Posted by Ian
There was a lengthy post-mortem in the office this morning concerning our coverage of the weekend’s flash floods.
On the MSN homepage we lagged behind the rest of the national media in elevating the story from headline news to the most important feature on the website. We didn’t make it our lead item, replete with full-size image, until Sunday morning. Until then it had remained the top story in the news headlines section of the page.
It was decided that this was wrong, and that we should have run the story as the lead from a much earlier point in the weekend. It was also decided that the story had merited what we call a ‘special report’ (a customised page full of stories, links, images and the like) on Friday, when news first began to arrive of the consequences of that day’s heavy rainfall.
For those of you visiting the site over the weekend and who might have expected to find a lot more coverage of the floods, apologies. Saturday was rather dominated by Harry Potter, to the detriment of much else (although we did run updates on the latest flood-related developments right through the day).
The nature and scope of our flood coverage, however, touches on a wider issue concerning what the MSN homepage is for. Is it a site that should try to compete with the likes of BBC News, or one that should compete with similar portals such as Yahoo and Virgin Media? Would you like us to try and outgun the BBC in terms of the depth and speed of our reporting, or would you prefer us to leave that to professional news organisations and concentrate on being a diverse online one-stop-shop?
For us to take on the BBC would, at present, require a resource and commitment we just don’t have. It would be a fight we would lose.
Should that stop us from devoting serious attention to events of national importance? Of course not.
But I wonder if, in times of real dramatic rolling news, there’s presently a gap between what we think we, MSN, can provide and what we think our users want us to provide. I also wonder if this perception of a gap is informing some of our decisions concerning how to treat major news stories – the upshot being, as with this weekend, a holding back when we might have been pushing forward.
I confess some of my own thinking about this weekend’s weather disruption was conditioned by the way the last round of floods was treated by the media. It was all-too evident, at least to me, the difference between the tone and quantity of coverage regarding floods in south and central England compared to those in the north. The latter took a while to work itself into the national consciousness. The former was headline news the moment the first drops of rain began to fall on Friday morning. Indeed, I recall at one point on Friday News 24 cutting to a picture of rain falling on a pavement somewhere in London with all the implied urgency of, say, a Prime Minister resigning.
Granted this was on the media’s doorstep. Granted there was always going to be more interest in a "return of the floods" angle. But did there really need to be such a somewhat undignified stampede to trumpet the more hysterical elements of the story? And so soon? Much of the reporting in evidence on Friday afternoon made out that London itself was in danger of being cut off from the rest of the UK. Only on Saturday, in my opinion, did both facts and opinion become more weighted towards what was really going on in the whole of the country.
Anyway, it’s easy to be wise after the event.
For the 350,000 people in Gloucestershire about to lose their supply of drinking water, or those living in the Thames and Severn valleys fearful of what tomorrow’s skies might bring, what’s more important is the issue of why enough people weren’t wise before the event.
As for our coverage, we can dissect and discuss what we think was right and wrong and try to learn from our successes and failures, but ultimately we’re only as good as our next headline. And that’s a headline for you to judge.