Reinventing the Newsroom

The Hourly Miracle Reconsidered — Plus Friday Quick Links

Posted in Creating Context, Cultural Change, Digital Experiments, Going Local, The And World by reinventingthenewsroom on March 13, 2009

Yesterday’s post sparked an interesting conversation with my friend and former WSJ.com colleague Michael. Michael was discussing the idea that reporters and editors are the last great generalists — you come in in the morning, get an assignment, learn as much as you can and then publish the best that you’ve got when your deadline arrives. From there, we were discussing how the Web has accelerated that to a breakneck pace and made the process iterative — leading to extreme (and extremely enjoyable) cases like covering Election Night and revising the same Web story 30 or 40 times.

But of course that’s not the only way to cover a story online — in fact, it’s a somewhat old-fashioned one, the wire service in Web clothing. There’s nothing whatsoever wrong with that, but as publishing tools have gotten better and more flexible, we’ve been given some terrific alternatives.

For example, you can turn my Election Night job inside-out — instead of creating a succession of camera-ready stories telling readers what you know now, start a conversation that will continue throughout the event in which you tell them each significant thing you learn. This is the liveblogging model, and it’s a great one for events like Election Night. (I was in Italy for the 2008 presidential election, where I stayed up until 3 a.m. listening to a streamed audio feed of CNN and reloading fivethirtyeight.com, which I kept trying to turn into a minute-to-minute liveblog by sheer force of will.) For long-running stories (Katrina or Madoff, for instance), a blog or topic page can create larger context for individual stories and other items, which ideally drives repeat visits and brand loyalty. (But beware the automated topic page — nobody likes getting dumped in a link farm.) The concept of beatblogging extends this idea further, and is an ideal way to build a connection between a reporter and his or her audience. (Because, as I kicked off this blog by saying, your best reporters should be micro-brands in their own right.)

What gives me pause about the conversation model of news is that it can be taxing for the reader who arrives in the middle — nobody likes to be the guy who walks in halfway through a great tale. As always with the Web, I think the answer is that ideally you do both. There will be readers who want to track a story in real-time along with the reporter and other readers, and readers who want a solid account of what’s known at a given moment, and you should serve them both. This isn’t redundant — the two can reinforce each other quite nicely.

Three quick links for a Friday:

At Nieman Journalism Lab, Tim Windsor asks a very good question: Why don’t more news sites link to things that have obvious link potential? As I commented on Tim’s post, I think this mostly happens with repurposed print content put online by a staff stuck with editing-and-publishing software that doesn’t give them much if any help. You can get to this unfortunate pass by having a paper-to-Web flow that’s automated and dumb or by having one that’s manual and exhausting, but it’s no fun either way. Missed links used to drive me crazy at WSJ.com, and there we had a full night crew of passionate folks, which is a lot more than many papers have. The problem was that our folks spent their nights shoving rocks uphill, and so the extras tended not to get done. It’s not an excuse for missing links, but having seen the problem firsthand I have sympathy for the journalists who miss them. The answer, in my mind, is to make sure papers have a system that lets journalists be journalists. That won’t solve the problem in itself, but it will get you to a point where it’s much easier to solve.

Sticking with Nieman (a consistently interesting and engaging blog), Joshua Benton chats with Andy Prutsok, publisher of the Norfolk Reflector, about life without the AP. Prutsok says his paper hasn’t missed the wire (or the $48,000 annual fee), in large part because he considers his franchise “100% local news,” and that his readers haven’t missed it: “Our readers couldn’t care less if we carry the same news that they can get off the evening news.” Sub “lots of other Web sites” for “the evening news” and you’ve got the situation a lot of Web papers are facing, and an answer they should consider. Andy Prutsok understands the rules of the And World and is using them to sharpen his paper’s focus.

At Recovering Journalist, Mark Potts looks askance at Hearst and the case of the Seattle P-I. Like most everyone in journalism, I’m keenly interested in how the P-I’s online-only life will unfold, and am rooting for them. But it seems like Hearst is making it harder than it should be for reporters and editors to sign on to what could be a pivotal and fascinating experiment. Journalism is hard enough work as it is.

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