Posted by: structureofnews | June 20, 2011

The Speed of Need

Quick: Who broke the news of Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s arrest? Of Osama bin Laden’s death? Of Anthony Wiener’s indiscretions?

There are news junkies out there that know, I’m sure.  And I’m sure, too, that there are experts in people in specific fields who know in detail who the best – and fastest – hacks on each beat are.   But the rest of us?

All those events mattered in some way or another, but knowing about them minutes – or even hours – ahead of others isn’t critical to most of us. What often matters more is the thoughtful, considered analysis of events, or perhaps the exploratory database/interactive that lets us understand the information on our own terms, or the insightful commentary piece a couple of days later.

Sure, there are businesses and people that require split-second timing, and Reuters is certainly one of them – at least on some types of news. Falling a second – or millisecond – behind a rival on reporting key economic data can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars in business.  And so millions gets invested in the people, processes and technologies to make it happen – as it should.

But that doesn’t mean we should treat all news with such urgency.  In a world of finite – and often shrinking – resources, we need to figure out what value any particular type – and speed – of information offers to our audience (or funders, whether advertisers or foundations or whatever), and prioritize accordingly.

So Reuters and Bloomberg spend millions to staff interest rate announcements, because that matters to their paying customers.  But it makes no sense for a small daily to send a reporter to tweet that kind of news and live-blog it.  Those readers are more likely to care about a well-researched piece on how it affects their job prospects or the local economy.

Sound obvious? Perhaps.  But news organizations do collectively spend millions tweeting and live-blogging and generally rushing out news all the time, some of value to their readers, and some of doubtful interest.

There are arguments for this. One is that it brings audience, which it may well – but audience doesn’t necessarily equate to revenue or even long-term engagement. Another is that it helps keep your news brand top of mind with your desired audience – in effect, good marketing and an important element in building brand.  Which it might. But if you didn’t remember who first reported DSK’s arrest, perhaps it doesn’t. In any case, high-value information also keeps your news brand top of mind too (exhibit A: The New Yorker).

This isn’t an argument for abandoning speedy reporting, nor is it a screed against twitter or a polemic against live blogging.  There are lots of things that news organizations should spend money on reporting quickly – if there’s a tsunami heading your readers’ way, throw everything you’ve got into real-time alerts.

It’s simply a reminder that speed isn’t everything; that we need to focus on what our audience/customers really want and need, and deploy our limited resources to best achieve that.  Because we can’t do everything.


  1. Overproduction and abundances of supply and choice is not characteristic only of the media industry. What is important is that each of us pays as taxpayer or a customer for tons, megabytes, kilometers etc. of products and services we would never be able to consume in our life.

    • That’s very true – and any analysis/model of customer needs has to factor in real behavior, not theoretical explanations of what people are expected to do. That said, it’s hard to see people paying a premium for speed in a number of categories of coverage – although, of course, I’m sure there are devoted audiences for every topic. The real question in many cases is how big each audience is, and willing they are to open their wallets (or how much advertisers or funders value them.)

  2. […] But speed is only one metric that readers value. As I noted a decade ago: […]

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