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David Wu gets the Web-first treatment

July 27, 2011

If you only read the Oregonian, you would not have known until Wednesday morning that Oregon Rep. David Wu was going to resign. If you follow the Oregonian, however, you’d have known around 9a Tuesday.

Tuesday morning was nice and cool, so instead of burying my nose in my phone, I enjoyed the walk down Broadway. That means my first encounter with the day’s news was glancing at the lead hed in a newspaper box near the newsroom: “Wu hints he’ll quit; inquiry looms.” Not too surprising given the sequence of events; Monday’s banner was “Embattled Wu won’t seek election,” and Sunday had “Pressure increases for Wu to resign.” Wu, I thought as I entered the building, was going to drag this out. He wasn’t resigning yet, but it probably would come soon.

As I stepped off the elevator on the fourth floor, I discovered just how soon.

The Oregonian has vertical flat screens displaying their website placed throughout the newsroom, and one of these greets you immediately upon exiting the elevator. “Rep. David Wu announces he will resign after accusations of sexual misconduct,” read the latest. Not far away sits a stack of the day’s papers, and I took a glance to make sure I didn’t misread things earlier. Yup, still “Wu hints he’ll quit.”

And that’s newspapering today.

I’m not suggesting that breaking news online is a revolutionary idea pioneered by the Oregonian, or that the Wu story represents a landmark in its implementation (you may have heard, for example, about this “bin Laden” fellow a while back). In fact, what’s most compelling to me is the mundane nature of the process as it took place. Consider Tuesday’s sequence of events:

  1. The newspaper rolls out bright and early.
  2. Around 930a, the Oregonian’s website, Twitter and Facebook feeds announce that Wu will resign.
  3. Wu announces his plan to resign a little after noon.
  4. Wednesday’s newspaper hed: “Boxed in, forced out: U.S. Rep. David Wu quits after pressure by peers at home and in Washington.”

In addition to these major milestones, my vantage point in the Command Center allowed me to witness a number of smaller components. Any good newsroom springs into action when news breaks, and it’s always a sight to behold, but what interested me here was the variety of actions that took place. To my left, Online editor Jerry Casey calls over that he’s adding Wu to the Carousel (this is a horizontal banner of top stories that appears at the head of each page). Just outside my desk, videographer Kraig Scattarella shoots video of associate editor David Sarasohn discussing the process of replacing Wu, and the clip goes up online immediately (that’s the back of my head over Sarasohn’s shoulder). The new stories are all tagged with the “david wu past” tag so that readers can access them on a single page. Wu’s resignation statement also goes up on the Facebook page and more tweets arrive throughout the day. And none of this is a big deal.

(One side note: When the elevator doors opened on Wednesday, the top story slot had nothing to do with Wu even though the story dominates the newspaper’s front page. It’s a reminder that different media serve different audiences and needs. Researchers might take a look at whether an organizations print and online outlets diverge more or less at times of breaking news – the results might be surprising.)

I use the word “mundane” to describe this process because it had a kind of matter-of-fact nature to it. These things happened because they needed to happen. There was no wringing of hands (that I saw) about the headline being no longer accurate or questioning whether to hold any information for tomorrow’s paper. Rather than rehash journalists-versus-bloggers, the staff of the Oregonian did their jobs, but those jobs were understood as “journalism” rather than “making a newspaper.” The news happened, and the news went out; sometimes it was on paper, and sometimes it wasn’t, but in all cases the Oregonian was the source providing information to readers.

When it comes to incorporating online and social media, a sense of the mundane may be just what journalism needs.

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