Credit: Free images from acobox.com
An editor asked me to outline how a Digital First statehouse reporter should work.
I see nine themes for the digital emphasis of a statehouse reporter:
- Live reporting of events.
- Community engagement around the issues and events of the Capitol.
- Reporting breaking news and enterprised scoops as the stories unfold.
- Curation of content from other sources.
- Enterprise and daily reporting based on analysis of data compiled by state agencies.
- Video reporting of interviews and news events.
- Digitally focused enterprise reporting.
I’ll elaborate on them, but need to acknowledge up front that I’m not involved directly with statehouse coverage now, so some statehouse editors and reporters could certainly explain any or all of these points better than I could. This continues the discussion I started last month with a post on the workflow of a Digital First journalist.
I also am not under illusion that many, if any, statehouse reporters are working as I describe now, or have the skills or equipment to do so. I don’t present this as a yardstick by which to measure current performance, but a goal to pursue in training, changing workflow and updating equipment. If you hire a statehouse reporter today, she should be hired and equipped to work this way immediately to the extent she has the skills, with a commitment to work on developing any skills she lacks.
Let’s discuss those themes:
Much of statehouse reporting, especially during a legislative session, revolves around events such as committee meetings, hearings, press conferences, debates and votes. For every event worth the attention of a statehouse reporter, a group of readers will be interested in live coverage and the reporter should develop skills at live-tweeting and/or liveblogging (my recommendation is to live-tweet and feed those into your news site and/or beatblog using a widget or a service such as CoverItLive or ScribbleLive).
Set up your live-tweeting with a tweet or two giving context by saying that you will be live-tweeting the hearing of a particular committee or the debate on a bill. Use a hashtag, either a standing tag you can reuse again and again (#njgov or #colegis) or a specific tag identifying the issue (#mnroads) or both. The set-up tweets warn followers that a heavy flow of tweets is coming. You can suggest that they might want to follow the hashtag on TweetChat or, if not interested, filter the heavy flow using muuter. (Another approach might be to have a separate feed, as the New Haven Register does with @nhrlive. Everyone who follows that expects the live-tweeting firehose. From your beat Twitter account, you say that you’ll be live-tweeting on the live feed, and you might retweet a few key tweets.)
Tweet the key quotes, votes, news developments, etc. But you’re not transcribing; you’re reporting. Use some news judgment. Stop the flow as needed to do some reporting, such as buttonholing the person who just testified to ask a couple of your own questions. Don’t just tweet what’s happening in front of you. If someone says something that you can confirm, refute or place in context with a link, look up the related site quickly and tweet a link.
Statehouse reporters often juggle more than one event in a day. If you’re bailing on a hearing after some key testimony, tweet that you’re leaving that event but will start soon from the next one.
Discuss with your editor whether you should take a straight reporting approach or whether some analysis or commentary is acceptable or encouraged regularly or in particular circumstances. A statehouse is a place of considerable snark and humor. Discuss with your editor how much your tweets should reflect the snark and humor of the statehouse characters and/or whether you should contribute to snark and/or humor.
Tweeting isn’t the only way to provide live coverage. You can livestream video. A livestream can be anything from a high-end camera on a large tripod (perhaps operated by a visual journalist, rather than the statehouse reporter) to a smartphone on a small tripod (or even handheld) using an app such as USTREAM, Qik or Skype. Or you can livestream from your laptop’s camera, sometimes turning the laptop around to show the action on the floor and sometimes letting it face you, while you provide running play-by-play and/or commentary. You can use Google+ Hangout to do live interviews with politicians (the Oakland Press and Macomb Daily recently had an editorial board meeting with Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder by Hangout).
