The attention-grabbing logic of online news coverage
The Guardian headline, from 14 November, reads: ‘Paris Attacks: day after atrocity – as it happened.’ Below it sits a set of bullet points:
• Three of eight Paris attackers were from Brussels, police believe
• Statement claiming to be from Islamic State says France is the ‘key target’
• Attacks were retaliation for France’s bombing in Syria, ISIS says
• 127 died in attacks, Hollande says; 200 more were injured, 99 critically
Now archived blog content, this information is a ‘sticky post’ – a new template for online journalism, in which a fixed header acts as the lead content for a story, while updates roll underneath in a fashion strikingly similar to your Facebook wall. In the content from autumn last year, these bullet points are accompanied by a likewise fixed video, which holds the centre of the screen. Click ‘play’ on the ostensible teaser and gunshots are heard as victims flee a building – or attempt to – while an agitated bystander can be heard asking in French: ‘Please, what’s going on?’ Although harrowing, this eyewitness video wipes to the tagline ‘the guardian/the whole picture’, which then fades to adverts for unrelated news stories.
But is this, in fact, the whole picture? Like The Guardian, The New York Times has been experimenting with a revamped ‘live blog’, which, according to a November 2015 Times’ Insider piece, is ‘journalist jargon for a series of short, reverse-chronological bursts of information’. ‘[We] try’, Hanna Ingber, an assistant editor on the International Desk of The New York Times, continues, ‘to bring readers along for the ride.’1 This ‘explainer’ column didn’t present the hows and the whys of the then-recent Paris and Mali attacks but, instead, explicated how and why the paper covered them on the new blog. According to Ingber, ‘when the news is big and breaking’ the live-blog format presents ‘quick updates’ from ‘reporters in the field’, ‘points readers to eyewitness accounts and official statements via social platforms like Twitter and Instagram’, and shows ‘maps and photographs’, as well as videos. Ideally, live blogs ‘make it easy for readers who are intensely following a news story to know what is the latest news’.
For most of the 20th century, the newspaper industry was stable and characterized by local monopolies. Since the 1990s, however, the entire business has been upended as wave after wave of digital innovations, such as aggregator and mobile-based sites, now compete for print journalism’s audience. To address the economic and marketing dynamics of these disruptive technologies, The New York Times commissioned an internal ‘innovation’ report, which was leaked in May 2014. Among the paper’s concerns was the worry that they were ‘falling behind’ their competitors such as The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, The Guardian and others as they ‘watched readership fall significantly’ on not only their website but also on their smartphone apps; it was, as the report bemoans, ‘an extremely worrying sign’.2
Two years on from this innovation report, the major daily papers are seemingly enmeshed in a rapidly intensifying media arms race. While The New York Times has floated experiential ploys such as NYT VR, a downloadable platform that presents augmented-reality human-interest films to be viewed on VR glasses such as Google Cardboard, The Guardian’s ‘Mobile Innovation Lab’ (a recent pilot project designed to test how news can be delivered on mobile phones) experimented with WhatsApp, a chat-messaging service owned by Facebook, to live blog a December 2015 Republican Party debate. No matter the trail, though, the prize is always you: the attracted and absorbed reader. Unsurprisingly, then, Ingber’s piece for The New York Times ends with the questions: ‘Did you follow our live blogs during the recent Paris or Mali attacks? What did you like? What needs improvement?’
As I sit writing this in Brussels, there is a snowstorm hitting New York. Although I’m over 11,000 kilometres away, I decide to watch an emergency live blog opened by The Guardian. (The New York Times, which would normally be my go-to for local news, is pay-walled.) Will the storm live up to the epic forecasts The Guardian teasingly emailed me the day before or will it be a dud? Curiously, several British readers leave comment-section snark, wondering why a UK paper is covering this fluff. On the official feed, though, travel bans are juxtaposed with a flood of amateur footage documenting immense and mesmerizing snow drifts; the blinking white signal that lets me know we’re ‘live’ keeps me rapt as I check in, and continue to check back for more. Although the storm is yet to break records, Alfred Hitchcock’s quip, ‘There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it,’ echoes as I watch the news ticker.
For those who feared they might miss something during the Paris attacks, The New York Times experimented with a dedicated email service. The paper’s deputy editor for interactive news, Ben Koski, went on record saying, ‘It’s a great way to bring people back in,’ while his colleague, Aaron Krolik, needed to ‘look at the numbers’ to see how ‘the appetite has changed’ before deciding if the paper would roll out this one-off service again.3 Personally, I’m beginning to doubt the effects of non-stop, invasive coverage that seeks, first and foremost, to take my devices hostage – and me with them. Are snowstorms really equitable to terror attacks? Or are they both simply media grist for a hungry beta-testing mill (The Guardian also seamlessly uses the same fast-pace format for football matches) in which digital strategy is on a par with journalism?
On 23 November, The Guardian published an opinion piece to address the reception of their live blog coverage entitled: ‘What we got right and wrong, in the Paris Attacks Coverage.’4 Here, Readers’ Editor Chris Elliot addressed audience complaints, not least those about the graphic nature of the images relayed. We learn that the paper avoided ‘using video of a body being dragged along an alley’ – something that is clearly visible in a longer cut of the same film circulating elsewhere on the internet. Instead, The Guardian edit holds on a pregnant woman hanging for dear life out of a third-floor window. Although bloodless, this filmic cliffhanger was later linked to a follow-up piece speculating on the fate of the woman and her unborn child, still left in doubt.5 In a similar fashion, other videos can be found within this expanded coverage, including other fly-on-the-wall clips that sadistically take you right in front of the action. Tellingly, this final report does not fail to mention that The Guardian’s online coverage of the November attacks garnered over 13 million page views. Whether the constant morphine drip of calamities on tap is unsettling or numbing, it is certainly becoming habit-forming.
First published in Issue 178