Yes, Virginia, the Web Has Changed the Way Newspapers Operate

It seems that almost daily I’m coming across articles, blogs, musings pertaining to outdated thinking from newspaper folk.

In an article that was widely tweeted today, Jonathan Landman, the deputy managing editor for the New York Times was quoted as saying:  “nothing about the Web has changed the front page of the paper in any fundamental way.”

Such a statement is not only arrogant but points to a fundamental misunderstanding of how the news cycle has changed thanks to the Web.  Later on in the same article, Jim Roberts, The Times’ associate managing editor and NYTimes.com’s digital news editor, hedges a bit but drifts more into reality:

“The newspaper is at once the starting point of what we do on the Web, and sometimes it’s the ending point in [that] it sometimes is an interpretation and an encapsulation of the news that has happened through the day.”

For those of us who have worked in Web journalism, a statement that the Web does not change the front page is not surprising.  In many corners of “mainstream”  or “legacy”  journalism, newspaper executives continue to treat their Web operations as the stepchild of the family.

Way way way back — back before the Internet, White House announcement stories and the like — whether resignations or appointments — would be on A1.    Today, such stories are commodity news.  Mark Stencel, one of my former colleagues at The Post, was one of the first to coin this phrase.  He would ask:  “Why are we spending time and resources covering commodity news when everyone else has it?”  In other words, what can news organizations do on any given commodity story to make users want to read it?

By its very nature, commodity news has a short shelf life and since every news aggregator out there has a version of the announcement, it behooves news organizations to have their best writers get an “Analysis” up on the site as quickly as possible.  Such stories usually focus less on the event of the announcement and more about the strengths, weaknesses and background of the person/people involved.  The “Analysis” allows news organizations to show the strength of their reporting and knowledge of the issue.  That “Analysis” usually overtakes the commodity news within the first few hours and will stay on the site for most of the day.

When I worked at The Post’s Web site, there would be cases where by the time the paper’s deadline rolls around, we had already moved onto a second day story approach — perhaps looking at the challenges facing the nominee (or whomever.)

To ignore the influence of the Web day on the print product is arrogant and spells death for the print product.  Probably the best example of the disconnect came when Chief Justice Rehnquist retired.  The announcement story was streamed across the front of The Post’s A1 print product while the Web site had moved on to the morning announcement about Roberts being nominated for the position.  Granted, it was bad timing but it was also illustrative of how the news environment has changed.

To not acknowledge that the Web has an influence on the news cycle is to position your news organization as being out of date and out of touch and placing it on a death march.   Landman and other news executives need a wake-up call.  Break down the us vs. them mentality.  Make the Web work for you.

One of the best examples I can recall of making the Web work for you came during the initial ground war in the War in Iraq.  I was running the morning news operation of The Post’s Web site at the time and I remember the evolution of stories about the initial clashes.  The first versions filed around 5-6 a.m. ET were almost first drafts of the versions that would show up in the newspaper.  Correspondents had about 12 hours or so to respond to reactions to those first stories, filling in gaps, adding color, getting more detail.  I remember then-managing editor Steve Coll saying that the feedback from those who saw the story on the Web allowed correspondents to develop a much fuller version for the next day’s newspaper.

News organizations need to stop treating their Web operations as the evil stepchild.  Understanding that A1 of the print product is not the end all and be all would be a good start.

Steve

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About journalismprof

Steve joined the journalism faculty at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst in August 2007 and has been working to incorporate multimedia across the curriculum. Since arriving at UMass, Steve has developed three courses modeled after his multimedia journalism course. The courses allow students to work in teams in a newsroom-like environment where they work on packages -- using video, audio and photos to tell stories. He is also working with students on developing amherstwire.com, a news Web site staffed completely by students. Steve has more than 25 years of experience as an editor and reporter for print and online publications, including 10 as an editor at washingtonpost.com. He also edits part-time for espn.com with the NFL and college football network.
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3 Responses to Yes, Virginia, the Web Has Changed the Way Newspapers Operate

  1. Mark Stencel says:

    Always odd seeing myself quoted. Makes me wonder what else you wrote down back then, Steve.

    We used to talk about how TV and radio forced newspapers to be more analytical and magazine-like. Now new sites and blogs are doing more of those “second-day,” thinky angles on Day One — often with a passing link to the breaking news for the benefit of those who happened to miss it when it zipped by earlier in the day (“for those who are just joining us,” as they’d say on TV).

    The in-depth instant commentary I found online about today’s Microsoft-Yahoo announcement, for instance, will likely rival anything I read in most newspapers tomorrow. If so, newspapers in particular will need new ways to distinguish their journalism — just as newspapers’ shift to depth and analysis a generation ago began the process of sucking up all the air that weekly news magazines used to breathe.

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  3. Pingback: The Future of Journalism | Daniel Lajoie's Blog

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