Months ago I drove out to Pittsburgh for two days of reporting at Carnegie Mellon U. I came back with a story idea, and I said I could have it up on line within a week. It was about how massively distributed computers like Google’s were going to be the foundation for scientific discovery. The basis for the story was in a white paper published by Randal Bryant, chr of the computer science dept at CMU. We discussed and decided that this story could turn into something bigger. So I held off writing on line. I kept it secret.
Last week we finally ran the Google cover story this led to. But the paragraphs about what I learned at CMU didn’t make it into the article. (I had them in an early draft, but they blurred the story’s focus.)
So, which is better: Writing what we learn as we learn it, or holding it secret and publishing it later? Given this readership, I’ll bet 9 of 10 of you would say to publish as we learn. But as I write this, I’m coming to appreciate the traditional approach.
Here's why: First, the industry is oriented toward big releases. Editors aren't likely to approve a cover about something that sounds like what we've been writing about for months. Too familiar, they say.
Second, sources are not as likely to line up for the online serial approach (unless it becomes a phenomenon). To get an interview with Google CEO Eric Schmidt, it helped to have a big article in the offing. I'm not saying he doesn't meet with online press. But I doubt he would have found the time for me if I'd been writing a series on cloud computing for BW Online.
Third, many readers appreciate long-form journalism better on paper. I got a call from a friend of mine yesterday. He'd read the article online, and thought it was ok. Then he read it in the magazine, and really liked it. He told me that when he reads online he's in data-retrieval mode. Paper's another story.
All that said, I'm planning to try starting my next stories online. I'll start in January (I'm on vacation now) I want to see if it can lead to a new type of magazine story. Or at least new for me. I'm tired of worrying about getting scooped.