- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 26, 2005

Good old days

One of the things that used to make this job fun was that we got to see the news before anyone else.

Sitting here at our computer terminals, we would take a phone call from a reporter in some exotic locale or see bulletins flashing from the wire services, and thrill a bit at being in on something the rest of the world wouldn’t see until the next morning.

Some of it would come out in the hourly radio reports, of course, and if the news broke early enough it would be on the evening television network broadcasts. But the broadcast outlets had only 30 seconds or a minute to devote to each story, and anyone wanting the details would have to wait for the morning paper.

That began to change in the early 1990s with the rise of CNN, which had reporters in as many places as the news agencies and often broke stories before them. Now we have not only CNN but also Fox News and other 24-hour news channels, pumping the news to the public at the same time it reaches our newsroom.

Even more significant is the Internet, which gives anyone with a home computer immediate access to everything that appears on the news wires and more.

This has forced us to change the way we think about our jobs.

Now, as then, we encourage our reporters to look for exclusive stories or try to outshine the competition on the top stories of the day. But we used to fill out the section simply by going through the wires and picking the most important and interesting items.

That just doesn’t seem to be good enough any more. The chances are that by tomorrow morning the stories we are looking at this afternoon will be just as old and stale to the readers as they will be to us.

This means we have to find other reasons for our readers to keep dropping their quarters into the slots on the news boxes.

Value added

One thing we can do is press our reporters even harder to come up with significant stories that have not been reported anywhere else — even if that means skipping a press conference or briefing that all their colleagues are rushing off to cover.

It also means looking for ways to bring added value to the basic news of the day. This might mean using a freelancer instead of a wire service and looking for another angle to lead the story, or having an editor in Washington do research to place the event in a broader context.

It also sometimes means leaving out a story that has been on the television and Internet all day so that we can run something else from the wires or the newspaper syndicates that is more likely to be fresh.

Take Thursday’s foreign section as a case in point. On Wednesday afternoon, the top international stories on the wire agencies were a bomb attack in Lebanon, a clash between police and protesters in Kyrgyzstan and new pressure from China for North Korea to return to six-party nuclear talks.

We used the Lebanon story, but got our stringer Mitchell Prothero to write the story with lots of quotes from politicians in Beirut, who said they suspected that Syria was behind the bomb, hoping to show that Lebanon could not remain stable without Syrian troops.

We skipped the Kyrgyzstan story because we had carried something similar the day before. Instead we used a freelance story from Johannesburg — unseen anywhere else — saying South Africa’s Communist Party and trade unions had taken a lead role in criticizing the Zimbabwe government of Robert Mugabe.

We also passed on the North Korea story, which just as well could have appeared at almost any time in the past two years. Instead we used a story from a freelancer in northern Iraq reporting exclusively on the establishment of three new Iraqi battalions dedicated to protecting the country’s oil pipelines.

We hope our readers came away feeling they had learned something new.

David W. Jones is the foreign editor of The Washington Times. His e-mail address is djones@washingtontimes.com.

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