Saturday, December 23, 2006

A Tale of Two Media

Newspapers all over the country are trying to find ways to change in order to compete with online media. On Thursday, Dec. 7, I found myself in the middle of the issue.

I had agreed to cover the Planning Board meeting for a newspaper, which meant I couldn’t cover it for the blog. I was told there would be an early deadline, which meant a vote was not likely by the time the story was due. One strategy in such cases is to give as much background as possible and indicate there had been no outcome by press time.

And so I spent time at City Hall getting details on the case and went to the senior center to get some comments about it. The application was for preliminary and final site plan approval of a four-story building that would include a long-desired new senior center.

I filed a pre-write before going to the meeting, aiming to add what I could from the actual hearing. Sure enough, the board didn’t get around to the case until10 minutes before a 9:30 deadline. The only other possibility was an 11 p.m. deadline for the paper’s online edition. But the decision didn’t come until nearly midnight.

I went home and sat there with a big story that the $15 million project had been approved. But what to do? If I had just been blogging, I could have had it published within a couple of hours. By agreeing to report for the print media, I was bound to a cycle that meant the story would be more than a day old by the time it was printed.

At that hour, there was nobody around with whom to ponder the options. Should I defer to the strictures of the print media or bag the free-lance fee and just publish the story on the blog? If money can burn a hole in one’s pocket, breaking news can certainly inflame a reporter’s brain with feelings of urgency.

Mind you, I have no idea how many people read this hyper-local blog. I do know the newspaper has a few thousand readers in this city, many of whom only want to read about what’s happening right here. When there are no stories about Plainfield, people tend to say, “There’s nothing in the paper today.”

Some background: I spent 16 years as a newspaper reporter and never even heard of blogs until after I retired. When weblogs first began, there were only about a dozen or so individuals posting them. Now there are millions, of all sorts, ranging from just links to other online material of interest to long dissertations about anything and everything.

Plainfield Plaintalker began in June 2005 primarily as a news source. Interestingly, the blog began breaking stories that the dailies then had to follow. About a year ago, I began freelancing feature articles for the newspaper, but the blog was deemed a direct competitor for news. Thus the either-or dilemma Thursday. Would my stylish fedora from Lord & Taylor have a “Press” tag stuck in the headband or a “Blog” tag? I actually wore this hat to the annual City Council reorganization this year with a “Blog” tag as a joke.

On that Thursday, it wasn’t so funny. Was I letting my blog readers down by choosing the press? Some of them have commented that they like seeing right away what happened at an important meeting that they couldn’t attend.

In the end, I felt obligated to follow through with the press assignment. The news in the pre-write was that after years of failed proposals, a Planning Board vote on a new senior center was imminent. I had to write a whole new story based on what happened after deadline. I e-mailed it over on Friday and it was in the paper Saturday.

Some newspapers are experimenting with 24-hour coverage instead of a night deadline. Their reporters and bloggers could then post any time. But newspapers still want editorial oversight and having staff around the clock is expensive.

Community bloggers can file at midnight, 3 a.m., whenever they want. Not every story is perfect editorially – blogs allow more leeway than trying to fit things on the printed page.

I don’t know what the future holds for news dissemination, but for the print media, something has to give. Readers have portals to breaking news in their bags and on their desks in addition to those on radio and television. It’s still a great experience to sit down with a newspaper and a cup of coffee and see what’s happening, but news on the fly is becoming more and more the norm.

And if you’re a writer with breaking news, a freestanding blog is a lot easier on the nerves than meeting deadlines, dickering with editors and waiting until the paper hits your readers’ porches.

--Bernice Paglia


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