You want to engage the community through social media and your beatblog on at least two levels:
- Connect efficiently with the sizable group of capital insiders who have always been heavy readers of statehouse coverage. These are your sources, officials, state workers, political activists, lobbyists and the like. You will continue to work sources privately in face-to-face conversations, phone calls and digital communication. But you broaden your circle of insiders by crowdsourcing confirmation of tips. Let’s say you get a tip that the director of the state department of transportation (we’ll call him Dusty Rhodes) is leaving. Your tipster isn’t sure why Rhodes is leaving, doesn’t know firsthand and won’t tell you who told her. The traditional approach would be to call some of your sources at DOT and the governor’s office to try to get confirmation of the departure, learn whether Rhodes quit or is being fired and learn why he’s leaving. You still want to do that, but before you call (or as you’re on hold or waiting for someone to return your call), you tweet (and post to Facebook and your beatblog) something that engages the community without spreading rumors: “Anyone know what’s up with Dusty Rhodes at DOT?” Maybe you get nothing and you’re going to have to nail this down old-school through your established sources. But maybe someone you’ve never met comments on your Facebook page that Rhodes just told DOT staff that he’s accepting a job with the federal DOT. Maybe the community feedback is solid enough to provide confirmation or maybe it just adds focus to your old-school inquiries. And you add another DOT source or two for future stories.
- You want to connect with the general public – people who care enough about their taxes, services or issues affected by state government that they follow your blog and/or social feeds. By engaging them, you gain insight on the impact of state government and they help steer you toward more relevant reporting. Sometimes this will be a question on Twitter, Facebook, Google+ and/or your blog, asking how they will be affected by proposed legislation. Other times, you might host a live chat or webcast on a topic you’re covering. The live chat can simply be a conversation between the reporter and the community. Or you can bring your insiders together with the general public by interviewing a source on a live chat, asking some questions yourself and fielding questions from the community that you ask the source (and possibly answer yourself).
Breaking news and scoops
As soon as you confirm newsworthy facts, you report them. Your standard of accuracy doesn’t change, but your standard of completeness is upside down from the print standard. You may never write an actual story, but provide a steady stream of information. As Jeff Jarvis has noted, a story today is more a process than a product. Much of the news at a state Capitol – such as appointments, firings, resignations, reports, budget cuts, tax increases – dribbles out in tips, trial balloons and updates.
Developing that DOT story, your first mention is not a report at all, just a question and an appeal for information, maybe about 9 a.m. when you first get the tip. About 9:30, you get a confirmation the chairman of the House Transportation Committee. She got an email heads-up from Rhodes himself, but the email didn’t explain, and she hasn’t been able to raise Rhodes or the governor on the phone yet to learn details. You report that basic fact, attributed to the lawmaker, saying you’re still trying to find out why and where Rhodes is going (and you ask if anyone knows why).
You also pull up a couple key quotes from the profile you wrote last year when Rhodes was appointed and post a link to the profile. You embed a video that was part of that profile in your blog post.
Soon you get an email blast to the statehouse media from the governor’s office, saying he’s having an 11 a.m. press conference about the DOT. You report this fact, too, again asking if anyone knows more details.
You reach Rhodes’s deputy director and she confirms that he’s leaving to head the Federal Highway Administration. She says he just told his inner circle at DOT and will be meeting with the full staff at 10:30. You report that and hustle over to the employee meeting. On your way over, Rhodes replies to a text message you sent out earlier, confirming the move and calling it his “dream job.” You quickly post this quote from your smartphone, repeating the link to your earlier profile.
If you can get into the DOT employee meeting, you live-tweet it (or maybe livestream it from your smartphone). If you can’t get into the meeting, you buttonhole some employees as they come out. You follow Rhodes over to the governor’s office for the press conference, asking him a few questions as you walk and tweeting a few more quotes from him.
You live-tweet or livestream the governor’s press conference. Or maybe you live-tweet most of it but do a brief video clip of the announcement itself.
The details will vary with each story, but you develop the routine of reporting the unfolding story, the bursts of reporting and writing alternating and even happening simultaneously.
You need to develop your own workflow for how you update various platforms. I suggest something like this: When you get the basic newsworthy fact – Rhodes’s resignation – you probably tweet it right away, text your editor to send a news alert and write a quick blog post of a paragraph or two announcing the basic fact. You blog that you’ll be updating as you learn more and add a Twitter widget or CoverItLive or ScribbleLive module to the blog post to feed subsequent tweets. You text the editor that the blog post is up, so she can put it on the home page. You tweet a link to the blog post and write brief updates for Facebook, Google+ and/or LinkedIn, posting links to the blog post and saying you’ll be updating through the day. From there, Twitter becomes your basic reporting platform. It will update the blog automatically, and all the other platforms link to the blog. However, you might update Facebook when you nail down the federal appointment and to note that you’ll be live-tweeting the press conference.
