Breaking News Is Back in Style

Editor’s note: This article is the first of a two-part series based
on Poynter faculty members’ visits to print and TV newsrooms this
spring. Their goal was to learn more about what news organizations are
doing to develop their online products. This article, along with the one to
follow, is an analysis of the insights they collected. For more
information on the metholodogy of the faculty study and to see which
news organizations participated, see the sidebar below.

As newspapers and TV stations rush headlong to bolster their online
offerings, some are blogging, some are not; some embrace citizen
content
and comment unfiltered, others say they are not going there. Everyone,
though, wants breaking news to be a core component that will
prompt visitors to return to their sites time after time.

How to
do breaking news online isn’t so obvious. Some organizations want
many of their reporters to add the quick post to their
repertoire. Others are employing a variant of the “get me
rewrite” approach, handing off notes and information to online
producers. Still others leave it to a small, dedicated online
staff to do the online version and let reporters, especially on big
stories, work in their traditional rhythm. What if you dash out
of a trial for a quick file and can’t get back in?

The
implications for storytelling are big. Reporters and editors are
getting in touch with, or discovering for the first time, their inner
wire-service muses. For breaking news online, the inverted pyramid is back — short, quick,
unembellished. At many papers, telling a crime or trial story
that way in the print edition has been deemed dull and passé –
reporters instead look for the telling detail and entrance from an
angle.

Maybe Poynter is going to have to start teaching “post-narrative writing,” Pat Yack, editor of the The Florida Times-Union, mused to me over lunch at the recent ASNE convention. (My colleague, Chip Scanlan, in fact, had a consulting gig earlier this year at Yahoo!, where the key unit of composition is the single-paragraph summary with links).

The same dynamic is very much at play in photojournalism, my colleague, Kenny Irby, tells me. Not so long ago, the photographer on assignment was trying to get one best
image — or a couple of telling images. Now the job may include a quick
post to the Web or capturing an extended gallery of images that tell a
story. The assignment might also include shooting some
video. This is not impossible, but not without bumps: the
photographer on the fly may not be a discerning editor, and multi-tasking
can be a formula that yields several distinct pieces of mediocre work.

In
television culture, the challenge is even bigger. Reporters and
producers are proficient at writing scripts and can ad-lib 45 seconds
from the scene of an event in a way print folks could not hope to. But
to file breaking news in writing directly to the Web may be a new trick
even for accomplished and experienced professionals.

Pull back
from the trenches, peruse the sites and it is clear that news organizations
have (mostly) gotten over resistance to scooping themselves. But
more broadly, in embracing the Web, they are altering an internal culture
long organized around “the daily miracle” in the case of a newspaper or
a crescendo at scheduled broadcast time for television stations.

This
also means conceding that more and more news, starting now and going
forward, will be consumed in short bursts, often at work through the
course of the day, rather than in the construct of a leisurely
newspaper read or 30 minutes of continuous news broadcast watching.

The
new basic skills for this phase of the Internet era start with story
recognition. Now, an event or development likely to be reported
elsewhere is breaking news; a variety of solid trend stories or
featurized treatments are not.

Next comes finding a multi-platform comfort zone, which may not be so easy for individuals or newsrooms. Bill Keller, executive editor of The New York Times, has said that his vast 1,200-person news operation can accommodate
some editors and reporters wedded to print and inclined to stay that
way. Our listening tour found a number of editors who concede
that, in their newsrooms, pockets of resistance to working on two
platforms remain. Those editors said they plan to work around the
hurdle.

Others take a blunt line with
newsroom staff: They make it clear that online contributions and dexterity will play in
evaluations and promotions. With that in mind, it seems likely that the number of print-only jobs is in for a steady decline.

To put the matter more positively,
the breaking-news boom creates a demand for professionals who can write
lean and basic stories quickly and accurately.

It is at this point that some skeptics are throwing up caution flags. Barney Calame, a longtime Wall Street Journal editor and current New York Times
public editor, said recently at Poynter that he is trying to keep an
open mind. But at a minimum, he said, maintaining standards with
quick posts and details to follow shapes up as a challenge.

Edward Wasserman, a professor of journalism ethics at Washington and Lee University and columnist for The Miami Herald,
recently took a more prosecutorial approach to the wholesale embrace of
a multi-platform model. Doesn’t this amount to “a bold new push
for reporting that’s hasty, fragmented and half-baked?” Wasserman asked.
Potentially, he argued, this multitasking will worsen working
conditions for reporters and end up “diverting energies away from the
kind of richly detailed, thoughtful reporting that exemplifies the best
of journalism.”

Wasserman’s column prompted a quick rejoinder, first in memo form, later in print, from Miami Herald executive editor Tom Fiedler. Suggesting that Wasserman was spending too much time in his bucolic
Virginia classroom and too little in real-world newsrooms, Fiedler countered:
“Providing news when and how readers want is in harmony with our pledge
to serve their interests. We’d be Luddites not to adapt.”

