The Three Tides of Jack Shafer’s Daily News Cycle

Most of the time when people talk about the so-called “24-hour news cycle,” they mean that news never stops — that it’s a stream of headlines and developments that flow constantly from cable TV and news sites.

Jack Shafer has a different view, one informed as much by his insomnia as his work as media critic for Slate. It came up last week when Slate Editor David Plotz announced that the online magazine had ended its long-running daily roundup of the day’s papers in favor of a new feature,  “The Slatest,” that would highlight developments three times a day.

In launching the Slatest, Plotz described Shafer’s interpretation of news as a daily cycle with three distinct parts — less like a stream and more like the ebb and flow of the tides. Plotz wrote (my boldface):

“Overnight, newspapers launch the news. They publish stories clarifying the events of yesterday; they break their own investigative stories; they print zeitgeist-defining feature articles and op-eds. The morning brings Phase 2, when Web media reacts to the news. Bloggers and other sites respond to the news that broke overnight, and newsmakers push back against or try to exploit these stories. Phase 3, the buildup, comes in the afternoon, as the events of the day unfold — congressional action, a presidential gaffe, turmoil in Asia. The media break this news, and analyze how it fits together with yesterday’s top stories. Opinion makers try to shape how the day’s events will play on the night’s cable shows and in tomorrow’s newspapers. The next morning, it all starts over again.”

When I e-mailed Shafer to learn more about this, he clarified that this is how he consumes news, not a definitive account of how it’s produced. Perhaps so, but this framework does help one understand how news works.

Anyone who has worked in a newsroom, or is a true news junkie, knows that news tends to follow the human routine. Institutions announce news during the business day; reporters track down sources and finally buttonhole them by dinnertime; bloggers read news stories posted late at night and discover facts and angles that others missed. News isn’t nonstop — it happens in waves: the initial story, then developments and reactions.

I e-mailed Shafer for more of his thoughts on the news cycle. This is an edited version of our exchange, but rest assured that the allusions to fishing and sex are his.

Steve Myers: Can you describe how you see the three parts of the news cycle? Is it based on how news is produced or how it’s consumed?

Jack Shafer: I don’t know about you, but I could eat all day. Instead, I try to restrain that animal impulse to just three meals. Likewise, I could read RSS feeds and Web sites and e-mail and newspapers and Twitter feeds continuously if there were no consequences. Instead, I try to impose a three news-cycle structure to my media consumption.

Blessed as I am with insomnia, I get up and read the front pages of the major dailies at about 2 a.m. every day. That’s cycle 1. After a morning swim and breakfast, I attack the print editions of the four dailies sent to my house (The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post and Financial Times) and fish through Google Reader for the best of the RSS catch that’s reacting to what the dailies published. I dip into the media stream again at about 1 or 2 at work to gauge the reaction to the reaction.

This routine varies. Sometimes my first media cycle is a normal 7 a.m., like most people, then at noon, then just before I come home or just after I get home.

What I’m basically trying to do is swim the media current as it flows. More frequently than not, a Twitter link or an e-mail or the shouts of Tim Noah down the hall at Slate’s offices in D.C. will alert me to some important news bump.
 
How is this different from the television-based cycle before the Web?
 
Jack Shafer: The television-based news cycle was traditionally premised on chasing what the dailies did. I’m not denigrating television news people, but acknowledging the difficulty they have in telling a story in 1 or 3 minutes compared to a newspaper reporter tossing down 1,500 words on a news topic. In the old days of the three networks, the meat of the nightly news was a sharply edited version of what the dailies or the wires put out, plus another couple of yards toward the end zone. The place where TV news always excelled was putting viewers there at the scene of visual news. Print has never caught up. The Web will, eventually.

Cable news changed the equation, but the nation didn’t become completely obsessed with cable news until the mid-’90s when Fox News and MSNBC got going, which was just about the time the Web permeated the news culture.

Do you think this cycle will compress more in the future, or is it dependent on people’s daily schedules and thus fixed?

Jack Shafer: I try to avoid predictions because I have a perfect record: I’m always wrong. That said, I think people are getting better at siphoning the news current for news that interests them by using news alerts and RSS feeds and subscribing to their like-minded Twitter buddies.

What we’re trending toward, I think, and please don’t hold me to it, is more discerning, more demanding consumers of news who demand 57,000 varieties of the news depending on their mood, the time of day, their attention span, their location, and the medium they’re using. It will be like the variety of wine you see in a Super Safeway, only bigger.

Should the different parts of the daily news cycle affect what news organizations publish at different times? For instance, if a news organization can push hard and get a big story online at 4 p.m., should it, or are news consumers and other media not looking for that type of story then?

Jack Shafer: Yes, yes, yes! Because if they can get beat on a story, they will. I really hate the chuckleheads who complain about the Web’s tendency to rush everything into print. Back in the days of Hearst and Pulitzer in New York City, they chased each other’s stories on the same day between editions!

So, yes, I think editors should strike while the iron is hot — and if they’re feeling cocky, hold the story for maximum impact. Of course there is a whole range of news consumer satisfaction to be found between premature ejaculation and coitus interruptus.

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