Breaking News

Technology changes how news breaks, in the era of two-a-day papers important news from the day would appear first a late edition of a major newspaper. Radio and TV brought images of breaking news events into living rooms where people could watch Neil Armstrong walk on the moon. In the internet age late edition newspapers are relics and news breaks online with cellphone cameras on platforms that did not exist ten years ago, and in some cases are less than a month old. Differences in these platforms necessitate a different approach to breaking news.

Pre-World Wide Web

Breaking news is as old as news, and in the days of ink on pulp readers might hear news, but there was no means to engage with the content until the pages could be designed and presses began churning out newspapers, a fast process in the pre-internet days, but slow compared to mouse-click publishing.

Multiple papers a day facilitated the processes of breaking news in print by not needing to break news the next day and having an existing institutional mechanism for breaking news to appear in the fastest possible way. Sundays are slow at businesses including news organizations and a a result breaking news had to live in non-print mediums while newspapers lacked the infrastructure to publish until the following morning, one such instance occurred on a day that “will live in infamy.”

Many major national newspapers first reported on Japan’s December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor the following day, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal had no mention of the attack December 7, and The Washington Post‘s only mention of Pearl Harbor was a pre-written op-ed that ran in the paper that morning, but no mention of the attacks. The following day all three had mentions of the attack on the front page.

Pearl Harbor Front Pages

Pearl Harbor Front Pages for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post | December 8, 1941

Baltamore Sun | December 7, 1941

Baltimore Sun Front Page | December 7, 1941 Extra Edition

The Baltimore Sun, a major metropolitan daily serving Baltimore approached breaking news of the attack differently by printing an “extra” edition only four pages long with coverage of the attack.

Breaking news in “late-editions” continued into the 1970s with the resignation of President Nixon appearing in a “Late City Edition” of The New York Times on August 8, 1976. In 2011 a printed newspaper would find it difficult run the lede that appeared on the front page of that late edition:

Richard Milhous Nixon, the 37th President of the United States, announced tonight that he had given up his long and arduous fight to remain in office and would resign, effective at noon tomorrow.

The immediacy of news websites, and proliferation of news discovery on social media creates a situation where such a lede could only appear on virtual webpages, but not in someone’s hand.

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