Monday, May 17, 2004

A wire junkie speaks out

The secret news channels we never get to see

Sometimes I get to go to a newsroom. And the first thing they show you in a newsroom is The Wires. Let me tell you about the wires...

To really get a sense of where they came from, you have to think way back to the old days and a little machine clickety-clicking away in the corner, constantly churning out narrow strips of paper heralding a great story in Washington or a riot in furthest Russia. Even further back you would have Mr Reuter's fastest pigeon landing on the windowsill of a grimy Fleet Street office window, the hottest gold-swapping news from Berlin strapped firmly to its leg.

In the modern day they aren't so glamorous, sitting on your screen along with the email, but they still represent something special and pure about news. Every few minutes something new flashes up from these correspondents all over the world: something's happened. It's fabulous. Some of it may not interest you, but you don't have to read beyond the headline and it's there: from the two dead in a Kent carcrash to escalating violence in a country most news bulletins don't even bother to mention.

And what do we see of the wires, these constantly updating headlines? Well, not much. Journalist 'ethics' being what they are, you can make up a story if you like, but you can't just take someone else's story without making a few phone calls. Even your made up stories have to be based on a few phone calls even if they're to your friends who you can later quote as 'concerned insider'. This is The Rule. It takes time. Therefore, even on websites as comprehensive as BBC News and The Guardian, stuff just doesn't move quite as fast. Things get missed out, headlines are reprioritised on the basis of what we will understand or care about. TV and radio news are roughly the same: think about how many stories there are in a day and yet you only ever here about eight of them repeated on news bulletins throughout the day. If we're going to war that day or it's New Years Day forget about hearing any variations whatsoever. That's the news agenda, and while the web may have given us more ability to pick our own agenda and get big breaking staries fast, it doesn't quite match up to all those people, all over the world, filing little snippets of happenings to the wires.

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