In the 1990s, I was lucky enough to work at CNN with an icon in the news business. He was Bill Headline, longtime Washington Bureau Chief for the network. With a name like that, this guy was destined to be a great newsman. And he was. He steered the bureau through the early days when the broadcast networks poked fun at CNN ("Chicken Noodle News") and cable TV was fighting to make its mark. He understood the enormous responsibility, capability, and resources we had as the first 24-hour news network to deliver the news quickly, but also accurately. And he always said, "If we can't get it first, we've got to get it best." Those words guided my news career, and I wish Bill Headline was still alive to offer his sage advice to communicators now.
Clearly, we are immersed in a world of instant messaging, social networking, 24-hour everything. Anyone's news becomes everyone's news in a nanosecond. And we simply take that for granted. As an over-40 mom, I still consider myself a novice but evolving social networker. Just this week, I noticed I had neglected to fill out "relationship status" on the Facebook profile I'd created months earlier. Since I tied the knot 17 years ago, I figured I probably should edit that to indicate that I was, in fact, married. That mouse click was the shot heard 'round the world! Literally, within seconds, I was bombarded with messages and postings from everywhere, congratulating me on the big news of my nuptials. Many professional contacts I hadn't seen in years were surprised, happy for me. Others seemed confused, but wished me well anyways. Not one questioned me or asked, "Huh? What is this?" Everyone was just happy to get the newsflash.
I had a similar situation recently at work. I do public relations for a large insurance association in Washington. When the House of Representatives passed the health care reform bill in the middle of the night last week, my association issued a press release within seconds, reacting to the legislation and how it would affect our members and consumers. A few minutes later, several news stories broke which included quotes from our release. I could understand this if I worked for the House Speaker or the White House. But I work for one in a sea of hundreds of groups with an interest in these sweeping reforms. Don't get me wrong, this is an ideal result from my perspective—a PR person's goal, indeed. We were thrilled for a mention in these articles. But I cannot help but wonder if my group was cited simply because we were one of the first in the journalists' email inboxes. Did any of them really understand who we are and why it was important for us to react? Were our comments truly poignant and relevant (I'd like to think so) or merely convenient for tired reporters in the middle of the night? We won't ever know. No one called us for more information or to probe any further. They just instantly spit out what we had fed them.
Young and aspiring journalists and communicators of all kinds have Bill Headline's "get it first" mantra down pat. And that certainly has its merits. This generation is far more sophisticated and better than I am on the Facebook-Twitter-iPhone App landscape. It has to be. In our fast world, we are addicted to consuming news….fast. I wasn't sure how I'd survive when I first left CNN, not being the first person to know every little drop of news that flowed into the newsroom. Turns out, I'm fine. So I urge everyone to remember Headline's "get it best" message too. Whether it's Facebook commentary or bona fide news reports we write, are we too frequently hitting "send" without regard to context, analysis, or big picture perspective?
My friend used to teach a college class on online journalism. She had a lesson she called "Feed the Beast." Her warning to students was this: make sure, as news writers, that you have the resources and wherewithal to support the growth of your product. Deliver more and more news, and your audience craves it all the time. How does that affect quality? She asked them to consider whether it's better to create fewer, meatier features that you can better control and update. I think she and Bill Headline had it right.
Susan Nester '88, is Broadcast Media Director at IIABA. Previously she worked as Washington financial producer for CNN, organizing business coverage for CNN's nightly "Moneyline with Lou Dobbs" and other world financial programming.