Buried in the annual Pulitzer Prize ritual last week was the little-noticed fact that no award was given in the “Breaking News” category. None of the 37 entries were deemed exceptional enough.
Last year’s winner, the Seattle Times, used multiple platforms to report the breaking news about the tragic killings of four policemen. The Pulitzer judges have begun to acknowledge the fact that breaking news now happens on multiple platforms, with the printed version being the least important. Sadly, not enough newspapers felt they had demonstrated the kind of breadth of coverage on breaking news events that would be worthy of a breaking news prize.
This raises yet another serious concern about where the newspaper industry is heading. Newspaper companies, in order to stay relevant and stay in business, need to remain the organizations that bring the news to the public, no matter what the platform. The print component of that mix will continue to drop as more and more digital platforms are created, and more and more people use those platforms to consume timely news and information they want.
The first reaction of any newspaper to breaking news needs to be how can it inform the most people of this new in the shortest time and add the most context and perspective at the same time. It’s that initial hunger to inform the public that every newspaperman was born with that has to be nurtured. The only difference is there are new and better ways to tell stories, and the public is figuring that out, too. To cede the digital platforms to amateurs and start ups is to ignore the audience you have served so well in the past.
That means giving news to your customers in the form they want it, not necessarily the most convenient way for the newspaper to deliver it. Newspaper companies may own presses that you have to pay to support, and they may own trucks that deliver those papers, but that doesn’t mean that a printed paper delivered to a home or newsstand still represents the best way to transmit news.
But what is the same is the need to help people understand what is happening and why it is important. Someone still must report the events as they unfold AND enlighten people to the importance and value of that information on a continuing basis. Even in a rapidly changing digital world, newspapers had a big jump on any competition because they still employ the most people who are trained to gather and evaluate information. Unfortunately, those people were also trained to tell those stories on a newspaper’s schedule. And the public has quickly been trained to get their news differently, while the industry has been slow to train the storytellers in these new technologies.
Gradually the news industry will see non-print publishers stepping up, as Pro Publica did this year, and winning the highest awards. The Pro Publica award this year was for the best national reporting, not best national reporting by a digital organization. If the newspaper industry gives up on breaking news, they should just close their doors. They need to jump on stories and get them out there on every platform as fast as anyone else. They need to curate breaking news content in real-time. They can’t do it by cutting back on the the people needed to gather and disseminate the news.
When the Japanese earthquake happened a few weeks back, I learned about it first on twitter. My immediate reaction was to go to half a dozen trusted news sites. The first five didn’t have a word on their front pages and the sixth had a bulletin across the top of their page. I went back to twitter and there were thousands of tweets pouring in from all over the world, including the earthquake regions.
Still, I craved some filter that would help me put it in perspective.
News companies have to provide that perspective, and editorial intelligence. It is what separates them from amateurs who are blindly passing along information. As technology reduces the cost of transmitting information, the cost of a well-trained, talented workforce will and should become a larger portion of any news company’s budget.
It should be no surprise that doing their job well is going to be hard work and require training and investment. That hasn’t changed. Great journalism can and will happen. It remains to be seen if the existing newspaper industry will figure out that it has to follow the news, not try to force it into an outmoded print model.