As Rabaino notes in her post, the way that news stories emerge now — whether it’s a story about the Occupy Wall Street protests or an earthquake in Japan, or even a more local news piece — is different now because the germ of a story can come from anywhere: from Twitter, from a photo or a video posted to YouTube, or from a blog. As blogging pioneer Dave Winer has pointed out, the “sources can now go direct,” in the sense that anyone who is at the center of a news event has publishing tools available to them to get their own story out. This “democracy of distribution” (as Om has called it) created by Twitter and other tools changes the dynamic dramatically.
But as Rabaino notes in her post, this can be confusing for newspapers, which are used to predictable print-based publishing schedules and a process of news flow developed long before the web even existed. The questions that come up in many newsrooms, she says, include:
Do we tweet if we don’t have a link to direct users to?
When do we write a story as a blog post vs. a web story?
When do we append an update to the top of a post vs. writing a new post?
When do we stop writing blog post updates and switch over to the print story?
How the hell do we make this all make sense to our users?
Those questions give you just some idea of how much confusion there is in the average newspaper newsroom when it comes to merging print and digital — not in a theoretical sense, but in a practical, every-day reporting sense. When it comes to making good use of the web for covering a breaking story, Rabaino mentions the BBC’s live-blogging-style news story, which it used for the shooting attacks in Norway (of course, the BBC doesn’t have to worry about coming up with a print version). The New York Times does something very similar with its Lede news blog when there is a breaking story, both aggregating links and trying to pull together facts and responses.
Digital first is about a change in mindset
But do those updates make it into the newspaper’s print version? That depends on the paper. In digital form, that kind of thing is easier, whether it’s on the web or through apps like the New York Times iPad app, which is updated in some cases when a story is dramatically altered, and includes a time stamp. Some sites go further: SB Nation has something it calls a “story stream,” which allows readers to see all the previous stories on a particular topic in chronological order. And some bloggers such as Salon founder Scott Rosenberg have advocated a “versioning” approach, where readers can click and see the previous versions of a blog post or story as changes were made.
What the “digital first” mantra means, in practical application, is putting the power of online publishing in all of our hands, extending the ease of blogging to all of our content.
Newspapers as a distribution system just aren’t equipped to handle news as a process; printing a single version of a news event with no links and no updates (until at least the following day) fundamentally doesn’t make sense in today’s news environment. Looking at the news from a blogger’s point of view — as an amalgamation of Twitter and Storify and video and photos, with comments and updates and links — makes a lot more sense, but it doesn’t translate well into a print-focused culture. When it gets right down to it, that’s what Paton’s message is about.