Monday, February 21, 2011

Deadlines in the 140 character world

While reading The New York Times op-ed columnist Maureen Dowd, I thought about the similar constraints affecting newspaper writers, Twitter posters and Internet bloggers. All face the constraints of time and space.

With the Internet there is a great push to get it, whatever it is, out there immediately. There is a rush to publish. Newspapers suffer from this same pressure. Newspapers have even given this rush to publish a name: The deadline. Putting out a paper is no different than putting out any other product from a highly automated plant. To deliver the product on time, in this case the newspaper, one must meet deadlines.

Dowd quotes Nicholas Carr, author of “The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains.” Carr claims technology amplifies everything, good instincts and base. While technology is amoral, he says, our brains may be rewired in disturbing ways.

“Researchers say that we need to be quiet and attentive if we want to tap into our deeper emotions,” he said. “If we’re constantly interrupted and distracted, we kind of short-circuit our empathy. If you dampen empathy and you encourage the immediate expression of whatever is in your mind, you get a lot of nastiness that wouldn’t have occurred before.” 

One would never describe newsrooms as quiet spots of gentle contemplation. The best newsrooms are high energy places, pressure-cookers for ideas. Dump ideas in, turn up the heat, and serve almost immediately. The results may not be perfect but the system is fast and what is served, the daily news, is amazingly "nutritious" for a "fast food."

Now add the constraint of space to the constraint of time and you have the ingredients for a serious problem. If you have every found yourself hamstrung by the 140 character limit imposed by Twitter, you have gained a small insight into the problem newspaper writers face daily.

On returning from a story a reporter may be told, "Quick. We're ten minutes from deadline. Give me seven inches. Maybe we can expand your story for City." (But reporters know that editors can only redo a limited number of pages for City. If the other pages are more important, the original seven inches will be it. So, reporters must do the best job they can in eight minutes. A few minutes must be left for editing and placing the copy on the page before being released to the back shop.)

I often hear folk talking about the 24-hour news cycle. Just last night I had a guest for dinner who works in the media industry and he blamed the 24-hour news cycle for a lot of the problems facing the industry today. Maybe, maybe not.

He also said how once something is up on the Internet is there forever. Maybe, maybe not. When I left The Free Press I started a blog that I soon took down and it is gone. Not even I can bring it back. It has vanished from the blogosphere.

Today newspapers should enjoy a 24-hour addition and correction cycle. Deadlines should be dead. Post just the minimum and then "Think." The Internet is always open to revision.

Unfortunately, many newspapers have not realized this fact and once they post something, even if it later proves to be balderdash, they feel they are stuck with it. They aren't. Newspapers can keep a record of changes made to a story, and I suggest this is a good idea. But truth and accuracy should have a path to the top.

As for the uncalled for nastiness that sometimes creeps into copy, enabled by too little time spent thinking and before speaking, maybe the years of meeting deadlines have rewired the brains of newsroom folk. Maybe its time for some new wiring, some new thinking, in the newsroom.

Dowd ended her piece:

"Leon Wieseltier, literary editor of The New Republic, recalled that when he started his online book review he forbade comments, wary of high-tech sociopaths.

" 'I’m not interested in having the sewer appear on my site,' he said. 'Why would I engage with people digitally whom I would never engage with actually? Why does the technology exonerate the kind of foul expression that you would not tolerate anywhere else?' "

When it comes to my newspaper, I am sometimes appalled by the nastiness I find there. Why would I engage with people over my breakfast table who voice the kind of foul, angry expression that I would not entertain anywhere else?


  1. Parts of your discontinued blog can likely be found on the "Wayback Machine" URL.

  2. This person's comment about the "Wayback Machine" is quite good. Check it out at: http://waybackmachine.org.

    I have found the WM a great place to search as a last resort.

    And yes I have looked for my old blog there, and no I didn't find it. That blog was up for a number of months before I took it down. It seems to have totally vanished.