Saturday, August 26, 2017

Managing Breaking News - A New Approach

Probably the toughest transition from a focus on print to a focus on digital media for student journalists is learning to cover breaking news. The Orion has always had a portable scanner in the newsroom, of course, and has usually had a true news hound who loved racing to the scene of a fire or a shooting or a riot to gather the news and get it into the paper. In recent years, that person has been great about tweeting out bulletins and details from the scene, too.

Unfortunately, all that effort hasn't always resulted in stories on the newspaper's print, web and mobile platforms. And when no one on the staff has the news bug, there's almost no breaking news on any of the social media platforms, either.

The Orion took the first stop toward solving the problem a few years ago when it split the news staff in two: an enterprise section for well-planned, longer-form, multi-source stories and a breaking news section for covering news as it happens. Enterprise has been good and even great, but breaking news has been a step-child that hasn't really found its footing.

How to get better? It's time to start thinking of breaking news as content destined primarily for mobile and web platforms, media that are immediate. Instead of a traditional newspaper news desk as a model, the section should be structured like a TV newsroom, a place that produces a couple of news broadcasts a day (at least) and whose staff thinks the ultimate thrill is going live from the scene of something awful: deadly fire, explosion, flood, hurricane, riot.

Professional TV newsrooms, of course, have the luxury of a full-time staff; at least one assignment editor monitoring wire services, email, phones and scanners; equipment designed to get news on the air in a hurry; and a daily staffing structure set up to produce stories in minutes or hours instead of days.

Can a student newsroom do the same, think the same, work the same? I think so.

I'd try this formula:
• empower the section editor to plan coverage daily instead of weekly, setting up stories in the late afternoon or evening the day before. The editor would then check email, phone messages and texts from reporters mid-morning and change or add assignments when necessary as the day goes on
• schedule regular editing time for late afternoon to correspond with the next day's planning time
• set up a Google Sheet available to the whole newsroom to keep track of campus and community events worth covering, which the section editor would check the day before to develop coverage plans
• put up a runsheet visible in the newsroom so other reporters and editors know who is covering what each day and who is available to cover news that breaks, even if the breaking news editor is not around. Be sure reporter phone numbers are posted with their names
• assign reporters to days of the week (instead of individual stories assigned a week in advance) so they're available to pursue stories with just hours of notice AND are able to change plans when news breaks (my assignment board at KMSP-TV in Minneapolis looked very different at 8 a.m. when I put it up and 5 p.m. when I left the newsroom at the end of my day).
• assign each reporter to be available two days a week with the expectation that they'll write two short assignments a week. Given a large enough staff, the editor should have two reporters available at any given time to cover stories (important in case one is in class or otherwise unavailable).
• give reporters the option to turn a breaking story into a longer package (text, video, photos, graphics, other media) if a story warrants it instead of writing a second short assignment
• equip reporters and editors with a smartphone scanner app
Screen showing law enforcement
dispatch channels on the
Broadastify smartphone app
to monitor police and fire agencies and Banjo, an app that aggregates social media posts using geotags, so the newsroom can take advantage of citizen reporting
• post photographer/videographer phone numbers prominently so a shooter can be contacted instantly in the event something big breaks
• develop and post a step-by-step plan to go live on the web using Periscope, Facebook live, Twitter, Instagram or Meerkat when a story breaks or just to cover an event -- convert the coverage later in the day to a story for the website.
• develop and post a written step-by-step procedure to put stories on the website as they break, even if the breaking news editor and copy chief are not in the newsroom
• agree that the photo of the day is a legitimate way to cover an event on campus or in the community, and give both reporters and photographers full credit for a completed assignment (that could be expanded to a slide show or video if it has strong visuals).
• schedule reporters to accommodate school and work schedules, but don't stick the same couple of people with weekend duty every week -- have rotating schedules
• establish active communication (text) among the section editor and reporters, and reporters and reporters (maybe a standing message group?)
•  assign the managing editor or another section editor to jump in a couple of days a week to help with editing and making/changing assignments so the section editor gets dependable time off
• empower copy editors to rewrite the top of stories for the news briefs page in the print edition so they're up to date or to ask the section editor to assign a reporter to update stories.

Done correctly, a staff of five reporters could provide:
• one or two assignments every day for the website
• enough stories and photos to fill the weekly print edition briefs page
• an occasional longer story for both the website and print edition.

Many local TV stations produce three news broadcasts a day with the same number of reporters, so two stories a day should not be a stretch for The Orion.

Need a selfish reason to adopt this approach? Reporters who have breaking news clips in their professional portfolios and editors who can direct this type of coverage are going to have a serious advantage when they compete for journalism jobs after graduation.