#NYTimes: Continuous News vs. Page One

I arranged with a Stony Brook alum, Dave Joachim, an editor at The New York Times, to visit the paper with the nine students in my Reporting in NYC class on Jan. 11. The last time I brought a class there, the very senior editor who took us around pointed out staffer after staffer with Ivy League or similar private-school credentials – kind of a tin ear, I thought, and I figured Dave wouldn’t be so snooty. He wasn’t, of course; he was charming, and though he made the point that no Stony Brook senior is going to walk straight from graduation into a job at the Times, his experience – toiling in the vineyards of tech trade publications for 10 years (a worthy but unglamorous endeavor) before he took a stab and reached out to a Times business editor he’d met, a stab that after a year and a half of tryouts and waiting led to a job on the business copy desk, from which he gradually moved up to his current and very exciting job as banking editor – his experience shows that the Times isn’t out of reach forever to graduates of a public university. Nor should it be. Isn’t one of the problems of contemporary mainstream journalism the coziness of elite journalists and their sources?

Back to our visit. Dave had arranged a terrific morning for us, beginning, he hoped, with our sitting in on the morning Page One meeting (sitting in the visitors gallery, mind you). But someone had beaten him to the gallery seats, booking them for a group of students from Princeton; no comment.  Quick on his feet, Dave arranged for us to observe the morning meeting at the Continuous News Desk, which couldn’t have been a happier turn of events.

The Continuous News Desk meeting begins, much as Page One meetings do, with editors from around the newsroom drifting into the meeting area. Only instead of finding seats around a polished conference table overlooked by a visitors gallery, the editors gathered along a railing opposite the Continuous News editors’ pod, right in the heart of the newsroom. They stood, facing an array of five screens, each featuring a different electronic version of The Times: the nytimes.com homepage, the Times iPad app, the Times Twitter feed, the Times Facebook page and a mobile feed. Assistant Managing Editor Jim Roberts led the meeting, along with Patrick Lyons, one of the chief editors of continuous news. A Washington editor attended by speakerphone.

What made observing this group so appropriate for my students were its diversity, its relative youth and the jobs its members held. White men were in the minority, and as Dave later said, that ain’t the case at the Page One session. There were women. There were men of color. There were women of color. There were a couple of older editors, but most hadn’t had to worry much about covering the grey. And there was an editor from the social-media desk, another from the video desk and a third talking about the podcasts planned for the day – none of whom are represented at the Page One session. These are the kinds of jobs our students are training for, the kinds of jobs that didn’t exist when I and most of the Times staff were in journalism school.

As the meeting ended, we withdrew a short distance as Dave pointed out the areas in the newsroom that house the different desks. Pat Lyons wandered over. “I have a few minutes to spare,” he said, “and I’d be happy to answer any questions you have about what you just saw.”

One student asked about the difference in approach between the meeting we had witnessed and the Page One meeting. Pat’s thoughtful answer became one of my takeaways from the day:

For Page One, he said, the editors are constructing a fixed representation of the day’s news. It’s the version of the day’s news that will last as long as there is microfiche. When future historians want to find out what happened on Jan. 11, 2011, they will turn to this version of the newspaper.

The Continuous News Desk, on the other hand, is constantly evolving, and the moment-by-moment changes are evanescent, vanishing, so far as the average news consumer is concerned, whenever the editors update the site. At the meeting we observed, the editors had discussed when they expected certain stories (or videos or podcasts or photos) to be ready and how long a certain piece might remain at the top of the site before something came along to supersede it. It is a dynamic view of the day’s news.

Something to ponder for those who want to hurry the demise of print: Dynamism is a wonderful thing, but so is permanence. Each has its place in the relationships among society, immediacy and history. I suppose that the “Today’s Paper” feature of the Times, which allows Web readers to go back as far as a week and see the stories of the day as they appeared in print (minus placement on the page and juxtaposition with other stories, photos and advertisements), is archived on a server somewhere, and perhaps when print does die, those archives will be available to libraries, if not to the public at large. I, for one, am in no rush. I love the physical newspaper.

And while The New York Times, in all its glory and strength, dwells in its beautiful and severe Temple of Journalism, with priests and priestesses appareled in Ivy-tendrilled accolades, there is still the Daily News just a few blocks away, as gritty and and messy a newsroom as one can hope for in a computer age and one that performs the daily miracle of newspaper publishing with an equal, though different, sense of mission. We visited that newsroom on Jan. 18, and that visit was revelatory and hopeful in a different way. More on that in my next post.

    • Rachel
    • January 27th, 2011

    When I was in the SBU J-School, I read The Times everyday. It was usually the print version, supplied for free, by the school. Now that I would have to pay for the paper I of course read it online for free. But not for much longer. The Times’ upcoming paywall won’t deter me from visiting its site but I’m sure it will stop others.I haven’t read the print and online versions simultaneously in a long time but I would imagine their stories are very different. If print dies, will its print stories die with it? How will The Times change its approach to represent both print and digital stories online, capturing both print and digital readers? And will the paywall still exist when it’s no longer in print (hopefully when I’m no longer here)? I hate these questions, I wish there was no possible way The New York Times could stop printing its world-renowned newspaper. But papers, mostly smaller ones, fold every day. I would hate to think The Times would lose some of its great journalism to speedily post breaking news stories and let in-depth journalism fall to the side because online readers want some of the story now not all of the story later.

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