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Big news for our company and the newspaper industry

7 Sep

When John Paton took over as CEO of Journal Register Companyin early 2010 and laid out a vision for our struggling, old-school newspaper company that called for a rapid “Digital First, Print Last” transformation, one got the sense that it was one of the first tremors in a possible upheaval and revolution for the entire newspaper industry.

John Paton

Well, if Paton’s changes at JRC (owner of the New Haven Register, Middletown Press, Register Citizen, Connecticut Magazine and a number of weekly publications in Connecticut) were tremors, this morning was the earthquake.

This morning’s announcement of the formation of Digital First Media and Paton’s appointment as CEO of both Media News Group and Journal Register Company means that Paton’s vision and strategy will be spread to a huge footprint of the U.S. newspaper industry.

For those who care about quality journalism and the communities that these newspapers and websites serve, it’s wonderful news. Not just because Paton is pursuing a new business model for newspapers that show a path toward survival and sustainability, but because he’s passionate about journalism itself.

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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.

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.