from the archives

Streams and digests — and my hope for The State Press

When I was back at ASU last month for Cronkite Day, Student Media Director Jason Manning mentioned that The State Press would likely change from a daily to a weekly newspaper.

Little did I realize how concrete and impending those plans were until I saw these tweets from a State Press sportswriter tonight:

As a State Press alum who worked to expand the scope of the print edition, I of course have mixed feelings about the change.

From everything I hear, it’s a smart business decision. Jason told me it’s what advertisers have been asking for, and it opens up a new distribution channel — dorm-room delivery.

Still, being a daily newspaper is a traditional source of journalistic pride. When I worked at The State Press, we were in the same league as The Arizona Republic and the East Valley Tribune, despite our smaller size in terms of circulation and staff. That was when the Tribune was still a daily newspaper, though. Things have changed since then, and more change is due.

I’m confident the current crop of State Pressers can do as good a job online as any news organization, collegiate or otherwise, but I hope they’ll do a better job.

As good as newspapers and broadcasters have become at publishing online the news we did/will/would have run in print or on air and as good as some have become at creating content that takes advantage of the Web’s capabilities, something is still missing. It’s something more structural. It’s the sense of completeness and comprehensiveness.

Walter Cronkite, the namesake of the school where many State Pressers (like myself) earn degrees, signed off the CBS Evening News each night with, “And that’s the way it is.”

The New York Times’ front page carries the slogan, “All the News That’s Fit to Print.”

Even if they don’t have a similar tagline of their own, most newscasts and periodicals present themselves as at least somewhat comprehensive. The fact that someone consciously picked the news items for this regularly recurring package implies that reading or watching will fill the audience in on what was most important in a given area over a given time period.

Newspapers and evening newscasts arrive once a day, and even the old Headline News started anew every half-hour.

But now, questions of timing are often anyone’s guess in the age of TiVo and the Web.

Timing is something we’re wrestling with presently at, where I work: Barring breaking news, how often and how much do we change the composition of the home page? Who are we trying to reach at certain times of the day? How often do we expect our audience to return to us on a given platform?

Truth is, there can’t be easy answers to these questions.

Traditional news products were able to set their own frequency, and some still can, but the Web puts that power in the audience’s hands and allows infinite and asynchronous changes to how often people seek or receive news.

The trouble for a modern news consumer is staying up-to-date without overwhelming oneself.

Letting 24 hours go by without opening Echofon, TweetDeck or would have roughly the same effect for me as skipping a day’s newspaper, but sometimes tuning out for just an hour or two can be the equivalent of getting a newspaper with no front page. I can miss the big story of the day if the tweets fly by too quickly for me to catch up.

The rest of the Web is similarly geared toward streams of information. Blogging, the reverse-chronological collections of posts and the software they’ve yielded, is a dominant force online. Even runs on WordPress, a blogging platform that has grown to be capable of much bigger things.

What’s harder to find on the Web is a reliable digest — the way it is, all the news that’s fit to transmit — in real time. Most are just digital equivalents of traditional news products — all the stories in today’s (or tomorrow’s) paper, everything on the last (or next) newscast.

Those traditional products demand a lot of attention, which can keep those of us who work with them from really figuring out how to get our audience caught up — to deliver all the news the reader or viewer sees fit to consume, to tell our audience the way it is and was, going back to the last time they caught up on the news and still fitting into a user-defined time period.

It’s a software challenge and it’s a journalism challenge, and my hope is that The State Press’ move to weekly print publication not only brings in the big bucks but also allows the space for big thoughts on how best to deliver news online.