks of a press release into a story," Steven Baxter wrote in his New Statesman blog, you'll get a revealing reaction. "I call it the 'Really?' face. People look at you as if to say 'Really? Is that what you do?'"

Our own experience to date appears to support Baxter's view rather than Stringer's.

Does the re-use of wire copy count as 'churnalism'?

There has been a fascinating discussion about the re-use of wire copy, especially when it is re-used almost verbatim, often with a byline from the news outlet added.

People have pointed out that news outlets subscribe to wire services to broaden their access to news, so why shouldn't they publish it?

Others have countered that using wire copy is not the problem, but passing it off as your own is.

"If you have to churn,"Minority Thought blogged, "at least be honest about it."

How can news organizations make their use of press releases more transparent?

On Memeburn, Tom Foremski wrote about a suggestion he made a few years back to color-code text that came from a press release. For example, distinguishing text "copied from a release or outside source (red)" from original text in black -- and potentially other colors to represent separate conflicts of interest. Others suggested just noting or linking to the release.

Professor George Brock, head of journalism at City University London, worried that rather than push journalists towards footnoting sources, Churnalism.com might discourage them.

Will Churnalism.com help reduce the production line approach to press releases?

A prominent communications professional, Mark Borkowski, welcomed the site, hoping it might help kill off the mass production of poor press releases.

So many are now produced, Borkowski wrote, that "the level of noise makes it hard for the true craft of the publicist to flourish."

Is all churnalism bad?

Alan Twigg of Seventy Seven PR told PR Week that "this site is making it sound like [public relations officers] getting coverage is a doddle and that PROs are taking over the media. If only it was that easy." Sounding a similar note, Stuart Skinner of PHA Media took to PR's defense on the same website, saying that "news is not a product of collusion between shady PROs and lazy journalists."

It is worth noting that the site does not say churnalism is easy, nor indeed that the reproduction of parts of press releases is necessarily unsavory.

"Of course not all churnalism is bad," the site's FAQ section says. "Some press releases are clearly in the public interest (medical breakthroughs, government announcements, school closures and so on). But even in these cases, it is better that people should know what press release the article is based on than for the source of the article to remain hidden."

Richard Sambrook also made an important point in his blog, that "there is of course Good PR and Bad PR just as there is Good Journalism and Bad Journalism."

Does Churnalism.com illustrate the self-correcting power of the web?

In the Guardian's online comment section Jimmy Wales, co-founder of Wikipedia, suggested that plagipedia and Churnalism.com "show us that the Internet is perfectly capable of correcting its own follies."

What's an equivalent word for "churnalism" in Spanish?

Great question. 1001Medios began a Twitter-hunt for a word in Spanish that captured the idea of "churnalism." Sadly, my Spanish is not good enough to work out if they've found one yet.

Building Buzz Without Legacy Media

The tremendous public response and debate almost certainly would not have happened without social media, blogs, and Chris Atkins. Chris' news stunts -- particularly about the chastity garter, the penazzle and Larry (or Jo) the cat -- captured public attention at the same time as making a serious point about how churn makes it into the mainstream media. (You can see Chris' film describing the stunts on the Guardian website, and his blog about it here.)

They also helped kick-start discussion about churnalism on social media, notably Twitter and Facebook. Thousands of people have tweeted about the "churnalism" problem, about Churnalism.com as a way to address the problem, about evidence of churn they have found, and yes, about Larry the Cat and the penazzle. It has been humbling and somewhat overwhelming to observe the level of public response and engagement.

Indeed, without social media and blogs there is every chance the site might have gone virtually unnoticed. The Guardian, which published the original "reveal" article about the news stunts, is still the only UK national newspaper site to have mentioned Churnalism.com.

Major news outlets that were fooled by Chris' PR stunts have yet to acknowledge their mistakes -- much less the website the hoaxes were intended to publicize. The BBC's Radio 5 Live is -- as far as we know -- yet to tell its listeners that the "Jo the Cat" story, which they discussed at length on their lunchtime program, was a fabrication. The Daily Mail does not appear to have informed its readers that Margaret Sutcliffe is not pursuing her custody claim about the Prime Minister's cat.

