Are you ready for a disaster?
Using digital tools and skills for the big story
This is my handout from a workshop for the Iowa Newspaper Association, February 6, 2009
Effective coverage of a disaster involves both preparedness and adaptability. The more you are trying new skills in routine stories, the more useful you will find the skills in a disaster. You also need to be willing to try some things you haven’t done before, as the situation dictates. Most journalists and news organizations pride themselves in hustling to cover big breaking stories in print. We’re still learning to use the skills and tools of the digital world and each disaster or other big breaking story presents opportunities to use your new skills. This workshop and handout will focus on disaster coverage, but many of the same principles and techniques apply to other big, breaking stories such as a terrorist attack or a mass murder.
Preparing for the disaster
Much of your best work in covering a disaster will be the things you do long before the flood, earthquake, wildfire, hurricane or other disaster. Assess the tools and skills your organization has and needs and work on developing your skills and capabilities on routine stories.
Check your server capacity. Make sure that your servers can handle the traffic of a big story. Daily traffic at GazetteOnline increased nearly 15 times during the peak of the June flooding of Cedar Rapids. If we had been unable to handle the traffic, we would have lost opportunities to serve our community as well as to connect with people interested in the story around the country and beyond. Whether you need to buy more servers or rely on servers of outside vendors, be certain that you can handle a sudden spike in web traffic. Decide also what content you can ditch quickly to increase your capacity.
Provide breaking news alerts. If you aren’t already providing breaking-news alerts by email or text message, start doing that. Promote them as a service to your community and use them regularly for school closings, sports scores, traffic problems and other breaking news of interest to the community. Routine use of your breaking-news alerts gives you a valuable tool and an eager audience during the disaster story.
Develop interactive databases. Every news organization should be using interactive databases regularly to tell stories better, to serve your community and to build audience. You will absolutely want to use interactive databases during the disaster, so start developing your skills with them on routine daily and enterprise stories.
Start liveblogging. You need to develop the skills of telling a story as it unfolds. Whether you liveblog or use frequent updates or both, you need to develop the skills and rhythms of telling the developing story. Use CoverItLive or a regular blogging program to cover meetings, sports events, trials and other routine news, so you are comfortable with liveblogging when your audience wants constant updates on the big news. You still need to remember the principles of accuracy and verification in liveblogging, but your standard of completeness changes. One new fact is worth a new entry.
Use video. If you’re not using video yet, it’s time to get started. You will absolutely want strong video skills when the disaster hits.
Use slideshows and photo galleries. Again, these are essential storytelling tools in a disaster. Don’t wait until then to learn how to do them.
Use maps to tell stories. Start using interactive maps if you aren’t doing that already routinely on stories where geography is a significant element (and that’s a lot of stories).
Update your equipment. The right equipment will save you important time in a disaster. Make sure that you have plenty of laptop computers for reporters. Make sure that your reporters know how to use them. (The ideal work station for a reporter is a laptop computer, hooking into a dock for desktop use.) Make sure you have cell cards available, so you can transmit stories and photographs even when you don’t have a wi-fi signal. Mobile devices with email capability also are important. If your photographers don’t have some waders, consider buying some if your community is prone to hurricanes or flooding.
Practice working by remote. Make sure your staff members know how to file stories, photos or videos from their homes or other remote locations and know how to post directly to the web.
Check your disaster plan. Make sure your organization has a complete disaster plan that covers the various possibilities. Do you have a backup generator? How much power does it provide? If it doesn’t give enough power to run your building at normal operations, decide which computers you would use in a disaster? Do you have fans to cool the newsroom if your backup generator can’t run the air conditioning? Do you have portable lights for the newsroom, if the backup generator won’t run your normal lights? Do you have enough extension cords to provide power the computers, lights and fans you will power from a backup generator? Know where you will buy drinking water and rent portable toilets if the water and sewer systems fail in a disaster. Do you have provisions for temporary lodging for staff members who might lose their homes or be unable to reach their homes?
Anticipate the approaching disaster. Many disasters strike without warning. But we can see many weather disasters such as hurricanes, floods and blizzards coming. It’s better to anticipate a disaster that turns out to be a minor storm than to get blindsided by a storm that grows worse than expected.
When disaster strikes
Update early and often.
This advice shares lessons from the experience of The Gazette and GazetteOnline in covering the floods that overwhelmed Cedar Rapids, Iowa City and much of Eastern Iowa in June 2008. It also reflects lessons I have compiled from listening and reading to editors from other news organizations that have excelled in covering disasters, including Jon Donley of nola.com, Regina McCombs of StarTribune.com, John Jackson of Roanoke.com, Stan Tiner of the Sun Herald, Ju-Don Roberts and Tom Kennedy of Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive and Pat Rice of the Northwest Florida Daily News.
