The story matrix – the myth of “all is breaking news”

“Planning is the natural enemy of a journalist” is what you hear in many newsrooms. But if you screen a newspaper you will find that most stories are not really breaking news or not foreseeable and therefore can be planed in advance.  

Until recently, newsrooms had workflows that focused exclusively on print and were optimised for a once-a-day publication schedule. The newsroom routine was often based on a 24 hour rhythm, where every morning the “counters were reset to 0”.

In many cases the result was that there was very little focus on planning beyond the next scheduled edition, as stories were often perceived and treated as “breaking news.” In addition, everyone involved in the workflow process frequently had to wait until late in the day for pages to be closed or other decisions to be made leading to bottlenecks in the editorial workflow.

However, if you pick up almost any newspaper in the world and flip through the pages, you’ll find that the vast majority of the stories are actually not “breaking news,” such as plane crashes, or natural disasters. The same misconception happens around “exclusives,” such as a major investigative article or series or the famous “scoops.” In reality, those special story are the exception and without being overly scientific, but based on dozens of conversations with news executives around the world, in many cases stories in both categories combined occur less than 5 percent of the time.

If we put those two thoughts together, we get two key dimensions – one, “Is something really breaking news or not?” and, two, is “Is a story exclusive or not?” Real breaking news is when nobody could possible foresee or expect that event. Real exclusivity only exists if it is 100 percent certain that nobody else has access to a story or can publish it earlier.If we take these two dimensions – exclusivity and breaking news – we can begin to create a simple story matrix where we have four different types of stories, and all articles in a publication fall into one of these four types:

IFMS_Story Matrix

The first type would be “breaking news and exclusive,” . This is something that is obviously very rare because, taking a plane crash as an example, not even this kind of occurrence is rarely exclusive. This category is really for those rare scoops that happen for many news organisations perhaps only a few times in a year such as the MP expenses scandal in the UK that was revealed by the Daily Telegraph a few years ago.

The second sector would be “breaking news – but non-exclusive,” which would be for events such as natural catastrophes, high-profile resignations, murders acts of terrorism, and so on.

The third cluster would be “exclusive but non-breaking news,” and this category would be for investigative pieces where we can plan and decide when to publish it as well as political scandals and exposures

And the fourth category is non-exclusive and non-breaking news, and this covers the vast majority of stories.

If we look at these four categories and try to get a feeling for percentages, we could say, without any scientific proof, that breaking, exclusive news would account for about one to five out of 1000 of all the stories that are published every month.

Investigative pieces in relation to all the stories that are published are maybe one to two out of 100. The same is true for breaking, non-exclusive stories, which are also roughly ten to two out of 100. That leaves for the last sector non-breaking, non-exclusive stories. Between 96 and 98 per cent of all stories published in a daily newspaper are in this category.

We have seen that many news organizations are that are built around the exceptional three categories, which concern two to five percent of the stories. Decision-making is done very late and planning is very often not done because too many stories are being treated as breaking news and/or exclusive articles.

Since the vast majority of stories are not in these categories, editorial should look to optimising the workflows and structures in order to distribute those stories faster and more efficiently, allowing more time to deal with the truly major stories on all platforms and breaking news when they occur.

The majority of non-exclusive, non-breaking stories can be planned in advance to a certain degree. Not everything of course, there can always be surprises or last minute changes, but these are usually the exception. We know roughly what is going on when press conferences, sports events, elections or other events come up.

Take something like a football game, which has been scheduled for weeks or months, and is often treated as breaking news, in regards to planning and decision making for particularly for cross platform coverage. It is mainly the score and a key moments in the match that really qualify as breaking news. Much of the surrounding (background) story, such as why the game is important, how a positive or negative result will effect the team’s standings and so on, could be contemplated and planned at least in some degree in advance. The same is true for many press conferences or court cases. We usually know much of the story in advance.

If there is a surprise, then we can always change it, but certain decisions can be made very early in the day or the week and therefore, the whole process can be made smoother, generating more time and mental space for the newsroom for more structured and creative planning processes.

With this type of matrix in mind, it is also easier to decide what is going to go online, or digital, because what is going online is still very often held back. But for many reasons, everything that is non-exclusive, should find its way to the fast channels as soon as possible because if it’s non-exclusive, then someone else will publish it, and we’ve lost potential audience.

On the other hand, if a story is something that is exclusive, then we now have more time to make this decisions about when to break it or and through which channels. But again, in the majority of the cases (perhaps more than 80 percent of the time), it makes sense to put articles on the digital channel first, in order to be first and alert the reader. Spending more time on thinking through and preparing content for print for the next day could then offer a different angle and greater depth and colour to the piece.

With the story matrix in hand, newsroom managers should then consider the next level, which is planning further in advance. Many editorial meetings today are still primarily focused on “What stories are we working on for the upcoming edition?” and involve discussions about how to treat those stories often only for print.

Ideally, editorial meetings should cover what stories are being worked on for at least the next three days and include making decisions about how to treat these articles and where as early as possible. Once a newsroom gets in this kind of the rhythm of planning for at least two days past tomorrow, stories can be carved out in better ways, research can be started earlier and the quality of the coverage on all media can improve.

Traditional newsroom workflows rarely offer the flexibility that is needed today to distribute news and information on a variety of platforms throughout the day. Accepting that most of the stories are not actually breaking news and / or exclusive might be difficult for any newsroom, but it is reality after all. We can use this fact to improve the quality and the efficiency in the editorial operation by streamlining the “standard cases,” put more energy into the “exclusive” stories, handling planned stories more creatively and cover breaking news even better. ♦︎