Local Media in a Postmodern World

News is a Process, Not a Finished Product

by Terry Heaton
Walter Cronkite announces the death of President KennedyLike everybody my age, I remember where I was when President Kennedy was assassinated. I remember the crushing loss and how it impacted everybody I knew. My parents cried, and so did I. Young people today can read about it in the history books, but you had to be there to understand how it just ripped the collective heart out of America. We loved John Kennedy. There was a magic about life back then, an innocence and trust that vanished that day in Dallas.

I was in study hall in the cafeteria in high school. The school piped Walter Cronkite and CBS News coverage over the intercom, and everybody in the room wept quietly as we listened. It was my first experience with the process that is news, that compelling and magnetic sense of participating in history on-the-fly. There is nothing quite like live coverage of on-going news, and in the executive suites of newspaper moguls — with eyes glued on their television sets — a chill had to run down every spine.

The very definition of news was punctuated by this coverage. News is a process, not a finished product. It's always been that way, too. What changed back then was the ability of people to participate in the process as witnesses, and when Jack Ruby shot Lee Harvey Oswald on live TV two days later, we were never going back.

Live coverage evolved. There was the moon landing, the San Francisco earthquake, O.J. Simpson, and the twin towers going down. We were all there, together. I remember an old quote from Steve Friedman, then executive producer of The Today Show, that his innovation in the 70s of bringing live interviews to the program was based on viewers' innate desire to participate in history.

Cable news networks are the place where people can drop into the middle of the news process and experience that same sense of connection. But in an effort to maintain high levels of viewing after big events are over, the cable nets turn to hyperbole to create a sense of importance not justified by events. It doesn't work. Viewers, it turns out, are too smart for that.

But the reality that news is a process continues, and no communications invention in history makes that more evident than the Internet and the World Wide Web. The Web is neatly dismantling the concept of news-as-a-finished-product by appealing to the participatory spirit and offering pieces of stories as stories themselves. This is happening with frequency in times of major events, but it's also beginning to show up elsewhere. News-as-a-finished-product is bundled and presented in its entirety, whether it's the six o'clock news or the morning paper, but the Web allows people to unbundle specific items and "receive" them at will.

While media companies are aware of this, the idea of finished product news doesn't die easily. We're content to unbundle, for example, but that which is unbundled must also be finished. The story is the thing, we say to ourselves. But the reality is that the story is not the thing; the process is the thing, and the process doesn't require the finished product. This is the secret to news on the Web, the awakening to which has already begun and is best demonstrated in what has become the go-to news outlet for celebrity news and gossip, TMZ.com.

TMZ.com logoTMZ.com uses blogging software to produce a running account of news items, pictures-with-captions, snippets of ongoing stories, breaking news, and a clever, albeit snarky prose that doesn't take itself or its subject matter too seriously. TMZ's rapid success is due in large part to its approach to news. "Continual iteration" is their process, according to Bob Mohler, Executive in Charge, New Media, Telepictures Productions and one of the creators of TMZ.com. The format gives the writers and producers the freedom to publish partial stories.

Bob MohlerWith the Anna Nicole Smith story. we were constantly updating on little tiny bits of information as the story progressed. One seemingly little item led to another, and we were constantly developing and updating the story. We owned that story, because we didn't have to hold onto stuff for some story that would happen later on.

The ongoing blog is the finished product. Stories never finish. Anna Nicole stories are still coming out today. People may have needed it tied in a bow when they only had a half hour to publish their material. But news never ends. It's continuing to happen,

Hollywood is a very controlled news town, where information is very agenda-driven. Publicity people call the shots and schedule things like red carpet events, sit down interviews, etc. Using blog software changed that for us, because we were able to go out and find our own news and sources and break our own news.

Because their product is published in blog format, Mohler believes the cost of producing news is lower. There's no printing press or broadcast tower, and the cost of gathering the news is lower, too. No avids or betacams; it's all done with consumer or prosumer gear, including Mac laptops and Final Cut Pro editing software. Like others, Mohler finds it difficult to explain why traditional media outlets don't do the same thing.

Their name for the people who produce their material is "preditor," short for "producer/editor."

Everybody on the staff writes and edits. Everybody has access to the blogging software. "The blog platform is a great tool to try things quickly," he said. "If something doesn't work, you just set it aside and move on to the next thing." TMZ founder and show host, Harvey Levin, tells the staff that "done beats perfect," and this is their motto. Despite the race to be first, TMZ lives by traditional journalistic standards, such as fact-checking and sourcing. "We don't publish rumors," says Mohler. "Everything has to be sourced somehow."

Another big advantage to using blog software, according to Mohler, is how well it fits human nature. "Let's face it. People are lazy," he said, "and blog software lets people scroll down a page rather than commit to a link." The scrolling reality of TMZ flies in the face of what used to be conventional wisdom — that the print traditions of "above the fold" and "below the fold" apply to the Web. Mohler says that's not true, and this has opened new opportunities for advertisers as people are scrolling.