By early afternoon, you’ve pretty much covered the unfolding story of the resignation/appointment, without ever actually writing a whole story. And maybe you never write that as a whole story. Maybe you confer with your editor and decide the story will be looking forward or analyzing: Who are possible replacements or what did Rhodes achieve at DOT or why did he get the appointment. You already have some of what you need for that from the press conference and the interviews you’ve already done and previous stories. You do another two or three interviews and by mid- to late afternoon, you’re writing the analysis, which will go up as a blog post as well as a print story for the next morning’s newspaper.
Curation won’t necessarily be an major task every day, but many stories might lend themselves to curating content from other sources – social media, other professional media, your archives, blogs and other web content. Sometimes curation will be one of many reporting techniques you use as you pursue a story. Sometimes it will be the primary form of a story.
Let’s return to the DOT example: The link to the archived profile and embedding the video is an example of curation. You also might pull in Rhodes’s tweet or Facebook update if he announces his resignation/appointment at some point on social media. Or if the DOT’s PR person posts a press release, that might become part of the curated content. If politicians and members of the public react in blogs and/or social media, you might curate that content. If Rhodes led the DOT for a couple decades, maybe you curate photos through the years (from your archives and/or the web) and do a slideshow that shows his hair receding and/or graying through his time on the job. If a competitor reports a significant development, you note that and post a link.
You can do most of this using a curation tool such as Storify or Storyful or simply by embedding tweets or other media into a blog post. Maybe you decide that your afternoon task, rather than doing the analysis piece, is going to be to curate social-media discussion into a sidebar.
Or maybe the resignation/appointment isn’t the only statehouse story of the day (it would be a rare day for a statehouse reporter if that was the case). Maybe you conferred with the editor in the late morning when you learned about a plan to change the formula for state aid to schools and decided to use AP for your reporting on the school story. But by early afternoon, you decide that the school story is more important than that forward-looking or analytical piece. You might decide to use a summary story that you can write quickly or that an editor can pull together from your digital content for the Rhodes story. AP has a decent basic story on the schools, but you notice there’s some strong reaction on Twitter to the school story, positive, negative and even humorous. You decide to curate that response with a quick Storify roundup to accompany the AP story.
Offices across the capital are storehouses of data for daily stories and enterprise, ranging from state spending to bridge inspections to causes of death to hunting licenses to nursing home inspections to leaking gasoline storage tanks.
The statehouse reporter needs strong data skills. On a breaking story, you know where to find the data that will quickly explain the extent of a problem or to confirm or refute the spin of state officials. On a slow day, you troll through some databases to find a fun quick-hit story on the most popular baby names in the state last year or to find the nugget of an enterprise story on declining math test scores.
Sometimes your use of data might be a quick query of a database to add a key detail to a story. You might use tools from Visual.ly or VIDI to visualize statistics included in a report or announcement. Other times, you will spend a few hours or days (perhaps working with a developer) working up an interactive database that will be the heart of a story. Or you might work weeks on a project (probably between legislative sessions) that will involve data analysis and shoe-leather reporting based on the findings of your analysis. Or you could develop a standing interactive database that you update periodically as the state updates its data (or that updates automatically by “scraping” data from the state’s site using a script you or a developer write).
The statehouse reporter might use video in several ways (some of which I’ve already mentioned):
- Coordinate with a visual journalist who works the video coverage of a story as you work the text coverage.
- Livestream events from your smartphone or laptop.
- Shoot brief video clips during interviews or events to upload with minimal editing along with text coverage.
- Use video heavily in your reporting for a story that works best as a video, with strong editing.
- Gather videos from other sources (community submissions, social media, security cameras, state agencies) to embed in your stories and/or link to.
The state map will be a frequent part of a statehouse reporter’s work. Sometimes you’ll upload county data to a state map to embed with a story (I saw several such maps of Iowa on caucus night). You might work with a developer on a complex interactive map, or you might make a quick Google map yourself. In the DOT story, you might quickly highlight on a Google map two or three highways that were built or upgraded on Rhodes’s watch, and a new airport terminal that he helped secure funding for.
The statehouse reporter’s enterprise reporting uses a combination of the techniques covered here already. You may crowdsource multiple questions at different stages of an enterprise story. Data will play a factor in many enterprisers. The longer time frame of some enterprise stories may lend better to the time required for editing a polished video.
