July 25, 2005
The Era of Slow News
It’s common knowledge that since the advent of 24-hour news networks, the cycle of news has sped up considerably. With the rise of the Internet, it’s gotten even faster. In this world of up-to-the-nanosecond news, we’ve learned, facts and context are thrown to the wind as our information train wreck speeds down the tracks.
Let’s play devil’s advocate.
My argument: The Internet is slowing the news cycle down. Way down. It’s so slow, it’s turning the clock backwards.
To make this point, I’m going to turn the clock back myself, to rehash some very familiar stories (pdf) with what I hope might be an unfamiliar take.
Blogs began to register in the minds of many people around late December of 2002, weeks after then-Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott made some innocuous comment about Strom Thurmond at his birthday party. The day after Lott made the remark, some fellow named Josh Marshall mentioned it on his Weblog thingie.
The mainstream news media barely noticed the comment, and pressed ahead with other news. At least one reporter, Ed O’Keefe, thought he might have sniffed something there, but his colleagues were unmoved. And by the time he’d gathered any string on the potential story, at least a day had already passed and the issue was effectively dead. “You’re dealing with the news cycle,” he said. “Twenty-four hours later, that’s old news.”
But for Josh Marshall and a gathering crowd of other bloggers, the news cycle had not moved on. It had stayed stock still, lodged stubbornly on those remarks of Trent Lott from December 5, 2002.
And on December 9th, Marshall made a journalistic move that would have appalled any acolyte of the traditional news cycle: He started moving into the past. That day, one of his blog items was a reprinted quote from a 1984 interview.
Traditional news orgs had caught the whiff of something happening by that point, and began moving the story the only way they knew how, by reporting it forward. But by that point, the only part of the story that was not “old news” was the fact that people (mostly online commentators at that point) were talking about it. So the traditional reporters started harping on that fact. Even this attention started online, in Howie Kurtz’s Media Notes column for The Washington Post.
For the most part, the traditional media’s stories stayed focused on the drumbeat of what was happening each day: Lott apologized, so-and-so decried his remarks, he apologized again, etc.
But in the blogosphere, the story kept moving further and further back in time, back through Trent Lott’s life, through to the Presidential election of 1948, and beyond. Bloggers kept track of the day-to-day events, but to them, the news was that Lott’s comment might have reflected a pattern of segregationist thinking that showed through many of his public comments. And on this news front, they scooped the major organizations day after day.
Unconsciously, they were establishing a new model of news judgment that I think is still holding true for online newsers today:
Traditional journalists report stories forward. Bloggers can report them backwards.
Of course, almost every news blogger considers it fundamental to keep readers apprised of daily stories from the traditional media. And many bloggers follow traditional media’s lead, noting only the newest events in a story. But broadly, as stories take on mass interest, bloggers slow the story down, moving fluidly between past events and present ones as they scrutinize a story from every angle.
Right now, a befuddled press tries to advance the Valerie Plame / Karl Rove story by pumping out article after article on the seemingly neverending lack of new information. Bloggers go comfortably back and forth in time, keeping one eye on the trickle of news being rooted out in the case and one eye scanning the archives, restating and reframing facts, combing for any old detail that might be newly relevant.
And if there’s not any press interest in a story? Bloggers, of course, stay put until folks start paying attention. Valerie Plame, I need not remind you, got stuck in the craw of one Josh Marshall well after most journalists had forgotten who she was.
The new news judgment
But you’re not saying anything new, you might say. We all know blogs have been successful at breathing life into some underreported stories. Then why do we keep repeating these canards about “The age of the Internet and the 24-hour news cycle”?
If you’re still talking about the “24-hour news cycle,” you’re missing my point. The Internet isn’t (just) quickening the pace of news to a second-by-second schedule. It’s enlarging the scope of what constitutes news to a matter of years.
Today, if we’re not first on the scene with coverage of a late-breaking event, we’re almost as likely to seize the story — and our readers’ attentions — by reporting back in time as by reporting forward. When news breaks, it’s now worth considering whether a reporter’s time is best spent calling the usual suspects for predictable quotes, or if a trip through the archives might not be better. And when news oozes, slowing down and reexamining our old stories with a fine-tooth comb might yield a hot breaking scoop. If not, at the very least, open up those archives online and let your readers play around in them.
There’s lots more to be said here about drawing in new audiences by grooming and reshaping older coverage. About drawing attention to underreported stories by shepherding them until a related story stokes the audience’s interest. And mostly, something about the race not going to the swift.