Take a look at the lead for this story in today’s New York Times:
Hours after Florida lost to Alabama in the Southeastern Conference title game on Dec. 5, Gators Coach Urban Meyer awoke in the middle of the night with severe chest pains.
Notice that you can’t really tell from the lead that the story is about Meyer announcing yesterday that he was resigning as the head football coach at the University of Florida. That’s because it’s a feature rather than a news story. Had it been a straight news story, it would have had a lead like this:
Urban Meyer yesterday stunned the college football world when he announced that, for health reasons, he was resigning as head coach of the University of Florida Gators.
The Times had no choice but to go with the feature story. By the time it’s print edition hit the stands, the basic story was already extremely well known thanks to a variety of other media sources. If you are a sports fan you almost certainly heard about the resignation within minutes of it occuring either on an ESPN crawl at the bottom of the screen, through an alert you received on your Blackberry or I-Phone, on dozens of blogs, through Tweets, etc. If you weren’t a sports fan you likely heard about it on the evening news.
So the Times couldn’t simply run with a straight-forward, who-what-where-when-why-and-how news story that used to be every other newspaper’s meat and potatoes. Instead, less than 24 hours after the resignation occurred, it had to go with what used to be called a “second-day” story that provided context and color to the announcement and added information the reader didn’t get the day before. The second-day story happened on the first day of reporting.
That makes the Times and every other major daily print outlet far less of a source for news, that is, less of a newspaper, than they have ever been before. They simply can’t complete with the online and other sources that exist today on national stories.
This doesn’t mean that there’s no role for newspapers, only that the role is very different than it has been in the past. As the Times did with its Urban Meyer story, the print editions of newspapers now have to think of themselves more as feature than news providers.
Some other considerations.
1. Given their inability to compete on reporting national stories, newspapers have no choice but to embrace this new role. If they don’t, they’ll die.
2. This will make newspapers far more controversial than they have been in the past because feature stories will be written from a point of view rather than in the objective style they supposedly followed in the past. As we’ve seen the past few years, this will leave what used to be known as the news sections of the papers much more open to criticism.
3. It’s not clear that the papers have yet figured out how to write in this new style.
4. It’s not clear that the papers have figured out that they will need very different reporters for this new purpose and style. Instantly produced feature stories require subject experts who know and can communicate the context in which the news is happening rather than general assignment reporters who know how to ask questions. In other words, the beat reporters who have been disappearing in recent years may be needed more in the future.
5. It’s also not clear that the papers have communicated to their readers that they have been or will be doing something different than what they’ve done in the past. They should not assume this will happen by accident or osmosis.
6. The switch to feature rather than news writing is not likely to be as immediately possible for local as it is for national stories because there simply aren’t as many other news sources at the local level. The who-what-why-where-when-and-how stories will still be needed there until or unless blogs and online sources develop for local news as well.
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