The
news organizations we surveyed would unanimously agree with
Fiedler: providing breaking news online is worth the difficulties it poses. They didn’t eagerly volunteer ethical dilemmas or
painful mistakes from premature postings. Still, there was an
undercurrent of Wasserman’s concerns, expressed as questions:

  • Does
    having an editor or two look at breaking news as it goes online amount
    to adequate quality control?  Or should the editing resources of
    the legacy organization be tapped more fully and creatively?
  • Is
    there a protocol when a big story breaks or can organizations proceed
    for at least a while longer defining good practices on the fly?
  • Is
    it realistic to accept slightly relaxed threshold for the Internet –
    post now; amplify, clarify or correct later?  Others told us they
    were at pains to move gradually and incrementally with constant focus
    on being sure slipshod reporting is not creeping into the online report.

Some
of those concerns may be embedded in the matter of online
corrections

Tales of one-man-band reporters who write and wield a still or video
camera abound these days. Still, that kind of versatility remains
optional in most places.
Should a different correction policy apply — or
does that concede a two-tier definition of quality and
verification? Technology makes it easy to revise or even delete a
posted report, but that has a flavor of corner-cutting.

A much
broader concern envisions the wholesale migration of breaking news and
some other material to the Web a couple of years hence. Editors
are beginning to think about how the morning print product or evening
newscast might be remodeled, but we did not hear anyone boasting an
answer yet.

*        *       *

The widest variation we observed was in staffing patterns for the online push.

Of
course, the complete multimedia reporter (or editor) is a person very
much in demand, but that comes with a couple of quick qualifiers.
Getting highly skilled in the technology is not essential — it may
even be
a distraction. Beyond the basics of filing, online technicians and
specialists can take care of most of that. On the other hand, being
versed in changing patterns of
media consumption — sampling as a reader/viewer/user what is new and
effective out there and beginning to think about storytelling adapted
to the Web — are all pluses for newcomers who want to get with the
program.

Tales of one-man-band reporters
who write and wield a still or video camera abound these days. Still,
that kind of versatility remains optional in most places. An
exception may be mature, fully converged operations with print,
television and the Internet entwined. In those places, management may hope,
for instance, that a print reporter could at least answer two or three
questions from a television anchor on air.

One emerging pattern,
especially at larger news organizations, is to put a very senior
editorial hand or two high in the online structure. That reflects
a caution about what goes out under the brand name, hewing as closely
as possible to legacy standards in breaking news posts.

 If a desire to build a breaking news report online is universal, there is
a wide range of where news organizations are or even how the goals are
defined.
At the
other end of the spectrum, some online operations continue to have the
rebel/skunkworks feel that was typical in the first decade of newspapers’
online operations. We still found some editors from the
ain’t-too-proud-to-beg school, who prowl the newsroom, courteously
soliciting story contributions.    

At one paper,
online-only reporters call themselves “the news rats,” operating
independently from the main newsroom. At another, we found a one-person
hit team writing and producing as many as 15 stories each morning and
editing them throughout the day. Help — and a more central position
in the newsroom — is on the way, the online producer said.

Most typically,
newsrooms are building systems on the fly, allowing reporters to hand
off rough feeds to online editors/producers who can complete the
work. That’s where wire-service experience or familiarity with a call-in/rewrite system comes in handy.

The range of staffing
practices also underscores how transitional the breaking news effort
is. Editors told us not all the holdouts are older
reporters. Many embrace the chance to do something new. Veteran
online staff, we were told, paradoxically, may have an attachment to
how things have been done out of the spotlight for the last decade and
feel discomfort as they move into the mainstream of newsroom operations.

If
a desire to build a breaking news report online is universal, there is
a wide range of where news organizations are or even how the goals are
defined. On a sleepy summer news day recently in Florida’s Tampa Bay area, I
found nothing breaking but a car crash on the midafternoon St. Petersburg Times and Tampa Tribune sites.

“24/7″ is a catchy slogan, and at The New York Times and The Washington Post
– both with international online audiences — a continuous all-day
news desk is a reality. But for even good-sized metros, it is a live
question whether or not there’s much of a point posting while the majority of the
audience is asleep, or during evening hours when traffic has fallen
drastically from daytime peaks.

The borders for breaking content are still being defined. The New York Times
typically has an evening post of a story or two from the next day’s
feature section. When the The New York Times Book Review (a special case
because there is small advance distribution to the books trade) did a
survey to identify the greatest novel of the last 25 years, the entire
package was posted online 10 days before print subscribers saw it.

I
experienced the push and pull of these decisions close to home recently
when a plea and sentencing was announced for Debra LaFave, a dishy
teacher who had seduced a 14-year-old student. My former St. Petersburg Times colleague, Sue Carlton,
had a bona fide scoop, an exclusive interview with the victim’s
mother
. It was posted minutes after the decision, in advance
of the 6 p.m. local newscasts. I dashed off a quick
congratulatory e-mail in praise of the story and the timing of the
post, breaking the taboo of “scooping ourselves.”

Thanks,
Carlton wrote back, “That’s nice to hear — especially from a
mentor. But I must confess I didn’t want it on the Web today, I
wanted to break it in the paper tomorrow. I know, I know — I’m
old school.”

NEXT IN THE SERIES:  Ten Toes in the Multimedia Waters

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