You Call That Breaking News? : NPR Ombudsman How NPR's digital team decides what news warrants a push notification and more.
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You Call That Breaking News?

NPR, like other news organizations, is in a fight for the attention of audiences. That means getting aggressive about putting NPR journalism where readers (and listeners) are. Increasingly, that's on their phones. As a result, NPR has ramped up its "push" notifications, the alerts that pop up on mobile phone home screens when news breaks. (NPR also sends out email alerts, which often duplicate the push notifications.)

An alert about the death of actress Margot Kidder landed wrong for one reader earlier this week, leading Andrea Fors, of Jacksonville, Fla., to send a question about NPR's overall strategy:

"I understand trying to be the first to break a story, and gain traction, but I wonder about the content and who decides what is classified as a 'breaking story.' In the past year I've seen some things that I wouldn't consider news, but today's 'BREAKING STORY' that actress Margot Kidder passed away left me dumbfounded. You have dozens people dying in Jerusalem, refugees risking their lives every day, civil unrest in South America, denuclearization of North Korea, the list goes on and on, and NPR decides to send a push notification of a TV star from the 80s who unfortunately passed away. It doesn't make sense since NPR is not supposed to be People magazine."

For the record, NPR had five hours earlier sent an alert about deaths on Israel's border with Gaza while the U.S. was opening its embassy in Jerusalem. But I asked Sara Kehaulani Goo, NPR's managing editor overseeing digital operations, for an explanation of how and when NPR decides to send alerts, which currently go out several times a day (depending on news).

Alerts, she said, reflect "the reality of today's digital information landscape. We can't lay back and wait for our audience to find us." The newsroom, she said, has worked to improve its breaking news capabilities, including preparing "a good number of advance obituaries for major cultural figures." The alerts are meant to showcase that work.

According to a December 2017 internal document put together by NPR's Engagement Team, the guiding principle for NPR mobile alerts is: "'Is this news that our audience needs to know right now and would find valuable?' Mobile alerts are meant to be disruptive to our users — but in a good way. The alerts should convey information that we as an organization believe is important and timely enough to tap users on the shoulder and interrupt their day or evening."

Goo said NPR puts alerts into two categories: Breaking news that subscribers need to know now and feature alerts, which cover investigative work and original reporting that NPR wants to highlight, as well as live event coverage and new podcasts or programs. (New programming alerts are supposed to be "rare and far between," per the guidelines.)

In the breaking news category, the guidelines include "sudden national and international events, such as terrorist attacks, major changes in government policy, natural disasters or major government appointments." These alerts are to be sent immediately, once NPR has confirmed the facts. (As an aside, NPR has a detailed protocol for confirming deaths, which at times puts its alerts about the death of major figures behind those of other news outlets.)

Push notification with a photo
NPR

Because alerts often include sounds and are disruptive to those who receive them, feature alerts are supposed to go out between 10 a.m. ET and 10 p.m. ET during the week. On weekends, they are not supposed to start until noon.

How does that alert about Margot Kidder's death fit into those guidelines? As Goo notes, NPR wants to use its alerts to play to its strengths and that includes obituaries. Often, she said, those who receive the alerts don't click through to the actual stories but still find the headlines useful.

But was Kidder's death really news that NPR listeners needed to know "right now" and/or was it "valuable"? A very informal poll (including me) says no. I'd argue that NPR got it wrong in this case (as did The New York Times, which also sent a mobile alert).

Goo said, "At the end of the day it's a news judgment call. We don't always get it right, but I think generally we do."

Fors' email raised a slightly separate issue, of tonality. With so much grim news that day, was it appropriate to flag a celebrity death? Goo said NPR does take those issues into consideration, particularly when sending feature alerts that do not have a time sensitive element to them and can hold until later.

For the record, I'm in the camp of wanting fewer news alerts from the many news outlets to which I subscribe. I find that "breaking news" tags have become so ubiquitous as to be increasingly meaningless, in many cases.

Cutting back is not in NPR's future, however. Goo said the number of alerts is going to go up in the future, not down. For example, NPR is exploring more alerts via Apple News for iPhone users. NPR's practices are in line with those of many other newsrooms.

"We feel that we can grow quite a bit in this area," Goo said. "We're actively looking for opportunities to promote our best journalism and storytelling."

Those who disagree always have the ability to opt out.