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A newspaper company comes together to cover Newtown

23 Dec

There will be a lot more to say – at some point – about what has been both the worst and best week of our careers in journalism. Our main concern right now is to make sure that the rest of the story of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting and its aftermath is told. That’s going to take quite some time, and quite a bit more effort and resources. And to make sure that the people on our team, after nine days of interviewing witnesses to unspeakable horror and covering 6-year-olds’ funerals, are dealing with their own grief and trauma.

But I wanted to pause and take note of how remarkable it was for us to see our entire company come together to help us cover this story. More than 100 journalists have been involved in the New Haven Register’s Newtown coverage over the past week, including 55 reporters, 17 photographers and 10 main editors on the ground in Connecticut contributing to our coverage.702194314 A number of Register reporters and editors worked straight through from first word of the shooting Friday morning to the editing of the story about the final funeral eight days later.

Digital First Media sent 29 reporters and eight photographers from 17 different daily newspapers in Pennsylvania, New York, Massachusetts, Colorado and Connecticut, including a team of six from the Denver Post, six from the York Daily Record in Pennsylvania and five from the Lowell Sun in Massachusetts.

The company’s national news office, “Thunderdome,” sent five reporters, five editors, two web producers and a video specialist, and devoted more than a dozen others to help from afar on editing, web production, data and interactives.

And throughout, we had access, advice and assistance from company leaders who’d unfortunately done this before.

Jim McClure, editor of the York Daily Record and East Region editor for Digital First, organized the influx of support from out-of-town journalists for us and was on the ground in Connecticut drawing on his experience covering a 2001 machete attack on a Pennsylvania elementary school. Photographer Tom Kelly IV of the Daily Local News in West Chester, Pa., came with experience covering the Nickel Mines Amish elementary school shooting in 2006.

Helping at our makeshift newsroom just outside of Newtown this past week was Mike Topel, national editor at Digital First Media’s Thunderdome office in New York. He helped lead the AP’s coverage of Columbine in 1999.

706117785Frank Scandale, Digital First’s vice president of print production, helped lead the Denver Post’s Columbine coverage as metro editor. He offered advice from afar and then arrived in New Haven mid-week to help plan a special print edition encapsulating more than a week’s worth of coverage for the Sunday newspaper.

And we were also able to turn to Denver Post Editor Greg Moore, who led intense coverage of the Aurora movie theater shooting earlier this year, and Digital First Editor-in-Chief Jim Brady, who was leading WashingtonPost.Com during the Virginia Tech massacre.

 

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.

Curating an earthquake

24 Aug

You couldn’t draw up a better example of a breaking news story that called for audience engagement to be at the center of news reporting.

Gateway students text friends and family after being evacuated from the building because of earthquake tremors Tuesday. Melanie Stengel/New Haven Register

That’s in part because Tuesday’s earthquake – centered in Virginia but felt as far away as New Hampshire and Vermont – was experienced by close to 100 percent of our audience in Connecticut.

So after the desks stopped shaking at the New Haven Register, Middletown Press, The Register Citizen in Torrington and Litchfield County Times in New Milford, editors and reporters turned first to TwitterFacebook and YouTube, to gauge the extent of how the quake was felt locally and across the region, how it was disrupting workplaces, public safety operations and airline and rail travel, and the extent of damage, if any.

Editors’ first step was to send out SMS text message alerts to readers’ mobile phones, confirming that what they just felt was, indeed, an earthquake – 5.8 on the Richter scale. A breaking news email alert followed.

Simultaneously, Twitter was used to report the news, both with original information and a retweeting of reports from throughout the coverage area of readers’ reactions the quakes and institutions’ reports of evacuating buildings or halting events. Readers started chiming in via Facebook and story comments on our websites, and the most interesting and relevant information provided by the audience was incorporated into our main story.

Editors set up a real-time feed of Twitter reactions with the hashtag “#earthquake.” It was an interesting thing to watch, as more than 40,000 Tweets were sent out about the earthquake within a minute of the first tremor. Then they used the curation tool Storify to collect local Twitter reactions and present them in story format. An editor at a sister publication in Pennsylvania even created an “earthquake humor” Storify of the best jokes to hit Twitter about the situation.

Flip camera-wielding beat reporters on assignment in downtown New Haven and reporters and photographers covering the New Haven Open pro women’s tennis tournament were submitting video within minutes of the quake. Sports writer Dan Nowak’s Flip camera video of the evacuation of the tennis stadium at Yale was picked up and used on the national NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams Tuesday evening.

Early in the process, our sites linked to an “explainer” on why earthquakes happen in New England and how they’re different from West Coast quakes.

And of course, reporters made all of the old-style beat calls to local fire departments, city hall, the public utilities and other “official sources.”

But for Journal Register Company newsrooms in Connecticut on Tuesday, crowdsourcing and a digital first toolbox of equipment, technology and mindset spread news of the earthquake as fast and as effectively as any breaking news story, ever, in the history of our newspapers.

That speed paid immediate dividends in audience growth. Because the weekly Litchfield County Times posted within seconds of confirmation of the earthquake, monthly unique visitors went from an average of about 100 an hour to nearly 1,000 after the news broke.  A high percentage of that traffic came from Yahoo and Google searches. Traffic on the daily sites tripled for the same reason, and the constant addition to and enrichment of earthquake content kept readers on the site throughout the afternoon.

And the testament to how far we’ve come in embracing a “digital first” mindset is that this happened almost completely on its own … It was second nature for New Haven Register Managing Editor Mark Brackenbury, City Editor Helen Bennett Harvey and reporters and editors throughout the newsroom in New Haven, Torrington, New Milford, Middletown, both in news and sports. I certainly didn’t have anything to do with it. And no corporate deep thinker had to pick up the phone and suggest it. Our reporters and editors know how to use these tools now and when to use them. They are eager to get the audience involved. It’s part of the culture now. And Tuesday’s earthquake experience gives us the confidence to further embrace it as the new normal. It’s an exciting proposition.

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