Friday, June 26, 2009

Michael Jackson: how to cover a running story

Michael Jackson’s death fell just right for the late editions, to the relief of night editors who must have been wetting themselves at the thought of running a 3am Final in limbo.

But they had enough on their plates, coping with web updates as speculation grew and newsrooms turned in desperation to Twitter which was, to anyone sifting their tweets, ahead of the game with the first referrals to TMZ, who broke the story way ahead of anyone.

It was interesting reading. As the midnight hour approached and many of the 60,000 tweets were reflecting the death line (Thanks to David Cohen, or dgcohen23, for that), The Times prefixed their home page splash with Breaking: Jackson 'dies' after suffering heart attack. The story moved very slowly though and the more follows was slow to live up to its promise.

The BBC got round it by splashing on Gravely ill Jackson in hospital and shoving their media player across top of the home page for some real-time reporting.

The Guardian did have Michael Jackson dead but attributed with say reports. They too offered only a few lines. Oddly, they were still attributing doubt to the hours-old: Farrah Fawcett dies at age of 53 – PA.

The SEO-savvy Telegraph wisely used cardiac arrest in a clunky-but-friendly 13-word head and repeated it in a 22-word summary. They did much better on the copy though, pulling together a story long enough to justify the subject, even if they had Micheal in the headline briefly. Ouch. Been there.

Then, as Google was apparently crashing under the strain of a search-term siege, TV news reports repeated, almost by the minute, that the reports were “uncomfirmed”.

At around 11.50, the BBC announced: Singer Michael Jackson is 'dead' then rather sloppily added a list of links that included the earlier gravely-ill story.

USA Today fared a lot worse. At 11.30, their site led with Michael Jackson dies at 50 - but clicked through to a lengthy obit with no mention of his death or the circumstances. A case of grab what you can from the basket and throw it up. An intro would have helped.

The New York Times had Michael Jackson, 50, is dead but put the story in the 'arts beat' section. Worse, it consisted of an incoherent series of blog-style posts with garbled reaction

By this time the Telegraph were rewriting the style book on attribution with an intro that announced he was dead, according to showbiz site TMZ, the LA Times, AP, the BBC and PA. Back well covered then, chaps.

The Mirror joined the slower sites by sitting on a couple of pars with a more follows and The Sun relied on a series of Yahoo links!

It was harder for the live broadcasters. Sky managed to grab a bit of airtime with Paul Gambaccini who managed to fill a quote book (remember those?) on his own with gems such as: “It’s the biggest news story in the world at the moment. I know it’s number one in Japan for example”; and when likening his death to that of John Lennon, adding: “There was one difference there. There was violence. Murder is much worse than a heart attack.”

But quote of the night went to Sky: “We just spoke to Uri Geller, a close friend. He was so emotional he couldn’t speak to us.”