Who Needs Meetings? Online News Ventures Do

By Susan Older

Founder, Displaced Journalists

I realized quite recently that I’ve been missing out on something that should be fascinating: TimesCast – a daily video feature on The New York Times site featuring interviews with writers and editors covering hot stories of the day and snippets from meetings of senior editors discussing what should go on the front page on that particular day.

The newspaper launched “TimesCast” March 22, 2010, with a short story featuring this quote from Ann Derry, the paper’s editorial director for video and television. “It’s not just straight, breaking news, it’s talking about the way The New York Times is looking at the story – our analysis, our particular take on the story. We already produce a lot of video to go along with stories, but we felt the need to have a regular video news overview on the home page.”

A piece in The Very Short List calls TimesCast boring and somewhat demonstrative of the stodginess of the newspaper itself, but gives it credit for being “an intriguing step in the alternately heroic and goofy struggle by newspapers to stay relevant in the electronic era.”

I agree, but I don’t think the video succeeds in making The New York Times more relevant. It has the potential to be informative, but it’s not. It has the potential to be substantial, but it’s not. It gives me little insight into what goes on behind the scenes at the paper and it fails to tell me anything new about the top stories. Watch this one from Friday, April 16, and see what you think. It’s possible that it appears lacking in substance because it’s just ramping up. But a company like The New York Times should have the resources to have a new feature ready for prime time before launching it.

I have a strong suspicion that Times editors don’t take this initiative seriously. It doesn’t appear every day; if you check the archives, it has only appeared a smattering of times, and definitely not daily. As I write this on a Sunday, the most recent TimesCast on the Times site is from Friday. So my guess is that it’s an experiment, a token nod by the newspaper’s leadership to what they seem to see as an Internet fad that nips at them like an annoying little dog.

However, I’m happy I ran across TimesCast, because it brought back memories of our daily top editors meeting at USA Today, and forced me to draw a new conclusion about online news operations.

I still have a VHS tape somewhere around the house of our afternoon (top editors) meeting at USA Today, in which I appear because I was Page 1 editor for the LIFE section. That’s probably why I kept it.

At USA Today, the assignment and leading editors for each section (NEWS, MONEY, SPORTS and LIFE) had their own separate meetings in the mornings to discuss and decide on the stories we would pursue throughout the section that day. After the meeting, we went into the newsroom to assign stories and talk with reporters. Then we went up to the Photo & Graphics department to get photos or graphics started for stories that called for them. We spoke at length with graphics staffers about the details of each story and gave the photo side the information they needed to get suitable photos. In the early afternoon, after we knew where we stood on various stories, both planned and breaking, those of us who led each section would meet with the top editors of the paper as a whole. That’s when we all pitched our best stories to the top editors to try to get them on the front page. Each of us informed top editors of where we stood on the day’s major stories.

I left USA Today in 1994 after two yeas as managing editor of The Gannett New Media Group to be founding editor in the launch of Ziff Davis’ Inter@ctive Week. It was the first news magazine to cover the Internet. It was later combined with other Ziff Davis publications to become eWeek.

I suppose my VHS video from 1990 might be boring to some, but it’s not to me. True, it’s just another day at the paper and it doesn’t really matter which stories everyone’s talking about.

What I realized when I saw TimesCast is that the importance is that the editors were talking at all.

I have worked at numerous online news and information ventures since I left USA Today. Not once have I worked as an editor or content director at an Internet venture that had daily meetings to discuss content among top editors. And not once in an online operation’s newsroom have I seen the same kind of intense discussion about stories and art that we once carried on at USA Today.

Do any Internet publications take the time to discuss each story seriously and in depth every day, throughout the day? The fact that you’re posting updates all day long does not remove the responsibility.

What’s missing from online news today: the culture of accountability. It doesn’t matter whether you post it as video; it matters that you have it. And this doesn’t apply only to small, Internet-only news sites. It’s often missing from the major newspaper sites, as well.

If we expect to make journalism online as great as newspaper journalism used to be, we have to treat each story, each debate over its importance, play, and sources, with respect. We have to carry on the old tradition in the new medium.

If we can do that, we have a chance to make newspapers online remain relevant.


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