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Breaking News: The Top 5 mistakes newspaper make when news happens

Last month a large and boisterous fire appeared on the rooftop gardens of a Toronto waterfront condo during the afternoon rush hour.
Bright orange flame pierced thick black smoke, and the wind-whipped plume was so large and so high it was visible from clear across Lake Ontario, in St. Catherine's, 51 kms to the south.
Thousands of workers in the downtown towers gawked at the fire from their windows, commuter traffic slowed to a crawl along the elevated expressway mere metres from the fire-struck condo. On the islands and ferries and boats in the harbour, all eyes turned to the fire.
And from the city's towers and streets, from the cars and ferries, the parks and sidewalks, cell phone and pocket cameras were focused on the fire within minutes. Within another few minutes those photos, and some videos too, began to appear online, peppering people's twitter streams and landing with a splash into assorted photo pools.
The city's major place blogs - BlogTo and Torontoist - responded quickly, posting photos pulled from their Flickr photo pools or sent to them by their readers. The posts were empty of traditional reporting - they repeated what they, and their audience, could see and what they could cull from the mainstream media. They didn't call up authorities, race to the scene, interview residents. They simply - and swiftly - joined the conversation their city was having about that hour's biggest news.
And the newspapers? How did they respond?
Mostly by falling flat on their face.
The nation's three largest newspapers are headquartered mere blocks from the blaze, and they blew it.
While The Globe and Mail and The Toronto Star and the Toronto Sun all posted reports of the fire within 20-30 mins with some bare bones information, they were much slower off the mark than the twitter streams, place blogs etc.
To be frank - the photos they used to illustrate this breaking news story were uniformly boring.
There's some important lessons in our (newspaper) response to breaking news. I've been tracking  and blogging about this very particular issue since the propane explosion here in Toronto two years ago and while I can see some small improvements, by and large the big players are showing they haven't figured out the new world of news.
Here are the Top Five Breaking News Mistakes Mainstream Media Makes
5) Waiting for your reporters to report - that's mid-game stuff, phase two and three of your breaking news coverage. Phase one is curating the conversation all those witnesses are having right now - on twitter, on facebook, flickr, etc. Curate that conversation, amplify the best images and voices by lending them your platform.
4) Begging for content as news is breaking - That's too late. Sure, now that something is actually happening you realize you need us. But where were you when I had that great shot of the heron fishing in the local creek, or fog rolling through the financial district as dawn broke? Don't wait for news to break. Create a Flickr photo pool (see Tips, below) and invite readers to submit photos every day and then USE THEM. It's a conversation and it's your turn to listen. Do this and you won't even have to ask when the tornado hits.
3) Ghetto-izing, or worse, not using, readers content - it's not infectious, it won't hurt you, so put it in your main news holes. If it's good enough to publish - it's good enough to go in the same spot your staff work goes in. See #4.
2) Applying the old rules - the game has changed. When 10 or 20 per cent of the populace has access to the same or better communication tools than your staff, when the average witness or participant in a breaking news story can publish without your filtering, the game has changed. In the earliest stages of breaking news,  ordinary people can beat us every time - because they're already part of the conversation, we're perpetually late to that party.
1)Turning first to your reporters -  ok, I lied. There aren't five top mistakes. There's only one: failing to recognize that almost everyone's a journalist now, covering and reporting the world they live in. And until we start digging into a story, start applying our specific skills, until we have time to do that difficult work of separating fact from fiction, meaning from noise, until that point in time the citizen journalist beats us. Every time. So invite them onto your stage, share it happily - and buy yourself some time to do the deeper work.
It ironic that our strengths - our staff, equipment, professionalism, high journalistic standards - all work against us in the early stages of breaking news. We're flooding the zone, gathering information, checking it, making decisions about the importance and depth of the story , while ordinary folks just want to see what's going on, share what they know and learn what they can.
The relatively impoverished newsrooms of the placeblogs means that they HAVE to tap the community for the first stage reporting.
We NEED to.
(Fire photo at top courtesy @GuyaneezGyal )
(Cross posted from Shift Lock, my news and technology column in The Publisher)

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