From reading The Michigan Daily last week, I learned that a local cab driver is a rapist (“Ann Arbor taxicab driver accused of assault”, 03/15/2012). It’s just an allegation for now, based upon “murmurings” within sororities, but details like that are usually lost in the midst when news breaks. The Daily story didn’t reveal the accused cabbie’s name, so naturally, I have to assume it could be any and every cab driver in Ann Arbor. And that makes me scared for my friends.

OK, that’s an exaggeration, but the story in question does lead nicely into a discussion on the challenges of covering breaking news — stories that, like this one, are important to readers, but have yet to reveal all of their facts. These challenges, like most others, are somewhat multiplied at a student publication because of one important fact: while news happens all the time, Daily reporters, no matter how dedicated, are not full-time journalists. Instead, they must always balance the significant additional responsibilities of being college students with full course loads.

Back at the Daily’s editor in chief election of 2007 (the last one I attended), there was a lot of talk about turning the Daily’s newsroom into a 24-hour operation. The Daily staffers who were in the room that evening could be forgiven for their ambition: they had been, after all, witnesses to and participants in a pivotal time in the history of this paper. More perhaps than any other group before them, they had presided over an explosion of technology and social media that expanded the role and reach of this paper. Podcasting, blogs, a useable, redesigned web interface and even the Daily’s Facebook page all arose in the three to four years preceding that 2007 Daily election. A 24-hour newsroom didn’t seem like that crazy of an idea.

But some senior editors like me, old hands on their way out, had reservations. We questioned if such a push toward ubiquity might have significant drawbacks. My own background in the opinion and arts sections, both of which are more about depth of analysis than actual “news,” made me question the concept of a 24-hour newsroom more than most. Wouldn’t the quality of our product have to be harmed to achieve such a goal? The focus of the Daily, I argued, should be producing five great papers a week — not covering every story and following every lead as it breaks.

Looking back over the five years since that election, it seems that the 24-hour newsroom view has mostly won the day. While the Daily doesn’t run a full, as-it-happens news website, significant stories (especially sports stories) are often posted online before a more-detailed version appears in print the next day. More than that, the Daily’s news and sports blogs post content several times every day, and at all hours of the day.

But the concern about the drawbacks of releasing content constantly, as opposed to only in measured and refined bites comprising a Daily print edition, is one that deserves some renewed attention. Obviously, the Daily must find a line for the level of refinement for its blog content. Daily style and grammatical correctness are often sacrificed in such content, but perhaps the benefits of it still outweigh these minor drawbacks. The real issue to address though is in the realm of breaking news: how do you balance the “need to know” issue with the drawbacks of printing a story before all the facts are known?

The cab driver story — though I’m not sure I would have printed it — skillfully negotiated this balance. The accused’s name was not disclosed, and the reasons for this were explained to the reader. The writer clearly indicated the source of the story, pointed out inconsistencies in the narrative, clarified that no charges had yet been filed and got comments from the accused man. Still, the fact that none of the key players involved in starting the story (the alleged victim, the author of the e-mail, members of the relevant sorority, etc.) chose to speak to the reporter, even off the record, is a factor that weighs against printing the story at all.

What comes of the story remains to be seen. It may be that the Daily took a significant first step in drawing attention to a true danger that students should be aware of. It is also possible that the Daily printed a mere rumor that ultimately turns out false. Such is often the challenge of breaking news. And experience, I’m afraid, is the only real teacher.

The public editor is an independent critic of the Daily, and neither the editorial board nor the editor in chief exercise control over the contents of his columns. The opinions expressed do not necessarily constitute the opinion of the Daily. Imran Syed can be reached at

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