Saturday, July 23, 2011

Commitment to live blogging and external sources helpful in developing breaking news stories online

This site signed off yesterday with a short update of the Oslo attacks story. Although this site would be considered a media industry B2B website, anything "news" is relevant as much for looking at how the news is covered as for the news itself.

In the case of the Oslo attacks, what interested me yesterday was what was happening in the Norwegian media industry, how they were dealing with this huge story, and also how other media outlets in the UK and US had decided to handle the news.

While driving in my car on Friday afternoon it was obvious that media outlets such as CBS radio were hours behind everyone else. With such a short time, often 30 seconds, to convey the news, radio news networks stuck to the simple facts, but in the end seemed to be leaving out the real story. "Who" did this awful act of terrorism ultimately was going to be the story.

A portion of today's NYT front page, courtesy of the Newseum.

Online, newspaper websites varied greatly in their approach. Most took their wire service stories and that was that. The bigger newspapers had their editors revise the story every 30 minutes or so, while the NYT had, for a time, a live blog.

The Guardian and the BBC both stayed with their live blogs longer than their US equivalents, and as a result appeared to get to be able to get to the fact that the terrorist acts had been committed by one person, and that the person arrested would be found to be a Norwegian.

My last update on this site, posted at 4:31 EDT, alluded to these facts. My source was multiple Norwegian news websites that were saying the same thing. Relying on Google to translate the website pages, each news outlet was saying pretty much the same thing: one person arrested, seen at both locations, appears to be "Nordic".

(We now know that the man arrested is Anders Behring Breivik, a Norwegian nationalist and fundamentalist Christian, and that the death toll is now over 90.)

The New York Times ended any live blogging some time in the afternoon and had reverted to the traditional story approach. As a result, for hours after it had started to become clear that this wasn't the work of Islamist terrorists, they were still reporting that a group called "Helpers of the Global Jihad" had claimed responsibility, though they also mentioned that there was a man arrested by police.

The problem with the story approach is that writing a news story is far different than live blogging. In good live blogging, the writer can pass along lots of information even if it directly conflicts with previous posts. What differentiates good from bad live blogging is the person's ability to weed through lots of sources and only go with information they feel will stand up, delaying other news reports in hopes that some sort of confirmation makes it worth posting. While some journalists might scoff at live blogging, it is clear that there is a skill and art to it that some papers are beginning to perfect.

The story approach, while great for summarizing what is known, is a poor format for the news angles that are still developing. But what makes it especially poor is that sometimes what is "known" – that a group has claimed responsibility – ends up taking the story in the wrong direction. While it was absolutely true that a group claimed responsibility, the group did so clearly to get some attention. In the NYT and other US news websites they continued to get that attention for far too long.

Is part of the problem that many newspapers are still hesitant to credit other news organizations for information? I should hope not.

When I was growing up and learning about newspapers I often visited the newsrooms of the Detroit News and Detroit Free Press. I especially loved the the giant circle of copy editors that could be seen after exiting the elevator. This group of crazy, chain smoking news veterans always seemed to be yelling at each other, especially as it got closer to 11 PM, their main news deadline.

One evening, while waiting for my ride home, the copy desk got especially animated. One guy yelled at all the others that he had a reporter saying that a body had been found near Tiger Stadium. Holding a telephone to his ear he started shouting out details. Others started yelling "what we got, what we got".

After more yelling back and forth one guy finally yelled out "hey, we got that one already, page 12. Name 'Jones', dead outside stadium." Another yelled at the guy with the phone "hey Johnny, tell him to go fuck himself."

The guy with phone then muttered what seemed to be simply "got it" and hung up the phone.

As a kid I thought the whole episode a lot of fun, especially the swearing. But as I've gotten older I realize that what these guys were doing it spreading the bits of facts to the group in a hurry, and finding a way to get to the truth fast. These old timers had figured out a way to sift through tidbits of facts in order to get to a decision concerning a news story. I always imagined that at home they had a hard time not yelling loudly, and telling their kids to "get to the point, get to the point."

I think about this today when we all work at an even faster pace, but are forced by convention to be more isolated in our decision making. That circle of editors would really come in handy today when trying to get stories right like the Oslo attacks.