Contrast this with BBC Norfolk which immediately put its hands up and then used the hoax as a good way to start a discussion about churnalism.

Industry and International Attention

The public relations industry in the U.K. has been more direct in its response than the mainstream press. "PR Industry hits out at churnalism site" said an article on PRWeek.co.uk.

Various figures from the industry voiced their concern about the impact the site might have on the reputation of PR. Though in a measured and sensible leader, the editor Danny Rogers suggested churnalism was a genuine threat to both journalism and PR: "If organizations are churning out rubbish, and so-called journalists are mere accomplices in this process, we will all be taking part in a depressing downward spiral."

One of the really encouraging things about the response to the site in its first two weeks has been the international reaction. In addition to many kind words of encouragement, we have had expressions of interest from people to extend the site to the U.S., Germany, Finland, Spain, and Australia. We've spoken to NPR radio in New York, to CBC radio in Canada, BBC Radio Norfolk, BBC Wales and to community radio in Essex. We've been contacted by news organizations in Germany, Belgium, Australia, the U.S. and Russia.

What's Next for Churnalism.com?

Some of this interest is not in the site itself but in the technology that underlies it. The methodology we developed can be applied to many other uses beyond churnalism. It could be used, for example, to trace changes in the progress of legislation. It could be used to measure the re-use of Wikipedia. It could be applied to plagiarism in other parts of the web.

We're still pedaling furiously to respond to many of the questions people have raised and issues identified. We are, for example, about to introduce a page that allows people to explore the use of press releases by news outlet or sector (i.e. government, science). We are now highlighting, on the home page, what comparisons people are sharing (since people seem to prefer to share than to rate). We are adding a report button so people can tell us when something definitely is not churn.

Finally, we will start to link the site more directly with the other Media Standards Trust transparency projects -- notably journalisted.com and hNews. This should help us to create a whole toolbox of transparency and accountability mechanisms for online news and create an ecology that will foster and advantage original journalism.

September 23 2010

12:04

How to create a wordpress magazine theme using Twenty Ten – Part 3

This is part three of a short series outlining how to tweak a wordpress template to get some magazine style functionality. Part one and Part Two are available here.

In the previous part of this tutorial I looked at how we could display some custom content on our front page by adding another loop to the file. This gave us chance to experiment with template tags to customize what we say. But I also pointed out that we had a problem.

Our ‘new’ loop pulls out the latest story in our featured story category and puts the title and excerpt at the top of the page. But the original wordpress loop is still there. It pumps out the last 10 posts published on the site and theres a good chance that our featured post is one of them. That means we get the same story twice on the homepage.

Turning off the original loop

If you remember, the orginal loop is called using a get_template_part function in the Main Index Template file.

[php]
/* Run the loop to output the posts.
* If you want to overload this in a child theme then include a file
* called loop-index.php and that will be used instead.
*/
get_template_part( 'loop', 'index' );
?>
[/php]

We can turn the loop off by commenting it out.
[php]
/* Run the loop to output the posts.
* If you want to overload this in a child theme then include a file
* called loop-index.php and that will be used instead.
*/
// get_template_part( 'loop', 'index' );
?>
[/php]

Notice how the function call has turned green like the comments. By adding a // in front of the function we turn it in to a comment which the server will ignore. If you update your file and look at the front page, you’ll see you only have the featured post.

Commenting out is a common trick when developing code. It allows you to try a few different things without deleting anything. Just don’t do to much, things can get confusing.

You may also have noticed that other comments in the file are marked between /*…*/ rather than a //. They are both valid. The /*…*/ is usually reserved for multi-line or blocks of comments rather than single lines. It also makes for a handy way to differentiate between comments (description of the code) and commenting out.

Adding another loop

Getting rid of the loop altogether is a bit of severe way to solve the repeat post option. What we need to do now is add a loop that allows us to get the posts back in a more controlled way. Add the following code after the new loop we added and before the original loop.

[php]
….

