Quick post here about the Oslo explosion news. Since the news broke I’ve been scanning different news outlets to see how quickly and in what ways news organizations jumped on the story. The news broke first on Twitter, but then again that’s not anything particularly interesting anymore. That happens all the time in moments like these. What followed next was fascinating – more on that in a second, but first I want to get into why this matters.
I’m convinced by the work of folks such as Pablo Boczkowski that we’re undergoing a fundamental change in news delivery, and one that journalists don’t always understand well enough. Audiences are being segmented by more choice, sure, but lifestyle patterns also play a part. Most don’t have cable TV in their workplace, so when they want breaking news they are more apt to tune in via online or mobile formats such as iPad or their phone. Thorson & Duffy, in their groundbreaking 2007 research that presented the Media Choice Model, combined the traditional psychological and social needs people have from media with something called “aperture,” the notion that media use is dictated by time-of-day factors. We can better predict what platform (newspaper, online, tv, radio, etc.) a person will choose based on the time of day and their place.
All of this matters because these are important tools journalists can use to allocate scarce resources in breaking news environments.
The cable networks’ slow reaction was interesting. It took them anywhere from 10 minutes to 25 minutes to break into coverage, all while Twitter was being throttled with chatter. Slowly they got on board. Meanwhile, what happened on the Web was fascinating. Al Jazeera English, which streams their broadcast online, cut in and so what they had on TV was what you could view on the Web. The BBC soon followed and those were the two major news outlets with a significant Web streaming presence mirroring what they had on TV.
The U.S. cable news outlets, meanwhile, were lagging when it came to Web presence while AJ and BBC were already streaming. An hour after the news broke on Twitter, only MSNBC had Oslo as its top story. CNN and Fox News had it buried as a lower-level link on their front page with no photo. Amazingly, at one point CNN used the “Breaking News” bar atop their page to note that the Senate had voted to table the “Cut, Cap, and Balance” bill while giving short shrift to what some were calling Norway’s 9/11.
Meanwhile newspapers were doing more with their online effort. The New York Times and Washington Post did get stories and initial photos up quickly and have been slowly expanding coverage as they got more information.
About an hour in, CNN (which by this point was covering it on their cable counterpart) finally moved the link to a more prominent position:
Upper left. See it? That photo to accompany the breaking news was a picture from the scene …. which was on a Norway online news site Web page. It was a screenshot of a Web page.
By a couple hours in, the online news portions of the cable news sites were catching up. But it was a slow crawl to get there.
While the CNN and Fox News sites lagging was bizarre, I’m more jotting this down to make a bigger point about aperture. The news broke a bit after 10 a.m. here on the East Coast in the U.S. By then, most Americans were at work and so online and mobile was the best way to reach them. The New York Times and Washington Post strategy (which really was their only possible strategy because they don’t have TV outlets) was best suited for this. They went straight to the Web and social media with their stories. The cable networks prioritized TV at a time of day when online and mobile would have brought more audience.
And this says nothing of text alerts. I still haven’t received a text alert about this news 2 hours after it broke.
The point is that newsrooms are facing scarcity. We have research that helps us decide which platform to emphasize first when news like this breaks. A text alert that takes me to your website is going to draw me in when I’m trying to work. Instead, I found myself going to Al Jazeera and even to Norweigan news sources online thanks to Google Chrome’s excellent translate feature. I also found curated Twitter feeds at places like Blogs Of War. I was making my own news, as Dan Gillmor likes to say. I had to – the news outlets here in the U.S. were forcing me to.
Lost eyeballs. CNN was made irrelevant in the early going and there’s no reason for me to go there now. They’re behind. Newsroom workflow can be improved if we are using time of day to help make judgements about what platforms to emphasize first when there’s big news. If this had happened on a weeknight then the TV strategy would have made the most sense, but it’s frustrating to see bizarre emphasis on platforms that get less traction at certain times of day.
In moments like this I see the opening for newspapers making a push in digital spaces. They aren’t burdened by the need to do TV and online and can be nimble, go Web-first, and get the news out there without having to worry about splitting its resources. And they’re what we want when we want a more refined version of the story.