Friday, November 16, 2012

Owning the story

When I worked at the Pioneer-Press in St. Paul, the newsroom prided itself on saturation coverage of breaking stories. It wouldn't be uncommon for half a dozen reporters and several photographers to fly out the door when tornadoes swept through the northern suburbs or a freeway bridge collapsed. We wanted to say that we owned the story.

A digital-first newsroom gives The Orion that same capability, and I saw the paper use some of it Thursday when the death of Mason Sumnicht and several incidents involving fraternities and sororities on campus created a perfect storm for the Greek system that led President Paul Zingg to shut 'em down until January.

Pedro Quintana started tweeting as soon as the president's office announced a meeting to discuss the issue and kept updating as Zingg somberly lowered the boom on the Greeks. Annie Maize captured video at the BMU Auditorium while Zingg spoke and she and Nicholas Kinoshita put a video up soon after. Photographer Frank Rebelo joined Pedro at the meeting and the pair posted photos and a story shortly afterward. Pedro dove in to write the story the same afternoon about Sumnicht's death, and the webcast team included both stories in its show for today.

The Orion's reporting on Facebook was solid, too, and followers posted some comments there reacting to the death and the suspensions.

All good work, and the sort of effort that the campus is starting to recognize as the new trademark of The Orion.

What else could have been done?

It didn't take "rewgolfer" long to write a couple of hundred words analyzing the situation as a comment on the Web version of The Orion's story, putting it in context and making some specific recommendations for action by the university, the Chico PD, Tehama Group Communications and even The Orion to address the issue. That's something the paper's opinion columnists and even the editor-in-chief could have done as easily and, I hope, more powerfully. It was a chance for the newspaper to take a leadership role on the issue.

The Facebook page could have been used to foster the conversation that a few visitors had started by posting comments itself to encourage more commentary. The paper also could have put up a poll asking visitors if the president's actions were justified or if they'd have any effect on the university's culture of drunkenness. The same could have been done on the website.

Pedro clearly had enough to do to cover the basic stories, so other reporters could have helped him or explored other angles:
• The history of university action against the Greek system on alcohol issues.
• The reaction of Greek leadership to the suspension.
• A quick summary of the alcohol-related deaths this fall.
• More specifics about the other incidents that led to the suspension.
• Student-on-the-street interviews about the suspension and the issue of drunk culture at Chico State.
• What the Greek charters actually say about alcohol, responsibility, etc.
• What other colleges are doing to address the issue of alcohol.

The Enterprise-Record had three reporters assigned to the story Thursday. The Orion probably should have had twice that many.

I talked just last week about throwing out the standard home page template when news breaks and devoting all the space there to a breaking story. This would have been a good opportunity to do that.

This is all especially important because the ink-and-paper version of The Orion will not appear for another two weeks. The Internet is the new home for breaking news. It's where the paper can show its stuff and own big stories.

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