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03 April 2016

Breaking Bad Habits

The two most over-used words in the modern lexicon of journalese have to be "Breaking News".

We are in an age where the speed of publication is reduced to nanoseconds, and a genuine scoop (at least in terms of blue light stories) is almost unheard of, although to be fair Sky News came close when, by chance, a MoJo-savvy reporter happened to be checking in at Brussels airport as the suicide bombs went off.

It's a bad habit, and we've got to break it.

Far too often the tag "Breaking News" is attached to a story taken from a carefully stage-managed, embargoed, spoon-fed news release (politics, football sackings) or something lifted straight from punters' social media posts (fires, road accidents and more general "police activity") with a lesser or greater degree of verification.

When I see twenty or so news organisations in my social media timelines badging the same fragmented, partial information as "Breaking News" with no attempt at context or added value for the audience it becomes meaningless clutter (especially so on Facebook, where it seems such stories can appear, like flotsom from a shipwreck, 24 hours or more after the event). Listeners, viewers, readers don't want that:
I often use the analogy with my trainees that a good bulletin editor is like a chef at a fine restaurant.

Up early, scouring the market for prospects - what's fresh, unusual, or appealing? What good quality ingredients can I find to fill the day's menu? How do I combine these raw ingredients, using my skills and experience of different preparation techniques, to create an appetizing, nutritious and enjoyable meal for my listener? What seasoning and garnish can I add to make the dining experience distinctively mine ... local flavours, a spice of humour, a side dish of personality?

Too often the above process is now lost in a flurry of random Tweets about the price and size of parsnips. As a diner, I don't care. I don't want to know how the food on my plate got there. I want to enjoy the meal.

Which is why I applaud the decision by The Times to restore the concept of "editions" to its online output. Journalists in the digital age have a vital responsibility to curate and contextualise. They need to remember that their audience is not other journalists, but rather people with busy lives, families and expertise that does not fixate on the second-by-second flow of news.

These people are not stupid. They know when they're being patronised or treated as "eyeballs" - I've written previously why vapid, gassy stories are increasingly adding weight to demands for real news.

Putting it simply, journalists need time to draw breath.

To make a second, and then a third phone call to get first hand quotes from real sources and experts, not just scrape the social media feeds of the obvious and the self-important. To dig back in the archive to see what happened last time. Take the time to explain, in a logical sequence, what has happened and when, where it occurred, who is involved or affected, how this fits into the bigger picture and why it is important - answer the Kipling questions; Journalism 101:
I keep six honest serving-men
  (They taught me all I knew);
Their names are What and Why and When
  And How and Where and Who.
 I applaud the bravery of The Times in taking a step many would see as a move away from the digital frontier of the breathless moment. Maybe, as others have argued this week, it's a cost-saving measure. Newsrooms need to be both fast and comprehensive and offer context. Or maybe again it's not actually the audiences but news managements who have been dictating the move away from longform - because that is the cheaper option.

What's certain is that in amid the bewildering proliferation of "news" outlets there is a need for trusted brands to make their output more distinctive. I've written before on how radio could do that by moving away from the rigid format of news bulletins towards a flexible approach of giving the news the time it needs.

Good to see, as always, the rest of the world catching up.

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