2008
10.10

Since returning to the newsroom I’ve have this nagging doubt that I’ve had a hard time putting my finger on. I think I’m getting there though: news is handled differently here.

Or at least it’s different from the way I’ve grown accustomed to on the web.

Oh sure you have the daily news-cycle being replaced with the “always on” instant news-cycle of the web. To anyone that’s worked anywhere near a wire service, that isn’t new. What I’m talking about something different.

On the web I find myself following a particular story, or event, or subject. As things change or as that event unfolds, the web updates. And I update. Sometimes it’s all in one place or on one website and that’s great, you can just reload to your heart’s content and watch the page change. Sometimes you have to hunt about, going from site to site to get the latest news on said event or person.

Sometimes this news updates fast with updates every few minutes, or sometimes it’s an ongoing thing warranting only the occasional checkin. Whatever, it’s what I’m used to.

However, on the print side, in the average paper a story is researched, written, edited and then published… and then, the day after it’s published, its ancient history. Yes, I know there are series, or “stories with legs” but those are the exception. Many stories hit and then vanish, relegated to some obscure “spill page” at the bottom of some index page somewhere. Reporters, of course, know about a story’s history (“Hey, didn’t you write about this last year?”) but we the consumer rarely get a look at a piece once it’s day has come and gone.

This’s what’s weird to me. Ironically, for all their physical presence newspapers are very much a transient news outlet while the web, for all its abstract “virtual” presence, is very much not.

Jeff Jarvis over at BuzzMachine talks about this too in “The building block of journalism is no longer the article“. In fact it was his post that finally got me thinking about this. He refers to the “topic” — which is in effect the “story, or event, or subject” I was talking about before — as the new basic building block of the web. I like that idea.

So I got to thinking… are we doing it wrong? It’s said that Alexander Graham Bell originally thought that the telephone would be used to bring symphony music to remote areas. It’s a classic example misunderstanding an emerging new media. So are we making the same mistake? In most cases we still take the transient news model from our papers and put it onto our web sites, I think we might be.

Where a lot of people like to ask “if you are building a news website from scratch…” I like to ask, “If you were building a newspaper web site from scratch, what would you do differently?” I’m thinking I’d start with something topic-based.

We tend to organize news content online like we do in the paper. Why? Because that’s what works in the paper. Online we could have news rotating through the “home” page and offer links to topics that are currently important. It’s just a thought at the moment, but one I hope to work on.

Besides the (painful) lessons learned about workflow I think its time to reexamine how news is presented online. Topic-based seems to make a hell of a lot of sense.

  1. here’s my take. It has little to do with how they’re covering the news, I believe. I think the business itself has become too morphed in with other types of media to simply call itself a “newspaper.” Who are we kidding, when ad revenue is sinking like a stone and “papers” are struggling with circulation?
    Why not just shut off the presses entirely? That would save, in some cases, as much as 70 percent of the cost of producing said news “papers.” Why doesn’t a paper like the San Francisco Chronicle, which is already outsourcing its pressroom, simply shut the press off? That way, resources can be dedicated to simply focusing on the news without the paper. There would be less hand-wringing about circulation woes, less worries about advertising revenues, and the focus would simply be on monetizing the web. The problem is a right-brain, left-brain situation. Nobody has figured out how to do this properly. I don’t have the answer. I’m simply musing here. I think the best thing to do is to put newspapers into charitable trusts and not worry so much about how much money they are making, and concentrate more on the type of work they are producing. This takes money, of course. But publicly-traded companies and newspapers don’t mix well. Neither do businesses that constantly need a return on their investment. If every business expected ROI, then General Motors would have gone out of business in 2006.