Timestamps at

About a week ago The New York Times began adding timestamps to individual articles on its front page. Perhaps it is taking a cue from the blogging movement’s style of Web journalism, with frequent updates made obvious by timestamps and blog entries in reverse chronological order.

Since printed newspapers have always presented news in order of importance, most news Web sites do too. For those who read every few hours, the site needed to clarify that a developing story had been updated with more information. But sometimes that new information — called a “writethru” of the story in wire service terminology — does not justify a new headline or new subhead or reordering the stories on the front page. Perhaps the writethru just adds detail, making a 200-word brief into an 800-word report as more information emerges. Regular visitors can now look for any little red timestamps to tell what is new in the past hour, while occasional visitors can read headlines to tell what is new in the past day.

This technique is also used at a bunch of other news sites, among them:

Some other sites use the word “Update” or “New” or even a little graphic symbol to indicate updated stories, but do not use timestamps:

I think the timestamps are an excellent technique for more news sites to adopt when they update a breaking story throughout the day. It certainly is much more enlightening than a general “last updated” timestamp for the entire front page.

On the other hand, this system may give readers incorrect impressions of when the news originally occurred. If that article was last updated at 5:32 p.m., did the event it describes happen in the afternoon? Or the morning? Or last night? There’s no way to tell from these kinds of timestamps when the news occurred or when it was first reported. Posting timestamps like this requires readers to mentally separate the headline and story summary, which is news about an event, from the timestamp, which is “meta-news” about the story itself. A clearer system would be to use both modification and creation dates — both an “updated” time and a “posted” time, which would be closer to when the event occurred. But the two-timestamp system would probably take up too much space on newspaper home pages.

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This page last modified on Sunday, March 15, 2009 at 1:53 pm