By Jon Cooper, @jemersoncooper
About 14 months ago the Journal Register Company’s Ben Franklin Project challenged our staffers to imagine their reporting and newsgathering processes without any of the systems they were used to using. At that time the assignment was to promote innovation and challenge our existing workflow. That experiment showed long-tail value this past weekend as journalists from across Journal Register Company deployed to cover Hurricane Irene.
What follows includes the practical application – including examples – of how Journal Register Company staffers from across the Northeast created one of the largest, local breaking-news-gathering networks in the nation. They did so by focusing on the audience; leveraging social media; and by using free tools to keep the communities they serve informed.
CONTACT LISTS: Newsrooms who expected to be impacted by Irene quickly transferred contact lists (staff lists and local contacts) from proprietary systems into Google docs and – in a very analog move – encouraged staffers to carry paper copies of the list in case power was lost. This proved necessary as more than one newsroom lost power during the weekend.
TECH: Outside of the JRC Help Desk – 24-hour support desk – the Company’s tech team activated another 40 mobile cards so journalists could work outside the newsroom. Staffers utilized the Lenovos to file from an ad hoc newsroom after the New Haven Register in Connecticut lost power and New Haven faced flooding. In support of the Pennsylvania group, an emergency newsroom was set up in the Company’s computer server room – supported by reserve generators.
STAFFING: Journalists from across the Company’s Connecticut group set up schedules – including journalists from The New Haven Register, The Middletown Press, The Register Citizen and weeklies – for aggregation, social media and desk coverage. The schedules focused on traditional geographic beats but stressed the importance of digital coverage including video, website management, social media and audience engagement. Staffers – including reporters Susan Misur, Alexandra Sanders and Brian McCready – engaged their own Facebook followers to help drive stories while covering their beats.
“The factor that stands out the most was that each and every staff member was working this weekend – including those who simply came in despite not being scheduled,” said Helen Bennett Harvey, The Register’s City Editor. “It wasn’t just about reporting the storm, its damage and aftermath – it was about bringing folks news they really needed – what they should do to prepare, how they could get help – the details that make a difference. The real beauty of being Digital First is that we build the public’s trust in us … we received extraordinary photos from folks – giving many people a chance to be part of our reporting.”
BE PART OF THE CONVERSATION: The Trentonian‘s Joey Kulkin kept conversations with the community alive on Facebook and via Twitter. Kulkin and the Trenton team not only aggregated newsworthy reports from the audience but also served as a meeting place for members of the community looking for help and offering help.
“When something like Irene hits, it’s important to deliver news in a clear, strong voice because that’s what the public demands from you as a trusted source,” says Kulkin. “At the same time, on the ‘social media’ end of things, you really need to connect to your readers … I think it’s one of the reason we have a great Facebook/Twitter relationship with our Trentonian.com readers. We don’t try to lord over anyone. We’re all in it together.”
SEECLICKFIX: According to Emma Richard and Ben Berkowitz at the non-emergency reporting portal, SeeClickFix reports doubled due to the storm and Journal Register Company newsrooms invited the audience to use the portal to help alert town officials of road closures and more.
A member of The Daily Freeman’s audience in Kingston, N.Y. reported a tree on power lines; members of The Daily Local’s audience in West Chester, Penn. reported downed power lines; and residents in Lansdale, Pa. reported power outages and flooding on The Reporter’s site.
LET THE AUDIENCE IN: As audience members pushed reports through social media – especially Twitter – Journal Register Company journalists received story suggestions, photos and videos. From The Daily Freeman’s photo galleries to The Trentonian’s crowdsourced map of road closures and flooding, audience members were willing to contribute and share what they are seeing in real time.
“Social media and other tools of engagement help these people tell their own stories in words, photos and videos,” says Steve Buttry, JRC’s Director of Community Engagement. “News organizations that engage effectively in covering a disaster will benefit beyond the inevitable traffic surge of the big story. As the water recedes, these people will continue engaging through the process of recovery and the return to the daily routine.”
VIDEO, VIDEO & MORE VIDEO: The ability to level the playing field and offer audiences more localized video than broadcast outlets played a large role in Journal Register’s coverage of Irene. A user-submitted video showing Irene’s arrival in North Carolina on The Reporter’s website proved to be one of JRC’s most popular during the storm’s early hours. JRC journalists like Paula Ann Mitchell of The Daily Freeman produced multiple Irene-related videos and The Register’s Peter Hvizdak provided a new take on the traditional pre-storm shopping story.
A BACK UP PLAN: Along with identifying alternative newsrooms and lining up remote printing facilities, Journal Register Company newsrooms also prepped to produce publications without the proprietary systems we usually use. Page templates, standing art elements and advertisements were saved offline as a precaution. Power outages did cause some sites to have to utilize backup templates to produce the newspaper.
CUSTOMER SERVICE: With scattered flooding our ability to reach all print subscribers was impacted so daily pubs, who were constantly updating websites with real-time reporting, also supplied free e-paper access to subscribers.
There are many other takeaways from the this weekend and many other Journal Register Company staffers who aren’t named above who contributed. Hurricane Irene proved an opportunity to showcase the collaborative workflow, digital skills and the focus on audience of our team members. To paraphrase what many Journal Register Company journalists — many of whom also dealt with downed trees, flooded basements and power outages at their own homes — said during phone calls and email exchanges during the hurricane … it’s what we’re supposed to do.