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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.