August 7, 2007
The Attention Deficit: The Need for Timeless Journalism
In Romenesko Letters today, Gordon Trowbridge makes a very good point about the coverage before the collapse of 35W: the press did see this one coming. Over the past several years, newspapers have published a number of prominent investigative stories on bridge/highway deficiencies. My own paper published a front-page story in 2001 headlined “A bridge too far gone? Repairs overdue on many spans.” An excerpt:
Bridge work is getting increasingly expensive as a bubble of structures built after World War II are wearing out and requiring major renovation or replacement during the next 20 years. [The 35-W bridge was built in 1967.]
And some state highway officials warn that Minnesota isn’t keeping up.
“We continue to fall further and further behind what we should be doing,” said Timothy Worke, director of government relations for the Minnesota Department of Transportation.The Cassandra effect. We’ve seen this before, in a big way. Even when our coverage anticipates disaster, it often draws too little attention to avert it.
“We’re essentially deferring,” he said. “When you get in that pattern, the recovery takes so long and becomes so expensive that you really get caught in this downward spiral of disinvestment. It’s kind of where we’re at now.”
It’s impossible to say how many of our stories have helped our communities avert disaster, of course. Will that report about too many boomers retiring spur an increase in attempts to retain older workers? Chances are, we won’t know unless a couple years down the line, it becomes a problem larger than our capacity to ignore it. By which point, of course, we’ll just have to live with the consequences.
To an extent, this will always be an issue. We have a limited number of resources, and a potentially unlimited number of problems to apply them to. Every minute, a news organization is dreaming up yet another impending calamity, and society’s only got so much attention to give.
Not so fast. We may never eliminate this problem, but for the first time I can think of, we have the opportunity to mitigate it.
A newspaper has always been able to signal a story’s importance on two scales: our front/home page tells our audience what we think are the most important stories of the day, and our Sunday front/home page broadcasts the most important stories of the week. That’s it. If the problem isn’t solved this week, or if the reporting is the product of a major public disaster, maaaaaybe we can keep it alive another few weeks, but that’s certainly pushing it. (If it’s not one big problem, but a heaping mess of problems that crop up afresh every few days — e.g. Iraq — then apparently we can keep it alive for years.)
Of course, there’s no notion of time hard-coded into the Web. As we’ve recently discussed, a website such as Wikipedia, typically thought of as a collection of evergreen resources, is perfectly capable of addressing breaking news. And as I’ve written in the past, the news cycle on the Web goes backwards as well as forwards. I think this may be one of the most important and underappreciated realities of journalism right now:
Journalism can now exist outside of time. The only reason we’re constrained to promoting news on a minutely, hourly, daily or weekly basis is because we’ve inherited that notion from media that really do operate in fixed time cycles. But we now have the potential to signal importance on whatever scale you might imagine — the most important stories of the year, of the decade, of the moment.
What are the most important issues facing this community at this time? What would our sites look like if we asked ourselves that question? What would our journalism look like?
Instead of just announcing problems, we could transparently evaluate and prioritize them. Does this issue concern quality of life, public safety, human and civil rights? How many people might it affect? If it’s an impending disaster, how likely is it to occur? If it’s an ongoing crisis, is it worsening, is it getting better? We could allow our community members to set their own news priorities. We could present our news to the public filtered according to current or personal importance, instead of just how recently it appeared on our radar.
Not two weeks ago, the Star Tribune’s reader representative was complaining about the midsummer absence of news. If we committed to providing regular updates on those important stories, we would be unearthing legitimate news that too often gets buried by the tyranny of recency. “Still No Action On Strengthening Levees,” the headlines might have said. “Bridges Languish in Need of Repair.” And if the warnings aren’t heeded, at least we will have traced the progress of a possible disaster before the fact, giving us unprecedented insight into what went wrong and when.
Not so long ago, I said, “Purposeful malfeasance will always be less common and less expensive than simple inefficiency or shortsightedness. In the coming age of journalism, we should assign the highest value to reporting that is — above all else — useful. Reporting that identifies problems and suggests solutions.” I think the point still holds true. A journalism unfettered by time would align much more closely with timeless reality.