NBC's decision to show 12-hour old Olympic events, many that have been already well documented in social media and even on their own live streams, reminds me very much of some of the challenges newspapers face between print and online.
There has been a flutter of activity on Twitter and every social site in the world it seems, since the Olympics started, with folks slamming NBC for showing outdated events during primetime.
Four years ago even, it wasn't that big of a deal. But it's almost impossible to avoid learning of the results now because of social media and news outlets giving audiences what they want: News as it happens.
NBC's reason is purely financial. They make the most money from advertisers during those primetime hours and need viewers and the best way to get viewers is to hold back the most popular stuff.
At least from a viewer standpoint, I don't like what they are doing. I remember on Day 2 of the Olympics, Brian Williams teasing the results of a Michael Phelps race on the 6:30 evening newscast and then watching Bob Costas tease the race all night as if it were not already decided. And the fact that everything is streamed online is even weirder. It's as if NBC's digital team is in 2012 and their TV folks are living as if it's 1996 or something.
Oh, but writing this is very eery, isn't it? You could relate many of the issues NBC is struggling with to newspaper challenges.
— Primetime dollars related to print dollars.
— Providing the same news to readers 12 hours later.
— Digital staffs being connected with 2012 readers, while some traditional folks only think about the print product.
That second point really sticks out. NBC is basically saying, we may know major news, but we're going to provide you the news no differently than how it actually occurred 12 hours ago.
In a traditional model, this reminds me how a newspaper might cover a house fire. They write the story in a very inverted pyramid kind of way for their website. The story is loaded with facts and maybe a quote from the fire chief. In print the next day, the headline says something like "Fire destroys downtown home." The story is the same that ran online and the reality is that the print reader ends up reading what is 24-hour-old news.
In a non-traditional model, here's how it could work: The reporter covers the house fire, they file something online and to social media as soon as it happens, they get a 10-inch story about the facts up on the website as soon as possible, with a photo gallery and/or video. And the story gets an update or two throughout the day if new information comes in. In print the next day, the headline reads "Family has wonderful memories of house that burned." The print story reports what happened, but has some color from what a reporter likely got and has much more of a second-day feel. Another angle would be looking at how many house fires there have been this year so far and making the story more about that topic, than something that happened 24 hours ago.
That house fire story is a great example of the problem that NBC faces. Instead of 12-hour-old events, they could turn their primetime newscast into interviews with the athletes, perspective from the analysts and some highlights, with a look ahead at tomorrow's events.
A few years ago, the Jon Stewart Show did a hilarious story profiling the New York Times. The story basically mocks newspapers — so, OK, it's not so funny if it's your industry — but makes a great point about yesterday's news in the print paper. Yesterday's news in the print newspaper deserves to be made fun of when we do nothing to offer a different angle to the news we're covering and when we don't attempt to advance the content forward.
Readers want to know what happened in their community. That's clearly one of the main reasons that folks buy the newspaper. But we can't assume that many of those readers aren't finding out what's happening in our communities as it happens. That means that we have to be really smart about how we write print content, that some of it, especially the stuff we put on our front pages, can't be presented as breaking news. It's not breaking news. It's 24 hours later. Yes, document what happened, but find an angle that makes it more appropriate for the audience that's reading it. That audience wants depth, detail and an understanding of why it matters. This isn't about writing two stories, but taking your web story and adding logical layers into it for your print audience.
When we effectively do that, we're creating much more value around the print product.
To bring this full circle back to the NBC issue, there have been a few stories this week that said — generally speaking — viewers were OK with watching coverage that was outdated. In fact, NBC is reporting that primetime numbers are up for the Olympics.
The next summer games will be in the same time zone as the United States so this likely isn't to be an issue, but at some point it will be a problem again. And you have to imagine, that as our digital world continues to evolve and information becomes so very immediate, that viewers' expectations are going to change and folks won't accept 12-hour old coverage. It's the same thing for the print product, at some point, readers are no longer going to accept 24-hour-old news in our products. While both print readers and TV viewers accept that today, they won't eventually and we have to start making changes in our industry to be prepared for that shift.