It has been a long time coming but the NYT’s and the uber popular silicon valley blog, Tech Crunch, finally smashed into one another. This weekend’s Sunday Times came with a trend piece in the Business section on how big tech blogs (like Gizmodo and TC) publish ‘groundless’ rumors for hits. Many considered it to be a kind of hatchet job directed at the site and for the past few days it triggereda sprawling controversy where everyone from Jeff Jarvis to Charles Author weighed in.

The analysis arrived at a pretty classic conclusion,  Tech Crunch Vs. NYT is really an example of David Vs. Goliath  where one isn’t following the rules that the other is making. This is the case (and if you haven’t read the Gladwell piece, you must) but  there is a more helpful way to think about what is happening. It comes  down to this:  print news sources and web news sources are made for entirely different types of information processing, print works best in batch and online works best in real time. 

Tech Crunch and others like it are not breaking rules so much as they are doing what works for their medium. Each platform suits a specific type of news brand and answers core questions differently. 





Print

Gestalt: Batch Processing. The medium requires that  Information is processed in chunks. A program takes a large set of data files as input, processes the data using a system, and produces an output file.








How should a great paper develop its brand?

?As the voice of god. Most of the biggest city newspapers took The Times’s lead in the 1890?s and have since spent a century developing their brand as public trusts that get it right the first time, all the time. When two city newspapers are in competition with one another, it is a war of access and infallibility - slighting an organization with a piece that is full of ‘scuttlebutt’ leads to sources less willing to talk to the paper the next time. The community does not own the paper, an average person has little ability to influence it and because of this the paper is under constant scrutiny. It needs to create an aura that its work is in the interest of the public. Competitive newspapers spend millions of dollars hiring j-graduate reporters, copy editors, fact checkers, section editors, managing editors, all to create a kind of trust between the community and its information provider. When they drop a story, it is designed to be read as fact. 

How should a print newspaper publish information about a developing story?

?Cautiously. It should triple check it’s information and  call every source involved in the story to give them an opportunity to comment.  The consequences are great when Newspapers publish something wrong, it doesn’t take more than a few careless edits for a newspaper brand to fall to pieces.

How should it output its work? 

?Into tight neatly written comprehensive articles that it can then sell as part of a wire service. Articles meant to exist as a ‘first draft of history.’

Who should edit and produce a print newspaper?

?Professionals. It’s expensive. A finite number of pages means a constant question: what is newsworthy to the most number of people?


Online

GestaltReal Time Processing.  Information is 
processed  on the fly.  
?
How should a great online news 
source develop its brand?

?As an open platform. Instead of 
putting brand value on the final 
output of a news organization  
put value into a process of 
verifying news. Take the 
values/tactics  that go on 
behind the walls of a newsroom (‘the magic journalism box’) and execute them publicly. 

How should an online news source publish information about a developing story?

?Instantly. When a page is able to be updated at any frequency, corrections can be made just as fast. Rumors and gossip can be used as leverage to get sources, who otherwise wouldn’t, to spill what they know. Publishing incomplete information is the fastest way to get users to contribute to the bigger picture. This is a tactic in effective commons-based-peer production and it is how Wikpedia grew so fast and so well. As Harvard Law Professor, Yochai Benkler, describes, it often looks like a “disaster area.” This is the ‘scuttlebutt’ the Times can’t wrap its head around.

How should it output its work? 

Into everything. API.

Who should edit and produce an online news source?

?Everyone in the beat. When a website has unlimited pages: there is no excuse.

The Tragedy of a Print Newspaper Brand Going RT

It’s possible for a news website to work (and even do decently) without playing to the unique real time characteristics of the web medium just as it’s possible for Tech Crunch to print out its articles and throw them into a small-circ industry newspaper. The challenge is in branding. The New York Timesis powerful because whatever falls under its logo has an immediate effect of seeming true. This is its biggest asset, and what it has spent the past century painstakingly building.  The problem with branding the news product over the news process is that its readers see the NYT’s like this:  









The messy, opinionated, incomplete, rumorladen, shit-show that is actual news production is hidden away. If you want a real time news website, it must be brought to the surface. This isn’t a problem for a brand like Tech Crunch, but it puts print news brands in a terribly awkward position. How does The New York Times show the mess under its articles without wrecking the omniscient aura of the brand it has worked so hard for? 

Lets imagine a scenario. The Times gets word from an inside source that Twitter is selling to Facebook. What should they do? Publishing it outright would trigger a Twitter surge of, ‘Times: Twitter/Facebook Deal may be on the table.” This could burn them if it fails. Not publishing would be as risky. They make calls, sit on their thumbs, and sweat. By the time they decide to publish their tech journalist is usually doing little more than writing conclusive sounding summaries of comment threads on Gizmodo. 

Batch is killing them. Online, it is expensive, slow, and wasteful. It’s not sustainable and it’s a problem that will only get bigger for the The New York Times. They can turn more attention to their own blogs, but the branding still neuters them,  there is a reason ‘Bits‘ gets few comments and hasn’t taken off to any significant degree.  

The fundamental problem The New York Times has online is that its brand carries too much weight. The Times stamp means a piece has been packaged, and is no longer in process. If they’re interested in participating in the journalism of the 21st century, they need to shed the baggage of the last one. 

They won’t.

by Cody Brown
June 2009
Print Vs. Online
How to Build a Great News Brand
Batch vs. Real Time Processing, Print vs. Online Journalism: Why the Best Web News Brands Will Never Look Like The New York Times
Who is Cody Brown?