The rest of the handout is for my basic workshop on multimedia storytelling. These techniques are helpful in any story or situation but become especially valuable in a disaster.
Telling stories for a multi-platform news organization involves several choices. They won’t all apply to every story, but you should consider them with every story:
- Should you file immediately for digital audiences?
- What are the multimedia elements of your story?
- How can you make the story interactive?
- What links will provide greater depth?
- Should you tell this story in an alternate form, something other than the traditional string of paragraphs? (I don’t include tips on alternate story forms here, but check the handout for my workshop on alts.)
As you consider each question, decide what job this story is doing for the user. Are you amusing, informing, giving useful information? The job that the story does will often help you decide how to tell it. Also consider who your audience for the story is. These considerations about potential users will guide some of your decisions about how to tell the story. Effective storytelling is a collaborative process among journalists with varying specialties. Communication and coordination throughout the process are essential.
Be first with the news
The ridiculous concerns about “scooping yourself” online have finally been put to rest in much of the newspaper industry. Before the Web, we had to concede an advantage to broadcast media in covering breaking news. Now we can and must own breaking news. It drives web traffic and it marks your organization as the place to turn for news. So reporters need to learn what to break online and how to write an unfolding story.
Accuracy still rules. When you cover a breaking news story online, basic rules on accuracy and verification don’t waver. Your standard of completeness changes, but not your standard of accuracy. You can report a one-sentence bulletin and add updates as you get them. But don’t report even a single sentence unless you are confident enough of the facts in that sentence to print them.
File the news bulletins and updates however you can. A wireless-equipped laptop is the best tool for filing breaking news. But you can email or text-message from a phone or PDA or call an editor and dictate. Whatever your tools, whatever the situation, the reporter’s job is to get key facts online as soon as you can verify them.
Consider liveblogging. Whether you are covering a breaking news story or a routine event such as a festival or government meeting, consider a liveblog, where you file a running account online, updated every few minutes with takes ranging from a single sentence to a few paragraphs. You can liveblog by posting frequent updates in almost any blogging software. Or you can use a program developed specifically for liveblogging, such as CoverItLive. Consider whether to allow interaction with the audience in the liveblog.
Digital is more than web. For an important breaking story, most organizations now use a brief text-message or email alert as the first step in telling the story. Practice using words effectively to convey the important news in just a few characters. The same brief alert can also be a Twitter or RSS feed.
Tell the story. After you have filed the first few facts as bulletins and brief updates, consider a writethru for a significant story. This will give your web users an overview of the story and give you an early draft of your print version of the story.
Consider video. Video is especially important to young users who are enjoying video on YouTube and other Internet sites. You need to make it an important part of your storytelling toolbox. If you’re covering an event, video can almost always be part of the story package. If characters are telling you interesting stories, let them tell part of the story in their own voice on a video clip. Video works best in stories with action or emotion. It’s best in stories where you are present for the action, rather than trying to figure out after the fact what happened. Talking heads giving information doesn’t make good video. Boring meetings are as boring on video as in stories. We don’t have to shoot all the video ourselves. More and more of life is captured on video. Even if a colleague is shooting video for a story or if we aren’t shooting video ourselves, video should be part of the information-gathering process. You can ask for official videos, security videos and home videos that will help you tell the story. You can use the web site to ask users to contribute their videos.
Consider audio. Digital audio recorders let us capture the voices of your characters. Telling stories in audio form allows users to download them to iPods and listen to them as they travel or work. Again, you don’t have to gather all the audio yourself. Recordings of official meetings or emergency phone calls or police radio traffic can bring extra dimensions to a story.
Consider slide shows. Slide shows let us tell stories in still photographs much more powerfully than the few photographs (or single photo) you have space for in your print edition.
Consider sound slides. Sometimes a video of a character speaking is pretty static visually. Put that voice over a slide show relating to the story, and you might have a strong storytelling tool.
Consider virtual reality. If the place you are writing about is important, you can show it to the user in a detailed interactive way by shooting 360-degree photographs and editing them into a steerable virtual reality that lets the user see what the place really looks like. You can get the software to edit still photos into VR at download.com.
