How News is Like Strawberries

Strawberries aren’t cheap. A regular-sized container costs about $5 at this time of year, depending on whether you can find them on sale. It costs less than $1 for an apple. You can get a banana for about 30 cents. Admittedly, they’re no blueberries, which are $3 for a container half the size of the one strawberries come in, but still, I don’t like to waste strawberries.

My teen daughter loves strawberries and blueberries, of course. She eats essentially no other fruits or vegetables (unless you count potatoes, which I don’t). My husband and I tease her that her additions to the grocery list look like those of a child. She wants Flaming Hot Cheetos, a big frozen pizza, mac and cheese, cheese cubes, and fruit. By “fruit,” I know she means the most expensive fruit in the produce section. She is my daughter, after all. Wanting the most expensive thing in any store is a hereditary honor. I buy at least the strawberries. I don’t always swing for the blueberries, but I always get the strawberries. I just hope that maybe she’ll throw a bowl of strawberries and a couple of multivitamins into the junk food rotation.

My daughter is always happy when I bring home the strawberries. She usually says something like “Oh good, you got strawberries” like she’s surprised or like this is the only thing she wanted (I promise, it wasn’t.). If she’s feeling really feisty, she eats some of the strawberries immediately. Usually she waits until they’ve been in the refrigerator, then begs me to cut them for her because she’s too lazy to do it herself. By this time, most of the strawberries go down the garbage disposal. Sometimes the entire container is mushy. Occasionally there’s mold involved.

News is like strawberries. You’ve got to get to it quickly or it spoils. If you pick it immediately, right from the vine, it’s likely to be the best it ever will, but there’s still a period of time during which it’s fresh.

How News is Like Strawberries

We call this freshness “timeliness.” Timeliness means that information has to be new to be desired. In the news business, newer is better. Stories grow old quickly. If you leave them to sit for too long, they will be mushy. They may even over age and be unusable, just like those strawberries. Down the drain they go, a missed opportunity.

The instinct to cover news in the most timely manner is called “immediacy.” Immediacy means you have a sense of urgency and excitement when a news event arises. You can’t wait to tell the story. It’s an adrenaline rush to get the news to the people.

Many in journalism call this sense of immediacy “fire in the belly.” You can see it in journalists, regardless of age and experience. Fire in the belly is a drive or a sense of excitement about doing the job. Journalism professors love seeing fire in the belly. I’ve spoken with colleagues for years about how wonderful it is and how much we wish we could figure out how to spark it. I don’t think journalists are born with a love of the industry, but it certainly ignites at some point. I wish I could identify that exact point, then learn to replicate it.

Until then, here’s what I know for sure. News is new. The quicker you can get it to the public, the better. You have more tools than ever before to deliver that news. Ask yourself these questions, each time you get a story idea:

  1. Is this an ongoing happening? If so, take to social media. Report what you can, as quickly as you can verify it, remembering that it’s still better to be correct than be first.
  2. Can I write now? As soon as you have a basic story, put it online. How do you know if you have a basic story? Do you have the “who, what, when, where, why, and how” from reliable sources? If so, get the information to your readers in the fullest form as quickly as possible. Report the news online.
  3. What’s next? Once you’ve reported the initial information online, it’s time to start thinking about what you’ll put in the physical publication. Typically this story will focus more on the big picture. You don’t rehash exactly what you’ve already reported, instead focusing on the “why” and “how” aspects. Notice that all of the reporting to this point has happened before your next deadline, whether that is the next day or later in the week. THIS is a sense of immediacy in action.
  4. Is there a broader context? Not every story has a broader context worthy of reporting, but some certainly do. We usually call these “issue stories.” Essentially, we’re talking about placing the news happening in a greater, broader context. These stories tend to take a bit longer and may not be published immediately after the original news breaks. They still should be published as quickly as possible.

Let me apply these questions to a scenario most of you are familiar with. Your university’s governing body is set to consider a tuition increase at its next meeting. The reporting would go as such:

  1. Live reporting via social media from the meeting where the decision is made. This is reporting in real-time and may include other items/observations from the meeting.
  2. An online story posted less than an hour (That’s a long time.) after the meeting, informing your readers of the tuition increase. This should include quotes, explaining the “why” from an official and the initial student response.
  3. For your NEXT edition, you need a story about the impact. Find students who are directly impacted by the tuition increase. Explain the issue through their stories. Be sure to have art of them going through their day as students.
  4. As soon as possible, write an issue story comparing tuition at your university to peer and benchmark institutions. How do you compare? Don’t forget the graphics! Even better, write a story about the off-the-wall ways students are making money to pay for the increase. You know the deal. Brainstorm!

Regardless of exactly how you choose to apply the questions above (It depends a lot on specifically what’s happening on your campus.), remember that timeliness is important. News is new, and it’s your job to get it to the reader as quickly as possible.

Please stop trying to feed your readers the last strawberries you can salvage and pretending like they’re fresh.

How News is Like Strawberries