Spearheading the ‘slow news’ movement

When American author and journalist Peter Laufer started his Slow News Movement three years ago, many considered it to be nothing more than a futile revolt against the inevitable increased velocity of content creation – and consumption – brought about by digital disruption in the news publishing industry. Fast forward to 2016 and Laufer’s push-back against ‘empty-calorie news’ is gaining waves of support.

Inspired by the Slow Food Movement it is unsurprising that Laufer uses like-sounding analogies to outline his Slow News revolution. With phrases like a “healthier approach to journalism” and a “balanced and nutritious news diet” he argues that news agencies should eliminate the sense of urgency to allow readers and journalists some valuable time to ruminate. “Just doing more noise on more platforms doesn’t serve the journalist at all,” argues Laufer.

Delayed Gratification homepage ()

There are several reasons why online publishers would question the likelihood of success by adopting this approach. As a start search engines like Google are simply not intelligent (for lack of a better word) enough to truly value slow news. Or as Rob Orchard, editor of slow journalism magazine Delayed Gratification warns, “being first in today’s news environment has become much more important than being right”. With most news organisations still desperately trying to figure out how to deal with the disruption of traditional revenue models, almost everyone continues to believe that the virility and click-ability of posts make the most commercial sense.

The slow news advocates however argue that fast-paced, empty-calorie journalism simply does not inform or inspire. In fact, says Orchard, it has forced journalism to “take a turn for the worst” as fundamentals like accuracy, impartiality, context and depth of reporting are left behind in the scramble to get reams of text online. “Journalists need to jettison many of the things they thought were fundamentals to their craft, like taking time to speak to people and getting real quotes, finding and checking facts and writing text which is the best proximity to the truth.” 

Orchard’s magazine Delayed Gratification is an example of what the slow news movement wants to value in reporting: an investment in tracking down and publishing well told stories from journalists “on the ground”, picking up the pieces of stories told by agencies but left behind once the hype has blown over, and avoiding speculation, conjecture and the “hot air” often found where journalists need to fill the abyss created by the online 24/7 news cycle. 

Marie-Catherine Beuth, a UK-based journalist and fellow at Stanford University says for the slow news movement to be successful, the industry needs to break the “slavery” created by the 24-hour news cycle. Beuth is quoted by Dr Sue Joseph and Dr Carolyn Rickett of the University of Technology and the Avondale College of Higher Education in Sydney in a study report entitled “No News Today: 24/7 fatigue and the welcome gaps in reporting storylines”. They argue that, at times, silence is better than speculation. Instead of forcing news consumers to battle to keep up with the 24/7 news cycle, it would be better to bet on the fact that people have missed pieces of an unfolding story and don’t have a lot of time to catch up on news. To solve this, news agencies need to slow down the pace and consumption of news. This leave us with “less noise and more substance”, which should make the media experience more valuable to consumers and “hopefully improve the economics of journalism”.

It is in the “economics of journalism” that slow news will live or die. Only if the majority of news consumers value (read: will be prepared to pay for) and wait for quality news, rather than receive it incrementally over and over again, that the slow news revolution will be successful.

The case is best argued by Laufer who says “if your house is on fire, you will need to know about it immediately so that you can leave. But if someone else’s house is on fire, and he or she is on another continent an ocean away, you do not need to know about it right away”. There is little point in bringing our audience moment-by-moment updates about firefighters and ambulances arriving on the scene.

“Reporting in such incremental fashion only leads to a waste of emotion and creates a sense of constant anxiety in the audience.” It is not news, but superficial, redundant ‘mindless chatter’ that is usually completely unnecessary to our existence, but used to fill up time and space, to grab eyeballs and keep them there, whether it be television, online or other platforms.For change to happen, it will need to start with management, says Laufer. Management will need to pull journalists away from ‘eye-candy stories’ and allow them to exert some of the creativity that has been anaesthetised because “they’ve just been jumping for the latest sirens”.

By taking a step back from the current rushed reporting approach, it will allow journalists to produce stories that are more consequential and of value to consumers, appealing both to the audience’s desire to be entertained as well as informed.

After all of this has been said and done, reality also dictates that we need search engines that will value slow news and audiences prepared to pay – more – for news.

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