“Digital-first” means different priorities and processes for journalists.
As I’ve visited newsrooms discussing digital-first journalism, I’ve heard again and again from editors that they are “all in” for the digital emphasis. But in the next breath, some editors ask questions about what “digital-first” means for them and their newsrooms. They believe but they don’t fully understand.
Digital-first is way more than just publishing breaking news online and shooting video (though it involves both). Steve Yelvington explained:
Digital-first is about making the future your first priority, with everything that implies.
It requires restructuring all your priorities. Not just when you do it, but what you do and how you do it.
In a series of blog posts starting today, I will attempt to explain what those priorities mean.
My series is part of an extended conversation about digital-first journalism. The foundational documents being published by York Daily Record editors and Matt DeRienzo’s Connecticut Newsroom blog have shared some important views and details. I’m sure that other journalists have blogged about some of the same matters or other aspects I will not address here. I invite those colleagues to add links to their related blog posts in the comments here.
I’ll address the working, values and thinking of digital-first journalism. I’ll share suggestions for leading a digital-first newsroom and discuss how digital-first succeeds as a business model. I’ll discuss how the digital-first approach affects reporters’ work generally and specifically on the statehouse beat. Today I’ll start with the actual work.
How digital-first journalists work
Digital platforms are first in the processes and priorities of the digital-first journalist. We publish newspapers as well, but newspapers cannot drive our work. Newspapers are a shrinking audience and revenue stream and our digital community and revenue stream are growing. Our survival demands a digital focus.
Digital journalists produce content initially for multiple digital platforms: our news websites, blogs, social media, text alerts, email alerts and newsletters (and whatever comes next or whatever I’ve overlooked). Editors responsible for print products will assemble them primarily from content produced originally for digital platforms.
Whatever your job, you need to make high priorities to:
- Work and think first for digital platforms.
- Experiment and take risks.
- Try new tools & techniques.
- Cover news live.
- Join, stimulate, curate and lead the community conversation.
- Engage the community in your coverage.
Each journalist must work out his or her particular processes and priorities in consultation with editors and colleagues. Your details will vary from those I outline here and will vary day to day. Even if I outline exactly what your daily workflow should be, it may well change next month as a new tool becomes available or someone pioneers a new technique. So look at these examples as illustrations of how you might change your workflow, not as a specific, rigid or complete prescription.
I’ll sketch possible workflows for a few different reporters, a visual journalist and an editor, going into greater detail in the first illustration:
Court reporter’s workflow
On a trial day, the reporter, for the most part, uses Twitter as her notebook. She sets up a trial liveblog using CoverItLive or ScribbleLive and liveblogs or live-tweets (feeding the tweets into the liveblog) the trial narrative through the day. She keeps an offline notebook or digital file handy for tips, story ideas and notes that need more inquiry before publication, but for the most part, Twitter and the liveblog become her trial notebook and she shares that notebook with the community.
If any developments during the trial merit a news alert (key ruling, verdict, stunning testimony), the reporter sends a quick text to an editor who will send out a text or email alert, unless the reporter is authorized to publish alerts directly. (The editor should have given some guidance on whether to alert the editor first or tweet first, but both should be done swiftly.) For such a development, the reporter might write a few paragraphs to update the story that introduces the liveblog.
The stream of tweets is not a transcript and does not have to be constant. As testimony raises questions the reporter wants to ask an attorney at a break, she might decide not to tweet something until she gains further understanding. She might take a quick break from trial during a procedural argument or testimony of a secondary witness to check in with sources or check for new filings in the clerk’s office.
After the day’s testimony concludes, the reporter writes a summary story that will update the liveblog intro and run in the newspaper. Most of the time (the day of the verdict would be a likely exception), this story will be shorter than newspaper coverage of trials has traditionally been. A summary, noting that complete coverage is available online, will suffice most days. The reporter also posts a Facebook update about the trial and posts a brief item to Google+, linking to the story and liveblog. If social media discussion of the story is strong, the reporter might embed a few tweets in the web version of the game story or use Storify to curate the social media conversation for a sidebar.
On days when the reporter isn’t covering a trial, and during breaks in the trial, the reporter checks in with traditional courthouse sources: prosecutors, lawyers, judges, the clerk’s office, victim advocates, families of defendants. These checks will be a combination of traditional chats on the phone and in people’s offices and digital checks — monitoring Twitter feeds and searches, checking a Facebook group supporting a defendant, digital filings at the clerk’s office.
