Online News: Where The Second-Minute Story Counts More Than The First
by Jeffrey Rothfeder, Sep 27, 2012, 3:35 PM
With the 24/7 ecosystem of information and content available online, it’s safe to assume today’s readers know most of the top and breaking news stories of the day before they even reach your site. Perhaps they caught the basics in a podcast on the way to work, on Twitter or Facebook, or maybe in a newsletter or an RSS broadcast. In today’s world, how people come across news is irrelevant; all that’s important is that if they are interested in a certain topic, they are going to want something new the next time they go searching for a subject.
What this means is the traditional second-day stories -- in which journalists could take a 24-hour news cycle (or more) to carefully construct explanatory, broader stories, coverage that goes beyond minute-to-minute events -- are as essential as ever. The difference is they must now be bundled with breaking news for the online user in minutes, or even seconds. As editors and publishers, we are now measured in seconds. The all-important second-day story -- the one that delivers context, analysis and explanation -- is now in Internet time, or what we at International Business Times have been referring to as the second-minute story.
The recent HSBC story is a great example. The British lender announced it was earmarking 2 billion euros to pay expected fines in the U.K. and the U.S. for insurance fraud and laundering dirty money through the American financial system.
On the morning the story broke (July 30), within minutes of each other, three news organizations went out on the Internet with their stories: Reuters’ headline was “HSBC sets aside $2 bn for U.S., UK problems,” The Huffington Post said “HSBC To Pay More Than $2 Billion In Penalties,” and The San Francisco Chronicle weighed-in with “HSBC Sets Aside $2 Billion in Apology for Compliance Lapses.”
The existence of those three headlines in rapid order (and there were upwards of a dozen more like them) reaffirmed perhaps the most significant shift in journalism brought on by digital news. Simply put, content is not king, it is a commodity. Being first -- the Holy Grail for most journalists in the past – has lost much of its value because within moments, competitor news organizations will have the same story and virtually the same headline.
The reader, the person we as journalists were told to keep in mind when writing a 500-word news item or a 3,000-word feature story, has become fleeting given her changing news and content consumption behaviors. Before you can fully engage with readers, they’ve read what you wrote and moved on, grabbing the headline -- the breaking news -- and they don’t really care who said what first. Scoops are for bragging rights among journalists – but today they are not necessarily a ticket to journalistic credibility or success.
The Internet and new digital consumer devices are clearly continuing to rewrite the model for great journalism, fundamentally altering the way we engage readers. What readers prize most in today’s online environment is not “just-the-facts” speed, but depth, substance and thoroughness delivered quickly. Importantly, speed is critical – it opens up the possibility that other sites and social readers will link to the story because it’s fresh – and if you can break news while being contextually smart and intelligently provocative in real time, all the better. This may be a steep challenge for a digital newspaper or magazine, but it’s hard to find fault with a content model that offers that level of performance and quality.
Given this set of realities, the HSBC story that has real value and staying power on the Internet – that will, indeed, get the most clicks – assumes that the reader already knows that HSBC has been fined 2 billion euros. That becomes old news seconds after it breaks. Another approach was “HSBC Sets Aside 2B Euro For Fines... But Is It Enough?” The second half of the headline promises something extra besides just the news (which is succinctly contained in the first half of the headline). By writing the story in this way and examining immediately in the article whether HSBC may actually be facing additional financial difficulties than are obvious at first blush, this story provide readers a little more insight, and something beyond the known, the mundane.
There are other things besides just advancing the news into analysis that digital journalists can do to turn a plain vanilla commodity news story into a second-minute article that attracts a wide array of readers. There is a great picture selection or slide show of related photos; you can add interactive graphs, fact boxes, timelines, videos and other features to truly bring the story to life.
Any of these approaches can achieve the same aim: to dress up information that starts life as blunt wire copy or a press release, or even a tip from a source, until it is transformed into a second-minute story that readers feel compelled to view because its value is obvious and palpable, and then to share with friends and followers on myriad social networks.
Digital journalism is, at its heart, about attracting readers and earning their curiosity, not about being first. It is only practiced successfully when an online publication enjoys a unique identity forged by producing content that offers much more than the quotidian – an identity so distinctive that it stands out well above the thousands of faceless stopovers readers will encounter along the way.