/* This is the new loop to display a featured story.
* It creates a variable and then loads all the posts that match the query.
*/

$my_query = new WP_Query('category_name=Featured Story&showposts=1');

/* Now it loops through the results and displays the content.
*/

while ($my_query->have_posts()) : $my_query->the_post();
$do_not_duplicate = $post->ID;

/* We load the Page ID in to a variable to check for duplicates later on
* Then it displays the title as a working link with formatting to
* match the Twenty Ten template.
* Then we display the excerpt.
* Then we finish the loop with the endwhile statement
*/
?>

wpmodder.com, a great site.

September 22 2010

10:00

How to create a wordpress magazine theme using Twenty Ten – Part 2

This is part two of a short series outlining how to tweak a wordpress template to get some magazine style functionality. Part one is available here.

The copy to clipboard option


Note: If you want to copy code directly from this tutorial roll you mouse over the top, right-hand corner of the code and a little window will pop up with a copy code function.

In the previous part of this tutorial we set ourselves up to experiment with the Twenty Ten Template. So at this point you should have

  • A working installation of the wordpress.org (version 3 or above)
  • The Twenty Ten theme set as the active theme
  • A number of posts sorted in to three categories – News, Sport and Featured Article
  • The permissions for the Twenty Ten theme folder set to 666

The next step is to take a look at the files we are going to edit.

The Main Index template

If you switch to Appearance > Editor and click the Main Index Template link on the right.

You should see the following in the editor window.

[php]
/**
* The main template file.
*
* This is the most generic template file in a WordPress theme
* and one of the two required files for a theme (the other being style.css).
* It is used to display a page when nothing more specific matches a query.
* E.g., it puts together the home page when no home.php file exists.
* Learn more: http://codex.wordpress.org/Template_Hierarchy
*
* @package WordPress
* @subpackage Twenty_Ten
* @since Twenty Ten 1.0
*/

get_header(); ?>

/* Run the loop to output the posts.
* If you want to overload this in a child theme then include a file
* called loop-index.php and that will be used instead.
*/
get_template_part( 'loop', 'index' );
?>


[/php]

We start with some comments. Notice that and see where the PHP starts and ends and you should be able to spot a few function calls. These essentially piece the page together bit by bit. For example…

[php]
get_header();
[/php]

…calls the first part of the webpage including all the HTML needed to set the page up and display the blog title and navigation. The only function that might not be immediately obvious is:

[php]
get_template_part( ‘loop’, ‘index’ );
[/php]

This function calls a template file called loop (loop.php) which contains all the information needed to get and display the list of posts on the front page. It also tells the function that this request has come from the index(homepage).

You can take a look at the loop.php template by opening it in the editor – pretty scary. But the loop is key to the way WordPress works.

What is the loop

Here’s what WordPress say about the loop:

The Loop is used by WordPress to display each of your posts. Using The Loop, WordPress processes each of the posts to be displayed on the current page and formats them according to how they match specified criteria within The Loop tags. Any HTML or PHP code placed in the Loop will be repeated on each post. When WordPress documentation states “This tag must be within The Loop”, such as for specific Template Tag or plugins, the tag will be repeated for each post.

Just to put that in to context, a standard front page would use the loop to :

  1. Get the last 10 posts in the wordpress database, sorted in date order
  2. For each of each post, get the headline, content and other related content and create the HTML to display it
  3. Repeats that process until all ten posts are done.

This might sound complicated but it’s actually got a lot simpler in WordPress 3.0. In earlier versions the loop would be part of the index page. Instead of the relatively simple file above, you would have all the loop content in there as well. This meant a lot more to pick through to sort out a page. You could argue that it’s just shifted the complex stuff to another file. But as we’ll see, it does make life easy for us.

The bottom line is that getting a grip on the loop is the key to tweaking a template. So let’s have a go.

Backing-up

Make sure you have the Main Index Template file loaded in to the editor

  • Copy all the content
  • Open your text editor and paste the content in to a new document.

This is your back up of the file. If anything goes wrong, you can just copy and paste the original file content back. I would advise that you do this at regular intervals. Just copy and paste in to the file and you’ll have a big file with each iteration of the file.

