Pragmatic journalism – how to balance quality and speed

laptop with coffee

My desk at 6am.

Every day I get up early and, coffee in hand, report for virtual duty at*.
The first order of business is to identify important developments on the African continent that have happened since the end of the last shift the previous evening, find those stories in allAfrica’s network of partners and get them up on the site, with speed.
This is a variation of an early morning routine I have done for many years – and speed is always part of the equation. There is always some new story, or a development on a running issue, that just has to get “out there” as soon as possible.
Working at speed in this way is popularly supposed to mean a decline in quality, as expressed succinctly on the Slow Journalism website:

“Today’s ultra-fast news cycle rates being first above being right. It tells us what’s happening in real time, but rarely what it means.”

But the reality is that in the broad church of journalism, there is a need for both fast and slow kinds of work.
If, for instance, a story appears in a feed list saying that the Sudanese president has fired all 31 of his cabinet ministers , is it appropriate to say we’re going to wait until all the details are in on this one? That we will wait until we have a proper analysis of what’s happened? And that we will hunt for a video of his making the announcement (assuming there is such a video)?
The answer is no.
The correct thing to do is post a quick report on the development, and then think about all the other aspects of the story (depending of course on what else is on the agenda – if there’s been another, bigger story the decision may be taken to concentrate resources on that. And in the meanwhile, the basic news has been recorded, as it should have been).

How to make working at speed as quality-filled as possible

There are certain guiding principles that will help a journalist under pressure:

1. Know your sources. Whether you are a reporter filing three quick breaking news paragraphs, or an online editor scanning Twitter for today’s hot stories, the crucial thing is to be sure of your source. For the reporter, that means knowing the credibility of the person from whom you have heard the news. For the editor, that means understanding the difference between a report from an unknown community radio station in a country other than your own and a report from an agency like Agence France Press. (Note – this doesn’t cast aspersions on community radio stations. It just means unless you understand context and have local knowledge, you should cross-check such reports against other news outlets).
2. Don’t try to be fancy. When working at speed, go for plain language and simplicity. Any attempts at a funny headline will slow you down and trip you up, and possibly mean a mistake is made.
3. Follow the good enough principle. If you know you can find a picture quickly on a government website, go for it. If you know it is going to take 10 minutes going down social media rabbit holes to find an image, just use a file picture. (And make sure it is a file picture of the right person!). The story doesn’t have to be perfect. It just has to be as accurate as you can make it in the time available.

*I’m not a permanent staff member at allAfrica – they are one of several clients for whom I do various kinds of online news work.

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