Time is not on your side

During my freshman year of college, my parents got me an out-of-state subscription to the Oregonian newspaper, as a way to make me feel less homesick while living in Spokane. Twice a week, issues of the Oregonian would arrive in my tiny mailbox, filled with stories from my hometown.

But the more I read them, the more I noticed a recurring problem: it was old news.

Because I was an out-of-state subscriber, the issues were printed at different times of day earlier that the normal deadlines for Portland. As a result, the information in the issues was outdated; anything that happened after a certain deadline didn’t make the paper. On top of that, the issues needed to be mailed to me, which meant longer travel time from the publisher to my mailbox. I would flip through the pages and find news stories and NBA box scores from two days earlier.

Oh, and there was a little thing called the Internet.

Like most people, I wasn’t waiting for the print edition to reach my mailbox in order to get the day’s news. I visited the Oregonian’s web page every morning, along with the web sites of the Spokesman-Review, the New York Times, and others. I had already read these stories in three different places. By the time I actually got those physical copies, it felt like I was reading ancient history on papyrus.

This was in 2005, a couple of years before Twitter and other social media tools changed the way people consumed news. Now, people want as much information as they can as fast as they can.

On the surface, it can be difficult to keep up. The more I became involved with media, the more I learned about the importance of immediacy. I worked on a weekly student newspaper while in college, and we learned quickly that coverage of an event from two days prior was unacceptable. All of our readers had the time and ability to gather that information much faster than waiting for us to publish once a week. When I started work as a TV news reporter, I found out stories needed to be done immediately. From the time I got into work, I just had a few hours to put an entire story together for air – interviews writing, editing, everything. If you wait until the next day, the competition gets it first, and you’re finished.

That’s not even including tweeting out information, sharing stories in Facebook, or posting raw video to YouTube. Readers and viewers have made their choice, and the choice is NOW NOW NOW.

What’s a print edition to do?

You have to play to your strengths.

The big advantage of print editions is time. You don’t have a 5 o clock deadline, so you can take time to craft a story or lay out a page. The key is providing the right kind of information.

People want breaking news immediately. They want to know what’s happening right now. Who won the election? How many points did the basketball team score? Where is the fire burning? Give that information to them quickly. Then, use your print edition to go in-depth.

Young college newspaper staffs struggle with finding the right stories, so they turn to what’s easy: events, meetings and games. Things that happen at a specific time and place. But in this day and age, waiting for two days to publish about a specific event is too late; people consume their news faster now. So feed them a steady diet of breaking news and developing stories online. Then, feed them a dessert of in-depth coverage.

Was there a big football game Saturday, but you publish on Monday? Get the game recap online after the game, then give me a feature story on a key football player on Monday. Marijuana get legalized in a recent election? Give me the results online, then publish an investigative feature for the next print edition.

It takes a lot of work. Reporters and editors will need to devote the time to writing stories ahead of time, or working hard to turn a story for the next day. Waiting any longer just doesn’t cut it in today’s media. It’s tough; students have classes and jobs and responsibilities. But that’s the reality of daily media: you’re always on. If you are not constantly looking for new ways to keep readers from jumping ship, you will fail.

And in case you’re wondering, I cancelled that subscription to the Oregonian when it became obvious that I had already read everything before the paper got to me.

Don’t give people a reason to cancel their subscription to your paper. Don’t give them a reason to leave it on the newsstand. Balance the immediacy of social media and the in-depth advantages of your print editions. Keep it timely.

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