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When Can You Claim Something is ‘New’ in a Story?
How to refer to the newness, or oldness, of whatever you write about
Anyone who's ever worked for a news organization knows the value of the word “new.” If you can say a survey or a fact or quote or a discovery is new, well… that’s eyeballs, baby. Those three letters—new—are headline gold. But how new does something have to be to be new?
Newer than it used to be, one might argue. Things move fast these days. And when something isn’t new, then what is it? Recent? Sometimes, sure. Let’s explore this, perhaps more deeply than you’ve ever explored it before. That’d make this whole article new.
In many cases, there’s a good amount of wiggle room for a writer (or editor) deciding what’s new. I mean, there's no formal definition of new. I lean on three considerations to help make a fair and logical determination:
Whether something is new is relative, situational, dependent on context. It might be something that happened today. Or yesterday. Or last week. Sometimes even a month ago. Hold that thought…
What publication are you writing for? If it is a fast-paced publication known for breaking news, then something that happened a week ago will often, by definition, no longer be new. If you write for a print magazine, something that emerged last month might logically be considered new. Again, hold that thought…
What are savvy readers likely to expect? Ultimately, this matters most. You never want to leverage the value of new by tricking or disappointing the reader, or by making yourself or the publication appear out of touch.
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In the world of online publishing—and thinking broadly across different genres and publications but excluding breaking-news sites—I generally consider "new" to be the past week or two, and "recent" to be up to three months or so, with some leeway depending on how much press coverage something got. If your publication is not a daily news site, you might stretch “new” to perhaps three to four weeks, maybe even a bit longer, if the item you’re writing about has not been widely reported. Just keep in mind that sharp-eyed readers might think you a little daft if you call something “new” while it was reported everywhere three weeks ago.
When you’re not sure, there’s no shame in calling the event or fact or whatever it was recent.
But those aren’t your only options.
Alternate ways to refer to the timing include “yesterday,” "last week," "last month" or "last year," each of which has some "recent" connotations while being totally accurate—and notably more informative— while letting the reader perceive their newness as they will. You can also simply include the date something was said, done or released—highly specific and, in an article that might have long legs (thus be read well into the future) more informative.
If a thing you refer to is from longer ago than last year, it’s generally a good practice to mention the year. Let’s say it’s a survey or a scientific study. If it is getting old —and again, there’s no precise cutoff, but anything more than five years old is starting to get long in the reliability tooth— I would hope you don’t rely on it too much. Science and public opinion change too frequently.
If you cite a groundbreaking study or survey or event or fact that’s old, and you can state that its meaning has held up and/or been supported by more recent surveys or research or events, then that’s dandy, and can be a wonderful tale on its own. But be careful not to cherry-pick an old fact or finding or statement that supports your premise but may or may not have survived the test of time. That’s just bad research, bad writing.
Here’s some old news: You are responsible for judging the veracity of anything you cite in your story. Old isolated surveys, studies, facts or quotes can be really dicey. Newer stuff that emerges from a long history of similar stuff may be less dicey. Then, of course, there’s new stuff that overturns conventional thinking—also dicey, but this story is not about that.
Whether anything in your story is new, well, that’s for you and the reader to decide. So don’t try to be sneaky.
Oh, I almost forgot: If you go out and get a story that nobody else has, through an exclusive interview or the piecing together of parts unlike anything that came before, then you have a legitimate claim on new that’s more valuable than any other type of new.
Agree? Disagree? Let me know what you think.
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