Covering breaking news on the Web

If they’re to remain relevant in the Digital Age, online news organizations must begin to seriously cover the news as it happens

This column appeared in the June 1997 issue of The American Journalism Review.

Should online news organizations cover breaking news?

If they want to remain relevant in the digital age — especially among a new generation of readers — they’d better get used to the idea.

Ben Compaine, a professor of telecommunications at Temple University, recently asked the students in his Cybermedia course whether they believed online newspapers would become the dominant provider of news and information on the local scene.

The students had serious doubts. The reason? The stale brand of news now being served up by online newspapers. “These very elaborate local newspaper Web sites are primarily static for 24 hours, with the only compromise being perhaps some AP updates,” Compaine says.

The students preferred sites such as MSNBC, which offers timelier, if often shallower, local news coverage. (MSNBC relies on NBC affiliates for local news.)

The students — bellwethers, perhaps, for the next wave of Net news — are dead-on in their predilections. What remains striking, now that the Web has begun to mature, is how few online newspapers take advantage of one of the Internet’s most compelling features: its immediacy.

But a new technology may force publishers to abandon their pulp mindsets and embrace the possibilities of push news.

“Push news” software products from Marimba, PointCast, Starwave and others are now beginning to deliver real-time, personalized news, sports and financial happenings directly to the computer screens of our instant-gratification society.

And if consumers can’t find breaking news from their online newspaper, they’ll simply go elsewhere. Already, users can turn to MSNBC, CNN Interactive, Wired News, CNet, Yahoo News and other “channels” for their news fix.

In short, a sea change in Internet news is brewing, and online newspapers had better prepare.

Multiple deadlines, greater interaction between the online staff and newsroom, and a different set of reporting skills are all in the offing — along with a jettisoning of some shopworn assumptions.

There’s no inherent reason why journalists must report stories only once a day. Online news should be about getting current news and information to people when they want it or need it, not when it’s convenient for a Web publication’s production cycle. If Hildy Johnson were around today, he’d be filing hourly updates from his laptop.

“If you look at newspaper deadlines, that’s an artificial deadline based on distribution needs,” observes Scott Woelfel, editor in chief of CNN Interactive. “Sometimes it’s more important to track stories minute by minute.”

Adds Valerie Hyman of the Poynter Institute: “In a way it’s a throwback to the old days when newspapers had three or four editions a day. It will require newsrooms to recruit staff members with an entirely different set of skills.”

Reporters with wire service skills will be highly prized in this new environment. Speed and crisp writing — without any compromise in accuracy — will carry greater value. Editors who can do a quick turnaround of writers’ copy will be sought after.

Now, all this is not to suggest that online news publications need to become mini-CNNs, staffed around the clock, updating dozens of stories in a never-ending orgy of timeliness. Nor is it to suggest that all stories ought to be first reported on the Web. Exclusive reports, investigative pieces and long enterprise stories are often better suited to print.

But I am suggesting that online newspapers need to establish themselves right now as the source for current news in their markets. If they abrogate this to others, they do so at their peril.

A few papers have already waded into the roiling waters of breaking news. Patti Breckenridge, assistant managing editor of electronic publishing for the Tampa Tribune, says: “Our reporters can file two or three paragraphs and then come back later to file an entire story. Or they can file early, as a good number of our reporters do on non-exclusive stories. Because our newsroom is staffed 16 hours a day with nearly 300 people, getting five to 10 local updates a day isn’t that hard to do.”

It’s important to emphasize that covering breaking news is not about being first. Scoops and bragging rights in a local news market are of zero importance to readers.

What matters to readers is staying on top of local or national events to separate fact from rumor, to add context, background, balance and perspective to events as they’re unfolding.

Whether it’s reporting a cult’s mass suicide, the downing of a jetliner, or the results of a critical local school board meeting, online publications need to bring their standards of accuracy, fairness and professionalism to this bright new medium.

There are perils here, however.

Will the premium being put on immediacy permit less opportunity for reflection and deliberateness on the part of reporters, editors and news subjects? Will restraint become an antiquated notion if Net news becomes wholly ratings-driven? As online news organizations move closer to a broadcast news model, will they fall victim to the same tabloid tendencies of local TV news stations that put a premium on getting the story first rather than getting it right?

Ultimately, news consumers will make a judgment about what kind of online news they want.

“With all the news choices that users have,” Woelfel says, “they’re going to have to decide if they want an ice cream diet — lots of fun and frivolity — or something more filling.”

JD Lasica
Written by JD Lasica
JD Lasica is an entrepreneur, author, journalist, photographer and blogger. | CONTACT