When the reporter comes across significant news, such as a big lawsuit, charge or indictment, she will immediately tweet and email an alert to an editor. Then she will quickly write a few paragraphs summarizing the news and file an initial story, noting that she will be seeking reaction from key people. Then she does a quick Twitter search to see if any of the key figures has already reacted. If so, she adds their tweets to the story (presuming she has earlier validated the Twitter profiles as legitimate). If not, she starts calling on the phone, emailing and/or visiting offices, seeking reaction, explanation, etc.
When interviewing sources, the reporter will take notes but also record a few minutes of video and shoot a still mug shot. She may audio-record the full interview, especially if it is a critical interview, for use of audio clips online. When online documents are not available for linking, the reporter will download or scan digital copies of key documents relating to cases she is covering. In most cases, the reporter will write less than a traditional print reporter, allowing time to scan and embed documents and edit video and audio clips.
Ron Sylvester of the Wichita Eagle has been live-tweeting trials for years. Patricia Doxsey of the Daily Freeman and Mike Cruz of the San Bernardino Sun are also live-tweeting trial coverage. The New Haven Register uses a branded NHR Live account for live-tweeting.
Visual journalist’s workflow
At the scene of a breaking news story, the digital-first visual journalist shoots a range of visuals for use in a variety of formats and platforms. The work will vary by story, but could include any or all of these tasks:
- With a smartphone, he takes a few quick photos and posts them immediately to the breaking news blog, then tweets links to them.
- He shoots video (might be with smartphone or with camera) at the scene.
- He shoots a variety of still photos to use in a slideshow later and to provide a selection for consideration for print.
- He records ambient sound and some interviews with an audio recorder for use in the soundtrack of the slideshow.
- He shoots mug shots of key players if he has the opportunity, for secondary art and to archive for possible later use when these people are in the news.
- In case of a disaster, he shoots some building/setting shots for possible later use with file photos in before/after presentations.
- He records accurately the spellings of names of people and places, where possible by shooting photos of name tags, credentials and other documentation.
Upon returning to the newsroom, the visual journalist confers with editors to decide which visuals to edit and post online first and which photo(s) might be best for print.
If you’re a visual journalist, you might be thinking, yeah, I’d do all that if I had the right equipment, but I don’t have a smartphone (or whatever). Yes, absolutely, digital-first journalism requires providing journalists the tools they need to work effectively. Our company is working on that and other companies following a digital-first approach need to invest in digital tools, too.
Sports reporter’s workflow
On game day, the digital-first sports reporter covers the events live, either using a tool such as CoverItLive or ScribbleLive directly or by live-tweeting and feeding the tweets into the liveblog or by frequently updating a news story or blog. The nature of the liveblog might vary, depending on television coverage.
If the reporter is covering the local professional or big-time college team, and fans are likely to be watching in the stadium or on television, her role is more commentary and interaction with fans than play-by-play. If it’s a road game that’s not on television, the reporter needs to report more of the action. In either case, it’s essential to report big plays and periodic scores (in a game with infrequent scoring, such as football, baseball or hockey, she probably reports every score; with volleyball or basketball, summarizing runs or noting lead changes should suffice). In the case of high school sports, the reporter needs to decide (and watch the interaction to judge) whether most of the people joining the liveblog are at the game or following it from afar, and blog accordingly.
Fan reaction during the game helps guide the reporter’s coverage: The fans can identify a huge issue that she has to address in her game coverage. Or the fan discussion can show the reporter which issues have been thoroughly discussed, helping her choose a fresh approach.
In regular beat coverage between games, the sports reporter must monitor athletes’, coaches’ and teams’ social media accounts, where they might offend or apologize to fans, trash-talk upcoming opponents or disclose or discuss injuries. The reporter tweets and blogs about stories she is working on. The reporter shoots brief video clips during interviews to embed later in a story or blog post.
When big news breaks, such as an injury, trade or coach’s firing or hiring, the reporter hustles to be the first to break the story with a swift combination of tweet, news alert, Facebook update, website bulletin, blog post and full-blown story. (The order of these will vary according to the priorities set in your newsroom, but the reporter will understand the order and the importance of moving quickly through all of them.)
The reporter will interact live with the community during the week in one or more of these ways:
- Webcast, possibly with other sports writers, sports bloggers, coaches and/or athletes.
- Live chat with fans (again, possibly with guests, who don’t need to be on-site, so you might bring in a coach or athlete from a team the local team will be opposing soon).
- Combination webcast and live chat with reporter(s) on the webcast and an editor fielding and asking questions from the live chat.
The rhythm of the sports beat is heavily dictated by game schedules (and off-season schedules such as recruiting, drafts, trades and free agents). But breaking news and investigative projects can disrupt that schedule or take over the off-season. The sports reporter adjusts or overhauls her workflow as demanded by hiring, firings, signings and scandals over sex, drugs, recruiting and violence.
