The pros and cons of the 24-hour news desk

Alan Mutter argues that the 24-hour news desk is a mistake. (via Romenesko)

Okay, I agree. I’m not sure I see much value in staffing a news desk at 2 a.m. But everything else about his blog post is wrong, I think.

On one hand, the 24-hour new desk proves publishers can come up with a fresh idea every decade, whether they need to or not.

In a different time, a different era, was it a mistake to publish six editions a day? I would think a true newsosaur would long for those days, or the days when “busting the wire” really meant something. Online publishing brings those days back. (Check the old manual typewriter in the upper right of this blog — it is the real deal. It came from the newsroom of the Pittsburgh Post. I’m a kind of newsosaur myself, I think.)

On the other, the concept is a disheartening strategic blunder with the potential to simultaneously degrade the print and online coverage at most newspapers for no discernible gain.

So on both hands, it’s a bad idea. OK. In what way will it degrade journalism? In the way wire services have degraded journalism for the past 100 years? And I suppose audience growth isn’t a discernible gain? I mean, if your audience is proving that their expectation from online news is that they get it as it happens, and if when you give it to them as it happens, more of them come to your site, isn’t that a discernible gain?

The 24-hour news desk, which suddenly has been adopted everywhere from the New York Times to the Des Moines Register, dedicates groups of increasingly scarce reporters to continuously refreshing web sites with breaking news.

The assumption here is that reporters writing web updates also can’t write cogent print stories. Tell that to an Associated Press reporter. As a former wire editor, it sure seems to me that writing stories in sequential releases isn’t a journalisticly hard task to master.

But there’s no conceivable journalistic or economic reason for a company like Gannett to require its ever-dwindling number of reporters to continuously feed the web such routine stories as the eviction of mobile-home residents in Asheville, NC; a man attacking a game warden with a tree branch in Winneshiek County, IA, or an advance story on the inauguration of the governor of Hawaii that was posted 1 hour and 11 minutes before she was “expected� to take the oath of office.

I don’t want to take the bait of addressing specific stories, because it’s easy to pick apart any subjective decision on coverage in the absence of relevant data, but in general, it is just these KINDS of hyperlocal stories that drive local web traffic, especially when they are part of a continuous update process. In the previous graph, Mutter argues in favor of continuous coverage of large national and international stories, but the future of online news for local papers isn’t in such commodity coverage. It is all about local. And local is more about people than grand consquences.

Quickie web coverage seriously imperils the print product, because these down-and-dirty stories deprive reporters and editors of the time they need to consider – and report on – the major issues affecting their communities. If news staffs thinned by continuing economic cutbacks are stretched even thinner with busy work, who will write the compelling stories that merit the continued patronage of the print product by readers and advertisers?

One word: Competition. What imperils the print product is the disruptive competition unleashed by the web. If we don’t adapt to the web, we die. If we don’t learn to compete in the digital world, we die. This isn’t my quote, and I forget who said it, and it’s paraphrase, but: Somebody is going to eat our lunch, so we might as well eat it ourselves.

The industry inadvertently undermined the value of the newspaper by making the decision more than a decade ago to give it away for free on the web.

It’s a common red herring: We shouldn’t have put our content online for free a decade ago. Blame the pioneers who were publishing online when you were still muttering ‘the web is a fad.’ The problem is, if we hadn’t published news for free, we would be in even worse shape today. We would have no online audience and no way of building one, because there would be even more disruptors finding success. It’s a conceit of journalistic ego that our stories have greater economic value than they do. Unfortunately, too many readers think they can live without local news. If local news — at least as we have been producing it — had significant economic value, we wouldn’t have been losing subscribers in droves even before the digital age. Furthermore, we’ve trained readers to believe that subscription fees pay for delivery, while advertising pays for reporters. It doesn’t take a MBA in business practices to understand that absent the pulp, poly bags, trucks and adult carriers, our delivery costs drop to nil. Readers would only resent being asked to pay for something that costs us next to nothing to deliver, especially when they intuitively understand that they’re already paying for our delivery costs (computer, software, modem, ISP or broadband). The idea of charging readers for general news is a non-starter.

Quickie online coverage of inconsequential news won’t please traditional newspaper readers or attract the young, restless and wired consumers that newspapers need to sustain and build their multimedia franchises.

Who defines “inconsequential?” The journalist? That’s the kind of thinking that has gotten us into so much trouble — believing that we could dictate to readers what they should see and read. The proof is in the pudding, or the page views. Users are voting with their clicks about what interests them, and what doesn’t, and it’s rarely the 1,200 blow-by-blow of last night’s city council meeting. The fact is, web stats speak for themselves — what journalists often consider inconsequential are quite important to readers. And in my view, it’s not important for the sensational reasons newsoseaurs might suspect, but because it is local enough to mean something to their lives.

Early in his post, Alan said he had a solution for newspapers on how to better use its scarce resources, and here it is:

If you are wondering what might attract both traditional and new readers to newspaper web sites, take a look at the new city sites just launched by Ask.Com.

So, Mr. Cutter’s solution is to shift hard news reporters from covering the community to collecting directory listing data? There is no doubt that sites have dropped the ball on calendar and directory opportunities, both as readership and revenue projects, but there isn’t a one-to-one relationship between web-first publishing and listings. They are different departments, different skill sets, and different products.

Newspapers shouldn’t have been beaten at their own game by Ask, the No. 4 search engine. But they were.

Are directory listings our game, or the yellow pages? I’m all for more robust directories on online news sites (we can be the disruptors, going after directory companies), but you would think that a self-described newsoseaur would understand the difference between finding a good Italian restaurant and getting the scoop on an apartment fire.

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3 thoughts on “The pros and cons of the 24-hour news desk

  1. […] Howard Owens has casts a much more critical and informed eye than mine over the comments Are directory listings our game, or the yellow pages? I’m all for more robust directories on online news sites (we can be the disruptors, going after directory companies), but you would think that a self-described newsoseaur would understand the difference between finding a good Italian restaurant and getting the scoop on an apartment fire. […]

  2. Salient points indeed. My take on it is akin to my take on the higher incidence of divorce in this country: we have way too many luxuries and precious little appreciation for the help/value of others.

    If we as a society felt more affected/afflicted by the events taking place locally, at a state level, nationally and internationally then we would be much more interested in learning about what is going on. Unfortunately the vast majority of us are more concerned with the price of plasma televisions each Sunday in the Best Buy circular. Is there a solution? Can we continue supporting the efforts of our journalists? At a niche level I think….in channels of interest…..areas where the latest technology definitely allows for much greater developments and more profound thought. But the age of the ‘well rounded man or woman’ may be over. My recommendation for newspapers would be to really find and develop those channels in their online sites and try and develop them around solid cores of interest. Seduce the audience with what moves them….and try and expose them to some of what moves others in their community.

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