Time to Freshen Up Online Newspapers  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Columns :    THE WORLD OF NEW MEDIA    
From AJR,   June 1997

Time to Freshen Up Online Newspapers   

Breaking news, not just recycled stories from the print product, will be essential.

By J.D. Lasica
J.D. Lasica is a former AJR new-media columnist.     


Should online news organizations cover breaking news?

If they want to be 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 dominant providers of local news and information.

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.

The students – bellwethers, perhaps, for the next wave of Net news consumers – 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 (see "When Push Comes to News," May). Push news software products from Marimba, PointCast, Starwave and others are now beginning to deliver real-time, personalized news, sports and financial information 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 major change in Net news is brewing, and online newspapers had better prepare.

Multiple deadlines, greater interaction between the online staff and the 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 for Media Studies, "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 abilities will be highly prized in this new environment. Speed and crisp writing – without any compromise in accuracy – will carry greater value. Editors who can handle copy quickly as well as skillfully will be highly sought after.

Now all this is not to suggest that online news publications need to become mini-CNNs, staffed around the clock, updating stories in a never-ending orgy of timeliness. Nor is it to suggest that every story should be broken on the Web.

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 risk becoming irrelevant.

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

What matters to them is staying on top of local and national events, separating fact from rumor, adding context, background, balance and perspective to events as they unfold.

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 accuracy, fairness and professionalism to this bright new medium.

There are perils here, however.

ýill the premium on immediacy mean less reflection and deliberation 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 sites move closer to a broadcast news model, will they fall victim to the tabloid tendencies of local TV news?

Ultimately, news consumers will make a judgment about what kind of online news they want. Says Woelfel: "Users are going to have to decide if they want an ice cream diet or something more filling." l

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