The need for speed: Is fast and furious still a winning formula for newsrooms?

Being first is one of those immutable principles of journalism. And as technology has chipped away at, and then smashed the traditional media’s monopoly of the means of distribution, journalists have had to go from not merely being first, but also fast. Not just faster than the next newspaper, but faster than everyone.

Or do they?

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Seldom does a week go by in our newsroom when we don’t have a debate around the question of speed.

A perennial issue for us (and, I imagine, most other newsrooms) is the relative merit of being first versus offering understanding.

Similarly, we often find ourselves weighing up the likeliehood of an exclusive (is there really such a thing anymore?) getting out via someone else before we can publish it. The other point of contention is how much detail to offer in a first version online and how much to hold back for the next day.

We have a road-tested and reasonably well-oiled workflow that demands that anything of importance to our audiences (yes, we have several) that breaks in the public domain is published as soon as possible – usually on one of our digital platforms, including our “realtime” news service and of course on our social media accounts.

But not all stories are the same or of equal importance, and in practice we often only get things done through a lot of arm wrestling, setting new precedents as we go.

There is no question that the people formerly known as the audience do expect “professional” journalists to deliver the information as fast possible.

In the last major aviation disaster before the disapperance of MH370, when an Ethiopian Airlines’ pilot defected to Switzerland in February, the story broke on Twitter way ahead of any real coverage (as is pretty common these days). A lot of the Twitter traffic was critical of the fact that journalists were so far behind.

There is a paradox here: Implicit in pointing out the supposed failings of the traditional media, there is a desire to see the same media step in and offer certification, to lead the story-telling in some kind of authoritative way.

As David Higgerson, Digital Publishing Director at Trinity Mirror regionals, says in this blog post on the competition news brands now face from ‘non-journalists’ (my emphasis), being ‘first, fast and accurate’ remains a minimum requirement for journalism if media organisations as we know them are to remain relevant to the markets they serve.

Yet, there is definitely push-back in some quarters against the imperative of the rolling news cycle and the race to swamp readers with endless updates on big stories.

Marie Catherine Beuth, the founder of Newstapes and a proponent of the ‘slow news movement’, warns that being able to disseminate more information, faster, has done little to help news consumers understand the world better.

In this podcast on on the topic of slowing down the news, Beuth questions the utility of defaulting to speed and suggests there is still place for more reflective coverage, some time after the initial developments in a story. (There is a great line in this podcast by Alastair Reid about the news cycle giving readers and journalists “intellectual whiplash”.)

Robert Picard, the director of research at the Reuters Institute at the University of Oxford, argues in Value creation and the future of news organisations that in the ‘trade off between speed and accuracy’, speed has limited functional value for only a small portion of the audience.

He uses several of his own examples but Picard’s point that acting with speed has greatest functional and exchange value to individuals – and my extrapolation would be specific groups of individuals or verticals in the audience – rings true. I’m thinking here of the football fans on Higgerson’s train or the financial professionals and investors among our own readership who are small in number but rely on us to filter out and communicate market movements and news about specific companies, very quickly.

Picard also warns that the risks to the reliability and clarity of information may outweigh the benefits.

Because technology has made access so democratic, speed doesn’t provide significant advantages for any one media player in a way that might affect their revenue, according to Picard.

But of course, newsrooms cannot be guided by business requirements alone.

The answer lies somewhere in between, perhaps. News organisations are often closer to the story, have knowledge of a particular issue or area and, as Higgerson points out, are ever-present (or should be) when the rest of the world is doing other stuff. In other words, the things for which readers come to us in the first place. With that comes the expectation of getting it first from us.

There a few situations where acting with speed seems not only justifiable but essential: When a newsroom is covering an area it owns (or wants to) and where it is dealing with a specific market. And where a newsroom does get on to a story really quickly, it has a responsibility in most cases to follow it up with context, interpretation and meaning – if it can’t put those elements in initially.

Speed cannot be a unique selling point or a defining feature. But done properly, it is an essential part of the journalistic toolkit for building, maintaining and engaging audiences.

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