Go to the Web, young journalist!

Anthony Moor is Associate Managing Editor/Online at the Orlando Sentinel, and editor of OrlandoSentinel.com. He also serves on the board of directors of the Online News Association.

So ten years into the Internet revolution, you are beginning a career in journalism. Odds are that means you are looking for a job in either print or TV.

What’s wrong with this picture?

One major newspaper chain was just frog-marched to the auction block by grimfaced money managers. The others have watched their stock price slide for two solid years like a metro daily tossed onto a pitched roof.

Network television doesn’t even have all its anchor chairs filled — forget about a clear mission. The cable outlets have hired talk-show screamers and now follow car chases and kidnap mysteries “live.” Much of local TV long ago gave up the ghost.

Maybe it’s time to consider the Web.

After a long freeze brought about by the dot-com crash and 9/11, Web editors are hiring and Web operations are expanding again. Safa Rashtchy, a senior research analyst at the securities firm Piper Jaffray, recently predicted that online advertising will reach its tipping point in mid-2006. That’s prompting news organizations to realign their resources to focus more on Web journalism.

What’s more, for a discipline with decades of tradition and well-defined standards of practice, there is a sense of excitement and rejuvenation about journalism as it is being practiced on the Web today. The rules are still being written, so the practitioners, by and large, are following their own muse as they explore new ways to communicate news and information.

Innovations abound

We rolled out a blog at OrlandoSentinel.com for this year’s Winter Olympics, and our three columnists became diarists. They wrote about Big Macs, getting lost on the media bus and the fact that Florida’s top football draft pick had given up the gridiron for figure skating.

OK, the last one was a fabrication, but they did own up to it in their post. They wanted to know whether anyone was reading their blog and would comment. The readers did — heatedly.

We thought our bloggers would write about sports. But set loose with a new writing form in a two-way medium that allows readers to talk back, they invented something new.

“I enjoyed my first blog-o-rama,” veteran sports columnist David Whitley wrote to me when he returned from Italy. “If that’s part of the next generation of newspapers, I could have a lot of fun. Unless I get fired first, I guess.”

Our other online efforts are making newsroom staff happy as well. Sentinel photographer Ed Sackett practically crowed over the opportunity to capture the sound and movement of roosters at a county fair contest recently. Online producers Debra Minor and Kris Hey relish scooping TV, radio and the Associated Press with news called in from the field by Sentinel staff.

It is true that at the major news organizations, much of the Web work to date has focused on repurposing content from the legacy newsroom for a digital audience. But that is changing. In the same way that early television struggled to develop from radio-on-TV to something different, so is Web journalism.

Some are striking out in exceptionally creative directions. A young broadcaster in Britain melds magazine-style presentation with grainy, cinema-vérité video to create investigative productions of amazing depth and presence. A Chicago journalist-programmer melds public police data with Google maps to present an on-demand visual map of crime in your neighborhood. A pair of newspaper veterans dubs themselves “Baristas” and serves up a mix of community-contributed news and their own wry sense of humor to suburban New Jersey.

Preparing for the new job market

The privilege to innovate like this may come around only once in a lifetime. If you talk to those of us doing news on the Web, you’ll learn that we believe the Internet is finally beginning to deliver on its promise to transform journalism — but we’re also not sure what that transformation will bring. So this is your opportunity to shape the future.

Interestingly, the skills you need are just what you have been learning. A soon-to-be released study finds that online managers are primarily looking for detail-oriented collaborators capable of editing and copyediting, not technical producers. (The survey was prepared by the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, in conjunction with the Online News Association, and will be published on the ONA website in the next few weeks.)

So what could you do right now at school to give you an edge with Web editors? When I examine resumes of recent graduates, I’m looking for the journalism skills first, specifically news judgment. Have you worked as an editor at your college newspaper? Do you have clips that demonstrate a clear hard-news focus, in the classic, inverted-pyramid writing style? I want journalists who want to be editors.

Next, are you Internet literate? No newspaper editor would hire an applicant who didn’t know the function of the A-section. No TV news director would hire someone who couldn’t pick out a sound bite or define the term “B-roll.” While we don’t need code monkeys, we do need people who understand the unique attributes of the Web as it pertains to journalism.

So, have you built a Web page as part of a student project or on your own? Do you know basic HTML? Do you work on the student newspaper website? Do you frequent Internet news sites? Do you use an RSS reader? Do you podcast? Did you ask to shadow the Web producers for a few days at your last internship? An affinity for our medium is essential.

