The race to be second

The race to be second

Hear me out on this one. It may sound strange at first, in an industry that likes to promote itself with phrases like, “you heard it here first,” but I think we’re not actually in a race to be the first.

To win and survive, I believe we should actually strive to find an equilibrium among speed, urgency and the robustness of the experience we offer to our audience.

In past presentations to students, I’ve called this, “The race to be second.”

Let me try to convince you, too.

4 truths

  1. We’re very rarely first to publish. Even if we beat all of our competitors in the market, the odds are that a police department has already posted something on Twitter or a witness has tagged us in an Instagram post. As evidenced with the Denver Police Department’s recent switch to encrypted scanners, a growing number of public agencies believe they can and should do their own first-line reporting.
  2. Being first to publish can actually cause our audience to search elsewhere for information, if we’re offering incomplete context or a frustrating experience.
  3. Most users only have a handful of news apps on their phone, and perhaps only one or two that are local. Similarly, we cannot expect the audience to follow every competitor on social media. As professionals we follow everyone, and that can give us a false sense of how the public perceives our competitive speed.
  4. Audiences care more about how we serve them and less about how we compare with other outlets.

And now, the syllogism

If you agree with my truths above (And why wouldn’t you? They’re truths, after all.), you should reach a conclusion that speed alone is not a factor which can ensure long-term loyalty.

My assertion is that we should strive to find the right balance between speed and context.

We don’t want to be last to publish because the passing of time dulls the urgency of a piece of breaking news. That’s why I call this the race to be second, not third or fourth.

We also don’t want to publish something that seems noticeably incomplete, because the audience is smart enough to ask obvious questions and look elsewhere for answers.

If the seesaw of possible outcomes stretches between fast-but-frustrating and slow-but-complete, I suggest that a balanced strategy will give our audience the best experience — and that’s what keeps them coming back for more.

Where the race doesn’t apply

Obviously, the race to be second applies primarily to daily breaking news. It doesn’t apply to enterprise or investigative stories.

There is an important similarity, however. If we’re publicizing an investigative story, we want to have our ducks in a row so that the holistic experience can be robust, engaging and informative — which are same criteria we seek to balance in the race to be second with breaking news.

The difference between breaking news and news we break is that timeliness is less of a factor in the later.