Breaking News Demonstrates the Value of Newspapers

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The New York Times app was a mess when the news Russian’s invasion into Ukraine broke. All of the information was listed under their “Live” section which was a list of short “up-to-the-minute” reports, often just a single paragraph. These were listed reverse chronologically, with several of them each hour. This was breaking news, it was news unfolding as it happened.

For me, it was also mostly useless.

The trend toward “breaking news” has, it seems to me, led to a steady decline in the value and content of the news being reported. Maybe I am old-fashioned, but I prefer my news to be considered, with sources confirmed, and additional analysis provided. That takes time. I don’t see the value of rushing to report news without confirmation from multiple sources, just to be the first to get it out there. I don’t see the value of a paragraph of reporting where the situation is changing rapidly and anything reported might be meaningless an hour later. What I find valuable is to sit down with a complete news article, one that refers to multiple sources to the facts that it reports, one that provides analysis that has been considered. These things take time.

Not even a lot of time, really. Journalists have been very good at providing in-depth coverage of some breaking event even with a day to do so. This is a value that printed newspapers provide that I think is overlooked. People point to the death of newspapers because the Internet and online news can be had much faster. But at what cost? A printed daily paper enforces a deadline that allows for a much more reasonable degree in the accuracy of reporting than breaking news on an app. A front-page, 6-column above-the-fold article on the Russian invasion into Urkaine is much more valuable to me than an unsubstantiated paragraph of breaking news the minute it happens.

I’m not saying that all such breaking news is unsubstantiated, but in the chaos of war, it seems that the easiest thing to do is to post observations and opinions in the heat of the moment without the time needed to chase down leads and analyze the information coming in. It is that time–enforced by the daily rhythm of newspapers–that gives the printed papers an advantage over breaking news online.

What good is “breaking news” if reporters have to trade accuracy for speed?

Of course, this could be done in an online format if the conditions supported a daily rhythm the way print media does, but online has come to be a synonym for now. When we accept breaking news, we run the risk of making that same trade-off: accuracy for speed. We may get some information now, but how good is the information we are getting? Some will be good, and some won’t be? How do we, the consumers of news, tell the difference?

Reporting in which leads have time to be tracked down, sources confirmed by other sources, analysis and context provided to the reporting seems much more valuable. What I can’t understand is why breaking news is accepted as readily as it is. I learned this lesson well after 9/11. Social media didn’t exist and online news was nothing like it is today. The big TV news outlets were the surrogates for what breaking news online is today. There was a lot of confusion and misinformation on TV. I remember going a nearby 7-Eleven each morning after the attacks and buying a copy of every newspaper they had: L.A. Times (because I lived in L.A.), New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, U.S.A. Today. I spent my days pouring over all of the articles and op-eds in these papers, pieces which has at least a night for thought and refinement. The news of the attacks looked different from the pages of those papers than it did from the “breaking news” the television networks showed all day long.

Even as I wrote this, on the third day after the invasion, it is difficult to find an in-depth article on the New York Times app. Everything is “breaking news.” This also seems to be the case with the Washington Post. The Wall Street Journal seems to have a led in-depth article on their app, but immediately after are the “latest updates.”

What, I wonder, is the value of breaking news? Why does it need to be presented as quickly (and incompletely) as it is? it seems cynical to say that it is there for nothing more than to attract eyeballs, increase clicks, and therefore, ad revenue. But I have to wonder.

In the meantime, it is not too difficult for me to pick up a few printed newspapers at the local 7-Eleven on my morning walk, and make my way through the more in-depth articles that span their frontpages. I don’t feel disjointed or out-of-the-loop by getting my news twelve hours after the “breaking” events. Indeed, I feel more informed about them than I might be if I followed nothing but the breaking news.

Written on February 26, 2022.

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