Wednesday, 13 August 2008

When should newspapers break exclusive stories online?

How does a newspaper define an Exclusive? Is it a story it has to itself; a story it publishes before anyone else, or - on occasions - a story the publisher is sole owner of because, frankly, no other media outlet cares?

The Online Dictionary defines exclusive as:
* Not divided or shared with others
* Excluding much or all; especially all but a particular group or minority
* Single: not divided among or brought to bear on more than one object or objective

Interesting definitions... particularly as the words 'excellent', 'interesting' or even 'good' are conspicuous by their absence. And yet, for newspapers, that is how we regard an Exclusive; as a 'good' story - something interesting. But how often does an Exclusive story turn out to be 'this is a great story that you simply cannot afford to miss'.(On the occasions that definition might apply it can also morph into a 'World Exclusive'.)

Exclusive can also sometimes mean: 'We've got this... no one else has... um, we think... although that might change in the hours between us designing the front page and the paper being distributed..."

I was involved in some fairly lengthy discussions this week which, essentially, revolved around what was an Exclusive. And during a break I indulged in the Web 2.0 equivalent of askin' the Magic 8 Ball; I called on Twitter.

The tweet read: Debating the issue should newspapers break exclusive court cases online or wait to go to print. Twitter - your thoughts please?
Obviously those on Twitter would be more likely to be biased towards web-publish first, but the reasons posters supplied were very strong: "There is an expectation now that things go online first"; "You will get the respect of your readers for immediacy and increased followers" (a good point - build readers online, build advertiser interest); "break 'em online - how many people buy a paper to see a court story you know is exclusive"...

"How can a court case be exclusive? It's a public hearing" was another point raised.
Now, Patrick Smith from Press Gazette has considered the 'contemporaneous court reporting online' issue in an excellent post here.
I want to consider when papers should break stories online first - starting with the problems inherent in that phrase when papers should break stories online first.

For me, the continuing distinction between a newspaper's print and online products is just another extension of the 'journalist as gatekeeper' debate - when do we decide to share things with our readers and when do we let them have (some) information? This, I think, is the reason the US citizen journalist blogger industry is so strong - they get the information, push it out there and collaborate with their readers who interact through comments; through social networks blog news posts can take on a life of their own.

At the most basic level, when I posted a tweet about a serious road accident near my home on Tuesday night, I was depriving my newspaper of an exclusive. But that's social media - people who witness incidents now don't automatically tell their local paper; they update their blog, their status, share links, photos or videos online - this is what we are up against and what we have to be able to compete with. This is also a phenomenon that is only going to grow. Exclusive is an empty word unless you can prove that no other person knows about the story - that it hasn't been shared on a forum, Twitter, a MySpace page, a niche blog.

The question is, do readers prize exclusives more than they prize information? Would being a part of the conversation - through comments, related links or perhaps tracing the geographical development of a story via a map - be more valuable to them than the fact no other news outlet had that particular tale?
If the answer is yes, then where does that leave the printed page? Well, for me it leaves us with a choice: We can break the exclusive any way we can - get our multimedia brands associated with being first and best for pushing the story out there; Or we can hang on, keep promoting our print exclusives, and try to protect the print product for as long as possible.

These aren't easy choices - these just don't exist in the changing world of Newspaper Journalism. But the fact is that 'Exclusive' on a splash page won't halt the decline of our print readership.
'Exclusive' has been a word much loved by newspapers for decades but, funnily enough, it means far more to us than our readers. It's our badge of honour - our little dig at the competition. If we insist on holding back our exclusives, we may just be digging our own grave.
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