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Journalism in an era of onerous deadlines? Not so good anymore

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Producing the equivalent of a book every 24 hours, seven days a week, is difficult. That’s what daily newspapers do day after day. Sadly, in New Orleans, readers will receive only three books a week instead of seven.

The Times-Picayune will print its book only on Wednesdays, Fridays, and Sundays. Those are the only days advertising revenue is sufficient to justify the cost of ink and paper. The Times-Picayune is not the first paper to reduce print editions. Detroit papers did that several years ago. And other papers in the NOLA Media Group will curtail print editions.

The Times-Picayune, which won the Pulitzer Prize for brilliant coverage of Hurricane Katrina, will become less than it was. The staff will be depleted as management seeks, like virtually every newspaper, to successfully marry financial gains on the Web to (hopefully) good journalism. A decade of arrogant, errant actions and inaction by newspapers’ decision-makers has so far failed to consistently produce either.

There are reasons for that: corporate failure to recognize the Internet as a valid competitor, free access to online content for all comers, the wholesale firings of thousands of journalists, belated and botched attempts at paywalls, and so on.

But consider two others, one historical, one behavioral.

Every good print journalist wants to make one more phone call, do one more interview, or get one more document so she can add one more sentence, one more paragraph, one more detail, one more fact to her story. Make the book better is that print journalist’s mantra. Ask any such journalist, and she’ll tell you stories about editors pulling her story away from her at deadline as she tries to get in that one more sentence. Her 24 hours are up; the cycle begins again on the next book.

That same journalist confined online will no longer face a 24-hour deadline. Instead, because she can publish anytime, she will be expected to publish all the time. That has consequences on quality.

Two friends — both experienced investigative journalists — learned this in the late ’90s, back when innocence and naïvete about its potential ruled the nascent Web. They left print jobs because they were offered unlimited space online for long-form investigative projects.

Gone was the 24-hour cycle, they believed. They quit after a few months when the suits — in need of hittage for viability and visibility — told them: “Of course you can do lengthy projects. Whatever you want. Just post them 300 words at a time, once every hour.”

That sensibility has not changed. In fact, it has been accelerated.

Pick up your iPhone. Boot your favorite news app. What do you expect to see?

Why, the most recent, freshest news, of course. Now, pull down on the screen to update the app.

You have just created a deadline for a journalist. Multiply that by the tens of millions of smartphone owners. Each request for an update is a deadline. Your impatience, your need for something new and now, is a deadline. And your impatience for new content is equaled only by your insistence that it remain free.

Newspapers will increasingly surrender their print editions and their 24-hour cycles to duke it out online for revenue (and how’s that going, news execs?). So you’d better expect what you get from a second-to-second deadline instead of a 24-hour deadline to be less than you wish.

Speed kills. Expect more errors. Many are small — typos, grammar errors, misspellings — and the natural result of haste. But such errors should leave you suspicious about the veracity of a story in which they appear.

Newspapers have laid off editors to save money, too. Just ask the copy desk folks at The Denver Post what has become of them. She who edits her own story — and in a hurry — will not see all the errors she committed.

Haste driven by post-it-now-goddammit deadlines leaves little time for that one more call, one more interview, one more document. Expect more stories with fewer sources, sometimes with only one. Expect more he-said, she-said stories. Expect fewer exercises in accountability journalism — the kind that informs you of corporate and governmental malfeasance and how it affects you. Expect the dumbing-down of the complicated world you inhabit.

Yes, you’ll find decent work by good people from time to time. But in the era of online deadlines, expect more crap. You can’t trade time for quality.

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Written by Dr. Denny Wilkins

May 29, 2012 at 8:19 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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