At 1:22 p.m., my work was interrupted by an email-arrival notice; the Washington Post had sent out this breaking news alert: “Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney announced Thursday that he will seek the Republican presidential nomination in 2012.” This raises the issue of just what it is journalists are trying to accomplish when sending out a breaking news alert. It is technically true that the Post’s announcement was “breaking news” — Romney officially launched his run for president. He pulled the trigger. The paperwork is filed, and now he is subject to all the election requirements of a declared, official candidate. … However, is there any sentient individual not only on Earth but within interstellar range of the Earth’s television signals who feels the slightest twinge of surprise at this news? Any? … No? Then to my mind it’s not worth an alert, and I would wager that a great many other recipients of the alert are thinking the same thing. (For example.) If the Post made a habit of broadcasting this level of “news” via email alerts, a good many people would wonder whether it was worth the subscription for emails that interrupt work or make their phones beep/vibrate to alert them to utterly obvious or expected developments.
If you have any responsibility for such alerts to consider your own emails, before sending one you have to ask yourself: Will your audience consider them to be news that is worthy of the interruption? You send alerts to reinforce your identity as a source of fresh information important to your area (or topic). When you send out things no one really considers to be news, you convey the opposite message.