I also need people who think in multimedia. So if you’re a broadcast major, take print courses, or visa versa. Do a Web project. Have you ever storyboarded a reporting effort for a Flash presentation? (In truth, we don’t do much Flash at our shop, and you’ll find that’s normal at news websites, so Flash skills are usually a bonus, not a requirement.) You have to know how to take anything that can be digitized and present it in a uniquely compelling way for the Web.

This is essential because you will be mentoring reporters from your legacy newsroom who need insight into how to present their work for a Web audience. You must be the one who knows that source documentation can make a deep, rich Web piece or database. You should know how to write a TV-style voiceover script to marry to photos for a narrated slide show. You must dream up the idea to take the sales tax data a reporter compiled and make an interface that lets individuals put in their own grocery bill to find out in which county they get the biggest break.

Do you keep a blog? Why not? There has never been an easier way to publish your journalism for an audience. So become a journalist online. Blog your hobby or your summer in Europe — like a reporter, not an opinion columnist. An understanding of how the blogosphere intersects with news is increasingly important as we tackle the two-way nature of the Internet today. (One caveat: Your MySpace musings may make you a blogging expert, but it doesn’t qualify as journalism. In fact, you can count on us finding that frat party confession and photo en déshabillé, so ask yourself whether that’s the image you wish to project when seeking a job.)

There never has been a better time to get into Web journalism. We are making money, we are hiring, and we are actively searching for new, innovative ideas. After ten years, there are no veterans in this field. This is your chance to be among the first.

Recurring Nightmare: How One News Site Weathered the Storms

If you think you have seen it all at work — you haven’t. At least, not until you have greeted your coworkers in pajamas.

Nightmares became normal this past summer at OrlandoSentinel.com, when an unprecedented three hurricanes barreled through Central Florida during a six-week period, and a fourth missed by chip shot. The way we adjusted wore us down by the end but also allowed us to provide the news and information users wanted while operating in emergency mode for the long haul.

Home page as control panel

Charley wasn’t supposed to track anywhere near Orlando. We were lulled by 44 years of calm, and its quick turn from a path targeting Tampa — “Those poor suckers,” we thought — shocked my small staff into frenzied excitement less than 24 hours before landfall.

But the shift was timed perfectly to leverage our core workplace audience, midday on a Thursday, people anxiously wondering ‘where is it now?’ and ‘what should I do?’

We prominently anchored tool-type links to quick information on our home page. They included utilities from our newly redesigned joint venture with WESH television and OrlandoWeather.com, such as the latest track, interactive hurricane graphics and live National Weather Service alerts. We moved front-and-center pieces of our hurricane survival guide, an annual Sentinel publication staff always groaned about shoveling online, but which suddenly became Web site gold.

And we focused our narrative efforts on a single mainbar story, which we updated, and updated, and updated, changing the headline as often as once per hour and time stamping to clearly signal new information was at hand. We also used a simple rotating script to display four to six photos in slide-show fashion.

A storm ‘tone poem’

Still, as Charley approached, we didn’t really consider what to do during the storm.

I took my lead from the disasters I knew. They hit out of nowhere – wham! – and then you covered the results. I was standing outside Candlestick Park in San Francisco during the 1989 earthquake. I felt the jolt and then spent the next month telling people what had broken.

We didn’t realize that hurricanes could pin an entire region down for a day or more. While video of reporters in rain slickers holding onto palm trees for dear life worked for the Weather Channel, how would we report the storm’s onslaught on the Web?

Fortunately, Charley barreled through like a freight train. I phoned my night producer, Rick Tribou, to wish him luck, lost power to howling winds and huddled in the toy closet with my wife and kids. After an hour, it was over.

Later as we critiqued our performance, we took a close look at a mid-storm Weblog of vignettes Rick had stitched together from wire reports, weather data and calls from a few staffers. We realized we were on to something different. Beat reporters without hurricane assignments, like Jim Leusner, a seasoned investigative journalist, felt the need to communicate, and we were their outlet.

So during the height of Frances and Jeanne, while everyone was hunkered down, we blew out our home page to highlight our reporters’ Weblog. It drew on short dispatches from staff on- and off-duty and sought to capture not the facts, figures or details of the storm, but the feeling of it. One reader called it a ‘tone poem.’

Everyone from music critics to copy editors participated, and instead of home page headlines we pulled out a key quote such as, “12:30 p.m.: It could be said that Orange County emergency officials have been sharing some of our pain. Many workers slept on cots… (Read on)” and “3:28 p.m. Weirdest thing to do in a hurricane: Wash windows! I thought ‘what the heck’ and stepped out with paper towels and Windex… (Read on).”

