Tuesday, July 6, 2010

The News Cycle

I had an interesting experience over the holiday weekend, one that didn't involve fireworks or BBQ's or the summer's searing heat.  It had to do with basketball.  Forget for a moment that as an overweight 40 year old, my biggest athletic achievement of late involved scrambling around the bases in a rousing game of kickball.  I'm a big basketball fan.  From the days of Alex English and Dan Issel running the hardcourt for my beloved Denver Nuggets, I've followed the game closely with amazement and awe.

So you can imagine my interest in the latest "LeBron Sweepstakes" as the world's best basketball player tries to decide where to play ball for the next three to five years.  In these dog days of summer, it has become one of the biggest stories in the industry, and I'm not just talking about the sports circles.  Where LeBron ends up playing has touched all corners of the country and nearly all facets of the news.

It has become THE story in cities like Miami, New York, Cleveland (of course) as well as Dallas, New Jersey, Sacramento and Los Angeles.  It's ripple effects have impacted Utah, New Orleans, Houston, Toronto, Oklahoma city and even right here in Denver.

Considering the money involved and the passions of fans all around the U.S., news of LeBron's travels has moved from the sports page onto the front pages.  All of which is understandable as fans of teams everywhere wonder who will LeBron sign with and what will the fallout be from his decision.  But here's what intrigued me; as news cycles go, this one was a real doozy.

Generally, news cycles move faster than the speed of light these days.  With the advent of the internet, Twitter, social media, radio, TV and the average citizen shooting pics and capturing video on their cellphones, news comes and goes so quickly, it's hard to stay on top of the flood of information available to you on a minute by minute basis.

That's why the LeBron story is SO fascinating to me.  It simply won't go away.

Traditional News Cycles:

Back in the day, when I was first starting out as a journalist, news cycles came and went with a sort of rhythm.  A big news story would hit, it would stick around for two or three days and then simply fall back into the realm of, "updates" status.  In other words, it would become just another story we would write a short paragraph about whenever something happened that required updating.  These stories could be big local court cases, national scandals, a shocking death or breaking news of some sort, like a massive pile up.

In the newsroom, we would attempt to guage the interest level of the readers, listeners or viewers and determine if yesterday's news was still worthy of reporting on.  As interest waned, the news cycle came to a close and we moved forward with our focus on other stories, always waiting for the next news cycle to come around. 

At the time, it seemed as if a new cycle was hitting us every other day.  We had the Jon Benet Ramsey murder, the A-10 crash near Vail, The Oklahoma City Bombing Trial, an Avalanche Stanley Cup celebration, followed by two Bronco Superbowl victory parties, then Elway's retirement, followed by a massive forest fire, the capture of the Texas Seven in Colorado Springs and, eventually, the Columbine tragedy. 

We were busy.  It just kept coming.  And each those stories carried its own little news cycle.  In the case of the A-10 crash, the Elway retirement and the championship celebrations, the cycles lasted for just over a week.  Stories like the Hayman Fire, the Bombing trial and the Ramsey murder investigations, where so many questions remained and the investigations (or trial) dragged on, the cycles took on a life of their own, lasting for months.

Some, like the Texas seven capture lasted for only a few days, while the Columbine story had a cycle that lasted nearly a year.  For months on end, the Columbine tragedy remained one of our top stories as friends and family grieved, officials investigated, the community came to grips with the situation and tried to pick up the pieces. It was the news cycle that would never end. 

Over ten years later, the nature of the news cycle has changed dramatically.  Even the biggest stories come and go in rapid fire succession as the attention spans of readers, viewers and listeners grows shorter and shorter.  Let me rephrase that, it's not that the attention span has grown so much shorter, it's just that the consumer simply has so much more informatio available to them on a daily basis.

There are so many distractions, so much competition, it's simply really, REALLY hard to keep anyone's attention for very long.  Thus, a story that might have had a lifespan of a week ten years ago, might only get 48 hours in the modern news cycle.  Some stories that would have stuck around for two days, now might only get a few hours, a day at the most.  People see a story in the paper, read about it on a Facebook post, click a link to an article on their Twitter and then they move on. 

The story of a general being dismissed by a U.S. President after said general blasted the administration came and went in the blink of an eye.  Ten years ago it would have garnered much more time.  The BP oil spill is the only recent news story that has had any kind of a significant news cycle, and even that story started to fade away within a week of its reporting.  Certainly it remains in the news, but it has already been moved to the "update" pile, long before it would have been just a decade ago.

