An important aspect of unbolting your newsroom from print is working on a digital schedule rather than a print schedule.
The morning newspaper’s evening deadlines result in most reporters turning in their stories in the evening as the print deadlines approach. The “digital-first” version of that tends to mean posting the stories online in the evening after they’re edited, rather than the late-night or early-morning web dump that used to be standard.
But your digital audience is engaged during the workday. That’s when you should be covering the day’s news. In future posts about Project Unbolt, I’ll address live coverage of events. And most newsrooms understand now that we have to cover breaking news online as it unfolds. But we haven’t done much with providing timely coverage of the routine daily stories.
On lots of beats, most daily stories aren’t events and aren’t really breaking news. They’re other types of stories:
- You’re pursuing a story that’s been on your to-do list for a few days that no one else is going to do if you don’t do it.
- You get a press release announcement or a tip in the morning, usually late morning or even afternoon, which is when morning-newspaper reporters start working. You do some reporting to flesh it out during the day, then turn it in when you’re finished in the evening.
- You crank out a news feature without a strong news peg that could run any day.
More of those stories need to run during the workday. Newsrooms pursuing a digital transformation should try different measures to increase their news flow during the workday:
Start working earlier
Start most reporters’ workday earlier in the morning. But be sure this doesn’t just mean a longer workday. Reporters who have to cover evening events should still start later, and editors and reporters need to have the discipline to make sure the reporters who start early wrap up their work and go home. (This will also facilitate a smoother copy flow for print production.)
Post timeless features the next morning
When a reporter cranks out a timeless news feature, instead of posting it in the evening and publishing it in print the next morning, save it for the next day, publishing in the morning digitally and then in the following morning’s newspaper. This is the digital version of the longstanding practice of holding timeless print stories because you don’t have enough space in the next morning’s newspaper.
Set early deadlines
Set early deadlines for some daily stories.
I used to work for a couple evening newspapers and for the Omaha World-Herald, which has morning and evening editions. Those newspapers routinely had reporters turning in daily stories at 10 or 11 in the morning. Good reporters can turn many routine daily stories around in a couple hours, or they can juggle with another daily story and turn them both in as the evening deadline approaches. Evening newspaper reporters turned stories around quickly, and digital reporters need to do the same thing.
We need to set deadlines for some daily stories at 11 a.m. to provide fresh content for people who are checking news on their lunch hour. Other deadlines can be 2 or 3 p.m. to give people a reason to check for fresh news during the afternoon.
Do a quick version, then a full version
Update: I added this section after doing my post about my interview with Mikhail Gorbachev. In that post, you can see that I cranked out a quick 380-word story for the evening newspaper, then wrote a 744-word version for the morning paper. Reporters can do the same thing on newsworthy interviews: fire off a quick story to get posted online in a timely fashion, then update with a longer story.
Report more stories as they unfold
Report more daily stories in an unfolding fashion, as you do with breaking news.
In the print workflow, if a school reporter gets a report in the morning on declining math scores in the local school district, the reporter works all day to flesh the story out: reading the report in depth, analyzing the data herself to look for other interesting facts not in the report, interviewing the head of the math department, comparing scores and trends to other school districts, interviewing an education professor at a local university and so on. The finished story posts online in the evening and runs in the morning paper.
In the digital workflow, if you have a newsworthy verifiable fact that will be the basis for a story, such as the report, you should publish a brief account of that fact (or facts) immediately based on the executive summary and update the story as the day goes along (and say that you’ll be updating). People who care about the news will share it on social media and visit multiple times to follow the story as it unfolds. And people who don’t care about it aren’t likely to read it whenever or however you publish it. After that first post, updates might include:
- A few bulleted highlights and quotes from the full report after you’ve read that. And add a link to the full report or embed it on your site as a PDF. Add a crowdsourcing invitation, asking people to tell you what they think is significant about the report or what they think of math teaching in their children’s schools.
- Updates when you interview the head of the district’s math department and a specialist in math in the school of education at the local state university. Perhaps with a video clip of at least one of the videos.
- The report didn’t note which schools had the sharpest decline, but a parent, responding to your crowdsourcing invitation, figures that out herself from the school scores in the report. You check the mother’s math and add that to your story, along with a couple of quotes from her, saying that complaints about the lousy math program at the school have been ignored. The potential for sooner community interaction with a story is a huge benefit of reporting a story as it unfolds.
- If the initial report generates some social-media reaction, you do an update embedding a few of the best tweets in your story. Or you Storify a reaction sidebar if there’s enough reaction. (This might be a job for an editor if the reaction has been strong. Or you might have an intern double-team this story with the reporter if it’s turning into a good story.)
- Using the data on schools, you upload a searchable database, where parents or teachers can look up the scores of their own schools. If you don’t have the skills to create a searchable database yourself, or don’t use a service such as Casoio that makes it easy to create a database, you can simply upload the data as a Google spreadsheet, make it public and link it from the story.
- You develop an interactive quiz with some of the questions from the math test, so readers can see how they would do against students from a particular grade.
- Maybe you can’t get this all done in a day. The database or the quiz might be a second-day story (or perhaps a colleague helps you make either or both for the first-day coverage).
- At some point, as the morning-newspaper deadline approaches, you might decide what’s most newsworthy for the newspaper audience and write a new lead, editing the unfolding story into a print version.
Much of the work is the same as you might do simply writing for the morning paper. But instead of losing the story in the evening (“burying” it might be the print term), you catch the daytime crowd and make it the topic of the day for people interested in the local schools.
This doesn’t work for every story
Don’t force every daily story into one of these approaches. Some stories in the morning newspaper are coverage of evening events. Those events should be covered live in the evening.
Good reporters will get some tips or announcements for routine daily news in the afternoon or evening, and that coverage is going to start when you have enough verifiable information to report. You might report in an unfolding fashion over a couple of days. Or, if the story can wait and doesn’t lend itself to the unfolding approach, you set a deadline for the next morning.
Some stories don’t start with a verifiable key fact that you can build an unfolding story around. Sometimes you start with a tip that’s not verified, and you gather the supporting information as you search for verification. You don’t have a story to report until you nail down the premise, and that may take all day. In these cases, you make a decision whether to publish digitally in the evening and in the next morning’s paper (if the story is timely and/or competitive) or hold it to break in the morning.
Plan for editing unfolding stories
As you adjust reporters’ work schedules and workflow to produce more stories during the day, you may need to adjust editors’ schedules as well, so someone can edit the unfolding stories or those stories turned in to meet early deadlines.
Whatever your daily story is, editors and reporters should consider when and how to tell the story for the digital audience. Discuss the lessons you learn along the way and make adjustments in your workflow and organization.
When you think and work for the digital audience, you’ll produce something that will work for print, perhaps with a little editing or adapting. But stories written for print aren’t produced when or how you want to tell stories for the digital audience.
What’s your experience?
Have you published some routine stories online in the morning or early afternoon. How has that affected traffic and/or engagement? Have you reported some routine daily stories as they unfolded, as described here? How did that work? Share your experience (with links) in the comments.