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Investigative and in-depth reporting bolstered by ‘Digital First’

28 Nov

“What about the journalism?”

That’s the question media analyst Ken Doctor asked a few months ago about both the philosophy of a “digital first” approach to running newspapers and the newly formed company “Digital First” Media that now oversees both Journal Register Company (including the New Haven Register, Middletown Press and Register Citizen, among other publications, in Connecticut) and Media News Group (ranging from the Denver Post and San Jose Mercury News to the Berkshire Eagle and Lowell Sun in Massachusetts).

Michelle Tuccitto Sullo

CEO John Paton has a plan that many see as the best hope for rescuing the newspaper industry (in case you missed it, see the recent New York Times story here, and a more extensive Times interview with Paton here).

Will Paton’s formula of cutting print edition-related costs and emphasizing Flip cameras, mobile phones and Twitter improve local journalism or leave a multi-platformed but shallow and empty reproduction in its place?

At the end of the day, Doctor asked, “Are the readers, the citizens of its communities, better served?”

Without question, Journal Register Company news organizations are serving their communities better in breaking news situations thanks to the philosophy of “Digital First.” Hurricane Irene was a great example. When it comes to speed and use of platforms beyond print – from SMS alerts, to social media, blogging, video – we are light years ahead of where we used to be, and our audience has benefited.

But what about depth, context, investigative reporting?

It has taken longer to bear fruit, but as Digital First shifts emphasis away from the print production process, it is freeing up resources to invest in better journalism. And “slow news” – journalism that delves deeply into a story, that invests staff time in investigative work – has a prominent place alongside the breakneck pace of breaking news alerts.

This morning, we announced a newsroom reorganization in Connecticut that will establish a full-time investigations editor position at the New Haven Register for the first time in more than 20 years. A second full-time position will be devoted to the “explainer” format of in-depth reporting on local and state issues and “fact checking” statements made by politicians, public officials, activists and business leaders.

Mary O'Leary

Michelle Tuccitto Sullo, who joined the Register in 1992 and has covered courts and served as Naugatuck Valley bureau chief, will be charged not only with pursuing investigative stories on her own, but in creating a culture of investigative reporting in the newsrooms of the New Haven Register and its sister JRC papers in Connecticut. She’ll team up with staff reporters to pursue stories that the daily grind of a beat don’t allow them to pursue. Michelle draws upon strong knowledge of court and Freedom of Information Act process and award-winning investigative experience in writing about cold case murder and missing persons cases.

New Haven Register Topics Editor Mary O’Leary, who has 31 years of experience covering state government and a variety of other beats at the paper, will be freed from chasing the press conference of the day to focus on in-depth reporting. She will split her time between “explainers” and “fact checking” – both aimed at cutting through the “he said, she said” blizzard of political spin and process to help our readers get to the truth.

We are creating these positions and replacing Michelle and Mary in their old beats, for a big net increase in our “feet on the street” reporting. And we’re doing that by consolidating positions that were focused either entirely or primarily on the process of putting out the print edition of the newspaper.

In photos: Irene’s impact on Connecticut

31 Aug

Photo by Peter Casolino/New Haven Register

Photo by Peter Casolino/New Haven Register

Photo by Peter Hvizdak/New Haven Register

Photo by Mara Lavitt/New Haven Register

Reader-Submitted Photo by Rebecca Humphrey/The Register Citizen

Photo by Melanie Stengel/New Haven Register

Photo by Cathy Avalone/Middletown Press

Photo by Peter Casolino/New Haven Register

Photo by Peter Casolino/New Haven Register

Photo by Peter Casolino/New Haven Register

Photo by Melanie Stengel/New Haven Register

Photo by Melanie Stengel/New Haven Register

Knowing your beat pays off when a big story breaks

30 Aug

It’s a basic principle of journalism, of course. Get to know your beat, develop good sources, and when the big story breaks, you’ll be miles ahead of the competition.

Luther Turmelle

The New Haven Register has had a secret advantage in covering the damage inflicted by Hurricane Irene over the past few days, and efforts to recover from it.

Irene’s biggest impact on Connecticut has been power outages. At the height of the storm, more than 760,000 were without electricity. And residents have been told that it could be as much as a week before all customers are restored.

Well, that’s right in the wheelhouse of Register reporter Luther Turmelle. A 14-year veteran of the paper and a past president of the Connecticut Society of Professional Journalists, Turmelle has covered the state’s big utility companies as part of his beat over the past few years. He also writes about utility issues in a blog called “Power to the People.”

Turmelle’s individual Twitter feed and contributions to the Register’s regular news coverage over the past few days have been must-reads for a state full of people desperate and impatient for word on when their electricity will be turned back on and how the big power companies are tackling the problem.

Hurricane coverage in the new news ecology

27 Aug

“Just as CNN created the 24-hours news cycle for television, Twitter has accelerated that news cycle to the point where news breaks every minute of every hour, and a tweet is almost as good as a page-one scoop,” Mathew Ingram wrote earlier this week in “The Twitter Effect: We Are All Members of the Media Now,” a post for GigaOm.Com. “Not only that, but anyone can do it.”

Twitter and other social media, blogging, widespread access to mobile smart phone technology and other factors have created what our company has been fond of calling the “new news ecology.”

Assistant Sports Editor Kevin Roberts and Community Engagement Editor Kaitlyn Yeager work in The Register Citizen Newsroom Cafe Saturday.

What our news coverage looks like in this new world is a work in progress. But thanks to an historic hurricane threat, the past few days have provided a glimpse into the kind of Digital First operation we are becoming.

