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A week of glorious trivia

by
08 July 2016

istock

Cute beats news: what Facebook thinks its readers prefer to objective reporting

Cute beats news: what Facebook thinks its readers prefer to objective reporting

THERE have been other things going on somewhere in the background this week, but that just makes the utter shameless brilliance of John Bingham’s story on clergy vesture all the more apparent.

Take one amendment to the most boring piece of technical legislation on the Synod’s agenda, add in a conversation with a bored and mischievous priest, and a well-judged question to an anonymous spokesman, and you have one of the finest headlines ever to appear on the Telegraph’s website: “Church of England bans mankinis in the pulpit.”

This is undoubtedly true — right at the end there is a quote from an official spokesman confirming it — but the threat appears to have originated with Canon Giles Fraser, who boasted of having celebrated the eucharist wearing a Chelsea shirt underneath his cassock, but was horrified at the thought that a bishop might celebrate in the garb of a rival football club. Canon Fraser described himself as “a staunch traditionalist” when it comes to vestments.

This is a wonderful example of the news story which is entertaining and memorable and contains no news whatsoever. The legislation that is proposed is, as everyone knows, something that simply regularises what many of the clergy do already. I don’t believe anyone has ever been prosecuted for wearing a cheesy jumper while celebrating.

The other pieces of legislation listed in the Bingham story are “a slight simplification to the process of selling off ancient glebe land — historic tracts of pasture traditionally used to support livings for the clergy — and rules on altering parish boundaries or names”. Aspiring journalists should learn from this that there is nothing too boring or trivial to write about entertainingly.

 

WHETHER there will be any journalistic jobs to aspire to is another matter. Even before the referendum, the ad-supported media business was heading for the rocks. An example is supplied by the International Business Times, a rather strange outfit, which, for some time, employed a former Lambeth Palace spin doctor, the Revd George Pitcher, to edit its web paper.

It also bought up Newsweek magazine, which older readers may remember as an international rival to Time magazine. A press release announced a “restructuring” that “will allow us to continue to support the growth of IBT Media and Newsweek”. This is a remarkable example of newspeak. What “supporting the growth” means in numbers is that a newsroom that had 85 people in January now has 23.

The only parts of the operation left are the entertainment, sports, and breaking-news desks — although why anyone would want to get breaking news from there I cannot imagine, unless it’s pure inertia.

I spent most of the week glued to Twitter, which may have left me about ten minutes on the big stories, but was otherwise an excellent way to pick up a wide range of breaking news in a week when there was far too much of it.

 

EVEN in catastrophic times such as these, it is worth remembering that most people don’t care very much about news stories at all. Facebook, on which many publishers had pinned their hopes, has just tweaked its algorithms so that people who log on there will see less news of the sort that journalists supply, and more of the gossip from their friends and family which they want to read.

This decision has no political background: it is based entirely on Facebook’s need to keep people reading so that they can be shown advertising. Apparently, people prefer to read about kittens.

 

SOMETHING of the same tactic can be seen at the Mail Online, where I have had a script counting Kardashians and their body parts every hour for the past three weeks. In the week of the referendum, I added the word “Brexit”, and, sure enough, that was the most popular term in the run-up to the vote and afterwards.

Because my script reads all the words on the page, including the ones that the reader never sees but which are there to entice search engines, it records some incredibly high readings: at one stage on the morning of the vote, the word “Brexit” was counted more than 4000 times on the page, presumably to ensure that it was on top of any Google rankings.

But, in the following week, as the pound slid, both main political parties were convulsed in civil war, and the European post-1989 settlement threatened to come apart, normality reasserted itself. By 28 June there were more Kardashians than “Brexits” on the page again, and, though the Kardashian count jumped up and down like a stock market — at one stage falling as low as 24, at another time climbing to 130 — historians will record that, for most of last week, the readers of the Mail Online had more news of the Kardashians than they had of boring old politics.

So, what’s there to worry about?

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