‘I left daily journalism at exactly the right time’

By Paul Wilson
Paul Wilson has worked at three daily newspapers and is a former managing editor of EveryBlock.com. He’s now regional sales manager with TownNews.com, which provides technology solutions to news publications.

Days like Thursday make me think I left daily journalism at exactly the right time — even though I did so without realizing it.

On Thursday morning, the nation was abuzz awaiting the Supreme Court ruling on President Obama’s landmark health care legislation. News outlets, armed with tools allowing them to quickly break news in ways inconceivable even 15 years ago, obsessed over whom would be the first to report (or perhaps, more accurately, repeat) the decision announced in Washington.

Shortly after 10 a.m. EDT, CNN reported that the law had been overturned. Other news outlets, notably Fox News Channel, made a similar mistake in those crazy minutes. But CNN held out longest, waiting seven minutes to pull its initial report back and (accurately) tell its viewers that the law was upheld by a 5-4 margin.

Being wrong on reporting at a key moment like that is devastating, and CNN is in turmoil as rivals mock the mistake.

Still, I can’t help but think that something like this was bound to happen in a news environment where many media organizations can’t wait seven seconds – let alone seven minutes – to get the story right. It’s possible that what happened at CNN could have happened to any news outlet or, at least, many of them. This phenomenon, no matter what you think of the technological advancements in recent years, is a problem. We’ve moved to the point where immediacy is more important than accuracy, if Thursday morning is any judge. And that’s terribly disturbing. Which brings me back to my original point …

My last newspaper byline came in March 2008 at The Columbus Dispatch in Ohio. After more than five years as a reporter and four more in student media, I signed on with a Chicago tech startup, where I would work for two years. In making the decision to leave newspapering, I was giving up a part of my identity, but, practically, it was a good decision given the struggles newspapers were facing.

I might have been more right on the practicality of leaving than I knew at the time. A few things happened shortly thereafter that seem to have changed the rules of daily journalism – I’m guessing to a point where I might not have enjoyed the work.

One big change had little to do with technology. The first signs of what would turn out to be the worst recession in generations appeared in late 2007 and early 2008. News organizations were far from immune — and some were particularly bad off. Conglomerates that owned some of the largest news outlets nationwide had fallen under the same spell as the entire country in the 2000s. Those companies didn’t judge the economy at the time for the junk-food high that it was, and proceeded to over-leverage themselves with acquisitions. After the economy nearly fell off a cliff in September 2008, media companies’ debt combined with the recession and growing digital competition led to thousands of layoffs in U.S. newsrooms. /CONTINUES

The second change had been bubbling for years. Most major newspapers made the leap to putting content online first in the early 2000s. Big, breaking news stories would go online during the day, and staffs would update them with a final version in print the next morning. Updating the website in addition to creating content for the print edition was extra work, but it was manageable, and totally prudent. Still, most stories appeared first in print, and anything that went online faced comparable demands on accuracy that a story in print would.

It seems that after I left daily journalism, those demands started changing in a big way.
That’s when “deadline is now” became a mantra in newsrooms, for most stories, and not just for the breaking news. Worse still, reporters and newsroom staffs generally were under increased pressure to advance stories throughout the day, to the point where very minor updates were demanded – even if they weren’t verified. And, remember, this was happening in the midst of major staffing reductions.

More with less, indeed.

It’s around this point that accuracy started giving way to immediacy, in my eyes. Unlike hard copy, online content can be easily corrected if something is inaccurate. If you were a reader who saw the story online when it was wrong – and didn’t check back later – well, then, buyer beware in many cases. Worse, the proliferation of bloggers, aggregators and individuals who share links exploded, meaning more people could easily stumble upon incorrect reporting without ever getting corrected information. The blogger or aggregator might innocently spread a link, riff on the topic and never notice or note later corrected information.

It’s hard to say if the third thing that happened was an offshoot of No. 2 or something that directly accelerated it: Twitter.

Founded in 2007, Twitter didn’t really get widespread traction until 2008-09. The ability to break news with 140 characters and a link was another way to spit out information quickly. The tools were there – why not put out the info?

I go back and forth on how important Twitter really is in the accuracy-vs.-immediacy debate, and, admittedly, I’m an active Twitter user who sees value in its services. Regardless, Twitter played a role in the unraveling of the tried-and-true method mainstream media had used for decades in daily newspapers and night newscasts. But was it a major cause, a minor cause or an effect? I’m not sure.

