In the old days of newspapering, the elusive goal was an “exclusive,” that sweet moment of having something in print that nobody else had – and couldn’t have until their edition the next day.
Technology has made the exclusive an anachronism, however. You’ll still see stories labeled as “exclusive,” but it’s usually in the seedier provinces of tabloid gossip rags and scandal sheets.
The speed of the news cycle has shifted the focus to being first – journalists watch the competition closely to see who gets an important story up first and we tend to take great satisfaction in winning by even small measures against our rivals. We win some and we lose some in that regard – the Register handily beat its rivals on news about the death of Peter Mondavi Sr., for example, and by a reasonable margin on the first local Zika virus case. On the other hand, we got beaten on some restaurant-related news in recent weeks.
But it is more than just an inside-journalism competitive game – audiences have come to demand speed in their news, which is why news outlets of all sorts often go up with partial or incomplete stories in a way that was unusual even for the instant medium of broadcasting a few decades ago.
That’s created a delicate balance between speed and accuracy; sometimes even the people on the scene of a breaking news incident don’t understand what’s going on, making it nearly impossible for reporters and officials to get the details accurately. As an industry, we’ve had to come up with new ways to talk about breaking news to make clear that not all the details are available. It’s a process that is still evolving and is far from perfect.
Speed does matter with audiences, however – they will go where information is available, even if it is incomplete or inaccurate. The danger for an editor is if you wait too long to get all the details, someone else will take your audience away.
Increasingly, however, speed isn’t the whole game. More and more, what we’re looking for is the number of viewers – measured usually by what’s known as clicks or page views. The bigger your audience, the better in the eyes of editors and advertisers alike.
That has created its own ethical pressure. There are easy ways to generate more clicks – splashy headlines, prominent photos, flashy style. The somewhat similar look of the recently debuted web designs at the Register and the Press Democrat in Santa Rosa is no accident – they’re both driven by known and tested way of attracting and holding onto readers.
But other things can be used to drive clicks as well, things that may or not be so tasteful: lurid photos and headlines, scandal and, of course, sex. Philly.com, the online arm of the Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News, for example, is famous (or infamous) for posting lengthy photo galleries of Philadelphia Eagles cheerleaders, participants in the annual Naked Bikeride, and the scantily clad attendants at the chicken wing eating contest known as WingBowl.
Those galleries do very well, as you might imagine, but it seems nobody in the city admits that they were the ones who click on them.
In the case of the recent Zika diagnosis, some Bay Area media outlets illustrated their stories with photos of deformed children from South America, infants stricken with microcephaly, a rare birth defect that seems to be related to Zika. That, I felt, was lurid and incendiary, since the woman in this case has not given birth to an affected infant, and the chance of transmission locally is negligible. We went with a county logo and later with a photo of the county health officer addressing the issue at a press conference.
Using that more understated (perhaps even slightly dull) art may have sacrificed some reader clicks to some of our more over-the-top competitors, but that’s OK with me. We certainly want to attract and hold as many readers as we can, but not at the expense of our credibility.