“Fast” Is the Enemy of “Good” — And “Accurate”, and “Deep”, And…

Wanna see a perfect encapsulation of what’s wrong with journalism, and particularly online journalism, these days? Just take a look at this piece by TechCrunch’s Ryan Lawler. Pay particular attention to the parts where he says:

I would be following someone else’s story half a day later, and no one wants to do that. I wrote back, explaining this: “…At this point, my inclination is not to cover, considering other reports were filed 12 hours ago.”

I don’t normally like to call people out so publicly and harshly, but in this case, Mr. Lawler provides such a glaring, textbook example that leaving it unchallenged would be a disservice to society.

This man purports to be a journalist, and yet he makes it clear he’d rather be first than anything else — it’s more important to him than accuracy, than depth, than balance, than giving a nuanced exploration of the issues or a clear and detailed rendition of the events that occurred.

In fact, he doesn’t merely claim that breaking the story first is the most important thing. He makes it sound like it’s the only thing. If he can’t be first, or within an hour or two of the break, he’d just as soon not run the story at all: I’ll be damned if I’m gonna follow someone’s story 12 hours after the fact.

Lawler claims it’s not just him. He says, Reporters are a prideful bunch. No one ever wants to follow someone else’s story., and points out that as of the time he wrote his article, nobody else had written about it, either (except for the one story that had broken the embargo). So I’d like to make it clear: I’m not saying that Mr. Lawler is any worse than other journalists — only that he is being more honest and blatant.

The real problem is modern journalism’s insistence on speed, and on “scoops”. This tendency is nothing new; the term itself dates back to 1874. But Internet news, and particularly blogs and Twitter, have kicked this tendency up to eleven. In the race to deliver the news faster and faster, we’ve sacrificed… pretty much everything else. And now we’ve hit the logical endpoint of that fallacy: If you can’t deliver the news first, don’t bother delivering it at all.

Which is sad, pathetic, and wrong. It might surprise Mr. Lawler, but his lament for a “ruined” launch was the first time I’d heard of Lyft. If he’d actually written about the service, instead of about how sad it was that he couldn’t get out the first story about it, I’d have read it with interest. (As it is, he seems to have come to his senses a day or so later, and penned a perfectly serviceable article talking about the imminent launch. It’s much better than his earlier “startup launch ruined” piece.)

In fact, giving up on competing on speed is the right thing to do. There are so many other things that are far more important in journalism. I’ve already named a few: Accuracy. Depth. Detail. Nuance and balance. They’re all mentioned way back in paragraph 4.

And it’s not like there isn’t any market for those things. Consider another major current story, the Apple-vs.-Samsung verdict. Lots of news outlets posted the US$1.05 billion award within seconds of its being handed down, but it took Pamela Jones and Groklaw to really look at the situation and note that the jury “goofed”, the “results were crazily contradictory”, and “something is very wrong with this picture”. And Jones’ analysis hasn’t gone unnoticed; Madisonian contributor and Villanova University School of Law Professor Michael Risch specifically calls out Groklaw at the end of his own most recent post on the trial, saluting them for “hav[ing] not only really detailed information, but really accurate information, and actual source documents. That combination is hard to find. (emphasis in original)”

My question: Why is it so hard to find? Shouldn’t this be considered basic, core competency for journalists? Reporting facts? If Pamela Jones (whose major training seems to be paralegal, not journalism) can do it, then why can’t so many professional journalists?

How about we start holding them to a higher standard?

Journalists, consider: If all you bring to the table is speed, you’ve already been beaten to the punch by Twitter. Find a better market differentiator.

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