BBC Newsnight correspondent Paul Mason has an interesting piece in today’s Media Guardian. As someone who pushed precisely this agenda from inside the online team of Britain’s (then) leading rolling news outlet, I’ve been trying to pin down my reaction to it. Paul writes:
The internet is faster, delivers instant depth and unrivalled interactivity. Rolling news – and here I mean the concept of a separate channel and its traditional front-end studio format – is the genre of television least suited to survive the transition to the digital age.
Whilst I agree with (most of) what Paul says, there’s one key point I think he misses. Rolling news is actually part of the transition process; and arguably, the defining part. CNN, and Sky News in its turn, provided a basic ‘news on demand’ product – albeit within the confines of non-interactive, linear broadcasting. But let’s be fair: we’re talking 1980 and 1989 respectively. Years before the web. Years before Gopherspace, even.
Paul backs up his position with generic BARB viewing data. But in fairness, ‘rolling news’ TV isn’t designed to be watched, as such. Ask anyone who has sat in a newsroom or press office with it blaring out all day: I don’t think it’s actually possible to ‘watch’ it. You’d go slowly insane as you saw the same basic packages re-appearing over a three- or four-hour cycle. To apply the same metrics as you would for other channels seems inappropriate.
Nor is it fair to see ‘rolling news’ in precisely the same context as ‘landmark’ bulletins on the main channels, like the BBC’s Ten O’Clock News. ‘Rolling news’ is a finely targeted product for people in the news business. It’s the background noise of virtually any newsroom or press office in the nation. You find yourself subconsciously absorbing the basics of the regular headline roundups; and your eye is caught by the garish – and yes, occasionally overused – BREAKING NEWS graphics. This is precisely what it’s there for.
I don’t believe we’ll see the demise of ‘rolling news’ any time soon. There’s no denying the buzz of a live event suddenly interrupting normal proceedings. But to offer that, you need something to interrupt. And you need a team ready to respond at the drop of a hat. I don’t like Paul’s point:
‘In every crisis worth its name network channels like BBC1 and ITV1 switch to rolling news in any case.’
Yes – they switched to the coverage being generated by the ‘rolling news’ teams who were there, ready; because they always are there, ready. Let’s see how ITV copes when the next national ‘crisis’ happens. With no rolling news channel to fall back on, no matter how low its viewing figures, they’ll need to crank things up very, very quickly from a standing start.
Anyway – this discussion is a bit pointless. News doesn’t roll; it lurches. But that’s for another time.