The enterprise story may unfold in stages, rather than the traditional huge Sunday package or series that you publish after weeks or months of work. You might publish two or three news stories at different times as you uncover some of the key findings of an enterprise project. Each of those stories might be a crowdsourcing opportunity to seek input from the community. Maybe a live chat on one of the issues you raise will be part of the project. Rather than making a big splash suddenly from nowhere, your big story may be the culmination of several stories. But even the big story, if an enterprise project has one, probably won’t be the end. You might host a live chat after you publish it, or write a follow-up or two from tips that come in the comments or social media discussion your story generates. If you’ve produced an investigative piece that spurs legislative hearings or press conferences, you might liveblog them.
The statehouse reporter’s beatblog should become must-read journalism for politicians, state employees, interest groups, activists, lobbyists, statehouse journalists and others with strong interest in state government. In a state capital, that’s a significant section of your community. Voters and readers at large may not check the blog as often. More likely they will be occasional visitors, steered there by a link from your home page when you’re covering big news, or when they Google a topic you’re writing about or when a friend’s Facebook post calls their attention to your coverage of an issue they care about.
However people find the blog, it should be the home of nearly everything a statehouse reporter does, whether it’s a long takeout that’s going to run in the print edition or a breaking news bulletin or a bunch of tweets on a widget or an insider tidbit that won’t appear anywhere but the blog. Posts worthy of home-page or politics-page play might be written as news stories, but they will be posted to the blog, where these people with strong interest will look for everything. Links from the home page and social media will drive less-frequent visitors to these big stories.
A print story might appear in the blog in various iterations: bulletins and unfolding coverage during the day, then a post seeking community feedback on which approach to take in the print story or asking which of two leads readers like, then a draft of the story, maybe an hour before the print deadline, then the final version, posted to the blog when you turn it in to the editor (and thanking readers for their feedback, if you used some of their suggestions).
I try to avoid saying “never,” but I can’t imagine a reason that a Digital First statehouse reporter would “save” anything for the print edition. Even print-focused stories would be posted in draft form and/or final form to the blog first.
In some newsrooms, or on some occasions, the reporter might not actually write a print story, but an editor might pull together print content from the liveblogging and iterative reporting.
As with my other posts about Digital First journalism, this is not a one-size-fits-all mandate prescribing exactly how you should work. Each journalist will take his own approach to the work I’ve described here, and each workday will produce challenges and opportunities that I haven’t anticipated here. The details will vary depending on whether you’re a solo reporter or part of a statehouse team. They will vary based on the circumstances of the state and capital you cover.
Statehouse reporting tends to have two primary focuses: Covering the work of state government and covering state political campaigns and elections. I have focused mostly here on government coverage, but the same themes would play into political coverage with minor adjustments. Some of the suggestions here might apply for topical beats with some statehouse duties (for instance, the DOT story might be covered by a transportation reporter, not a statehouse beat reporter). For Washington coverage, the approach would be similar, though the details might change considerably.
If this process sounds daunting, regard it as a goal, not a minimum standard. Some excellent statehouse reporters might be weak on database or video skills. Every Digital First journalist must be in a constant state of learning. Your newsroom may not provide you with a smartphone. Even if you master all the skills you need today and have all the equipment, some other important tool will be introduced tomorrow. What’s most important is that the reporter should understand and embrace the Digital First mindset and process, commit to learning new skills and press bosses to provide needed equipment.
I’ve supervised or pitched in as a reporter on print-focused coverage of five different statehouses, though it’s been a while since I’ve had much involvement in state coverage. I welcome statehouse reporters and editors (either my Digital First Media colleagues or others) to weigh in with your observations and experiences, which may be more helpful. Send me links to good beatblogs by statehouse reporters or good liveblogging examples, Twitter usernames of good statehouse reporters. Let me know where you think my suggestions would be impractical (though I may push back, if you haven’t given them a good test; the Digital First statehouse reporter, like all Digital First journalists, needs to embrace a workflow that’s radically different from print-focused journalism).
Digital First Media has newsrooms in at least five state capitals and other newsrooms cover statehouses. I’ll be asking those colleagues (and invite others reading this) to share their experiences as they try some of this out.