News doesn't roll, it lurches

Eighteen months ago I wrote the following: ‘News doesn’t roll; it lurches. But that’s for another time.’ And then I never quite got round to explaining what I meant.

I only remembered it thanks to a comment from Charlie Beckett, director of Polis on my piece about ‘breaking news blogs’. Charlie wrote, with some justification:

Journalism should ALWAYS be shy about getting things wrong. That doesn”t mean that you can’t be like a 24 hour news channel and not be wrong for long, but I think the way you throw around ideas like ‘vague’ is precisely what will discredit online news. Call it something adjacent to news, by all means, but ’stuffy’ old facts are exactly what the public needs during a breaking story like 7/7.

I don’t disagree at all. When I said ‘don’t be shy about getting it wrong’, that wasn’t an endorsement of shoddy, unsubstantiated speculation. By ‘vague’, I meant you shouldn’t wait until all the elements were in before publishing. On reflection, I probably should have phrased it all better. But the idea was ‘hot’, and I wanted to get it down and out quickly. Which, in a roundabout way, proves the point I was trying to make… I think.

I think a breaking news blog could, and probably even should, be like a rolling news channel. But I think it’s actually better suited to the objective – because fundamentally, news doesn’t roll. When we talk about a rolling news channel, it’s the channel which rolls, not the news.

Let’s take the example of Sky News. At the top of each hour, the cycle begins again. There’s a constant pressure to make the top story fresh. It’s a familiar mantra: ‘what’s the new top line?’, when all too often, there isn’t one. And sometimes, it’s embarrassingly obvious that they’re trying to make a new story out of old knowledge.

But developments don’t emerge gradually, they explode – and the story lurches from one development to the next.

A blog (or blog-style presentation) could actually play this ‘developing story’ role more naturally than a 24-7 TV channel – because it’s not only ‘news on demand’, it’s also ‘news on supply’. If there’s nothing new to say, you aren’t really under any pressure to say it. (Particularly in an RSS context, where new items are either read or unread.)

One thought on “News doesn't roll, it lurches”

  1. Ah, now we agree…. It’s interesting to watch how mainstream news uses its blogs on breaking stories. Typically they provide interesting asides and personalised atmosphere from correspondents. Sometimes the News Org will load up images or comment from the public. Evenutally, they will add the maps and background features to fill you in. But I agree with you that it doesn’t feel like the real thing. A breaking news blog would be able to network in to all sorts of contexts, witnesses, experts, linkages as a way of letting stories breathe instead of forcing them to some false ‘certainty’ or conclusion.
    It would be fun to roadtest this some day – it’s the only way to get a feel for how it might work – get in touch when you want to pilot!

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