As I was nursing my 50th cappuccino in Perugia during the recent journalism conference there, a small bomb blew up in my Twitter feed thanks to a keynote presentation by Felix Salmon, in which the former Reuters blogger said that the journalistic obsession with scoops is a form of masturbation. Needless to say, there were some shocked reactions to this statement, but I think Felix is right -— even if the metaphor he chose is somewhat unappealing.
As he describes in his own post about it, what Salmon said was that “breaking news is the most masturbatory thing journalists do. The reader couldn’t give a flying f*** who broke it.” In other words, the question of who breaks the news about a specific story is largely irrelevant to anyone other than the journalists involved.
This is almost certainly true. In general, regular news consumers want someone to tell them when a news event occurs, but they don’t necessarily care who tells them —- it could be a friend on Twitter or Facebook, or a radio announcer, or a person on the street —- nor do they really notice who told them first. But I would argue that many do notice one thing: they notice who told them something correct, or more importantly something useful or true about that event.
The half-life of a scoop is dwindling
In a response to Felix’s comment, Emily Bell of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University said that both scoops and useful information matter, which of course is also true. Ideally, the two things work together, and news organizations want to have plenty of both if they can manage it. But I think in general we’re going through a period of upheaval in which the latter is becoming much more important than the former, and this will likely continue for the foreseeable future.
It’s not easy for journalists or news organizations to give up the obsession with being first —- even for newspapers, who have by now gotten used to TV and radio being the first to report many things. After all, the news business is called that because it is primarily about what is new, and so as a journalist if you aren’t telling people something that just happened, it feels like you aren’t doing your job (“We’re writing news, not history!” an old editor of mine used to shout while chomping a cigar, J. Jonah Jameson style).
But the reality is that the half-life of a scoop or breaking news alert is already extremely short, and is dwindling rapidly. Within minutes of almost anything newsworthy happening anywhere around the globe, there are hundreds or even thousands of tweets and status updates, and in some cases even photos and video recording the event. In what sense does a subsequent news alert or brief from a media outlet qualify as “breaking news” that justifies a huge amount of attention? It almost seems absurd now.
Not so much news, but understanding
Despite this process, what many readers or news consumers won’t have is context or background or an understanding of where the news event sits in relation to them or their lives — and that to me is the killer app of the modern news business. It’s what Ezra Klein is aiming at with Vox, and Nate Silver with 538, and the New York Times with The Upshot. What does this event mean? How did it happen? How is it different from other similar events? What happens next? Call it the “long tail” approach to news. That is where the real value lies.
In the early moments of a news event like a shooting rampage or a bomb explosion, the appetite of the typical news consumer doesn’t really distinguish that much between rumor or hearsay and fact — which is why so much false information gets passed along via Twitter and other social media, and even by the mainstream press. Many people are willing to trade off a little uncertainty about the facts for some immediate info about what is happening. But as time goes by, the importance of verification and context inevitably grows.
In that kind of environment, what matters most is whether a news outlet — traditional or digital — is adding value, and whether they have built up a reputation for credibility. As Eric Scherer of France Television pointed out at the Perugia festival, the trust that is created by doing so is virtually the only valuable asset that media companies have any more, now that they no longer control the platform through which their news reaches the end consumer. As Craigslist founder Craig Newmark has said: “Trust is the new black.” Being first may still feel like the most important thing, but it isn’t — and it is becoming less and less important all the time.
Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Shutterstock / Sam72