Digital Journalism in the Cut-and-Paste Era
What tools do journalists use? Whether our imaginations have been marked more by Tintin or House of Cards, by Albert Londres or Edward Snowden’s accomplices, we easily imagine reporters with their inevitable notebooks or the more modern smartphone, we hear the clicking of the telegraph or the purr of the telex, we see a phone booth like in a film noir, a telephoto lens capturing a compromising scene, or even an encrypted hard drive or data lost in the clouds.
Compared with all these objects, scissors and glue do not come to mind as journalists’ essential accessories—they would even be criticized. Journalists playing with scissors and glue? That is flirting dangerously with plagiarism! Newspapers made of borrowed text, replicas, and copies? That would ruin the democratic ideal of the pluralism of information! When we think of the more highly regarded figures working in journalism, there is first the journalist-reporter—always in the field, following events where they happen, and also the journalist-author, always writing. It is clear that the work of a journalist stuck at a desk cutting and pasting pieces of text produced elsewhere is not exactly the ideal!
Yet scissors and glue play a significant role in the process of producing journalism, or at least, their metaphorical twins who populate our computer interfaces (copy / paste, CTRL-C / CTRL-V) do.
Shaping the News
These tools shape much of the information online. For example, copying is at the heart of aggregators, those platforms whose sole purpose is to retrieve content published elsewhere, then assemble and redistribute it, such as Google News, the most famous. These aggregators function automatically and on a large scale, but aggregation is also done manually, almost like a craft. It is sometimes called « curating » in an attempt to emphasize the expertise of the journalist who, like the curator of an exhibition, carefully selects pieces of information to gather into a collection. Depending on the case, aggregation and curation are practiced with greater or lesser propriety: there are copy-and-pasters who honestly reference the original creator (if this notion still exists) of the content they replicate, while others shamelessly appropriate content without even a hyperlink to indicate the source. In addition, ethnographic studies have shown that even journalists working for the websites of traditional media cut and paste a great deal.
In short, certain journalists practice ‘adapting’ the news on a large scale, so much so that it occupies a large part of their time. They select, edit and publish news agency feeds at a fast pace and publish articles written for the newspaper on the website. In any case, they are never (or very rarely) in the field, and they only produce original texts on the sidelines when they have time.
The preponderance of scissors and glue in manufacturing information online may be only temporary, as these production methods may be changing. Some news sites created by traditional media are now considered full-fledged separate media with their own editorial policy and original content: slow journalism, interactive experiences, etc.). But meanwhile, copying and pasting has kept its strange status: decried by information professionals (and the public) yet widely used.
Was it Better Before?
Has it always been this way? Were scissors and glue the journalist’s tools before computers? If so, how was copying and pasting considered? These are the questions that intrigued me. I wanted to gauge continuity and change with a sense of perspective, which the fascination with technology does not always allow us to do.
To answer these questions, diving into journalism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries helps expand our horizons. This dive happened as a result of a methodological pirouette that pushed me into the discourse that journalists employ about their own practices, by analyzing a corpus of journalism textbooks and theses by journalism students.
The results are clear: scissors and glue occupied a significant place in these books and theses. In a book entitled Le journalisme, published in 1892, Eugène Dubief describes the typical day of a Parisian editor:
“Nine o’clock in the morning; opened up an evening paper. The boys have come to clean the office. The large table in the shared editorial newsroom spreads out in front of us with its inevitable green felt top and piles of newspapers from Paris, the French provinces, Europe, America, and the colonies…newspapers that arrived in the last mail delivery or put in the box by the porters, all tidy, neatly folded and in duplicate. Some editors are already at their posts. They have taken the papers, they scan through them with an expert eye, a look that reads nothing and sees everything. Here and there, they ‘walk’ through the paper with scissors, making atrocious lines, they carve out holes, windows, cuts; these cutouts they shift to squares of varying lengths of writing paper and glue them on, or use sealing wafers or liquid glue.”
It’s a situation very similar to that which can be read in À travers la presse by Auguste de Chambure, published two decades later. Dedicated to the making of a newspaper, one chapter specifies in its first pages: « Upon the arrival of the editors, newsroom comes alive; bundles of newspapers on the table are unfolded and slashed with scissors then tossed down randomly; paper is crinkled, cutouts litter the ground. Volumes from the library are now lying around everywhere. Everyone is moving around, running to look for a document, then cuts, scribbles, glues and sends his ‘copy’ by the dumbwaiter.”
The editors are depicted with « a large pair of scissors in hand, » as in J.M.A. Mousseau’s L’envers du journalisme, published in Montreal in 1912. Sometimes, the scissors and glue pot are at the head of the table alongside other ‘arms of the trade’: the string to measure the length of articles, the Grand Larousse and the indispensible telephone (see Simon Arbelot, Journaliste!, published in 1954 in Paris). And the examples accumulate the more we look, until the 1950s both in France as well as in Quebec … Scissors and glue were thus used without misgivings.
Some precautions are of course necessary. At the present state of research, we cannot assert that these textbooks and memoirs are representative of French journalism as a whole, or whether they reflect a practice that was truly widespread or on the contrary more marginal. We also see some nuances emerge in several writings, different ways to relegate scissors and glue to the margins rather than giving them centrality. For some authors, they are the preferred tools of young journalists and are gradually abandoned as they progress in their careers when these information professionals instead work at nobler tasks like writing original articles. They are also sometimes presented as tools used primarily in small regional or provincial editorial offices (as opposed to the major newspapers in capital cities), which do not have access to all the information, to all the agencies, or the staff needed to fill the newspaper with original content. Other journalists suggest that they might be the preserve of a specific kind of job: the editorial assistant.
The exact contours of this phenomenon, its evolution over time, and as it relates to the organization of the professional corps of journalists still remain to be explored. But one conclusion is clear, especially when the research briefly recounted here is juxtaposed with, for example, a fascinating study of ‘virality’ in nineteenth-century American newspapers: copying and pasting did not need the invention of CTRL-C / CTRL-V, nor the emergence of web journalism and aggregators, to become an integral part of journalism and newspapers.
Credits image à la Une : CC Pixabay Geralt