Adding another loop

Now that we are backed up we can edit a file. When working I tend to have two tabs open so I can switch between the backend, where I’m editing, and the front end to see the results.

So, in the backend make sure your in the editor and your looking at the Main Index Template file .

Just after:

[html]

[/html]

Add the following:

[php]
$my_query = new WP_Query('category_name=Featured Story&showposts=1');
while ($my_query->have_posts()) : $my_query->the_post();
?>


[/php]

Click the Update file button to save the changes.

The new loop content

The result should be that the title for the most recent post in the Featured Story category appears at the top of the page with the original list of posts below. It won’t work like a link, that comes next.

[php]
$my_query = new WP_Query(‘category_name=Featured Story&showposts=1′);
[/php]

The first line defines a variable or temporary store for information called $my_query (In PHP variables always start with the $ sign). The ‘value’ of that variable is the result of a new database query which uses the WP_Query function to ask for 1 post from the Featured Story category. By asking for one, you’ll get the latest one.

[php]
while ($my_query->have_posts()) : $my_query->the_post();
[/php]

The second line starts a loop. It says that while our variable has content (posts) spit out the content of the post so we can do something with it. In this case we display the title:

[php]

[/php]

Notice the mix of PHP and HTML here. The H2 tag formats the title but its the function the_title() that gets the content. The last bit…

[php]

[/php]

…ends the loop and lets wordpress get on with the rest of the page.

Because we stipulated one post in the query the loop only goes round once. You could try adding more posts to the Featured Story category and adjusting the showposts value to see how it handles more than one post.

Dealing with errors

oops, you've missed something

When you bash around with PHP you will eventually come across an message like this when you look at your page. Don’t panic! All it means is that you’ve missed a bracket or other element in the code. Juts go back and check through. The error message even gives you a clue to what and where you made the mistake.

Adding more content

We can pull in more content from the post using some simple template tags.

Add the following after the_title() code:

[php]

[/php]

So the the bit you’ve added should resemble

[php]
$my_query = new WP_Query('category_name=Featured Story&showposts=1');
while ($my_query->have_posts()) : $my_query->the_post();
?>



[/php]

The added excerpt

Update the file and have a look at the results. You should get the title with a short excerpt and a continue reading link. Check out the wordpress codex entry for the_excerpt() function to see what’s going on.

It’s that simple!

Making the title in to a link

The last part for today is to get the title to work as a link. Here’s the basic code:

[php]

The formatted title

Conclusions

By adding another loop at the start of the index page we are able to control what which posts are displayed. Using template tags means we can pick which bits of the post we display. The simple nature of the new WordPress 3.0 main index template means we don’t have huge amounts of code to wade through and if we panic we can simply delete the stuff we have added and the original template is intact.

We still have some issues of styling and we also want to add some thumbnails to our posts. But if you look at the list of posts on the front page you will notice we have another problem – the featured post we called in our new loop is repeated in the original loop content. So quite a few things to sort out.

So tomorrow we will look at how we can replace the old loop all together and how to avoid that duplication. Then, in the final part we’ll look at how we can add the thumbnail and style the content to improve the look and feel. For now, heres the complete file we are left with (with comments added by me) :

[php]
/**
* The main template file.
*
* This is the most generic template file in a WordPress theme
* and one of the two required files for a theme (the other being style.css).
* It is used to display a page when nothing more specific matches a query.
* E.g., it puts together the home page when no home.php file exists.
* Learn more: http://codex.wordpress.org/Template_Hierarchy
*
* @package WordPress
* @subpackage Twenty_Ten
* @since Twenty Ten 1.0
*/

get_header(); ?>

/* This is the new loop to display a featured story.
* It creates a variable and then loads all the posts that match the query.
*/

$my_query = new WP_Query('category_name=Featured Story&showposts=1');

/* Now it loops through the results and displays the content.
*/

while ($my_query->have_posts()) : $my_query->the_post();

/* Then it displays the title as a working link with formatting to
* match the Twenty Ten template.
* Then we display the excerpt.
* Then we finish the loop with the endwhile statement
*/
?>

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