Chasing tomorrow's lead today

While we’re rethinking journalism these days, let’s spend a few minutes talking about what’s happened to the concept of the “second-day lead.” I suppose there are variations to this, but I was always taught that the first-day lead was the basic facts of the story — the who, what, why, where, when and how. Any one of these questions could be the actual lead, but news organizations in my day fought hard to get all into the first-day coverage.

The second-day lead was called “advancing” the story and dealt primarily with reaction. We had this big event, now what does everybody — involved or otherwise — think about this? This is where the family reaction, for example, was usually presented. Other stories flowing from the first usually came later — especially those dealing with what, if anything, went wrong.

I was watching cable news the other day when this came to mind, because it’s clear to me that there is no second-day lead anymore, and I think that’s not only bad for journalism, it’s bad for our culture, too.

Firstly, let’s always remember that “the news” is a business and a highly competitive one at that. The “scoop” is, therefore, one way news organizations can separate themselves from the rest, and while I think this is overrated by news organizations, it’s damned important inside newsrooms. News people keep score of these kinds of things, but the audience is weary of the hype associated with scoops.

So I suppose it’s understandable that over time we’ve moved the second-day lead to the first day (maybe we should call it the “second-hour” lead), because we’re always trying to beat the now thousands of other journalists on the hunt. This puts tremendous pressure on reporters and the culture as well, and it is a set-up for manipulation by self-serving interests who always seem to be Johnny-on-the-spot with their reaction.

Worse than even this is the new necessity to find blame that’s become mixed in with first-day coverage of an event. Talk about moving downstream leads into early coverage! Count the hours after a plane crash before the speculation begins about who or what was to blame. Ambulance-chasing lawyers need only watch the news to find their next paycheck. There’s a big difference between the “how” of a story and assessing blame; one that requires, oh no, time.

The problem, of course, is that by emphasizing downstream leads, something has to get set aside, and that’s increasingly a respect for the facts. This is a big contributing factor, I believe, in the collapse of public trust in the news, for if the facts aren’t right, then reaction is meaningless babble. Moreover, since our culture is built on taking sides, even if that reaction is spot-on, the “other side” will use factual errors or insufficiencies to shout it down anyway. I’ve long believed that special interests control much of what passes as news these days, because we’re too busy chasing the scoop.

People will argue that this has been brought about by the 24-hour news concept, but that’s only partially true, because the scoop mentality has been around for a very long time. What’s missing is the editor who will say “No,” because the business of news insists that facts get stale after, say, five minutes. The curiosity of human beings is insatiable, and by jamming a week’s worth of stories into the first day, news organizations are attempting to satisfy that lust. In so doing, however, we’re contributing to what sociologists fear is an increasing desire in our culture for quick and easy answers. But life isn’t like that, and what will 22nd century historians have to say about us?

I don’t think there’s an easy solution to this, but I do think we need to talk about it.

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