Continuing my series of posts on live coverage, Breaking News Editor Tom Cleary explains how Digital First Media’s Connecticut breaking news team works. Newsrooms and clusters of newsrooms pursuing Project Unbolt need to cover breaking news live and should consider forming a breaking news team.
In early February, just as Project Unbolt was getting underway at the New Haven Register, the DFM Connecticut breaking news and digital staff was reorganized. The breaking news team was expanded and a team of web producers was created, splitting the duties that were once carried out by one team. The reorganization was done to improve breaking news reporting and web production and also to allow town reporters to focus more on enterprise reporting.
The breaking news reporting team includes an editor, assistant editor and five reporters (three in New Haven, one in Torrington and one in Middletown). The team is tasked with covering statewide and local breaking news, freeing up town reporters that had mainly been handling those stories to work on day-to-day stories and enterprise pieces.
Here are a few examples of stories the breaking news team has covered, or helped with the coverage of, since it was revamped:
Torrington warehouse fire
This story showed the success that a photo gallery and live coverage can have during a major breaking news event.
A fire on April 3 at a large tire warehouse sent black smoke billowing into the city of Torrington, and resulted in dozens of firefighters from several towns responding to fight it. The fire broke out early in the morning, and it was covered by a mix of the breaking news team and the city desk staff in Torrington.
Immediately after learning about the fire, we began tweeting and posting on Facebook, and a story was posted to the website, including a ScribbleLive blog that pulled in tweets from the reporters in the field. Because of limitations with our mobile site, it was necessary to have two versions of the story, one with the live blog and another a quick rundown of what had happened, since the live blog was not visible on our mobile sites.
About 30 minutes after our reporters had got to the scene, we began to build a slideshow, and had about 50 photos posted. Eventually the slideshow would include more than 150 photos and would become the most-viewed gallery the Register Citizen has ever had.
The live blog ran throughout the day, with a large audience sticking with it. The blog included photos, videos and Tweets, with up to the minute information from the scene.
We’ve found that liveblogs and photo galleries, even with breaking news that’s not as huge as this story was for Torrington, greatly increase the time our readers spend on the site. If we’re able to get a blog and gallery up quickly, readers stay with it and continue to look at the updates.
Fire is so thick it’s blocking out the sun. Flames still visible pic.twitter.com/7scKyoHWSy
— Esteban L. Hernandez (@EstebanHRZ) April 3, 2014
Stabbing at Milford high school
Like with the Torrington fire story, a stabbing at a high school in Milford showed the importance of coordination between reporters in the field and editors at the office.
The stabbing occurred just after school started a local high school. Our morning breaking news reporter at the time, Charlotte Adinolfi, immediately went to the school, while editors posted a story and got a liveblog started as soon as we confirmed it had occurred, and once we realized it was going to be an important story.
We learned that a 16-year-old girl was fatally stabbed by a fellow student on their prom day, and rumors began circulating that the student had stabbed his classmate after she declined his invitation to prom.
The story attracted national news attention, but because we were at the scene early and had sources in the community, we were able to stay ahead of many of the news outlets covering the story. The liveblog was very well read, and like in Torrington, we began a photo gallery as reporters and photographers began sending in photos.
Investigation at Jonathon Law high School in Milford. Students leaving and police addressing parents. Heading to m… http://t.co/NiR9hzYuf6
— Charlotte Adinolfi (@NHR_CharlotteA) April 25, 2014
New Haven bank robbery search
Not every breaking news story we’ve handled has been as big as the Torrington fire and Milford stabbing.
For more routine stories, we’ve also had a lot of success with live coverage.
An example is the search for a bank robber in New Haven that was covered by Mercy Quaye. By tweeting photos, videos and information from the scene, the editors in the newsroom were able to build a Storify and put together a story right away.
Officers have parking lot closed off during an investigation into two suspects involved with Woodbridge bank robbery pic.twitter.com/188j0vyy4D
— Mercy A. Quaye (@Mercy_WriteNow) March 12, 2014
Breaking news tips
Here are a few general tips and things we’ve learned since the breaking news team was reorganized:
1. Live tweet, and set-up a live blog if the story warrants it:
Tweeting from the scene of a crime or fire, or whatever the breaking news situation may be is the best way to quickly get information out to your readers, and to the editors who are coordinating the coverage. It’s also important for any kind of breaking news, even if it’s not an unfolding situation. Tweeting key details from a press release, for example a political press release or an update on an arrest, is also very valuable.
The key, we’ve found, is to find a way to drive traffic to the site using what has been posted to social media. One way to do that is to start a live blog in ScribbleLive or another similar platform. This way, all the latest information is being posted directly to a story on your website that is also available to readers who might not be on Twitter.
If it doesn’t seem like the live tweeting will continue for a lengthy time, another option is to use Storify to assemble the tweets and information on your website.
Make sure to share the link to the story on social media, and make new posts from branded accounts when major developments in the story occur.
2. Good communication is key:
With the breaking news reporting team and the web production team sharing the responsibility of social media and web site management for the DFM Connecticut properties, it is essential that we be on the same page. It’s been one of the more challenging things we’ve encountered so far, but what we’ve learned is that everyone needs to be looped in when there is a major story, and there needs to be a plan in place for when that happens.
There also must be good communication between the breaking news editors and the other editors at the paper. There are times when there might be multiple developing situations, and not enough people on the team to cover everything. It’s important to work with the other editors to figure out who can assist in coverage. And when something big is happening in a reporter’s town, that reporter needs to know about it. Even though breaking news falls on the breaking news team and not the local reporters, they still know their towns and beats well and can be a key asset in the coverage. By communicating well with those reporters and their editors, the coverage goes a lot smoother.
3. Be accurate:
In the race to be first and to have something online and on social media immediately, it’s still most important to be accurate. It’s possible to let your audience know that something is developing, without spreading rumors or unconfirmed facts. Post what’s confirmed, even if it’s just that there’s a police presence on a certain street where you have heard there was a shooting, or that the fire department tweeted it is heading to a possible structure fire. It’s better to be a few minutes behind than be wrong and lose your audience’s trust.
In a breaking news situation there is a lot of information flying around, and while it’s important to pass as much as you can on to your audience, don’t forget the basics of journalism.
4. Take photos and video, and share them:
As we saw with the Torrington fire story, people are interested in visuals. Seeing photos of what’s going on is key to having success in keeping your audience tuned in to your site and social media. Take a lot of photos and video and share them on your social media platforms. Ask your social media followers to send you photos, because chances are someone is already at the scene.
5. Use Twitter and social media as a reporting tool:
When the stabbing of Maren Sanchez, the Milford high school student, occurred in April, students quickly jumped on social media to talk about what happened. While it’s dangerous to spread that information without confirming it, those tweets were still a valuable tool for us to figure out what was happening inside the school and how serious the incident was. We were then able to take that information and confirm it.
Using Twitter search, looking on Facebook pages that members of your community participate in and asking your social media followers to send you information is a good way to use Twitter and other social media as more than just a way to distribute content.
6. Curate news from other sources:
Don’t be afraid to share information from other news sources, including your competitors. Your job is to get the information to your audience as quickly as possible, even if that means citing another source.