Savvy news organizations are using an evolving, blog-like, approach to coverage of rapidly changing events. The way it works most often is that you post a lede to breaking news and then top it in tick-tock fashion with new information as it arrives. I suspect we will all adopt this approach at some point in the coming year.
The latest incarnation might be the way The New York Times has covered the tragic fatal fire in Oakland earlier this month. It’s interesting work and I’m excited to see how it’s received.
In the old days, a Times staffer would have parachuted in to the fire scene, talked to the mayor, the fire chief, the guy who owns the next building over and a survivor or two. Then she would have written a 35-inch takeout with a clichéd lede reading something like, “City officials, artists, musicians and the rest of Oakland’s shocked residents are struggling to reconcile support for a quirky artists’ community with the need for a safe place to sleep after 36 lives went up in smoke in the Bay Area’s other city on …”
You know that story. You’ve read it a million times. Well, not this time. In a story front and center on the newspaper homepage, the newspaper announced:
We are going to share regular updates on what we uncover as we do our reporting.
We’ll tell you about the interviews that our journalists conduct, the documents we obtain and what we learn as we learn it — as part of our effort to piece this story together. …
After that, the newspaper listed some of the questions it was asking about the fire, including interesting enterprise angles like, “What does the fire say about gentrification in the city?” In the past, this was top-secret stuff. We didn’t want to let the competition know about the scoops we were working on.
The truth is the competition has eroded, even in places like Oakland, with a strong history of investigative reporting. It now makes more sense to be forthright and try to share our work as widely as possible rather than holding it close to the vest.
Importantly, the resulting journalism is much more breezy, even first-person in some spots. One nugget ends with, “Now I’m hoping to talk to more artists in Oakland to see their spaces. Safety, affordability and the intangible magic that allows art to flourish — can Oakland make all that work? We’d love to hear from readers about other places like the Ghost Ship. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.”
I think this is really interesting because it is such a departure, and it is an acknowledgment that a reporter from New York isn’t omniscient. The jig is up on that score. No one believes that any more.
I think we can use this approach. When there is a developing fire or flood. When a plane crashes. When there is a police shooting. I think we can use it any time there is something really big happening and we would benefit by being honest and seeking the help of readers with sources and real news.
Who wants to be first?