For examples:

* We’re mobile first. Neighborhood evacuations, parking bans, power outages, warnings from the governor first go out to our readers via SMS text message alerts. Hurricane Irene helped triple The Register Citizen’s base of SMS breaking news subscribers as we advertised the service as vital this weekend for those who may lose electricity and not have access to TV, radio or the Internet on a desktop computer or laptop.

* We use new tools. The reporter’s notebook and pay phone has been replaced with smart phones, Flip cameras and Netbook computers with wireless access from anywhere with a cell phone tower signal. Our reporters are live tweeting and live blogging events in the field, as they happen, and filing photos and video in real time. Instead of just interviewing a fascinating subject at an opportune time and recounting it in print, they invite the audience in via live-streamed video and live chats. Or invite them to watch the hurricane itself as it approaches.

* We use the power of the cloud. Our hurricane coverage included use of Google Docs to compile lists of flood-prone areas, emergency shelters and evacuation routes from multiple reporters and editors from multiple offices around the state. We used Google Maps to visualize those locations for readers, in a format that could be embedded on our site or anywhere on the web. And we used Google Docs for numerous other functions of our news operation, from sharing and updating statewide story budgets to maintaining emergency contact lists.

* We use the power of our audience. As stores ran out of batteries and bottled water and long lines of cars formed at local gas stations, we crowdsourced the remaining availability of supplies in our coverage area. Readers submitted photos of storm preparation and damage. And we partnered with “new news ecology entrepreneurs” such as See Click Fix to help readers report and learn about storm-related problems.

* We aggregate and curate. The Register Citizen tweeted more than 100 times over the course of 12 hours on Saturday as Connecticut prepared for Hurricane Irene. Its Twitter feed included storm-related news, pictures, observations and links from its own staff, but it also was a diverse mix of retweeting of reports from local residents, answers to questions posed by readers, and retweets of state and national media reports, as well as information being tweeted directly from public officials and local businesspeople. Similarly, our websites included far more than just our original reporting. They included a robust mix of links to and embeds of reporting, graphics and videos from other news organizations, including blogs. And we use tools such as Storify to compile and present news and information from the Twitter accounts of our readers.

* We invite the audience in. In Torrington, our daily newspaper operates out of an open-to-the-public newsroom, The Register Citizen Newsroom Cafe. All day Saturday, residents were there utilizing the newsroom cafe’s free public wifi to go online and check on relatives in the path of the hurricane further south of us, to watch the Weather Channel on our big-screen TVs, and to see if they can find out the latest from reporters and editors who are following the storm up-to-the-minute. For our staff, this kind of interaction offers an endless supply of news tips about how the community is preparing for and reacting to the storm, and helps us zero in on the biggest issues they want to see addressed.

Newsrooms join forces to prepare for Hurricane Irene

26 Aug

There’s nothing like a looming major natural disaster (in a state not used to major natural disasters) to test a new model of viewing Journal Register Company’s journalists in Connecticut as members of one big newsroom instead of disconnected silos.

It also really helps when Steve Buttry is your company’s director of community engagement. He has used his experience leading a newsroom in flood-ravaged Cedar Rapids, Iowa, in 2008 to teach journalists about covering natural disasters. Among many tips and pieces of advice Steve has offered us on the fly was to have everyone who is going to be involved in this weekend’s hurricane coverage read Brian Stelter‘s account of his coverage of the tornado in Joplin earlier this year.

On Thursday morning, we kicked into high gear after hearing that Hurricane Irene is on a path similar to the Hurricane of 1938, which killed more than 600 people and is considered the worst natural disaster in the history of Connecticut.

Editors at our three dailies, the New Haven Register, Middletown Press and The Register Citizen, along with weekly editors at the Litchfield County Times on Connecticut’s shoreline, exchanged dozens of emails, phone calls and Twitter messages Thursday divvying up coverage of Governor Dannel Malloy’s press updates, the latest tracking from the National Weather Service and other aspects of emergency management preparations.

Reporters throughout the state were asked to start asking local officials about areas in their communities that are historically prone to flooding or tree damage. New Haven Register Entertainment Editor Jordan Fenster compiled them on a Google Doc spreadsheet, and from her office in Torrington, Register Citizen Community Engagement Editor Kaitlyn Yeager started syncing them up to a Google Map.

The result was a series of embeddable maps covering our entire coverage area in Connecticut that visualized high-risk flooding areas for readers to avoid, as well as locations of emergency shelters and evacuation routes.

Meanwhile, New Haven Register staff were lining up a live online chat with Dr. Mel Goldstein, the beloved Connecticut TV weather man who announced his retirement only a few days before the type of event that can be the highlight of a meteorologist’s career. That’s scheduled for 11:30 a.m. Friday and will be embedded on Journal Register Company websites throughout the state.

Weekend plans (the worst of Irene is now predicted to hit Connecticut during the day on Sunday) include an “all hands on deck” approach to staffing, but with designated editors clearly responsible for handling specific areas such as SMS text message alerts (something we are promoting heavily since the state expects widespread power outages, possibly cutting off Internet access for many), curation of readers’ reports on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, handling the “rewrite” desk that will field phone and text message reports from reporters in the field, and processing and presenting staff and user-submitted photos and video.

And the advantage of acting as one statewide newsroom, of course, is that one person can be marshaling SMS alerts or scouring YouTube for multiple sites, whereas those functions would require diversion from field reporting or likely not even happen in some parts of our coverage area if everyone was operating independently.

Newsroom staff from across the state are also working together to make sure that we have a row of Netbooks with batteries charged, Droids and Flip cameras to put in the hands of reporters, and of course, rain gear. And to get that print edition out, a row of desktop computers are being loaded with all the necessary templates, logos and ad files, and will be driven to an alternative printing site should the New Haven Register lose electricity.

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