Consider PowerPoints. Increasingly, the people we write about use PowerPoint slide shows to explain issues to their peers and staffs. We can use those same slide shows (or develop shows of our own) to explain the issues to our users. Keep in mind that most PowerPoints are accompanied by a person explaining the context of what you are seeing or connecting some dots. Consider whether you need some audio to accompany the slide show or some extra slides that provide that context or connection.
Consider maps. Geography is critical to many stories. An interactive map can place a story in perspective, with pins showing what happened where, with each pin linking to more detail about what happened there. You can turn a map into a timeline by numbering the pins.
Consider simulations. Many of your users grew up on video games. Your stories will be more meaningful online if you can offer simulations that help them try their skill at something you are writing about or use a game-like simulation to experience it more richly. You may not have to produce the simulations yourself. If the military or a corporation uses a simulation for a topic you’re writing about, see if you can get something to use online to help tell the story.
Consider animations. Computer animations can illustrate processes, such as how a new industrial process will work or how a disaster happened. Again, you don’t have to produce the animations yourself. But if you can obtain an animation, it would enhance the multimedia presentation of your story.
Consider source documents. Source documents let your audience dig into a story as deeply as they want. Some will be satisfied with your quote or two from the report or the indictment. Others will want to read the full document themselves. Whether as pdfs of paper documents or as links to online documents, add credibility and depth to your stories by adding the source documents. Don’t just do this with official documents. Love letters, old newspaper clippings and private journals can add depth and credibility to your stories as well.
Consider your archives. Many stories are really just chapters. Give your stories context by providing links to previous stories on this issue or related topics.
You can turn your user into a participant by making your story interactive. You can do this on at least four levels:
- Involve participants in your reporting.
- Involve participants in telling the story.
- Help participants to personalize the story.
- Engage participants in the continuation of the story.
Consider crowd-sourcing. Crowd-sourcing helps you connect with participants who know what you’re trying to find out in your reporting. Use the web site to connect with people who know something about the topic you’re writing about. Sometimes you will need to word the invitation carefully, so you’re not passing along rumors or tipping off competition. Invite your users to tell you what they know. Crowd-sourcing can help you connect with confidential sources or obtain official documents in an investigation. Crowd-sourcing can provide quick answers on a breaking news story. Crowd-sourcing can gather stories for a light feature. You can use the product of crowd-sourcing in multiple ways:
- Invite people to e-mail you and you check out their tips and use the best stuff you can verify in your story.
- Invite people to share their information directly online and their discussion supplements your story.
- Invite the open online discussion and mine the best tips from that, using what you can verify in the story.
Consider a wiki or discussion thread. If you’re covering an event or issue, you could invite participants to tell their own story – either as a standalone or to supplement your own coverage – either as a wiki that each user adds to and edits what has been written before or as a discussion forum, where each contribution adds to what has come before.
Consider a live online chat. Either the reporter or a source (or both) could make your story interactive by doing a live online chat with your audience.
Consider databases and calculators. Users can personalize your stories when you provide databases that allow them to find the information that applies most closely to them. For instance, if the city approves an increase in property taxes, an online calculator can help each user decide how much his own increase will be. Or if you’re writing about falling test scores in schools, a database can allow users to find the numbers for their own children’s schools. Or you can get some sample questions and let users take the test (or part of it) themselves. Interactive maps are an effective database. The user can click on her neighborhood and get the information that means the most to her.
Consider discussion forums. If you’ve produced a good story, it should draw reaction from your audience. By establishing a forum for discussion, you allow the audience to continue the story with their opinions, experiences and questions. This may generate tips for follow-up stories. Or it may be a discussion that deepens the experience, however long it lasts.
Consider polls. A poll lets the audience participate in the story by adding their opinions. Be careful not to present an online poll as scientific. It measures passion more than it measures opinion. And all it measures is the digital audience.
Add value with links
Because newspapers like to keep all eyes on our products, outbound links are contrary to our culture. We want people looking at our products, rather than going elsewhere. We need to change that thinking. The value of outbound links made Google the most successful business of the Internet age. You inch toward becoming the Google of your community by providing links to other materials that answer users’ questions about your community. So in any story, consider how you can add value with links:
Don’t just quote, link. If you’re quoting a blogger, document, press release, news story (anything that exists elsewhere on the web), add a link to the source so readers can read the full piece if they wish. When you link, you never quote out of context.
Link to background sources. If you’re writing about a person or organization with a web site, link to the site, so curious users can learn more background than you’ll include in the story.
Link to your archives. You often will have stories in your archives that will provide background and context to the story you’re writing. Link to them, even if you have to resurrect them online.