Newsosaur Sparks News Desk Debate

Amid the clamorous discussion over the dire future of daily newspapers, a new debate was opened this week over the value of continuous news desks.

Amid the clamorous discussion over the dire future of daily newspapers, a new debate was opened this week by journalist/Silicon Valley CEO Alan D. Mutter, who wrote a blog post on Monday questioning the value of 24-hour online desks. Newspapers’ usage of constant Web updates, Mutter argues, is particularly damaging because it diverts vital resources away from coverage of both hard news and local community issues. But in an exponentially more competitive news environment, the need to stay on top of developing stories continues to present a massive challenge to print journalists.

Noting the dangers of pairing newspaper cutbacks with Web site content proliferation, Mutter writes:

“Quickie Web coverage seriously imperils the print product, because these down-and-dirty stories deprive reporters and editors of the time they need to consider — and report on — the major issues affecting their communities. If news staffs thinned by continuing economic cutbacks are stretched even thinner with busy work, who will write the compelling stories that merit the continued patronage of the print product by readers and advertisers?”

Continues Mutter at his blog, Reflections of a Newsosaur: “The industry inadvertently undermined the value of the newspaper by making the decision more than a decade ago to give it away for free on the Web. It is a modest consolation that newspaper sites generally present the most thorough, thoughtful and rational coverage on the Web. If they start trivializing themselves with fender-benders and mattress fires, who will want to read them?”

Not all journalists, however, express such harsh disdain for continuously updating online news desks. Fred Barbash, a D.C.-based lecturer with Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism and former reporter and editor for the Washington Post, finds plenty of value in news sites that can keep their readership constantly updated and informed.

Writes Barbash: “Our research, and our results, showed that people coming to expected to see breaking news pretty quickly and would go elsewhere to get it if we failed to provide it. Of course, we had a threshold in terms of newsworthiness, but an important Supreme Court decision, a major disruption of traffic in the region, a blizzard, a particularly bad morning in Baghdad, the train bombings in London and Madrid; the Beslan school massacre; the appointment of new Supreme Court justices … I can’t agree with you that we need to wait til the morning’s paper to report these things.”

And just in case anyone needed more of an insider’s perspective, Charlie Madigan, editor emeritus of the Chicago Tribune’s continuous news desk, weighed in with a conclusive statement on the need to consider the shifting paradigm of news.

“Let’s stop pretending we need every precious moment of the day to think and gather and recognize that model was fine for a world dominated by AM newspapers, but not fine in a world where there is so much competition,” notes Madigan. “We need to be readable, accurate, fast, readable and accurate. It’s what we do.”

Mutter’s concerns about 24-hour news desks are certainly well-founded. But in a Web environment that has rendered large newspaper organizations sluggish and outmoded, a retreat from the fast-breaking news atmosphere could further damage their relevancy. Many of today’s readers are first and foremost concerned with the best, quickest, and most efficient way to obtain news, and newspapers must work toward a balance that serves that need while still producing the deep, considered journalism we all value.

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Andrew Bielak was a CJR intern.