This weekend an athlete celebrity gets in a reasonably serious car accident and our post-modern media machine swang into a frenzy after a slow holiday news cycle. The news “broke,” in so far as any story does these days, first on Twitter, beating CNN by a full 45 minutes. The time lag between the story’s publication on the real-time web and on a major media service was then immediately seized upon by new media advocates as indicative of these changing times.
TechCrunch’s MG Siegler even judged the example as sufficient evidence upon which to write the obituary for the journalism industry as it was previously known. He declared Twitter the new “Walter Cronkite;” that the Internet service has replaced the slo-mo traditional journalist as the breaking news voice the 21st century citizen trusts most.
Some will say they don’t mind waiting an extra hour to get just the facts. That’s fine. But that’s not really true. It may be true for a relatively small incident like a minor car crash, but imagine if a national (or worldwide) catastrophe happened. Do you honestly believe that any one of those people would be content to sit back and wait for the 100% fact-checked version of the story?
The claim was the kind of incendiary, far-reaching generalization that has become the hallmark of the post-digital school of journalism: a search engine friendly headline loaded with buzzwords sensationalizing an indefensible op-ed in the shameless pursuit of greater page views. Siegler’s conclusion was so far-fetched it even compelled his colleague Deven Coldewey to follow with a dissenting, more even-handed interpretation of the story’s portent for the future of the news business.
At the center of Siegler’s argument is a press release issued by the Florida Highway Patrol which was first posted on Twitter by the nascent and popular new media wire service BNO News. The boiler plate release used for car accidents resulting in a hospitalization was issued by the FHP the afternoon after the early morning accident containing the name of a certain A-list golfer.
BNO News posted that they had received a report that the 33-year-old male Eldrick Tiger Woods had been injured seriously. 45 minutes later, CNN reported that the golf star had just been injured. Siegler concludes from that disparity of timeliness and accuracy of the reporting that the former is clearly the future while the latter suffers under the weight of its own antiquated machinery.
Let’s look at the entire story. If the only measure of a news source’s quality is how quickly it can regurgitate a press release, in this particular case the old Fourth Estate obviously got scooped. But in the direct comparison of BNO’s breaking news Twitter “wire” and CNN’s international news network, let’s look at the difference of the organizations’ responsibilities.
BNO’s popular @breakingnews Twitter account has 1.5 million followers. Even if were were to assume they had the same amount through its other distribution methods like its popular iPhone app, it is dwarfed by the 93 million US households and 212 countries in which CNN is available. Giving BNO a generous spot with 3 million unique consumers it would put the service barely comparable to CNN’s prime-time audience on a slow night. In terms of total reach, CNN is over 30 times larger than BNO. The league in audience easily justifies an extra forty-five minutes of fact checking.
Telling three million people something and telling one hundred million people something are two very different things. If BNO is wrong, its an honest mistake based on the best information at hand. If CNN is wrong, its a libel and slander lawsuit liability that makes forty-five minutes of phone call very easy to rationalize. Given that the release was a boiler-plate produced by the graveyard shift of an overworked state office, CNN’s experience in handling sensitive information may seem needlessly conservative to MG Siegler, but then he will never have to pay eight figures if he jumps the gun.
Beyond the legal obligation is the moral duty of a journalist to get it right before publication. In the line of work that Tiger Woods is in, his health is his meal ticket. The public perception of his fitness for the game of golf is directly tied to how much money he makes. To report inaccurately a serious injury without making sure it wasn’t a late-night clerical error would do material harm to a figure like Woods for whom ability to play is his livelihood. MG Siegler’s attitude towards an early inaccuracy is “So what? The story is developing. People should be smart enough to know mistakes happen.”
Siegler acts like there are no consequences for rushing the hard work of journalism, an attitude I hope he finds is rare in his line of work. Most reporters take the accuracy of their work far more seriously, particularly when it might affect how much food a man puts on his table.
Finally is the business issue. CNN makes money doing its work – BNO News does not. CNN pulled in $46.98 billion in revenue in 2008. BNO is still “in development” as the first news wire startup. CNN is held by a public company answerable materially to shareholders. BNO News is a couple dudes in the Netherlands. If the press release turnaround difference between an organization with two people and a handful of volunteers and a unit in a 86,400-employee company is just over half an hour, any rational measure would describe CNN as efficient.
The stakes are bigger at the level CNN is playing at – the comparison is just naive.
My news to MG Siegler, to TechCrunch, and to all the post-digital journalists out there (of which I am surely one) is that Walter Cronkite is dead. There is not going to be the next Walter Cronkite. The thoughtful, disciplined, considered research found in the infancy of broadcast journalism is not going to be a part of our brave new world.
A web service is never going to replace a man; a distribution model is never going to replace a discipline. And those who think corners can be cut, constraints can be relaxed and words don’t matter are not likely to be a part of it. The consumer demand Walter Cronkite fulfilled was “the way it is” – the straight delivery of the issues that matter.
“The way it is” is not driven by page views. The conclusion then is that hacks like MG Siegler and infant services like BNO should make hay while the sun shines. For the disproportionate value they currently enjoy will eventually be proven false, and the real successor to the fabled 20th century journalist will emerge.