old TV
When MTV launched in 1981, the station’s managers rapidly found that they were facing a monumental challenge. They’d committed to broadcasting for 24 hours every day, but they didn’t really have very much in the way of content.

In the early 1980s few artists even bothered to make music videos: they were expensive and there was hardly anywhere that screened them. So MTV had to fill its airtime by replaying a handful of videos over and over again. Before long those mostly obscure and ignored acts started getting picked up by radio. Then they started selling playing bigger venues and selling more albums. Record companies realised the power of music videos, so they began spending millions or hiring acclaimed Hollywood directors to make them.

All of this is an example of how a new type of content (music videos) flourished thanks to a new publishing opportunity (24-hour television). The content wouldn’t have existed on such a scale without MTV: it was created purely to feed the demands of the platform.

Newspaper websites should learn from this.

Ever since they started publishing on digital platforms, newspapers have desperately been trying to reclaim a role as sources of breaking newsPat Long, The Times and Sunday Times
News has obviously always been at the heart of daily print editions. But newspapers relinquished their position as a place for breaking news with the advent of radio, if not before. Yet ever since they started publishing on digital platforms, newspapers have desperately been trying to reclaim a role as sources of breaking news. In a world where news is freer than water on the web, and plays out in real time on social media platforms, this approach of prizing speed over depth is both a waste of readers’ time and damaging to each newspaper’s reputation as a whole.

This is another example of how a new type of content (live news) flourished thanks to a new publishing opportunity (the web). And, like MTV’s videos, content is being published purely to feed the demands of the platform.

Newspaper brands are defined by the quality of their reporting, the incisiveness of their opinions, the expertise of their journalists in providing context or analysis, the wit of their columnists, the stridency of their political views or the civic value of their campaigning. These are the qualities that differentiate, say, The Times from The Daily Express.

They’re also the first things to be dispensed with in the race to the bottom to ‘break’ stories that are already beginning to filter through to the public realm anyway.

Too much time is spent rewriting and reposting stories from newswires in an effort to keep up with competitors who are doing the same thing. It’s a form of mutually assured destruction: no-one wants to abstain from reporting on a story that is appearing elsewhere, whether or not they have a unique slant on it and regardless of whether there is a value in publishing immediately.

Take an example from this week. I first heard about the suicide of L’wren Scott on Twitter, followed swiftly by a text from my wife. But when I looked at news websites they were just repeating, without context, the fact that the designer had died. The rush to break the news led to some lamentable reporting: some newspaper sites described her as Mick Jagger’s model girlfriend, rather than a talented and respected businesswoman in her own right, quickly revising their headlines when readers complained.

It wasn’t until much later that I was able to read a fashion expert evaluating Scott’s career, a friend talking about her personality, an obituary covering her life, or even a more considered news story detailing the sad circumstances of her death. As a reader this kind of context was where the real value lay.

We need to resist letting the platform define the content and be bold enough to move away from the idea that we need to constantly be broadcastingPat Long, The Times and Sunday Times
All of this is not to say that there isn’t merit in publishing breaking news at all: for example if the story is a local one like The Boston Globe’s coverage of the 2013 marathon bombings. But too often newspaper sites end up sacrificing their expertise or the ability of their journalists to provide analysis by publishing immediately. One of the functions of news reporting is to help readers to understand the world. Publishing incessantly just adds to the noise and static.

The biggest mistake here is confusing editorial strategy with platform capability: just because editors are able to publish stories at any time of the day or night without having to wait to go ‘off stone’ emphatically doesn’t mean that they always should.

MTV provided Madonna or Prince with a broadcast platform for their videos, but it only survives as long as there are enough of those videos to fill 24 hours. We need to resist letting the platform define the content and be bold enough to move away from the idea that we need to constantly be broadcasting.

Instead we should take step back. We should examine our strengths and core values. We should concentrate on strengthening readers’ understanding of an event, not just be the first to know that the event has happened. We should focus on expertise and on journalistic rigour. If that means not trying to compete with Twitter, then that’s fine.

In 1981, MTV’s broadcast would go black between videos while the station’s staff manually inserted the next tape into a VHS player. We shouldn’t be afraid of letting our screens go black every now and again.

Pat Long, The Times/Sunday Times Pat Long is head of news development at The Times and The Sunday Times. He tweets about the future of news and the past of the music business at @PatLongTweets

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