Illustration by Creative Unit.
“There has been an explosion near a mosque in Karachi...” The breaking news alert on TV is like a referee’s kick-off whistle in the digital newsroom. Producers make a dash for their desktops; one hammers out an intro and presses publish, another transcribes the TV reporter’s updates, a third calls any and all reporters available to ask them to send the information as quickly as they receive it and a fourth scans Twitter for eyewitness reports and hopefully photos or videos.
Depending on the nature of the situation, the desk divides the tasks of gathering background and context for readers. Traffic soars and comments pile in; the interactive desk staff try to moderate these as fast as they can while simultaneously sending out live updates on Facebook and Twitter.
The news desk is on edge and the editor and desk head are caught between keeping an eye on the published story, refreshing competitor websites (to compare facts and coverage), analysing the audience pouring in, making quick phone calls to verify information and trying to ensure the editorial line of the website holds with that of TV and print.
Unlike TV, where the information is retained for minutes if not seconds, mistakes online exist practically forever, often taking on a life of their own thanks to social sharing.
Freeze this moment and you will see a number of challenges for the web desk.
1 The blast turns out to be a cylinder exploding. Given that the original reporting resources of most local news websites are largely limited to whatever TV and print can provide (and with print probably asleep if the news has broken in the early hours of the morning), editorial decisions are often restricted to what TV decides. This is a real-time minefield every web desk has to navigate before, during and after they press publish. Unlike TV, where the information is retained for minutes if not seconds, mistakes online exist practically forever, often taking on a life of their own thanks to social sharing.
2 The TV reporter claims 12 dead as he stands at the scene of the blast; the print reporter says only three are dead based on his phone calls to the hospital, Twitter tweets 11 dead, drawing from the TV channels and users. In fact, Twitter already has images of the blast (allegedly). What does a digital desk squeezed between these mediums do? TV is fast, but often wrong. Twitter is great at aggregating, and sometimes faster than TV, but it can be way off, if the herd is misled. Print is almost always spot on but perhaps barely out of bed. Trapped in the moment, the news producer could lead with TV and Twitter images added on, or stay super conservative (perhaps irrelevant) by sticking to whatever the print reporter sends.
TV is fast, but often wrong. Twitter is great at aggregating, and sometimes faster than TV, but it can be way off, if the herd is misled. Print is almost always spot on but perhaps barely out of bed.
3 One of the interactive desk staff, burnt out from moderating 56 comments in 18 minutes, publishes an update on Facebook and Twitter containing a typo and the death toll of 12 soars to 122. The digital newsroom is operating at the speed of TV, so mistakes are inevitable, especially if there is no time to adhere to the rule of “two sets of eyes must see any content before it is published” is abandoned. (And sometimes even two sets of eyes can miss a typo.) On TV this would barely merit a blip; the anchors would just correct themselves in the same sentence. In print, there would be horror, but it would only last a day or two. Online, even if the social media update was deleted within a minute, hundreds, even thousands of people would have seen it, leading to panic, followed by anger upon learning the information was incorrect. Unlike either print or TV, that anger is directed at the team in real-time.
4 The death toll suddenly jumps from 12 to 48, and graphic updates and images roll in. In a print newsroom situation you would see editors and sub editors leave their desks and move closer to the TV. After the initial reaction, they return to their desk and resume work; stories are filed by reporters, edited and placed on the page. In a print newsroom there is time to be horrified or to contemplate a rework of the story. There is the luxury of being able to write strong headlines with an intro that packs all the detail and colour.
In a digital newsroom, there is no time for any of this. Like TV, the toll on staff and the burnout rate is high. In that moment, you just do the news as it happens, and try to do it well, because a large screen in front of you shows 12,000 people are reading the story as you write it.
Atika Rehman is News Editor, Dawn.com. firstname.lastname@example.org