Monday, December 04, 2006

Very dizzy busy work

The 24-hour online news desk is the worst idea for newspapers since publishers foolishly decided 10 years ago to put all their valuable content on the web for free.

On one hand, the 24-hour new desk proves publishers can come up with a fresh idea every decade, whether they need to or not. On the other, the concept is a disheartening strategic blunder with the potential to simultaneously degrade the print and online coverage at most newspapers for no discernable gain.

Unlike the online content giveaway, described here as the world’s longest running introductory offer, there’s still time to stop the industry’s stampede to create 24-hour news desks.

With any luck, the resources rescued from this ill-considered initiative could be deployed in a more productive manner. We’ll propose one idea in a moment. First, a bit of background.

The 24-hour news desk, which suddenly has been adopted everywhere from the New York Times to the Des Moines Register, dedicates groups of increasingly scarce reporters to continuously refreshing web sites with breaking news.

It makes sense for the New York Times to update its website if John Bolton quits the UN or for the Wall Street Journal to bulletin the $16.5 billion purchase of Mellon Bank. If these national news sites weren’t freshened for major events, they would become justifiably irrelevant in the era of the 24-hours news cycle.

But there’s no conceivable journalistic or economic reason for a company like Gannett to require its ever-dwindling number of reporters to continuously feed the web such routine stories as the eviction of mobile-home residents in Asheville, NC; a man attacking a game warden with a tree branch in Winneshiek County, IA, or an advance story on the inauguration of the governor of Hawaii that was posted 1 hour and 11 minutes before she was “expected” to take the oath of office.

Quickie web coverage seriously imperils the print product, because these down-and-dirty stories deprive reporters and editors of the time they need to consider – and report on – the major issues affecting their communities. If news staffs thinned by continuing economic cutbacks are stretched even thinner with busy work, who will write the compelling stories that merit the continued patronage of the print product by readers and advertisers?

The industry inadvertently undermined the value of the newspaper by making the decision more than a decade ago to give it away for free on the web. It is a modest consolation that newspaper sites generally present the most thorough, thoughtful and rational coverage on the web. If they start trivializing themselves with fender-benders and mattress fires, who will want to read them?

Quickie online coverage of inconsequential news won’t please traditional newspaper readers or attract the young, restless and wired consumers that newspapers need to sustain and build their multimedia franchises.

If you are wondering what might attract both traditional and new readers to newspaper web sites, take a look at the new city sites just launched by Ask.Com.

By typing in “Italian food” and your Zip Code, you can get a map showing all the restaurants in your neighborhood, as well as detailed reviews, menus and driving directions. In some cities, you can make online reservations, too.

You can locate nearby merchants, clubs and theaters – and even buy advance tickets to a performance. With a few more clicks, you can customize the map to tell your friends who is joining you for dinner, that it’s a surprise birthday party and where to hide in the restaurant.

Almost every newspaper has deeper community information and better reviews than Ask.Com ever will. The technology to index and display this data is easily and affordably accessible.

Newspapers shouldn’t have been beaten at their own game by Ask, the No. 4 search engine. But they were.

Now, Ask – like Google, Yahoo and others before it– is out to sell ads against newspapers in almost every significant local market . How’s that for a quickie news bulletin?


Blogger Newsosaur said...

From Fred Barbash, Medill School of Journalism, Northwestern University:

I was one of the first of a group of editors and writers who formed the Continuous News Desk at the Washington Post and I could not disagree with you more about the quality and necessity of such an operation.

I'm not certain what you've been reading, but the work of the CND, at the Post at least, was often indistinguishable from other stories but for the timing. We were (and they still are--I took the buyout and now teach at Medill J School) all senior reporters and editors precisely because of the need to maintain the quality of the work; We often had our own specialties. When we did not, we often collaborated with beat reporters and reporters on the scene of events, functioning to some extent as old fashioned rewrites.

Our research, and our results, showed that people coming to expected to see breaking news pretty quickly and would go elsewhere to get it if we failed to provide it. Of course, we had a threshold in terms of newsworthiness, but an important Supreme Court decision, a major disruption of traffic in the region, a blizzard, a particularly bad morning in Baghdad, the train bombings in London and Madrid; the Beslan school massacre; the appointment of new supreme court justices...I can't agree with you that we need to wait til the
morning's paper to report these things.

I enjoyed your argument nonetheless.

4:48 PM  
Blogger Newsosaur said...

From Charlie Madigan, editor emeritus, continuous news desk, Chicago Tribune via Romenesko:

While I understand your concerns about the impact of 24-hour news desks and respect your experience, I do believe he is about as wrong as he could be on this subject. Let me explain.

On the argument that filing quickly and frequently damages the pristine products that pop out of copy desks late at night, I would refer back to my UPI days, when no one had any money or ever expected to make any. When one covered a story, one filed all the time and frequently wrote thru at the end of the day AND scratched head long enough to develop an overnight treatment for afternoon newspapers.

A lot of my friends and I would argue that we worked a lot more effectively under the gun on breaking news stories than we would have worked had we seven or eight lazy hours to ponder the verities of the train wreck we were supposed to be writing about, or the presidential campaign, for that matter.

One thing we all have to realize at some point is that the day of the 1,200-word story, while it is not yet gone, is fading. Those who can tell it in 100, 200, 300, and tell it at 1,200, too, will be the survivors.

It amazes me that the skills my current employer seems to have valued the most during 27 years at The Chicago Tribune were those I honed at UPI. I remain very quick, very clear and very easy to read, whether in a 300-word editorial, an 800-word column or a 3,000-word summary of the Katrina disaster. I know lots of people at big papers (well, at least the used-to-be at big papers) who rose on the same skills.

Let's stop pretending we need every precious moment of the day to think and gather and recognize that model was fine for a world dominated by AM newspapers, but not fine in a world where there is so much competition. We need to be readable, accurate, fast, readable and accurate. It's what we do.

That would be my second point, competition. I am sorry that we no longer live in a world in which stories are filed by mail, in which we could afford to linger over our thoughts. Here in Chicago, I need more than both hands to count the competition for the Tribune's 24-hour news desk, which has been running at full speed for a year now. One has to realize that the battlefield is shifting from print products (which I believe will always have weight and relevance, if not as broad a reach) to electronic products.

Local news is what separates you from the big, fat content aggregators, the Googles and Yahoos and the like, who computerize news, but can't create their own. In a way, we are shifting back to a model that was familiar to our ancestors when cities like Chicago watched a half dozen papers slugging it out.

Finally, a romantic point. We on the typing and creative side of this business exist because the people have a right and a need to know what is going on. If we change from paper to pixels, that doesn't mean the people have given up on those rights and needs. It just means they are going to get it in a different way.

So I say bring it and bring it now. I want people to know the Chicago Tribune online is as dependable as the morning paper they trusted and depended on. It's just there all the time now.

7:21 PM  
Blogger Newsosaur said...

From Doug Abrahms

Amen. Newspapers' problem is not editorial content but lack of revenues from their websites. They have the best local websites in town but aren't capitalizing on them. Cutting reporters won't help that. And what's to stop Google or Yahoo from putting hiring those local reporters, putting up a little local content as a lead in to their local websites that are making money from advertisers?

8:39 AM  

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