Why were these blogs the most-viewed single stories on our home page during the hurricanes? We believe it’s because they provided a sense of shared experience. While TV excelled at showing wind-tossed anchors, emergency operations center news conferences and Doppler radar, our Weblog made each reporter’s small story universal and reassured our audience as they hunkered down, that their personal experiences were normal too.

Slicing and dicing ultra-local content

Community also gained critical importance in the days after each hurricane. Taking advantage of our newsroom’s editorial muscle, we provided lists of community-by-community information, from boil-water notices to debris drop-off sites. Our Web staff furiously updated these from agency news releases and reporter phone calls during the workday. Again, a home page presentation emphasizing ease-of-use turned out to be key.

Our epiphany was to dice this news three ways: Once in narrative form (a main story), once by geography (county-by-county updates) and once by subject (power, schools, debris, closures and the like). Our county-by-county channel turned out to be the most-viewed channel on our Web site throughout the storms.

But we also discovered that people wanted news about specific street corners. Message boards answered that need.

“I used to live in Orlando, off Lee Road,” a user named Stephanie posted on Aug. 14. “I have parents who live there and I was wondering if anyone knows what the area is like? Have talked to my parents this morning, but cell phone was not good.”

Then there were user photos, another way our community connected with us. We actively solicited damage shots, and were soon inundated with what seemed like a photo of every single downed tree in our six-county region. By the time Jeanne hit, we politely suggested that our users look for other things to shoot. On a page view basis, photos from users, staff, wires and our partner newspaper in Ft. Lauderdale, the Sun-Sentinel, generated far-and-away the most traffic to OrlandoSentinel.com.

Because Charley was a surprise, and because we were the only major media market that Charley passed over, our Charley page views and visits exceeded the other hurricanes, generating over 3.3 million page views in a single weekend day in August, eleven times normal weekend traffic. Our usual weekday average is about 5 to 600,000 page views, but the top day for Frances peaked at 1.7 million page views and for Jeanne at 2.3 million page views.

Network reliability was never a problem. Although Tribune was prepared to switch on extra server capacity, even the high traffic we registered did not trigger the need.

Get room at the (nearest) inn

We also learned that in contrast to other disasters, there was no escaping a hurricane. Their footprint is so large, and duration of predicted onslaught so long, that everyone on our staff was going to be affected in some fashion.

No press pass was going to buy safe passage from home to office in 75 mph winds that might last eight to 12 hours. Trees weren’t going to magically remove themselves from crunched car trunks, and leaking roofs would not self-seal.

How would we keep a 24-hour operation going if we couldn’t bring producers in and spell those coming off intense, non-stop shifts?

During Charley, we concentrated on content and neglected to adequately plan how we would staff our site during or after the storm. The irony, of course, was that hurricanes are about the only disaster you can actually plan for.

We didn’t make that mistake twice.

I drafted a schedule that gave people extra days off before Frances and augmented our team afterwards, so no one would have to work more than eight to 12 hours at a time. Everyone could expect a day here and there to wield a chai
nsaw in their yard, talk to FEMA or find somewhere to buy ‘D’ batteries.

Tribune, our corporate parent, coordinated plans to hand off production of our Web site — and that of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel — to Web editors from other Tribune sites if we were blown off the face of the earth. Newsday had already donated a producer for a few days after Charley.

The company booked hotel rooms near the newspaper and ordered army cots for the office. We evacuated our families to be with us so we could feel less torn about being on the job.

Some were understandably antsy about being assigned to sleep in a historic (read: ‘rickety’) inn amidst drooping live oaks (read: ‘hard hat zone’) during Frances’ predicted assault. They opted instead to nap in darkened conference rooms and darted into restrooms to comb out cowlicks before jumping back online. Interestingly, it was those of us sleeping in the modern Marriott who were evacuated to the ballroom when Frances arrived, after it peeled the high-rise’s siding off like a sardine can.

It was good practice, because as soon as Frances had been consigned to a below-the-scroll spot on our home page, along came Jeanne. I adjusted our schedule again and booked more rooms. But no one was really up for all that this time.

Charley? Wake up call.

Frances? Impending Armegeddon.

Jeanne? Another day at the office.

Sick of the way hurricanes upended our lives, when Jeanne hit, we brought our favorite fluffy pillows to work, left our families at home and produced breaking news in our pajamas.