Wednesday, September 21, 2011

This Just In: When 'Completeness' Sinks a Good Story

Page one of the April 16, 1912, edition of the New York Times is among the most iconic newspaper fronts ever. A large photo of a giant steam ship appears under a three-line banner headline. The first line reads:
That may be the front page that shows up most in the history books. But the far-less-remembered front page from the previous day's Times is the one that most suggests what the future of news would look like 99 years later. And it may even offer a little inspiration to the news editors of today -- especially in their struggles to seamlessly take in and integrate the continual flow of news links and social information from around the world.

These days, eye-witness videos and accounts posted in Twitter-length dispatches give far-flung journalists almost immediate access to firsthand information. Those details are often skimpy and sometimes unreliable -- but not more so than the preliminary and even "blurred" radio reports the Times used to tear up its front page late one Sunday night a century ago.

When the Times staff finished updating the April 15 edition, the calamity in the frigid Atlantic was still unfolding. The editors had just enough information about the sinking ocean liner to rush the story into the paper under a rat-a-tat "this just in" headline:
This was news as it was happening -- events still in the present tense. A disaster was clearly underway, even based on what little had been heard directly from Titanic's crew by 12:30 a.m. -- nearly two hours before the infamously "unsinkable" ship went under.

The information the Times had to work with that night was based on radio communications monitored by a remote wireless station operated by the Marconi International Marine Communication Company on the southern tip of Newfoundland. Marconi radios were the international Twitter feed of their day.

One short article boxed atop the next morning's front page laid out the story moment-by-moment -- almost like a contemporary live blog. The headline -- LATEST NEWS FROM THE SINKING SHIP -- signaled the incremental nature of the information. The text started at the beginning with the initial distress signal sent by Titanic's radio operator -- "C.Q.D." -- and continued chronologically:
"CAPE RACE, N.F., Sunday night, April 14--At 10:25 o'clock to-night the White Star line steamship Titanic called 'C.Q.D.' to the Marconic wireless station here, and reported having struck an iceberg. The steamer said immediate assistance was required.

"Half an hour afterward another message came reporting that they were sinking by the head and that women were being put off in lifeboats.....

"The Marconi station at Cape Race notified the Allan liner Virginian, the captain of which immediately advised that he was proceeding for the scene of the disaster.....

"2 a.m., Monday.--The Olympic at an early hour this, Monday, morning, was in latitude 40.32 north and longitude 61.18 west. She was in direct communication with the Titanic, and is now making all haste toward her.....

"The last signals from Titanic were heard by the Virginian at 12:27 A.M.

"The wireless operator on the Virginian says these signals were blurred and ended abruptly."
The Times has posted a PDF of the full story, along with an accompanying front-page "write-through" summarizing what the Times had learned. That story was written in a more traditional inverted-pyramid format -- with as much who, what, where, why and how crammed up top as a sentence could hold. It began:
"HALIFAX, N.S., April 14.--A wireless dispatch received to-night by the Allan line officials here from Capt. Gambell of the steamer Virginian states that the White Star liner struck an iceberg off the Newfoundland Coast and flashed out wireless calls for immediate assistance."
But the adjacent "tick-tock" -- the Titanic "live blog" -- clearly did a better job conveying the drama and uncertainty of that night's events.

There are lessons in this for today's digital editors. Too many of us in online news still depend too heavily on a newspaper-like convention of completeness to tell breaking news stories -- as if we were somehow editing our homepages to be sold on street corners and thrown from trucks onto doorsteps and driveways. But instead of delivering completeness we often end up providing a simulated thoroughness -- a "completeness falsity" that can unintentionally and artificially overstate what we know and understate what we don't.

We post long, scrolling stories that top with the facts as we know them, even when we know them to be incomplete, if not misleading.

We "weave in" updates, challenging users to click on headlines that often read remarkably like they did before the story was updated. Then we ask the readers to hunt through a thousand or more words of text again for any newly added quotes or details or background. These stories seem to be written and edited for one-time visitors.

We also carefully segregate our conversations with our audience and our sources from "the story" itself, even when our audience and our sources are the same people, and even though social media channels like Twitter and Facebook make those conversations far more public than our sites are designed to integrate and convey. Tools that help sift and present selected social media posts, such as Storify and Storiful, have started to change that, but most of us still have a ways to go in how we showcase this material.

None of this is to say that dependable old-fashion prose no longer has a place in breaking news. But leaning more heavily on other ways of telling the immediate story can free a news site's prose writers to focus on meaning, explanation and implications -- angles that tell readers where stories are going, rather than trying to keep up with an ongoing event.

On election night last November we tried to do a bit of all that on the NPR website. Instead of just linking to a live blog from our homepage -- headline, blurb, click -- we actually turned the homepage into a live blog, which ran side-by-side with links to a more traditional overview and related analysis, a balance of depth and immediacy. (The screen shot to the right shows the top of our 3 a.m. election homepage. Click to enlarge)

Most of us in the breaking news biz are still trying to come up with new designs and presentational metaphors that put all the pieces of our coverage together in a way that captures both the significance and drama of the events we're covering. The work of bygone "newspapermen" from our industry's past may help point the way.

The New York Times coverage of the Titanic's sinking reminds us that even newspapers once knew how to break the conventions of the completeness falsity -- especially back in the "extra, extra," "Sweetheart, get me rewrite" era of competition and multiple daily editions. Tapping those deep-seated instincts again will serve us as well in 2012 as they did in 1912.

(The grainy image atop this story shows an enlargement of one small part of the Times' April 15, 1912, front page, as described here. The complete caption reads: "WHITE STAR LINER TITANIC. Largest Steamship in the World, Which Has Hit an Iceberg on Her First Voyage Here." The Times has posted an interactive version of that day's edition on its TimesMachine. Two articles from the April 15 edition also are among those linked from the Times' Titanic topic page.)

Updated: Corrects link to TimesMachine page in kicker above. Fast fingers sink ships!


verotiger said...

This is a tough subject. I'm not sure I really need instant news of an event when I check my NPR homepage. I think I would rather see a more complete story when some facts were known. A simple headline that says "Breaking News: Report of Titanic Sinking. Details to follow" would alert me to check again the next time I had a break in working on my latest book.

Mark said...

@verotiger: It's not an either/or choice for newsrooms. A traditional news summation is still important. But news organizations don't need to wait until they're in a position to write a summation before they start reporting. In fact, they can't wait. They'll write what they know when they know it and then update as the story develops.

My main argument is that when they do start writing, they don't need to present their stories as if they were writing a summation. The format should convey that the story is ongoing and updates need to be clearly flagged.

For instance, the night I was writing this blog post NPR's breaking news blog was following developments leading up to the Troy Davis execution. Blogger Eyder Peralta updated the story at key points, adding details, quotes and context along the way.