Perpetual perfect present: journalism strategies for an atemporal world

Paul Raven @ 18-02-2011

Apparently the BBC has been doing this for a while, but this is the first time I’ve seen anyone mention it explicitly; The Guardian attempts to address the atemporality of the globalised 24/7 newsriver:

So our new policy, adopted last week (wherever you are in the world), is to omit time references such as last night, yesterday, today, tonight and tomorrow from guardian.co.uk stories. If a day is relevant (for example, to say when a meeting is going to happen or happened) we will state the actual day – as in “the government will announce its proposals in a white paper on Wednesday [rather than ‘tomorrow’]” or “the government’s proposals, announced on Wednesday [rather than ‘yesterday’], have been greeted with a storm of protest”.

The BBC website, among others, adopted a similar strategy some time ago and I feel it gives an immediacy to their reports akin to watching or listening to a live news broadcast. So in a sense we are, perhaps belatedly, recognising another way in which a website is different from a newspaper.

We are likely to make much more use of the present tense (“the government is facing a deepening crisis …”) and present perfect tense (“the crisis engulfing the government has intensified …”); until the change of approach, we would probably have written “the crisis engulfing the government intensified tonight …”

Largely unmentioned is the root cause of the problem being addressed, namely that folk who aren’t “digital natives” don’t make a habit of checking the date and time on online articles. To be fair, I only learned that necessity the hard way, after being called out on having posted some five-year-old nugget as news…

Though this raises an interesting facet of atemporality, namely that not all information is time sensitive to the same degree. A lot of more general knowledge is “news” if it’s new to the person reading it. The central channel of the river flows faster than the edges…

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2 Responses to “Perpetual perfect present: journalism strategies for an atemporal world”

  1. Frank Glover says:

    I’m immediately reminded of hoax e-mails (that you MUST send to everyone in your address book right now, of course) that scream (in big, bold, often multicolored fonts) of the super ‘virus’ discovered ‘yesterday’ or ‘last Wednesday,’ essentially making them always current to naive recipients…

  2. Miropolitan says:

    For history geeks and/or Wikipedia readers, what happened yesterday has the same status as what happened 500 years ago. What matters is how events sit within a context; exhibit a pattern; reveal an underlying structure. The main difference between the distant past and the near present is that the latter is easier to investigate, and (to those close to the action, anyway) a bit more “coming-at-ya”. On the other hand, the recurring patterns, and the invariant structures governing the way events unfold (history repeats), are just as, if not more “coming-at-ya” than the events themselves. If it’s raining hard, I’ll duck under cover – but this is not an isolated event, it’s part of an ongoing negotiated relationship between me and the (more invariant, atemporal, perpetual) structures governing/exhibited by the way in which rain occurs; can be detected; affects things; can be avoided.