The Denver, Colorado Batman shooting last night not only shocked and revolted the world as yet another horrific spree killing unfolded, but – as a side issue – perfectly illustrated the problem faced by newspapers in a digital world. How does old technology compete with the new?
News of the mayhem at The Dark Knight Rises midnight screening began filtering through on Twitter around 6.30pm, hours after the attack. I first saw Sydney Morning Herald writer Michael Idato (@michaelidato) re-tweeting Denver journalist Justin Joseph (@justinjoseph)’s breaking news tweets around 7.20pm.
Like many others I immediately turned to trusted news sources for more information. I checked the ABC website where a live blog had been set up to follow the unfolding events, The Courier-Mail website and then began scanning US news sites – NBC, CNN, Huffington Post, New York Times, and whatever Google could reveal on the latest news. I was looking for information – who did it, why, how many dead.
Twitter, as is often the case these days, yielded the most information in a steady stream. By 8pm I knew how many dead (14, which was later corrected to 12), who did it (a 24-year-old white male wearing a gas mask and body armour, carrying two handguns. This morning I learned he also had a rifle and a shotgun) and that a one-year-old baby was among his victims.
This is the nature of the news these days. I got everything I needed to know instantly.
At The Courier-Mail, by the time the scale of the tragedy became apparent, most of the Saturday paper first edition was already completed for an 8pm deadline. Subs were told about 7.30pm that the front page and pages 4 and 5 were to be stripped of their already completed content, which would be replaced with massacre content.
Time was short. In this situation there are many questions the newspaper staff need to answer – how serious is this, how much will our readership care, how much space do we need, what will we ditch to get that space, and very importantly, HOW will we cover it?
Newspapers are in a tricky position. The print readership is a different demographic than the online readership, in my opinion.
So part of the coverage, by necessity, must include what happened, for those readers who do not get their news online. How many were killed, how many injured, who did it, where, when and why. The basics.
But by the time I woke up this morning, I already knew all of that. So I had no need for the print edition of the newspaper. It contained only what I had read online several hours earlier. By the time I rolled out of bed at a leisurely 7.30am all that news was well and truly reported. The most current, and up to date information this morning was to be found online, with its capacity for second-by-second updates.
It’s a problem for newspapers and one that has no immediate answer. One way forward could have been to present deeper and broader analysis. Another mass killing at the hands of a gun toting young man. Put it into context with the other spree killings, explore issues of why and how these things happen. Colombine, Port Arthur, Virginia Tech, Norway – what do all these things have in common? There are a raft of issues – gun control, movies, video games, music videos – that people look to when these things happen. Find some experts and give this latest incident context.
But that kind of reportage takes time to develop and in the 30 minutes that the newspaper had before the print presses started rolling, it’s difficult – nigh on impossible – to mine those kinds of answers.
So what’s the answer? I don’t know, but I don’t think it’s all bad news.
In the days to come newspapers will regain the edge over the digital world. When you open a double-page spread of a newspaper you can see a group of stories packaged together – a profile on the killer, a story about how he was captured, a piece running down the side on his life at school along with a yearbook picture, analysis into the growing epidemic of these spree killings (and if you think epidemic is a strong word, the wiki page lists three spree killings already this year where between five and seven people were killed. In 2011, the year Anders Breivik shot 77 people dead in Norway, four other spree killings occurred where seven people were killed each time).
The newspaper has the edge over the digital world because online, a news website can only pull the reader in one story at a time. The printed newspaper page has everything presented and packaged in an accessible, convenient format. Newspapers excel at analysis, at behind-the-scenes exploration of what happened, how it happened and how it might be prevented from happening again.
In my humble opinion, newspapers serve a vital role in delivering news and analysis to an informed community. It’s just that the role has slightly evolved from what it used to be in order to accommodate the immediacy of the online news.
What are your thoughts on the coverage of the Aurora killing spree? Has it been handled better by online than by print? Vice versa? When – and how – did you learn about it?