“Extra! Extra! Read all about it!”
That is how the iconic paperboy would announce “breaking news” in years gone by. It signaled the newspaper had found this news so important and timely that it printed an “extra” edition to keep its audience up to date.
The newspapers were snatched up by readers eager to read the latest news, sketchy as it might have been.
This practice continues today but at a much quicker pace. Two recent and tragic events highlighted this fact: the Boston Marathon bombing and the giant explosion in West, Texas.
The reporting from both of these events was done in that breathless “extra, extra” manner. Facts, opinions, speculations, exaggerations, rumours, and lies went to air with equal and unfettered gravity.
In the first moments from Texas, 300 were reported dead. The next day the number had dropped to fewer than 20.
Filling airtime means you have to say something. Even if that something is unsubstantiated. You very seldom hear, “We will go back to regular programming until we figure things out.”
Instead television runs and re-runs the same images and fills time by having journalists interview journalists about what little they know.
In his 1841 book, “Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds,” Charles Mackay describes the negative impact of crowds gone bad. He cites economic bubbles, alchemy, witch hunts, and fortune-telling. He might have added “media frenzy.”
When the camera or microphone is on, it is very difficult for reporters to follow Mark Twain’s example: “I was gratified to be able to answer promptly, and I did. I said I didn’t know.”
Martin Patience, a BBC correspondent, came close to that in April, following an attack in Xinjiang, China.
When a journalist asked him to describe the situation, he said: “Officials might be describing this as a ‘terrorist attack.’ We don’t know the details. We don’t know the identity of the attackers. It still isn’t clear what is taking place. … It’s worth pointing out that it still isn’t clear exactly what led to this attack and exactly what the composition of the ingredients leading to the attack actually were.”
I suggest that “I don’t know” would have been better.
Of course, newspapers not only started this practice, they still actively participate. But today they face a problem. When readers see the headline, “Boston Marathon Attacked!” their reaction is likely to be a sarcastic, “No! Really?”
They’ve known that news for several hours, maybe even a day. And if the story relates those “facts” that seemed so true when the newspaper went to press, and have since been corrected, the credibility of the newspaper is damaged. And credibility is at the heart of newspaper journalism.
Printed newspapers have an opportunity in this environment. And marketers can finally market a genuine USP of their product. That is the fact-checked, reasoned, thoughtful, rational, and comprehensive description of what actually happened. And, more importantly, why it happened.
Circulation numbers have certainly been dropping. But as Earl Wilkinson, CEO of INMA, recently noted, once the promotion, discount, and giveaway driven-numbers are eliminated, the remaining print readers are older, richer, well-educated, habitual, and brand-loyal.
These are the kind of people who appreciate a thorough analysis of the news and not just a regurgitation of the bits they have already read on their phones. These are the kind of people who are valuable to advertisers.
It’s time to leave “Extra! Extra!” to other media and for newspapers to create a new place for readers to turn when they want the news from a brand they can trust.