Lots of people follow @breakingnews on Twitter — the account and the breakingnews.com website and mobile apps have become indispensable resources for news junkies who need to stay up-to-the-minute on the biggest news of the moment.
But few people know that Breaking News is actually owned by NBC, and operated as what general manager Cory Bergman calls an "internal startup." I spoke to Cory about how that works, how his team runs @breakingnews, and how the site managed to be both fast and accurate as the chaos of the Boston Marathon bombing story unfolded.
I don’t think a lot of people know Breaking News is owned by NBC. How does that work?
It’s actually a terrific setup. We’re owned by NBC News, but we operate as a standalone startup. I report directly to Vivian Schiller, and we have our own editorial and tech teams, and neither report up through NBC News Digital. So we have the freedom by design to be editorially independent, and on the tech side to iterate quickly and not have to use the tech that the rest of the company is using. I don’t know many examples like that in media companies today — not only do you get to be funded, but you get to break off and operate independently.
So how big is the Breaking News team?
We’re over a dozen.
What’s the split between editorial and tech?
It’s about 50 / 50 editorial and tech. On the editorial side we’re located in New York, Seattle, and London, so there’s at least one person on and working at all times, and when there’s a story that’s ongoing we bring on more people. For the Boston story it was four people.
You’re called Breaking News — do you feel pressure to be first? How do you balance that with accuracy? The Boston bombing story obviously tripped a lot of other outlets up.
"There’s also a gut check. Does it feel right? If there is anything that doesn’t feel quite right we’ll wait a little bit."
With us it’s interesting — there’s pressure to be second. When someone breaks a story all eyes are on us to see if we’re going to cover that story. So there’s definitely a balance between speed and the ability to verify that something is real. And there are a number of factors that come into play. What source or sources have broken that story? What’s their track record? What are other sources saying? How likely is it to occur? What’s the history of stories like this?
There’s also a gut check. Does it feel right? If there is anything that doesn’t feel quite right we’ll wait a little bit. In this business it only takes a minute or two for others to chime in and others to begin reporting on it. So if there is any doubt about the truth, we’ll wait a beat.
So what was the process like for the Boston story, where there were so many competing streams of information and misinformation?
For a big story, we have one editor who’s really at the console, who really makes the call on what we publish. We use our own content management system that is designed for really quick publishing to multiple places. 20 percent of our coverage went to Twitter and the rest went to our main website and to our apps.
Running alongside that, all these different streams of information are coming in from Twitter and the wire services, and all the live feeds we’re watching. We’ll divvy up people to watch different live feeds, and as they began to discover new pieces of information they’ll put it into real-time chat. So one editor is in charge of making the call, and he or she is watching all these different discoveries come in from Twitter, and on the chat.
In the case of the Boston story, I think we were operating relatively normally after the bombing occurred, but when more information came in about possible suspects, we began to notice a lot of noise in the system — some contradictory statements and reporting at a low level. So when the major news organizations went with the news that an arrest had been made, we were already very tentative because we saw so much randomness from so many sources.
"We made a very difficult and agonizing decision just to sit and watch."
Typically on a big story with a lot of risk behind it, we tend to wait until there are as many as three different news organizations reporting it. In this case there were three reporting it, but we saw others saying that there were no arrests or that they had no knowledge of arrests. So there was enough conflict from other news organizations for us to wait just one more beat. At that point we made a very difficult and agonizing decision just to sit and watch. And for Breaking News that was a very difficult thing to do, and I have to give a big shout-out to our editors who made that decision under the pressure to go.
NBC’s Pete Williams really stood out during the chaos as a reliable source of information. But what if he’d been wrong? How do you think about NBC’s reporting given your relationship to them?
We’re neutral. We’re relatively familiar with the track record of various reporters, and that does come into play. So Pete Williams’s voice was a little bit stronger — not because of our parents at NBC but because of the track record of Pete Williams. So I will admit that was a factor in our decision. It wasn’t overwhelming, but it was a stronger signal.
So you’ve got all these people, you’ve got a huge platform. How do you make money?
Just this week we launched our first native advertising. You’ll only see it until 10AM EST — if you go into breakingnews.com or open our iOS app and soon our Android app, you’ll see a story from GE. These are our first tentative steps into trying to figure out how we can have breaking ads come into our real-time streams. We’re fully disclosing that it’s coming from a sponsor, but giving companies the ability to break news very quickly to an influential on-the-go audience. This is not on our Twitter account or any of our social accounts, just our apps and website.
Do you feel any pressure to go beyond just aggregating news to reporting it your selves?
That’s not on our horizon at all. There are so many news sources out there today, and then you add all the official sources that are suddenly becoming more active, and then you add the flood of eyewitness reporting that’s only going to expand over time — that’s going to keep us busy.
"We bring some sense of perspective and balance to real-time."
And I think there’s a role for our company to be that middle ground. You have the unstructured, unverified world of social media, and then you have the rich context of storytelling and original reporting that comes from news organizations. We fill the middle role, we bring some sense of perspective and balance to real-time. We still want to be fast, but we want to be right, and when we’re wrong we’re going to be fully transparent about it.
One of the new things we might get into is asking ourselves, if someone else is reporting information that’s wrong, that’s spreading very quickly, what role can we actively take to help shut that down? So that’s what we’re going to be exploring next.