editor on the verge

Online musings from the newsroom and beyond . . . by Yoni Greenbaum

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How to cover breaking news online

November 10th, 2007 · No Comments

My intention with this blog is not to primarily use it as a venue to promote work done by my own company. However, I believe I need to make an exception when one of my newspapers does something that can be a lesson to the broader industry. Such a moment has occurred.

Pocono Record Online MastheadAllow me to introduce you to the Pocono Record a 35-person newsroom in Stroudsburg, Pa., (if you can find the Delaware Water Gap, you can locate the Record). This is a newsroom that breaks many of the traditional media gathering rules. They’ve embraced the web and technology (use blogs, forums, videos, text alerts, twitter, rss and email newsletters and alerts) and have empowered everyone from the executive editor down to the paper’s receptionist to participate.

While that is a lesson for other newspapers large and small that are still wrapped up in silo mentality, today I want to take a moment to call your attention to their recent coverage of a fatal fire.

Fire Rips Through Home

On Thursday, Nov. 8, authorities now maintain an 8-year-old playing with a cigarette lighter started a fire that destroyed two homes and took the lives of two people. A fire for any newspaper can be a challenging story to cover, especially covering it live. Access to the scene and the participants, timing (fires can be out before your reporter leaves the newsroom) and good visuals are all challenges.

None of those obstacles stopped the staff of the Record from covering this fire and covering it as if they were a “24-hour news channel”1.

Their photo staff shot stills AND video. Their reporters gathered yarn for their print stories and the web providing updates online, by email and phone messaging as the fire leapt to a neighboring house; as more firefighters responded and streets were closed; and as fatalities were announced and the community grieved.

Pocono Record Fire Landing PageVisitors to poconorecord.com on that day found a scalable map that showed where the fire was, videos of the fire and an interview with a rescuer, still images and, of course, good reporting and even better writing. It was all the pieces of online coverage that Pennsylvania web users likely expect from CNN or the New York Times, but instead found on the homepage of their local newspaper. All of that content is now available on one landing page.

Traffic to the website reflected an increase in daily uniques of some 5,000 visitors and an increase of some 60,000 page views – not only did more people come to the site, but they spent more time. And the traffic boost did not evaporate after the first day of coverage. Even their YouTube profile saw an increase in traffic.

I point this effort out, not because as I said it is by one of the newspapers that I’m proud to work with, but because so many of the larger newspapers that I have either worked at or frequent online should learn from. So, I offer these takeaways from the Pocono Record:

  • Involve and train everyone in your newsgathering and presentation effort.
  • Give the reader everything they want and everything you’ve got. If you collapse at the end, it was likely an effort well done.
  • Use video. Yes still images might win you a Pulitzer, but your readers want more and everyone else is using video.
  • Report for the web and update in print. Simple concept (albeit from Gannett) that means get it online FAST. It’s a competitive market out there, if you don’t offer it, someone else will.
  • Use every technology available and don’t try to offer excuses for bypassing any of them. For example, if hosting video is an issue, use YouTube; it’s FREE.

It’s more then just saying that if a small newspaper like the Pocono Record can produce this type of package there is no reason why other, large, news outlets can’t. It comes down to the reality that, if small newspapers like the Pocono Record are doing this then larger newspapers must do it.

And if any of these news outlets need help, I’d say give the folks at the Pocono Record a call, I’m sure they’d offer you some guidance.

1- Observation made by Pocono Record Online Director, Kathy Schwartz and one that, frankly, I agree with.

Tags: Best Practices · Breaking News · Ottaway

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