Breaking news: Does anyone care?
When I was a reporter, breaking an important story seemed about as much fun as work can get. Especially when you’re writing for a smallish local newspaper, watching the bigger news outlets go scrambling after your story can be quite a satisfying feeling. And better still if the story exposes some kind of government wrongdoing — you imagine your college dream of becoming the latest Woodstein might at last be coming true.
But somewhere along the line I started to wonder: Does anyone notice or care about this sort of thing, other than us in the media? Say, for example, the readers?
Speed isn’t everything
These days, of course, there is just one forum for breaking news that regularly beats all others. It’s called Twitter. Conventional media can’t compete with a billion smartphones and iPads, even if the press is trying to speed-publish their stories on their websites.
But even when a newspaper does get its licks in, this preoccupation with getting-there-first is a bit self-absorbed. Outside of newsrooms, I can’t imagine there are many watercooler conversations about which news outlet got what story first. The media is doing well if people are talking about the story at all.
This is not to say that timeliness shouldn’t be important in journalism, especially with the simplest and shortest stories. It’s called news, not olds. But in the panic to beat the Tweets, or slap the promotional “exclusive” on a story, is the quality of the content getting the same amount of attention? Being quick off the mark isn’t the only way to be exclusive. Approaching a widely covered issue in a thorough, well-written style from a fresh angle is just a little too exclusive, meaning rare, for my liking. And it may just mean a little more to the readers.
The media’s private war with the government
And while media outlets play a private game of Beat the Clock with each other, another insiders-only battle continues to go on: media vs. government.
Yes, challenging the powers-that-be has always been a key purpose in the media’s role. But too often this ends up taking the form of just embarrassing government figures for its own sake. Then the politicians respond by investing large amounts of public funds in PR strategies. Then the media respond by accusing the government of wasting money. Then the government responds by improving the snacks on offer at its next press conference. How much of all this is really in the public interest?
The print media industry is already in trouble and faces a very uncertain future in the digital era. It can’t afford to put its energies into game-playing that means little to its readership any longer.