The LeBron Exception:

All of this is why I find the LeBron story and subsequent news cycle so interesting.  It just won't stop.  Every day, on sports talk shows, local newscasts, national broadcasts, in radio, TV and splashed across newspapers from coast to coast, the story of LeBron takes center stage. 

I know when a sports story has crossed over into "regular" news by using my mom-test.  If my mother asks me something about it, then I know the story has grown outside of its traditional sports boundaries.  It's a story that began several weeks ago as speculation about where he might go started to appear in newspapers and on talk radio and on sports broadcasts.  Actually, it really started a year ago, as "The King" neared the end of his contract with Cleveland.  Momentum started to build and starting at the beginning of last week, the official "LeBron watch" began, days before he was even eligible to begin talking to other teams.

It dominated the sports radio airwaves and even started to leak into regular news coverage with stories of massive rallies and citizens taking it upon themselves to try and woo the gifted one to their city and their team.

The story shifted into overdrive on Thursday when LeBron actually started talking to suitors and hasn't let up since.  In between then and now, there has been a major holiday, more BP news, more fallout from Arizona's immigration law, a major Bison meat recall due to e-coli and many other stories that, in these relatively slow news days might have made for headline fodder. 

And yet, one of the first things I saw when I switched on my local news on Tuesday morning, was coverage of the LeBron race and how it has already impacted the local Denver team.  This wasn't a story buried deep into the later news blocks, it was featured front and center near the top of the A block, a position of prominence.

Here's the crazy thought.  Even after LeBron signs with whatever team he decides on, the cycle still won't be over.  There will be coverage on the fallout, on what it means to the league and the rest of the teams, how it will impact the team that does sign him and the reaction of fans all over the country.  The story will have legs for a few more days after the signing and then will disappear for a couple of months until the start of training camp when it will start all over again and last until sometime into the first week of real games. 

In some ways, this mirrors the Tebow watch that has taken place in Denver since he was drafted by the Broncos.  There was a big uproar and several weeks of intense coverage, which has since died down.  But it will come back with a vengance, in a brand new cycle once training camp begins in August. 

And yet, no matter how much coverage there will be on Tebow in 2010, it won't even begin to hold a candle to the kind of coverage Elway received when he hit town in 1982.  Which is ironic because even though today, there will be thousands of fans following Tebow with their cellphones, taking photos and shooting video and blogging and reporting on every move he makes, on top of the crush of traditional media that will be there to cover his first days in camp, it still won't match the pressure felt by Elway nearly three decades ago. 

This is because even though there will be more actual coverage of Tebow's movements, the cycle will last only half as long, if that.  Pepole's attention will move on to other stories much faster today than they did way back then.  Tebow will be under a giant microscope, to be sure, but since the cycle will be shorter, the pressure won't be nearly as great. 

What This Means For You:

In terms of small businesses and non-profits, understanding the news cycle can help you as you reach out to newsrooms and other media outlets.  The LeBron story is one of those exceptions that actually proves the rule.  Knowing that most cycles come and go very, very quickly should help you understand how fast you have to act when a story opportunity arises.  You can't wait a day, or two days or even a few hours.  You have to have your press releases ready and your plan in place at all times so you are ready to act when lightning strikes.

This means monitoring your daily news as closely as possible, following them on Twitter and keeping up with comments and stories on Facebook and other social media platforms.  In short, you have to be vigilant and ready to strike when the iron is hot, because the cycle will pass you by in the blink of an eye. 

One of the hardest thing to teach a client is learning how to feel out a news cycle.  Often, a client will have a story that they think will catch the attention of a newsroom, regardless of what else is going on in the world around them.  But that's rarely the case.  Stories have to be timed to hit a reporters' desk at just the right time.  If they are already focused on a current news cycle, your story will be ignored.  If it falls on their desk when it might work better for future news cycle, it will also likely be forgotten. 

You have to time your pitches to fit into news cycles that are current and strong, OR pitch them with the intent of getting in on the ground floor of an upcoming news cycle.  Holidays, major events, annual activities carry their own news cycles, and although these tend to be VERY short cycles, knowing that they are upcoming allows you to get the jump on your competition and puts you first in line when newsrooms start looking for different angles on stories they cover every year.

Don't randomly tie your stories to holiday or regular events.  Make sure that your story is tailored specifically to fit into that particular holiday or event cycle.  And remember, these cycles won't last for long.  Even as the LeBron cycle seemingly stretches on forever, the one thing you have to keep in mind is that the majority of news cycles are now very short.  The sooner you can jump on opportunties and catch a cycle as it is just beginning or even right before it begins, the better your chances of having your story end up on the evening news or in the morning papers.

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