‘Working at the speed of news, not the speed of the press’

As I recently wrote, newspapers can break news again, but some journalists are resisting the shift. Here in the UK, there is a feeling amongst some that this would turn them into little more than ‘wire reporters’. Their words not mine. They think that breaking news has to be sensationalist, shoddy and often, wrong. But why?

Alan Mutter took Omaha World-Journal to task for its poor online coverage of a recent shooting at a shopping mall. Alan wrote:

Even though newspapers are no longer part of everyone’s daily information-consuming routine, they still rank among the first places many people will turn during a powerful and emotional event like the Omaha shootings. If the newspaper delivers a timely, compelling and sensitive report, it has a good chance of winning new fans and influencing advertisers to ship more dollars their way. When it fails, as Omaha.Com did, it reinforces the concept that newspapers are irrelevant has-beens.

But the comments demonstrate some of this bias against breaking news, even though Alan took care to say that the coverage should be sensitive.

Chuck Kershner, who says that he spent 25 years as a photo-journalist with Reuters and UPI and now publishes a weekly in New York, said:

However, to confuse a newspaper with a wannabe wire service version on the internet is I believe unfair if Omaha’s ‘core’ business is newspapering not interneting.

Surely, their core business is journalism, not interneting or newspapering? And also, doesn’t it make sense to grow your business by smart use of the internet as a publishing and participation medium, doing things you can’t do in print?

Chuck also asserts that the New York Times has suffered as a paper since its focus has shifted to the internet. Have I got news for you Chuck, their focus has shifted to the internet because their business is shifting to the internet. I met the publisher of the International Herald Tribune last year, and their strategy was to grow the online business as quickly as possible. If they have five to 10 years to make that happen, he said the New York Times was OK. If they only had three to five years to do that, well, they might just be out of the journalism business, not just the ‘newspapering’ business.

I can understand the bias against breaking news, especially in the US where on screen graphics shout BREAKING NEWS and television news, especially local TV, can be really poor. But instead of breaking news – a term which comes with baggage – think timely, accurate information, and I think it puts a different cast on things. And let’s be clear and get away from the binary thinking of breaking news versus in-depth investigations. The internet allows both immediacy and depth. Breaking news does not have to be exploitative or sensationalist. You don’t have to engage in ‘breaking rumour’, as some of my former colleagues at the BBC called it. Credibility is still our greatest asset.

From the negative to a positive example, Mindy McAdams pointed out a great piece from the Carol Goodhue, the readers’ representative at the San Diego Union-Tribune. In the piece, Gathering news not only for the next day but for now, she said other news organisations asked of their breaking news team: “How do so few do so much so quickly?” The answer is:

Team members confer with their editors frequently, but they often edit postings for each other, and they don’t wait for assignments or debate whether to head out for a promising story.

Karen Kucher, one of the original members of the team and an assistant editor, said, “Our default is supposed to be to go.” …

She and another team member, Angelica Martinez, both said they’re constantly educating sources accustomed to the slower pace of newspapers. Martinez said, “It’s not a 5 o’clock deadline, it’s now – right now.”

On top of that though, they challenge the tawdry image of breaking news.

(Editor Tom) Mallory said, “I’ve never experienced more gratitude from readers for anything we’ve done in journalism than for the simple postings on the news blog, three or four paragraphs at a time, of reliable, confirmed information, sortable by area.”

They also use their blogs to improve their journalism, scanning comments for follow up questions. This is a must read piece chock full of not only the how’s but also the why’s of creating a breaking news team.

Mindy was tipped off to the Union Tribune column by Michael Grant at the blog The Moderate Voice. He was gobsmacked that journalists would ask the question of how can so few do so much so fast. Michael says:

For 500 years, newspaper journalists had 24 hours to work with in any given news cycle, and it was unthinkable to expect them to do more. Morning papers had their staffs, and evening papers had their staffs. With all that time, it was reasonable that newspaper guys would forget exactly how fast journalism is designed to work. … To journalists now working for online news teams – the U-T’s was created in May, 2005 – it must be like a really cool rediscovery of their natural speed, and how easy it is to do journalism at 150 mph.

As a journalist, the possibility of doing journalism at 150 mph was one of the things that excited me about blogging and the technology that supports it. Granted, just as with a car, the margin for error is less the faster you go, but that is why you have editorial standards and process in place, and the Union-Tribune shows hows it’s done.

Blogging technology allows almost friction-less filing from the field. I’m pushing to use blogging APIs for remote access for our new CMS because it will ease publishing for field journalists and speed publishing for all of our journalists and we can use light-weight off-line blogging tools like Flock, MarsEdit or Ecto, which I’m using to write this.

Veron Strachen, a digital native and colleague of mine at the Guardian, said that in the past, newspaper journalists used to work at the speed of the press. The Guardian is moving to 24/7 working, which is a major shift. Now, with the internet as a global publishing platform, Veron said that we’ll be working not at the speed of the press, but at the speed of news.

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