Please Release Me: A day in Scoop's inboxRobert Kelly
Years ago I had a flatmate who was working as a new reporter and I remember asking him what Scoop was. He responded, “Oh they just do press releases.” I have been aware of Scoop since then but had never given any thought to how it worked, and that someone was doing that work. I had no idea what the scale of that “just” was until years later.
More recently a friend characterised Scoop as “hard left”. While that label would be somewhat unfair to the journalism on the site as well, it is particularly untrue of the press release process. What we do is quite separate to the journalistic elements of the site. We provide the tools for the conversation, published as they arrived and tagged and presented in the appropriate channels. We don’t take a position on the releases and we don’t edit them, we present them. We sit at the coal face of public of information and chip, chip, chip away.
I started at Scoop two months ago and I was quickly trained and thrown to the ravening beast that is the Scoop inbox. It never actually stops but it does quieten overnight. The tide of information begins to rise at about 7 in the morning and doesn’t ebb until late evening. Different times of day have their own rhythms. The morning is characterised by Government and party political releases while the afternoons have a stronger regional council and business focus. (A thought must also be given to the community group representatives sending out press releases at four in the morning.) Regardless of when they arrive all of these releases require the same treatment.
The triage process begins with the removal of the obvious trash: scams, advertisements and obscure business newsletters are the first to go. Then the more painstaking approach begins. Op-eds and submitted articles are set aside for when there is time. Then, release by release, we sift what will be published and what will not. This is not something that can be done by a programme, it requires intuition, discussion and interrogation. While you do have to learn the formatting and programming aspects of the role, the filtering and selection process takes longer and much of it can only be learnt through experience.
Our main approach is to publish as much as possible but there are exceptions. The two major disqualifiers of a release for publication are blatant advertising and hate speech. The former is a distinction that we constantly workshop and don’t always get right. While this grey area exists, there is an obvious difference between a release announcing a new product or acquisition and one which tries vainly to connect a product with the news of the day. This is a difference which you learn over time until you really just know in your gut. Essentially it comes down to public interest: is this information useful? Is it of value to anyone apart from the advertiser? The audience is a useful arbiter of what should go up and what shouldn’t.
The second line is a much harder one to define. What is hateful to one person isn’t necessarily so to someone else. The subjectivity of what counts as hate speech is something which we constantly have to keep in mind. It requires the building of a process to make sense of what you are comfortable publishing. Creating criteria for releases was the only way I could see of divorcing my process from my own politics and sensibilities. My criteria are coherence, tolerance, public interest and accuracy. A release can not meet all of these things and still be unproblematic, but anything which is accessing a highly controversial or painful topic must meet all four for me to be comfortable with it. This process isn’t so much a concern with larger organisations or interest groups, although there are moments. What mainly requires this negotiation is content from individuals or small but very vocal organisations. They are important voices in the public conversation and size should not diminish value, but by the same token I will not publish words designed to unfairly and cruelly attack or vilify an individual or a group.
It can be a fluid process though. Several weeks ago my colleague Lyndon had to explain over the phone that the reason a group’s releases hadn't been published was that “you seem to have become a lot more hateful recently”, which while entirely true is a difficult thing to tell someone who earnestly believes in their viewpoint.
Attribution is another consideration that we take very seriously. How the information is presented is important. We receive a lot of material from PR companies and always do our best to attribute the actual source. Apart from the one PR company which is adamant that releases be attributed to them rather than the firms they represent. There are hundreds of these idiosyncrasies that you have to learn; when taken together they form the dialect of the editor inbox. Two weeks ago we received an email from a PR firm saying that one of their clients had said things in a release they shouldn’t have and a major international celebrity’s lawyers were threatening action. We were under no obligation to take the release down, but there was someone on the end of a phone somewhere in tears, so of course you take the thing down.
This process of discussion and interrogation means that the information published on Scoop is as democratic and as open as we can possibly manage.
The press release process
at Scoop is not journalism, but it is news and it is also
something which in no way could be done by an algorithm. It
requires interrogation, tenacity, pragmatism and compassion
in equal measures. After a day of doing it feels like
you’ve been battered in the brain with a rubber hammer but
it’s a very human process, publishing very human stories.