Breaking News Emails: An Under-Appreciated Art

I have a tumultuous relationship with breaking news e-mails. One day we have a strong relationship that I value. And the next thing I know they get all high-maintenance on me. Sheesh.

So today I unsubscribed from breaking news e-mail alerts from CNN and NPR. I kept the alert from the New York Times for two reasons:

  • because it does a better job than CNN of bothering me when I want to be bothered and leaving me alone when I want to be left alone. The Times’ news judgment is closer to my own than CNN’s news judgment.
  • because it is meatier than either the CNN or NPR alerts. All three tell me what happened. But only the NYTimes also tells me “So What?” without a click to its site. That’s especially great when I’m reading on my iPod touch and away from WiFi.
  • I perceived no difference in speed among the three providers. OK, so maybe one will beat the others sometimes by a few minutes. And unless it’s about an asteroid falling on my head, I just don’t care.
  • After thinning the herd on the national news, I planned to dump my alerts from either the News & Observer or WRAL. But when I went to do it, I just couldn’t choose. Looking over the past six months of alerts, their news judgment seems to be radically different. It’s almost as if one news organization will not send an alert if the other organization already has. So in order to get a complete range of local news alerts, I need both. But the downside to that arrangement is that probably 50 percent of the local alerts from either provider do I consider important enough to merit an interruption in my inbox.

    So now what strikes me is how little time I spend talking with students about “good” news judgment and writing style for e-mail alerts. And how difficult it is to teach a technique that seems to have no consistent application among professionals. This is the perfect example where we in the classroom need to document the editorial processes around writing and distributing breaking news alerts in various newsrooms. In each newsroom, what do the journalists say are the goals of the alerts? Is there internal or external agreement on those goals? And then we in the classroom need to develop quantitative research that can help the professionals know which news judgment and writing styles best meet those goals. And then we in the classroom need to develop experimental editorial products that do a better job meeting the goals — maybe change the way news judgment and style could be tailored to the needs of individual users based on their demographics, location or behavior.

    In the end, the common email alert seems to be a great example of a place where academics and industry could work together to build a better product and foster a more information society.

    Triangle’s Media Ecosystem Needs Tributaries and Mainstream

    Sitting next to News & Observer editor John Drescher last Friday during a forum about the Triangle’s media landscape, I had to feel a bit sorry for him. Of the nearly 20 representatives of news media in the region, he was the most prominent representative of the mainstream media and drew all the fire from the bloggers, entrepreneurs, do-gooders and pontificators who had him easily outnumbered and whose smaller organizations had often beaten his Goliath newsroom on important stories.

    But I also envied Drescher. He was also the only one at the table who had ever dropped $200,000 of his company’s money on an investigation of a state agency. And the only one who knew what it was like to spend four years pinging the government for public records before he had a story solid enough to sell to his subscribers and advertisers.

    One other thing made Drescher an enviable character in the Triangle’s media ecosystem. Despite their valid criticisms of increasing gaps in The News & Observer’s coverage of our communities many noted without irony in their voices, the small, independent and non-profit news operations had the most impact on public policy when they got the attention of Drescher’s paper or one of the local television stations.

    And that made me realize that if our state is going to retain its generation-long reputation as a home for journalism that gives voice to the voiceless and holds powerful people accountable, then we must find a way to foster dozens of new and diverse tributaries of news and information that flow into the big, slow-moving mainstream media. Without the tributaries, the MSM seems likely to evaporate entirely. Without a larger channel into which they can empty, the tributaries seem likely to overwhelm us with a flood of disconnected datapoints.
    Continue reading “Triangle’s Media Ecosystem Needs Tributaries and Mainstream”

    More on the N.C. Online News Audience

    UPDATE: Since my original post, I’ve received some new information from Dan Barkin, The News & Observer’s senior editor for online, about traffic to He — and others today — have pointed out that audience counts really depend on how you define your market. Statewide audience really doesn’t matter to ad buyers. Agreed, but I think it does matter in terms of editorial impact on issues of public affairs.

    In an e-mail, Barkin said that “Some recent Media Audit numbers showed that reaches 51% of Triangle adults. (net of all of our sites) reaches 41.5% of Triangle adults.”

    He said reached about 50 percent more people in July and August of this year than the same months last year, but he also noted that page views had jumped only about 15 percent in those two months.

    Original Post (12:55 p.m.):

    Following up on my interview that aired earlier this morning on WUNC radio, I just got off the phone with Matt Tatham, the director of media relations for Hitwise. His company provided the data for the WUNC story, and I wanted to know more.

    And, once again, the care that needs to be taken when talking about online audience numbers becomes apparent. According to Hitwise, WRAL clobbered The News & Observer online during August, but I think the clobbering was done in a manner that is slightly different than the one emphasized in the story.

    As they say on Marketplace, let’s do the numbers …

    Continue reading “More on the N.C. Online News Audience”

    What Drives Local News Traffic

    In an interview with WUNC radio this morning, I share some anecdotal information I’ve received from my visits to online news operations at the papers in Asheville, Fayetteville, Gastonia, Greensboro, Raleigh, Shelby, and Wilmington. The four things that are really driving page views at local and regional papers are:

    1. crime
    2. weather
    3. traffic
    4. high school sports

    The full audio of the report is here. Leroy Towns comments here. More TK on this subject.