Beat reporter’s workflow
Of course, the beat reporter’s workflow varies by beat and by day. Each reporter must shape his own digital-first routine. If you’re a police reporter, Larry Altman’s account of a recent breaking story will help you see how you need to use Twitter on a breaking story. If you have a government beat, you should consider live-tweeting meetings and feeding the tweets into a liveblog. Even in feature beats, live coverage might be important: liveblogging or live-tweeting a festival or entertainment event.
Whatever your beat, your regular rounds should be a mix of traditional checks such as phone calls and in-person visits and digital checks such as monitoring hashtags, official Twitter feeds and Facebook pages and doing Twitter and Google searches. You use a tool such as TweetDeck, HootSuite or Twitter lists to monitor key sources, searches and hashtags relating to your beat. When big stories break, you will tweet and send editors material for news alerts as quickly as you can verify facts.
You crowdsource your stories (most of the time valuing community input more than you fear tipping competitors). On big stories, you might lead a live chat on your site (or on Twitter), or you could curate the community’s social-media conversation on the issue.
Beat reporters need to be smart in using hashtags. If you can use a regular hashtag such as the name of the community you cover, or a combination of a community or state abbreviation and a word that signifies your beat. Or you can promote a particular hashtag for a particular type of story (NewsOK.com has had success promoting #okstorm for severe weather in Oklahoma). Stick with descriptive hashtags that the community might pick up and use rather than branded hashtags. For instance, the New Haven Register will have more success promoting hashtags beginning with “nh” for New Haven than with “nhr.” When news breaks on your beat, note and use any hashtags the public is using to discuss the story.
The beat reporter always needs to think of multiple ways to tell stories: video, maps, source documents, links to your own archived content as well as to other related content in the community (even from competitors).
You should maintain a beatblog where the community can turn for a lively and regular report from your beat. The blog will include links to all of your content, including stories and liveblogs featured elsewhere. It also should include tidbits that will interest only people following your beat topic or community closely, tidbits that often stayed in the notebooks of print reporters.
Your work may be published without editing in a blog or liveblog and certainly on Twitter. Even full stories published online and in print may have minimal editing as your newsroom reworks editing processes and resources. You need to take responsibility for your own work and ensure that your copy is clear and accurate.
In my News University course, Introduction to Reporting: Beat Basics and Beyond, I discuss beat by beat some ways to use digital tools in your reporting routines.
The work of mid-level editors is changing swiftly as newsrooms reorganize and rethink to face digital challenges. I suggest that editors take the lead in reworking your own workflow in consultation with top editors and the staffs you organize. Consider the following issues and questions and how they will shape your work:
- Just as editors in various positions have needed to monitor wires regularly in their work, what social media pages, sources, hashtags and searches do you need to monitor regularly?
- Your questions to staff members will guide their growth and execution of digital journalism: How are you going to crowdsource this story? What data can we gather to tell this story? Can you show that on a map? What are you searching for on Twitter? What hashtag are you using for this story?
- You coach staff members as they try new tools and techniques. If you aren’t familiar with the tool yourself, you learn with them and ask good questions to guide their learning: Where does this fit in your workflow? How will you verify the information you find here? Can you embed this in your blog?
- You need to focus on live coverage of events and breaking news. Though the reporter may post that content live, you will need to edit behind the reporter, polishing and fixing errors. Ask the reporter questions to help fill holes and resolve inconsistencies.
- At the end of your workflow, you may edit content for print. You may edit a longer blog post or liveblog into a print story. You should run the lead and key parts of the story past the reporter for clarity and accuracy.
I have not covered all the positions in a newsroom. If you’ve blogged about your workflow (or would like to blog about it as a guest blogger here), please add a link in the comments here or email me at sbuttry (at) journalregister.com. If you think I’ve omitted key points in the digital-first workflow, ask questions or fill the holes in your comments.
I’ll be blogging tomorrow about the values of digital-first journalism.
Update: I forgot to include the slides I used for some workshops last week on the digital-first workflow:
I’ll also add a few tweets from an exchange about this post:
I may blog about feature and investigative workflows sometime. But for now, I’ll add a link to the excellent use of Facebook by feature reporter Maryanne Kocsis MacLeod.
September 2014 update: This post originally referred to my work for Digital First Media and thus capitalized Digital First throughout. I have left DFM and thought I should update this. I am still a huge believer in digital-first journalism, and still plan to lead workshops based on the points here, but I thought I should update this post to reflect that I’m talking now about an approach to journalism, not a specific company.