Putting the web first

It takes guts to hand your crown jewels to the future

Jeff Jarvis
Monday June 19, 2006
The Guardian

The news story may never be the same. A week ago, Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger made quite a stir when he announced that some articles destined for the newspaper would now go to the web first. This may not seem like a big deal, except to the journalists whose circadian rhythm of meetings, deadlines and drinks will now suffer chronic jetlag. And you might say that this is being done already as major newspapers put updates online. But in giving the web priority over the paper, the Guardian is handing its crown jewels, its polished final product, to the future. And that is changing the nature of that product.

When the paper puts an edited story online hours before the old evening deadline, it means that readers may then react, asking more questions, offering more facts. And that means the reporter can augment that story for print. Thus the simple act of exposing a story to daylight before the dark of print can improve the journalism in it. After publication, this continues as readers offer more help and the story is updated online, in its text or in the discussion around it. This needn’t become an endless edition. But it is the end of news on the stone tablet. News becomes plastic. And news opens up.

The roles of journalists change as they gather and share news, orchestrating input and output. They no longer speak from the podium but instead stand in the midst of communities of information. So journalists become not just fact-finders but also trust agents and even provocateurs. Bernd Kundrun, chief of publisher Gruner + Jahr, said recently that journalists should think of themselves as moderators.

I can only imagine how newsrooms must change to accommodate this imminent future and how wrenching it will be – though I suspect that for the price of a pint, plenty of hacks would happily educate me. I have seen resistance to change firsthand. I once worked with a paper that promised to provide brief news updates daily at lunchtime, the prime time for web services. But for five days straight, it sent not one update. Why? “Nothing happened.” Oh, so sorry, but we’ve decided not to publish a Tuesday edition. Nothing’s going on.

Yet I have confidence that journalists will be journalists – that is, they will grab new opportunities to inform the public and will adapt. After his announcement, I asked Rusbridger how this was playing inside the paper. He emailed back: “It’s a recognition of reality … Reaction in the newsroom is largely very positive. Ninety-five per cent of foreign correspondents are fully enthusiastic. Some staff are worried by logistics and how you keep quality control. A few are asking (not unreasonably) about cannibalisation and revenue. In the end you have to ask, what’s the bigger risk: doing it, or not doing it?” On the MediaGuardian podcast last week, my fellow columnist Kim Fletcher worried that this might turn Guardian journalists into 24-hour TV reporters, forever chasing the story and never catching it. It’s a legitimate concern. But the Guardian has largely ceded to others the business of breaking news – the commodified bits anyone can feed you – by concentrating on perspective, writing and original reporting.

And, of course, there are business imperatives to putting the web first. “It’s also about competition,” Rusbridger said. “If we denied readers information on the grounds we were still fixated on newspaper deadlines, they would turn elsewhere.” And that competition is playing out not just in the UK but also in the US as the Guardian, the Times and the BBC plot to invade Normandy (Normandy Beach, New Jersey, that is).

But there is an even bigger business strategy at work here. This move doesn’t just serve readers online, it drives them there, away from the old, shrinking medium that still draws more money to the new, growing medium that still doesn’t draw enough. That takes guts. This simple announcement changes not just the timing, delivery and geography of a newspaper but also its very definition. Newspapers have long operated like bakeries: they gather raw materials, measure them carefully, mix them up, let them rise, cut and shape them, bake them to a golden crisp, slather on some cherry goo, and put them on the shelf, waiting to be bought. News was a product. No more. So what’s the better metaphor? Try a garden: anyone can plant the seeds (reporters’ ideas, editors’ curiosities, the public’s questions, newsmakers’ actions) and many can tend to them. When the fruit is ripe, it’s plucked. And if you keep tending the garden, it continues to bloom.