In the age of Twitter and streaming police radio communication, the bar for a newspaper is high when news breaks. Over the past couple of years we've come to see that crowd-sourced journalism is well suited to fast-breaking news. Thousands of eyes on the streets (or ears listening to the police scanner) can be a substitute for authoritative reporting — to a point, at least.
Meanwhile, among news outlets still practicing one-to-many journalism, television has long held the edge on timeliness, with helicopters and live pictures.
So when four Lakewood cops were slain in the Tacoma suburb of Parkland this week and a manhunt ensued, news junkies of course turned to Twitter to find out, to report, and to opine. The first person to report the apparent capture of fugitive Maurice Clemmons was a scanner-listener. Out in the real world, the helicopters were scrambled and the microwave masts were raised and press conferences were broadcast. A typical 21st century response to news.
But in the end — no, come to think of it, from the beginning — the story of four dead cops and one dead suspect was owned by our legacy ink-on-paper monolith, The Seattle Times. With as big a newsroom bureaucracy as they come around here, the Times turned a nimble double-play by providing deep reportage and super-timely alerts, many from the streets.
Well-crafted stories and an interactive timeline-map on the paper's website were supplemented by breathless updates on Twitter. And the tweets weren't always headlines linking to coverage at the Web site. Staffers including Executive Editor David Boardman were posting news as soon as they confirmed it, before there was anything to link to. That indicates a nuanced understanding — that for many people Twitter is as deep as they'll dive into the news, and that social media are distribution platforms for actual content and not merely ways to promote the main product.
So while a casual citizen journalist might have been first to report the shooting of Clemmons, it was the Times (and other established news outlets) that confirmed it at the scene, also via Twitter, and not long thereafter.
The Times also experimented with Google Wave, the real-time collaboration application that is seen by Google as the next iteration of email. With up to 500 people at a time weighing in with remarks on the Times-created "wave," it was hard to scan for relevant information, and I came to the conclusion that Wave was the wrong tool for the job. But good on them for trying it.
This was a huge brand-enhancing moment for the Times, which is teetering on the edge of the newspaper industry's fiscal cliff. Readers recognized the effort. Tweeted one: "Great work from @seattletimes covering the manhunt and shooting." People generally love to hate their local media, even though they get exactly the local media they deserve, but not so much this week.
It should be noted that The News Tribune of Tacoma — the shooting of the four police officers was in their back yard — provided noteworthy coverage, too. And SeattlePI.com did amazingly well considering how outnumbered that post-ink staff is. But the Times had them all outgunned, on the Web and in print.
Ten years ago, television owned live coverage of the seminal World Trade Organization protests in Seattle. TV is still a big player in bringing breaking news into our homes. But it's no longer the only platform of instantaneous dissemination. An ink-on-paper dinosaur has evolved.
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