Of IPhones and Iran: Thoughts on Batch vs. Real Time
NYU Local founder (and Outside.in intern) Cody Brown offers a very interesting dissection of print and online journalism from a different point of view, one that raises all sorts of intriguing questions while sidestepping a lot of unproductive debates. Brown is interested in the very different processes by which print and online journalism are produced, and how those processes shape a news organization’s brand. Basically (and you can check for yourself to see if my gloss of his argument misinterprets or oversimplifies anything), he calls print a batch process in which chunks of information are turned into carefully written, rigorously fact-checked output, while calling online a real-time process in which stories are processed on the fly by many contributors, evolving (sometimes in messy ways) as more and more information emerges. The print process creates stories that are the famous “first draft of history,” while the online process creates information that’s so mutable that calling it a first draft of anything seems like a misunderstanding of the model.
To me, Brown’s key insight is that in a print/batch model, the messy process of newsgathering is hidden away, and newspapers (he uses the New York Times as his example) can present their stories as authoritative, aspiring to be the “voice of God.” The online/real-time model necessarily lays the newsgathering process bare, with its occasional false starts and missteps and backtracking and changes in emphasis out there for anybody to see. That undermines the idea of stories being authoritative and reveals the paper as a voice that’s all too human. In Brown’s view, that’s a huge and potentially fatal brand problem for a paper like the Times.
It’s a perspective that unlocks something I agree is at the heart of a lot of papers’ problems in adapting to the online world. That said, I don’t think things are as black and white as Brown portrays them. The challenge for the Times isn’t to go from a batch process to a real-time process, but for the Times to do both while keeping the two processes from entangling each other. That’s still an enormous challenge, but it shouldn’t be an existential one.
Not every reader is served by the real-time process of online newsgathering; some want the authority of batch-processed journalism. But this isn’t just about different segments of an audience. It also should be noted that the same process won’t serve the same reader all the time. For example, I’ve avidly followed details of the new iPhone and the latest news from Iran in real time, and been less interested in the day-old stories about them that were produced through batch processing, no matter how well-crafted and authoritative those stories were. But when it came to the overhaul of the Fed, I wanted to read a “finished” story, and had no interest in following events in real time. As one of Brown’s commentors noted, the Times has pursued both courses in covering Iran, with snippets of news coming into The Lede alongside more traditional takes that have evolved into print stories. As is so often the case in digital-age journalism, papers will have to do both to meet the demands of audience segments that want different things.
Despite such reservations, I think Brown’s key insight is enormously valuable, and a great starting point for papers to think about the challenges they face. A lot of papers have gotten their batch and real-time processes hopelessly entangled and let themselves be distracted by arguments about which process is “better” or which is “real” journalism. Those papers need to put aside such cultural distractions and focus on the way forward. To me, the way forward is to bring high journalistic standards to the real-time process, while understanding that isn’t the same as simply applying batch-process standards. Rather, the discussion should begin by saying “this is how the real-time process works — what standards should our organization apply within it?”
Brown is absolutely right that the real-time process is far more transparent, but I don’t see that it needs to be injurious to the Times’s brand. Within the bounds of responsibility — keeping internal disputes private, protecting sources, not disclosing off-the-record material — I think a more-transparent newsgathering process would make most readers think more highly of their paper, not less. It’s true that the New York Times would no longer be the “voice of God,” as Brown puts it, and that would indeed be a big cultural change. But being the voice of the New York Times would still be pretty good.