For most of my career, I’d need to wait until Sunday to read and write about a big newspaper enterprise project. But I read the York Daily Record and Sunday News’ “Finding Their Way Out” on Friday afternoon.
It’s an outstanding package by reporter Bill Landauer and photojournalist Jason Plotkin, designed by Samantha K. Dellinger. They examine the lasting impact of a local act of school violence. It underscores some old-school principles of journalism:
- Reporters and photojournalists need to knock on some doors and develop good relationships to get many of the best stories.
- Reporters and photojournalists should work together on big stories.
- Editors should give reporters and photojournalists time to work on major enterprise stories.
- Professional journalists bring genuine value to their best work.
The project also underscores some principles of digital journalism:
- Digital journalism is first and foremost about doing good journalism.
- We no longer wait until Sunday (when web traffic is slow) to publish our best work. Publishing the story online Friday and in print Sunday fits our company’s Digital First approach.
- We build on strong reporting and photojournalism with strong interactive elements.
- We promote and explain our work on social media and blogs.
Where did the idea come from?
Blanchard: A former Red Lion staffer came forward last year after reading former YDR reporter Melissa Nann Burke’s 10th anniversary coverage of the machete attack at a Red Lion elementary school, which included information that the school’s principal regularly spoke about trauma and its effects. Another person independently came forward, as recounted by Editor Jim in his editor’s blog. In the newsroom, we’ve always been aware that the story of the shooting trauma’s effect had never been told, but those people gave us a way to start reporting the story.
How did you execute the story?
Blanchard: Condensed version: After the people mentioned above opened the door by coming forward, Bill Landauer used the class of 2007 roster to find as many of those students as he could. He began calling and visiting them to tell them what he was working on and ask if they’d be willing to talk. Jason Plotkin joined him, and together they made several trips to the Red Lion area and talked to many members of that class. They visited Eugene Segro’s widow, who declined to talk, and visited Jimmy Sheets’ parents, who also declined to talk. At the same time, Bill was talking to trauma experts, police, the Red Lion superintendent and other people for the story. Jason worked with the superintendent to be able to photograph some of the class members at the school.
Because we knew this was such a sensitive issue in Red Lion, Bill and Jason were quite conscious of being up front and transparent with anyone they talked to about what we were doing, why, etc. At one point, Jason offered to the superintendent that the three of us would go to Red Lion to meet with school staff and discuss the project and their concerns. (Through the superintendent, staff declined).
Bill transitioned from reporting to taking the massive amount of information he had and turning it into a focused story. Bill and I worked through drafts of the story, including getting reads from other editors late in the process.
When it was ready for design, AME/visuals Brad Jennings and graphic artist Sam Dellinger did a tremendous amount of work creating a print design and two separate online presentations, including the most advanced online interactive presentation of a project that we’ve ever done here.
How did you decide on the approach of doing two presentations?
Brad Jennings: We knew we wanted to build a flash interactive, which is the best we could do with the staff and know-how that we have. But we knew flash doesn’t work on iPhones or iPads, or that some people might just prefer to read the story in a traditional way. So we built a traditional version and linked to it from the interactive. We took note of Denver’s American Soldier presentations — they had an interactive version and a traditional web version as well.
Why did you choose to publish online Friday and in print Sunday (and have you done this before)?
Blanchard: We don’t do it regularly with enterprise pieces but have done it in the past. Essentially, we’re addressing two different audiences — one online and one print — and the online audience is more likely to be active during a weekday than on Sunday morning.
Jennings: It was ready. Social media could help plant the seeds ahead of Sunday. Friday night and Saturday are big nights for people to catch up on Facebook. Making people aware of it online, even if they don’t read it there, could help Sunday readership of the story.
Why do the story now rather than waiting for the 10th anniversary?
Blanchard: We didn’t set out to do a ninth anniversary story. We began reporting the story last year, after those people came forward. As the reporting went deeper and deeper, it became clear that we would be on track to publish at this time.
How did you promote it (and why) on the blog and social media?
Blanchard: Mid-afternoon Friday, I posted an excerpt and a few words about the story on Google+, which we are cultivating as a sort of insiders’ social network, and on our YDRInsider blog. That was designed as a way to alert people that it was coming, and to know a bit about the story before it hit the website. Once it went live, we tweeted it out of @ydrcom (also multiple staffers tweeted it), put it on Facebook (with a condensed version of the G+ post as an explainer) and noted on G+ that it was live.
— James McClure (@JamesMcClure) April 20, 2012
Jim McClure posted again on FB this morning with a link to his piece and an engagement question. I plan to tweet and G+ again today (Saturday) with hashtags #ptsd and #trauma, as well as tweet it at the Dart Center. I also likely will do social media about the CoverItLive chat that’s taking place Monday evening. All of it is designed to bring people to the story and encourage conversation about it.
What sort of traffic have you had on the story?
The “traditional” version is over 1,000 views this morning and is already in most viewed. We’re checking on the flash version numbers. Brad notes that we would expect to see big traffic Sunday.
Why did you decide to post it late Friday, rather than giving it the full workday Friday to generate traffic and conversation?
Blanchard: We posted it when it was ready to go live. From Brad Jennings: It wasn’t ready on Friday morning. We posted at p.m. rush hour. Hopefully, a lot of people went home, ate dinner, grabbed a glass of wine and got on Facebook, saw the link and checked it out.
Anything else you’d like to add?
McClure: This was shoe-leather type of story. Bill and Jason went to dozens of houses — finding that people had moved, declined to talk, were not at home as promised, or just would not answer the doorbell. We’re hearing Denver Post journalists found the same thing in post-Columbine coverage. This was also a story indicative of how teamwork pays off — Bill and Jason jointly cultivated sources, and each had an equal stake in the story, as opposed to the reporter interviewing people and then assigning art to be taken later.
Also, you always look to add new elements to these projects. Lots of that here. For example, Scott Blanchard came up with something we’ve not done before in quite this way. He put together those digital teases saying the package would come later that day (Friday.) So, we did a digital tease to insiders about a digital package. Both teases, in their way, promoted Sunday print. Not long ago, we saw Sunday print as a driver to digital. Now, it’s the other way around.
And today, social media serves as a prime driver to web presentation. Really proud of our folks on this project.
Back to Buttry: This continues my series on Digital First journalists at work (keep ’em coming, colleagues):