All this fussing by newspaper folks as they wake up to demands of the digital
era is rather quaint. The Internet has made real-time reporting more prevalent,
but it certainly didn't invent it.
All-news radio began in the early 1960s at stations like WAVA in Washington,
D.C., and WINS in New York, where it was refined to become the nonstop reporting
format that remains popular today. In 1980, media visionary Ted Turner launched
CNN, and nonstop television news has been a vital part of American journalism
As it happened, the incorrect report about Rep. Giffords was actually generated
by broadcasters at CNN and NPR and was simply picked up by the Times. But while
managers at CNN and NPR fumed over the mistaken facts—as they should—print
veterans seemed equally determined to fault the process.
At first glance, the headline on the Times's own analysis of its coverage, "Time,
the Enemy," made me wonder if the newspaper had some sort of quarrel with
Time magazine. I never imagined that the "enemy" was time itself. Arthur
Brisbane, the paper's public editor, wrote that elements of the Tucson coverage "illustrate
how difficult it is in the current environment to be both timely and authoritative."
Yet that has always been a challenge for journalists. Even publishing once
per day, the New York Times, like The Wall Street Journal and most other papers,
must regularly print corrections. Mistakes happen. Would there be fewer errors
if newspapers came out weekly? Perhaps, but the extension of that argument is
that the best way to avoid mistakes would be not to publish at all.
Parkinson's Law states that, "Work expands to fill the time available
for its completion." Half a century ago the pioneers of all-news radio wondered
about the converse: To what extent would the task of responsible reporting suffer
as the time to accomplish it shrunk?
The answer lay in the definition of news itself. News is instantaneous. With
the exception of the tree that falls in the empty forest, reporting begins at
some level at the very moment that news happens. Professional journalists—whether
print or electronic—are simply an extension of the process. All deadlines
I recall going to work at the ABC Radio Network shortly after the company
expanded from one newscast per hour to four; all of a sudden there was a deadline
every 15 minutes. For many of us on the news desk this schedule was extremely
difficult at first, because we felt that time had collapsed while the task of
creating a finished five-minute newscast remained the same.
But colleagues working nearby at the all-news radio station were not similarly
burdened. For them the pressure was removed, or at least sharply reduced, when
there were no deadlines at all. On television, legendary coverage by Walter Cronkite
and others during events such as the Kennedy assassination and the first moon
walk—in the days before CNN and 24/7 TV news—demonstrated how deadlines
could be measured by fact rather than time: Get it right and get it on. That
was the schedule.
This is not to say that the power of the Internet to quickly disseminate errors
is not cause for concern. Nor is the 24/7 news cycle an excuse for journalistic
But the notion that nonstop news coverage is something new, some recent innovation
developed as a product of the Internet and utilities such as Twitter, is bogus.
What newspaper editors could learn from broadcasters is that time need not
be the enemy. It is integral to the very definition of news. Also, it waits for
(c) Peter Funt. This column first appeared in The Wall Street Journal.