"The key to success in the future," he said, "is to continue to iterate and continue to try new things."

Meanwhile, TMZ's parent, America Online, is also adopting parts of the model for other news outlets. Milissa Tarquini, AOL's Director, User Interface Design and Information Architecture, says that the key is understanding that the idea of a "fold" is an illusion:

During the early days of the AOL News reinvention, tracking data about the success of items below the fold of the TMZ site were uncovered that proved what the News team had been suspecting for a long time—that the fold is becoming less relevant in certain contexts and with certain content. We then felt completely confident that our new design, which incorporated a blog-like style and pretty long pages, would be successful and that the fold was one less thing we had to worry about. While we certainly didnít take any design cues from TMZ, the usage data from them, AOL News Daily Pulse and AOL Money & Finance supported the direction of longer pages and gave us actual numbers to use when challenged on the placement of certain items below the fold.
Milissa adds that TMZ.com's "tantalizing content" helps drive people down the page, but the real factor is the quality of what's being served. "Users will follow good content regardless of the fold line," she said.

TMZ's audience split is roughly 50-50 between men and women, which makes it somewhat of an enigma among entertainment outlets that normally skew far over to the female side. Its subject matter also appeals to a younger audience, and that means potential future news consumers are being exposed to the format of news-as-a-process.

Younger people are the key to the future of news, and most of them aren't even participating in "finished product news." No time. No interest. No relevance. Writing for Commonwealth Magazine, Dan Kennedy probed the reinvention of news with several observers and an eye towards capturing the attention of younger people. What he found suggests an open door for innovation.

  • Tom Patterson of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government: "As they age, they'll probably consume a bit more news, but it's not going to get up there to the level of older people today."
  • Judy Woodruff: "Much of the news young people see is not presented in a way that's relevant to them. ...We need to find out what they're interested in and address the news to them."
  • David Kravitz of Blue Mass. Group: "Younger people are just more accustomed to interacting with the world through a medium like the Internet than through a medium like radio [or TV or newspapers], which is more like other people talking to you. To the extent that blogs are able to bring in a somewhat younger demographic than 'The CBS Evening News', maybe that's why, because it does become a conversation."
News as a conversation is a key component of the contemporary process of news, because it's becoming increasingly clear that contributions by people who used to be just consumers of news are raising the bar for completeness of coverage and accelerating the news cycle that used to govern the process for the news-as-a-finished-product crowd. If you're the producer of the six o'clock news, your cycle is 24 hours. If you're the editor of TMZ.com, that cycle is immediate and on-going. Which is most compelling for young people?

This idea of a new news cycle was examined recently by Doc Searls, one of the authors of The Cluetrain Manifesto, and a thinker whose work is often cited in these essays;

Doc SearlsHereís the problem with most news: it isnít. Itís olds. It happened hours ago, or last night, or yesterday, or last month, or before whenever the deadline was in the news organizationís current "news cycle". Itís not now.

...News is a river, not a lake. It is active, not static. Itís whatís happening, not what happened. Or not only what happened.

But what happened — news as olds — is how weíve understood news for as long as weíve had newspapers. The happening kind of news came along with radio, and then television. Then we called it "live". Still, even on the nightly news, whatís live is talking heads and reports from the field. The rest is finished stuff.

Thereís a difference here, a distinction to be made: one as stark and important as the distinction between now and then, or life and death. Itís a distinction between whatís live and whatís not.

This distinction is what will have us soon talking about the life of newspapers, rather than the death of them.

Because itís not enough to be "online" or to have a "presence" on the Web.

To be truly alive, truly new, truly part of the life of its readers, a newspaper needs to be on the live web and not just the static one. It needs to flow news, and not just post it.

It needs to flow rivers of news, or newsrivers.

A year from now every newspaper will have a newsriver — if not many of them. Most papers will copy other papers, of course. But one paper will start the trend, take the lead, and break the ice thatís damned up their purpose in static sites and tombed archives.

One of them will see that thereís a Live Web as well as a static one. And that the Live Frontier is where the action is, and will be.

Doc refers to the latest work by Dave Winer (the guy basically invented blogging and podcasting), who is actually creating applications to turn RSS feeds into flowing "rivers of news," which are especially suited for mobile consumption.

News-as-a-process is more than just theory. It's being proven by blogs, sites like TMZ.com and others, including all of those run by AOL. This is the future for those who wish to be relevant, and there's no time like the present to get started. All it takes is willingness and a little (free) software. How exciting will it be to work where the only deadline is now?

This format could (perhaps should) be the home page of every mainstream news outlet, replacing the link farm that makes up traditional portal site home pages. We'd be judged by our work and not how many bells and whistles we used or page views we "drove."

The live Web is just waiting there for us to use it. What are we waiting for?