editor on the verge

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

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Are you setting yourself up for a “beat”down?

January 4th, 2008 · No Comments

One of the great things about your newspaper having a website is that the painful sting of getting beaten does not have to last a full day.

It used to be that reporters would grab a copy of the competitor’s newspaper on the way to work, discover that they had been beaten and have to deal with the shame, anger, scorn and frustration until their follow story (which hopefully advanced the original story) appeared in the next days newspaper. But thanks to the Internet, that follow-up story can now appear online in no time.

But if that is really the case, why doesn’t this happen more often? Why does it look like some newspapers are still waiting until the next day for their follow-up story to appear?

Recently, one of my local newspapers was beaten on a story that was taking place right down the road from their newsroom. It was the kind of beat that was especially painful having come at the hands of a larger, non-local competitor. The story appeared on the competitors website and in their paper. The local newspaper came back with their follow-up the very next . . . morning. What happened here? Did it take the reporter until minutes before the print deadline (let’s say 1 a.m. — for dramatic purposes) and editors felt that no one would be reading the website at that hour, or was it something else, something more, shall we say nefarious?

Probably neither. I’m willing to bet no one realized that the paper had been beaten until the state’s AP bureau picked-up the story and put it on the wires, probably sometime between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. It is even possible that the AP version was overlooked until the first news meeting of the day, sometime between 3 and 4 p.m. at which point the reporter went into scramble mode to write the follow-up story and as for the web, well the web was a casualty, just like the local readers.

I’m sharing this story because this did not have to happen. If you’re not already, I want to encourage all reporters and editors to take advantage of Google News Alerts. Not familiar with the product? Well “Google Alerts are email updates of the latest relevant Google results (web, news, etc.) based on your choice of query or topic.” Best of all, they are free.

If you are a beat reporter, you should set up an alert for say the name of each community that you cover, major institutions, and prominent figures. You can have Google notify you via email once a day, as-it-happens, or once a week. Had the reporter in the above example had an alert for the name of their beat, they would’ve received an email from google (likely the night before, when the competitor put the story on their breaking news blog) and been prepared to hit the ground running the next morning.

Not only do Alerts help with being beaten, they provide you with story possibilities from outside of your coverage area.

Say the mayor or your town goes on vacation and gets pulled over for DWI. Now it’s not likely that he will call you up and let you know, but there is a good chance that the local newspaper that covers that beach town will include it in their online police blotter and their story will get scraped by Google. Before the mayor can even get back into town, you’re working on a hot story.

You can also come across great human interest stories as well.

Now I recognize that to some of you Google News Alerts are old news, but clearly from the above example, they are still new to some people. If you already using them, what’s your favorite story that you’ve gotten as a result?

Tags: Beat Development · Best Practices · Breaking News · Google · Industry · Local Newspapers · Online · Reporting

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