News Columns & Blogs

How important is breaking news? Plenty for TCH

As a third-generation newspaperman and history minor in college, I enjoy looking back into where our industry came from - and trying to figure out where it is going.

Newspapers ruled the media landscape for more than a century prior to the advent of news radio and, later, television. Between the two world wars, radio gained importance in providing immediacy to news coverage. Starting in the '60s and cementing itself during the Vietnam War, television news emerged. The first Gulf War helped CNN usher in the era of 24-hour television news coverage.

Through all of these eras, newspapers ceded breaking news. Because of our medium - ink on paper - we were unable to compete with radio and TV on breaking news. But the Internet has not only leveled that playing field, it also has given us a distinct advantage in a local setting. Newspapers already have the largest news-gathering staffs in most markets, especially midsized regions like the Tri-Cities.

The Tri-City Herald launched its website in 1996, but we were reticent to "give away" the news on the Internet for a few years for a variety of reasons. Primary amid these was that we had to get used to this form of news delivery and figure out a way to make money while we were at it.

That said, the Herald actually has a decent history of posting breaking news online. For example, not long after we launched, the Department of Energy was planning to announce who would get the new Hanford contract. Wanda Briggs, our Hanford reporter back then, was unable to get the scoop for the paper that went out the day the contract was to be announced. The big press conference was at 10 a.m., which meant the news would be pretty stale by the time we delivered the paper some 20 hours later. At 7 a.m. the big day, Wanda called me at home and said she'd learned Fluor had won the contract. Her source figured it wouldn't matter that she knew ahead of time since the newspaper already was on most readers' breakfast tables by that time.

But that source forgot about the Internet. The day prior, Wanda had pre-written three stories for us to post online, each dependent upon who won the contract. When she called me at 7 a.m., I hustled down to the paper and posted the story by about 7:30 a.m. Almost immediately, I received an email from an alert online reader, pointing out I'd spelled Fluor wrong ("Flour," a mistake that would be made numerous times for years to come - though not by me again). Within the hour, the NPR station in Seattle was quoting our story on the air. And by 10 a.m., everybody in the Tri-Cities who cared knew Fluor would be the winner, deflating the DOE press conference that morning.

It wasn't until five years ago that the Herald got really serious about posting breaking news stories on our website as an important part of our strategy. Today, it is a big focus for our city desk, and we have various email alerts that help keep readers informed - and drive them back to our site. And in this era of social media, we regularly post the latest news and information on Facebook and Twitter.

I was reminded of all this on Thursday while I was compiling our website traffic statistics for October. Our breaking news section of the site brought in more than 175,000 page views, and the top six stories from last month all were breaking news.

This isn't meant to discount the stories that go into each day's paper. In fact, stories from what we affectionately refer to as the "dead tree edition" accounted for nearly 300,000 page views in October.

One of the great joys of this profession is learning what is happening and sharing that information with others. Thanks to the Internet, we are able to do that better than we ever have before.