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What the propane depot explostions taught me about coverning breaking news on the web

Here’s probably the key lesson I learned from closely watching the Toronto media race to cover Sunday morning’s propane depot blast, a breaking news story that killed two, destroyed five homes and rendered 10,000 people temporarily homeless:

Speed of delivery ain’t the biggest change the web brings to the news game – duration is.The story lives in time, and your job changes as you move further away in time from the event.

This was not the case in the days of the 2x
daily newscast and 1X daily press run: breaking news happened, we
scrambled like hell to gather as much info as close to the event as we
could, then we’d spend as much time as we could sifting and filtering
and checking and producing. And at last, on deadline, we’d deliver a high value product.

But when we can talk to people LIVE from a breaking news event, the
rules are different. And when people – anyone – can talk to the WORLD live from the event
without us, the game has changed almost beyond recognition.
That’s the thing newspapers still don’t get about covering breaking news on the web.
Here’s the formula:
When it starts, when the thing has just happened, think televsion news, or radio from the old days — be immediate, be instant. Tells us what you see, what you hear, what you know — and very importantly what you don’t know. Be omniverous. Slurp it up and spit it out: people are desperately hungry for news of the big event and don’t mind if they get fed some chalk with their cheese.
Then, slowly, bring the power of your newsroom to bear. Filter information more finely. Fact check more closely, use your superior access to seek out and broadcast authoritative voices more often.
Finally wrap it all up with a bow — package the damn thing.
Simple, huh?
But here’s the trick. Newspapers in particular are very, very good at the 2nd phase – it’s what we all recognize as "journalism": We flood the zone with bodies and talent who use their reporting and investigating skills and their access to dig out the facts, to contextualize the emerging information, to pull it together and make sense of it all by squeezing the pieces into narratives.
The final phase is handled by the stylists and the designers, the artists and packaging folks. Simple straight-forward skill sets – make sense of this riot of information and do it on deadline please. We’re good at that.
It’s the first phase we suck at.
And we suck at it because we can’t compete with the resources of an always-connected city, of a populace that is plugged into the net and each other every waking moment, that is walking around with video and still cameras and computers in their shaking little hands or crammed into their pockets.
We suck at it because we don’t want to admit that we can’t compete, that the random, unfocused noise thrown off by connected citizens (i.e. amateur journalists) during a major breaking news event is superior to our early hours efforts.
But it is.
This was very, very clear Sunday morning when, as I pointed out in yesterday’s analysis of the coverage, for the first five or six hours, ALL the best photos and videos and incident colour came from citizens, not pro "journalists".
This is only sensible — "citizens" are everywhere, everywhen. And these days they’re kitted out as well as any reporter. And at least 20% of them are  used to producing content for the web — that’s a lot of content when a major story breaks. It’s content that published in a hundred locations: Flickr, Facebook, Twitter, Live Journal, YouTube, Vimeo, Blip.TV, Photo Bucket, on blogs and yes, in the comment sections of newspaper web sites. Why would anyone rail against this tide?
And yes it has, as I noted yesterday, a high noise to signal ratio, it’s full of errors and myopia and it lacks perspective and maybe insight — but all of it is better than what you’ve got with one editor sitting behind a computer and three photogs and four reporters scrambling for their boots and their car keys.
So our challenge is how to harness that information in that first frantic hour or hours. Based on what I watched yesterday, here’s my thoughts on how to plan for breaking news.
When breaking news happens:

1) Scramble your jets — Obvious. Do what you always do: flood the zone with reporters and photographers and videographers. Only keep them on a short leash – have them calling and texting and Twittering short burst of info (text, photos, videos if that’s possible). They need to learn to share as they go – but to keep going, keep digging.

2) Staff your desk — Get someone listening to the scanners, working the radios, answering the phones. Get another person hooked up to your website and live blogging – with timestamps – events as they happen. (Embed Coveritlive if you can) Speed is everything.

3) Offer a platform — Open a forum, or the commenting section on a static blog post, or (if you have no other alternative) a special email address or fax or phone number where people can just show up and tell their stories;  share what they’ve seen, what they know, what they’ve felt. A place where they can see each other and talk about what they’ve experienced. Cull material from here.

4) Set your traplines — Quickly scour  your platform and YouTube,, LiveJouranal, Facebook, Technorati; GoogleBlogSearch,; Vimeo; Photo bucket, etc.  People are posting content —find it. Invite readers stories, images, videos. Ask questions inside the live blogging stream. Let readers see themselves answering them, (that’s critical to maximizing contributions).

5) Curate the web — Start filtering the citizen contributions,searching out the best content and featuring it, pointing to it, highlighting it. (Get a reporter busy verifying it, if that seems necessary). Be the place that people can rely upon to have found the best stuff.

6) Pull it all together — After the first hour or so it’s time to increase the signal to noise ratio. Feature verified info (your staffs and citizens). Prepare write-thrus and best-of’s. Start packaging this stuff, bringing in context, old or related stories and documents and downloads from around the web.

All the while publish to the web, telling people what you know and what you don’t know. And promising to update continuously. And keep your promise. There, you see? It is simple.

3 comments to What the propane depot explostions taught me about coverning breaking news on the web

  • What? And admit that MSM doesn’t already know everything?
    Excellent analysis, Bill. Enjoying your good blog on new media from a Canadian perspective.
    Number 6 is my favourite – shows why newspapers should keep good geeks on staff.

  • Thanks Tim – I think you’re right about the need for geeks on newspapers staffs (for the record I’m not a geek – I can’t code – I’m probably more of a nerd). I think you’re going to find that over the next five years applicants for newsroom jobs had better have a handful or two of demonstrable web skills – blogging, video, audio editing, etc. (I love the Simpson video clip “Your medium is dying” you used on your Tampa Tribune post…) – Bill

  • Bill, had a newspaper from Belgium (Le Libre) point your post out to me. I think it supports your point that our software (built to do the kind of things you suggest) has much greater uptake among european, australian and u.s. based newspapers than my own country. I’ve personally begged the Globe, Star, Sun and National Post to put it to use…no dice. Meanwhile, millions of readers in other countries have read live blogs from newspapers using CoveritLive…and i’ve never had to even ask them to try it…they just figure it out. Unfortunately, I can take the subjective argument out of the equation, our data shows me a big BIG lag on this kind of stuff in my home country.