The obligatory and the original: 3 things I learned from our week as Romenesko

In the eight-plus years I’ve worked with Jim Romenesko, I’ve spent some time talking with him, more time emailing with him, and — most of all — I’ve admired and observed how he does what he does. But last week, for the first time, I experienced it firsthand when Jim took some well-deserved and unprecedented time off.

In the process I learned three things about content curation:

  • The balance between the obligatory and the original is critical.
  • What you exclude is as important as what you include.
  • Speed kills, but slowness is a painful death of its own.

Lesson #1: The balance between the obligatory and the original is critical.

The first lesson confronted me almost immediately on Monday, as I sorted through a dozen or so stories at 5 a.m. to prep for Steve Myers — the real fill-in for Romenesko last week.

There were certain posts that had to be published on a blog that chronicles media; ignoring them would be a disservice to readers, yet publishing them would accrue little benefit. Their absence would be more noteworthy than their presence.

For example, this post was necessary: Gannett’s first quarter profits were down. The drop in profits was not surprising, it was not news that people needed to get from us specifically, but it was important as a piece of the business puzzle that we put together over time, with more pieces coming later in the week as other quarterly reports were released. Curation is often incremental, with posts that are necessary, but not sufficient.

Any blog could easily spend all day publishing the obligatory and miss the original. We almost did on Monday, but were saved by a Pulitzer cartoon we had commissioned, and Romenesko’s email interview with the Sarasota editor whose help wanted ad captured our attention and whose dream came true that day.

Originality in curation comes in part from selection, not compression — choosing an aspect to feature that aligns with your interests and audience, rather than summarizing someone else’s view. (You can tell a post is “compressed” if it effectively substitutes for the source post.) Along with the tone, writing style and packaging, this originality creates “voice.” In aggregate, it evinces editorial judgment. If the banal outnumbers the blissful, readers will follow their bliss elsewhere.

Lesson #2: What you exclude is as important as what you include.

Spending an average of 30-45 minutes a post — finding and reading material or reporting on it; crafting the highlights; packaging it with related links — means you produce about 12 posts a day, plus about twice that many tweets.

Most days, there is vastly more content than you can highlight, so the challenge is deciding what to tweet, what to post, and what to bypass. Readers will attribute motives to whatever you ignore, believing you are biased, oblivious or out of touch. Your best defense is a good offense: Define your beat explicitly and acknowledge others who pick up what you miss.

Be biased by your focus. If content falls in the center of your frame, post it. If it falls in the wide-angle view, tweet it. If it falls outside, move on or save it for a slower time or day. Consistency in these decisions determines your audience and your editorial mission. Inconsistency confuses readers.

As the media landscape has shifted, Poynter has panned a broader territory and considered: Do we cover Google the way we cover The New York Times? How about Amazon? Apple? Which new publishers or distributors of content are central and which are marginal to journalism’s interests?

Where do you point the lens?

If you shift focus too quickly or tilt, nothing is visible.

The clearer your focus, the less you may be haunted by visions of what falls outside the frame. Most often, the complaint I hear is that we ignore broadcast news unless it is about network anchors or cable coverage. This is true, even though I worked for seven years at a local TV station before coming to Poynter and two of our contributing faculty writers managed broadcast newsrooms. We have integrated local TV news into our Twitter stream more easily than our site. It’s a choice that unfortunately reinforces the perception that Poynter is print-centric.

Lesson #3: Speed kills, but slowness is a painful death of its own.

News moves at the speed of 140 characters. So, if you’re covering news, you must move as fast as the first tweet. Think Twitter first, at least with the basic information. The next challenge is to break away from your stream long enough to craft a quick, meaningful post that identifies the kernel of truth and importance in an unfolding event. That’s the originality you can share on Twitter and elsewhere. Five minutes — or 15 — can place you on the wrong end of a retweet, at the bottom of the search results, or buried in an email inbox.

Still, as the local highway patrol officer would say: speed kills. We made some mistakes last week — misspelled names, overlooked distinctions — errors we would not have made with an extra few minutes of attention. Those minutes matter.

There’s an inverse relationship: the slower you are to the news, the higher the bar on originality. If you’re late — even by 15 minutes — you better be great.

Business Insider deputy editor Joe Weisenthal puts it this way to The Atlantic Wire:

“There are plenty of smart and thoughtful people out there who take their time and say something reasoned, but what’s really hard is the video game: Getting it fast but also being smart.”

Romenesko and all the best curators get it, and they get it right first.

Steve Myers contributed to this piece.

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