Untangling the Web: The 24-minute news cycle

Losing a week's worth of articles lead to introspection about the way news is reported, published – and stored.

Using Facebook on the Internet 370 (R) (photo credit: reuters)
Using Facebook on the Internet 370 (R)
(photo credit: reuters)
In the movie Notting Hill, Hugh Grant’s character Will Thacker muses, “today's newspapers will be lining tomorrow's waste paper bins”; when it comes to the Internet, the news cycle is far shorter. The current top story on a given news site this minute may well have disappeared into thin air in an hour’s time.
The JPost.com Internet desk, like Thacker, mulled such concepts this week after a massive server failure led to the loss of seven days’ worth of articles, photos and videos, a fiasco which left both the technical and content teams scrambling to pick up the pieces.
After the servers crashed, opinion articles, magazine features and other “evergreen” content – mainly from The Jerusalem Post’s various printed publications – had to be manually and tediously restored. However, looking back over the week’s news and putting together a plan to regain the lost articles, there seemed to be little point restoring most, aside from a few stories which would undoubtedly be needed for reference in the coming weeks.
The majority of news pieces published on JPost.com are written as they happen, and updated as details are released or the story develops. As such, going back and recreating the various versions of breaking stories without a back-up was virtually impossible. But more importantly – would there have been any point? In today’s fast-paced, Internet-driven world, does last week’s news really matter?
We decided to restore articles summing up only the most read and arguably the most important stories published last week, which were largely sound bites - speeches at the UN General Assembly - rather than actual news events. There was no point wasting time writing up yesterday’s news. But there was a dissonance in making such a decision, as though not only had we lost a week’s work, but that the work itself had been irrelevant. If it wasn’t worth restoring, was it worth writing in the first place?
The dilemma was a by-product of today’s lightning fast news cycle. While it was 24-hour television news channels that first smashed the 24-hour news cycle of print journalism, the advent of Internet journalism and social media demands faster and faster reporting – and thus faster story turnover. In the good old days, a daily paper would report a news event, which would be printed and circulated the following day. The next day’s edition would contain reactions to the story and further developments as necessary. Now, more often than not, journalists and news desks are tipped off to breaking stories by reactions, rather than by news of the core story itself.
A perfect example played out last week when US presidential hopeful Mitt Romney made an apparent “birther” joke during a campaign event in Michigan, which was released into the twittersphere less than a minute after leaving his mouth, and a video was up on YouTube five minutes later. The Romney campaign clarified the gaffe within 15 minutes of the original comments, while the Obama campaign responded just five minutes after that. News outlets barely had time to write up the story itself before the developments – or in this case reactions – came rolling in.
News outlets and individual reporters risk losing their relevance and their readerships if they fail to get stories up and out there in real-time, but this increased pace comes with a price. Time constraints on reporters are more stretched than ever before, and of course few players in this industry are getting paid well for their work. There’s less time for fact-checking and for in-depth reportage when the difference of a minute is stamped for all to see on Twitter feeds around the globe.
The effect of mobile Internet devices bears a mention in this equation, too. The conditions necessary to both report and access the news are getting less and less restrictive. People don’t need to be anywhere in particular, at any specific time or with any equipment they wouldn’t usually have on their person in order to get the news. The queue at a supermarket checkout is just as likely a place for news consumption as the kitchen table of a morning or the couch of an evening. Similarly, it’s far easier for reporters to file on-the-go than it was even one or two years ago. Put simply, the pace of the news is accelerating in line with the pace of modern life – it’s just a matter of adaption.
Apart from preventing last week’s crash from re-occurring, the bottom line is that the news is a living, breathing, dynamic creature, and attachment to both the ways and the stories of yesteryear – or indeed yester-hour – is likely to limit journalists’ ability to report the news of tomorrow. Some would argue that these new technologies bring down the standard of journalism, but it doesn’t need to be that way. Journalists and editors alike need to adapt to the changing environment and find new ways to get the news to the people – such as tweeting on breaking stories for their Internet desks to write up, publishing short version of stories as they break and longer write-ups in print editions and utilizing social media for updates, photos and videos from the field.
The writer is the Managing Editor of Jpost.com