Earthquake news out of sync with print schedule

A caller Friday morning told me she suspected she knew the answer to her question about The Star’s coverage of Japan’s catastrophic earthquake, but she just had to ask anyway.

“When I get up, I switch on the TV first thing,” she said. “And of course it was all about the earthquake. Before I went to pick up my paper on the driveway, I told my husband, ‘Oh, I bet this horrible thing came too late for the newspaper.’ I didn’t miss the article, did I?”

No, not in the Friday print edition. The first reports started to trickle in after midnight in Kansas City, but those bits of news were very tentative at first: The quake had occurred and a tsunami warning had been issued, but there was no word about any potential deaths, injuries or damage. Of course, that’s not unusual in the immediate aftermath of a natural disaster, where emergency responders and journalists themselves at first take stock of the situation before launching into doing their jobs.

Here, the fuller details about the destruction along Japan’s coast began to emerge well after The Star had been printed and loaded onto trucks for distribution throughout the circulation area.

But that’s not to say that the print editions’ deadlines are completely immutable. There are certainly thousands of Kansas City area residents with friends and family in the quake zone, but the story is still centered half a world away. If an equivalent natural disaster were to strike close to home with similar timing, it’s not difficult to imagine editors deciding to cover it in print as it breaks.

That coverage might be in the form of a midday extra edition, such as those The Star’s newsroom produced after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, or the capture of Saddam Hussein in late 2003.

But there’s also no denying that the Internet provides a much more flexible platform for reporting breaking news as quickly as it becomes available. Early Friday morning, was featuring numerous stories and videos as they filtered out of Japan. They told the story from a wide variety of viewpoints, displayed at the viewer’s choice — a form of journalism that the Web has made possible like never before.

And that is a different kind of reporting from what readers expect in print. I hear often from those who are frustrated by the world’s shift to electronic delivery of the written word. “I have a computer and I can read the news on my phone,” said one last week, “but I’d still rather read a long article with ink on paper.”

As the caller who’d asked about the earthquake signed off, she reminded me that she wanted the print Star to make the salient information easy to find the next day: “You tell (editors) I want to see the big wrap-up and tell me what I need to know. I don’t want to have to go here and there to try to find the important parts.”

This column was originally published in the Kansas City Star on March 12, 2011.

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