In an earlier time, and even into the late 2000s, print reporters had until 5 or 6 p.m. to turn in their work for the next day, regardless of when news actually broke. Deadline might be pushed for really big stories, and long-term enterprise pieces had different sets of rules. Local TV stations, of course, had the ability to break in to normal programming for big stories, and 24-hour cable news certainly operated differently.

For newspapers, things changed slightly in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when big stories might go online first, as I mentioned above. But the fundamental approach remained the same. Today, the rules are very different, particularly on breaking news, but on smaller stories, too. It’s worth noting that different media organizations certainly take this approach to different extents. But it seems that even outlets that would have tried to be up to the minute 20 years ago – i.e. CNN – now seem to endeavor to be up to the second.

I’m saddened by much of what I’ve written here, but it’s genuinely understandable. Still, I was baffled by what was on display Thursday morning.

For a story that is being released openly to the public at the same time, why the hell does breaking the outcome by a matter of seconds matter?

Now, this isn’t to say that mistakes didn’t happen in simpler times. Of course, we remember the infamous ‘Dewey defeats Truman’ headline, and there are other examples of big goofs that made because a story was still developing right around a print deadline. But when the deadline is now – meaning, every minute or every second – aren’t we more prone to those kinds of mistakes?

To be sure, competition among media outlets is nothing new, and it’s probably been beneficial overall. Newsrooms work harder to get news out because they worry that the other newspaper or TV news will beat them. But there are two problems with what’s evolved that I think are clear in what happened Thursday.
First, news organizations are often competing to re-announce what public officials say. CNN wasn’t digging deep to find information that the public needed to know. It was just trying to be first to regurgitate a Supreme Court decision. As a professor of mine once said, “That’s covering, not uncovering.” Why are we competing to be first at covering?

Which leads to another point: Who, exactly, benefits from news organizations regurgitating news seconds earlier than the competition? It can’t be the user/consumer/reader – or, at least, it can’t be a significant chunk of them. For every news junkie glued to Tweetdeck or obsessively reloading his or her Web browser, there are probably dozens of people who, you know, have other stuff to do.

The only other possible benefactors are the news organizations themselves, and not just for bragging rights. Presumably, media organizations could gain something – more viewers/users, money, credibility/accolades – from being the first ones, by a matter of seconds, to break a story. I suppose the assumption is that more people will come to them for news later. “Turn on CNN, honey, they were 5 seconds ahead of Fox on the Obamacare announcement!”

Even if anyone would ever act that way, it leads us back to covering versus uncovering. No matter what, no news organization could have possibly had much more Thursday morning than what the other had in those first minutes. This was, after all, a public announcement. So, would getting the story first by a matter of seconds really make news consumers switch loyalties between cable networks?

I highly doubt it.

But that’s where we are. We’re fighting over seconds that, for the vast majority of news users, are completely irrelevant. We’ve wrongly bought into some idea or practice built on obsessive competition combined with the joys of technological advancement – and we’ve overestimated the end result and the ensuing public good.

Perhaps the news executives making the decisions are so far in the thick of things that they’re not even asking those kinds of questions. Indeed, I wonder if some media members in the trenches don’t really see that they’re competing over seconds. They’re just competing. It’s not as if CNN had a clock telling them how long before Fox or MSNBC would report the story.

But by being so competitive and by embracing – or maybe just accepting – the new status quo, I worry that the news media is taking its eye off the ball. Whether realizing it or not, the news media is now focused on breaking news by a matter seconds instead of working toward goals that are actually worthy of their duty to the public.

So, is there hope?

I honestly think so – but only if enough media outlets realize that competing over seconds is a quarter step from meaningless and if they realize that users/readers/viewers will come for accuracy and value as opposed to immediacy and noise. Maybe, Thursday will become a teachable moment.

Now, many media organizations did not botch the story, and some media outlets are generally coping better with evolving technology and new deadline pressure. A friend of mine who’s a talented journalist believes that reporters who produce the written word generally have had more freedom (time, that is) to verify information than TV reporters – but he doesn’t think that’s a recent development, citing Election Night 2000. Chalk that up to old-school print-vs.-TV thinking if you like.

Three years ago, I didn’t have a lot of hope for traditional media. There was simply too much new competition that looked threatening – or, at least, promising. But none of those competitors has taken root to the point where mainstream media is collapsing, despite continued struggles in a weak economy and an uncertain time. Local newspapers and television stations are still the prime sources of trustworthy information in many, if not most, communities. If those outlets can figure out the right ratio of immediacy-over-accuracy, I think they’ll continue that way.

But they need to stop fighting over seconds. It’s not a fight that is at all worthwhile.