Death by newspaper

It was an emotional morning at the Lake Anne Coffee House where I get my start-of-the-day latte and early take on the day’s current events.

Retirees Tom and Bill were at their usual table talking leisurely over cheese Danish. Each wore their Redskins baseball caps, maroon faded by years of sunlight and memories. Young men trickled in wearing Redskins football jerseys, the number 21 and name “Taylor” emblazoned on their backs, waiting for the neighborhood barber-shop-and-discussion-forum next door to open. A group of mothers gathered in the cramped seating room for their pre-school coffee klatch, wheeling their children in cushy strollers, one bearing a young passenger bundled for the chill morning with Redskins stocking hat and matching booties.

The talk was of the life and death of Sean Taylor. Everyone in our small corner of Reston knew the story at 8:15 a.m. on Tuesday, November 27, 2007.

Entering the coffee shop I spotted the stack of newspapers by the front entrance. One story dominated the front page of The Washington Post under this headline: “Redskins’ Taylor Critically Hurt In Shooting at His Home in Fla.”

My reaction was that of an old friend who had to deliver bad news to the uninformed.

Everyone in the coffee shop — well, maybe not the pre-schoolers — knew the sad truth, which partially explains why so many newspapers were still on the rack. They had learned about Taylor’s death, which occurred about 5:30 a.m., from television and radio reports, from Internet sites on which they were following developments, and word-of-mouth from friends, family, colleagues and contacts during the early-morning round of their daily lives.

The Post, which went to press the night before, was hopelessly dated.

What’s a newspaper to do? It takes time for reporters to report, editors to edit, designers to design, presses to print, trucks to transport, and carriers to deliver to households throughout metropolitan Washington. The process, formerly known as “the daily miracle,” takes at least a day. To get newspapers on doorsteps by 7 a.m. deadlines start at least a half-day before delivery. So the news in the morning papers occurs a day or more before you get a chance to read about it. Or to put it another way, yesterday’s news tomorrow.

That’s a big problem for newspapers like The Post. The times demand immediacy. Consumers want news from a variety of trusted sources and platforms across media and society.

Steve Klein, journalism professor at George Mason University and a former sports editor, learned about Taylor’s death at 5:55 a.m. by watching the local NBC affiliate WRC News4. About ten minutes later he received an email update on his computer from Klein remained glued to the screens and a variety of sources throughout the day for the latest developments, communicating with his network of friends and colleagues as he learned and shared information.

Meantime, Post beat reporter Jason La Canfora started reporting Taylor’s death at 6:02 a.m. on his Redskins Insider blog, which he updated throughout the day. Hundreds of networked journalists did the same, stirred by affinity with the Redskins, media coverage, networking with other fans, and sheer emotion.

La Canfora was arguably the best of the bunch. In frequent updates he referred to Taylor, a player known to distrust reporters, as “Sean.” La Canfora also expressed personal feelings in his blog, a reporting practice that is generally discouraged in newspapers. He even took time to do something that most reporters avoid: he communicated with readers as the story unfolded, responding to hundreds of emails.

All of which begs the question: What were The Post’s newspaper editors thinking?

One answer comes from newsroom culture, a cultish ecosystem of knowledge processing of which I was part for about thirty years. Most of the news that goes around between reporters and editors is based on the assumption that they know more about the news than the audience.

The assumption is almost always wrong. Audiences in today’s connected society are incredibly informed, sometimes incorrectly, through dozens of sources including the original ones that were once exclusive to journalists. News tumbles through the mediascape, changing as it goes. What is not known at a publishing deadline will certainly be exposed through additional information and sourcing later.

On Tuesday, The Post had a web site with immediate, impressive reach and continuous updates. It had a dedicated, tireless reporter wired into sources and developments. It had an entire community connected emotionally to a story of enormous local interest. But on the day Sean Taylor died, readers of the local newspaper got this: “Redskins’ Taylor Critically Hurt In Shooting at His Home in Fla.”

Jason La Canfora’s byline appeared on the story, but the immediacy and emotional connection he brought to it through his blog were edited out.

The Post has one of the most comprehensive Internet operations in news media. Yet the newspaper marginalized it with a throwback approach on newsprint. The day’s newspaper barely referenced exceptional, developing coverage online. It made the crucial mistake of looking back at a story that events were certain to overtake. And it deleted a vital connection it desperately needs to enhance: the emotional connection between stories and storytellers. There are ways to do that, even in print.

It could be that newspapers will one day cover breaking news on digital screens but not on printed pages. It could be that a new kind of journalism will emerge to inform society, set a civil agenda for civic discourse, and handsomely reward its best practitioners. It could be that news companies will flourish on the Internet. But for now I am certain of only one thing: on Tuesday, a newspaper became less relevant in yet another part of daily life.

Dale Peskin is a former editor and news executive who currently serves as managing director of iFOCOS.

You may also like