USC Annenberg Online Journalism ReviewUSC





Breaking News Breaking Down

A haunting New York Times headline I read just after Columbia disintegrated keeps popping into my mind: ?Some Deaths Resonate, Others Pass Unnoticed.?

Careening from awful story to awful story last week, I watched as the deaths of 21 people in a nightclub stampede sent shockwaves from Chicago, as the murder of St. Louis radio journalist Nan Wyatt sent my own community into bewildered mourning and as the deaths of 97 people in a Rhode Island club fire shook neighbors and strangers alike.

Each case logically topped the local news. Not because of the value of the lives lost -- other equally valuable people died that week, many of them brutally cut down -- but because these deaths shook our lives, our communities in an instant.

I?m even less enamored of those sites that require registration but haven?t thought through how to handle access in times of emergency, or have decided access to non-registered users isn?t important.

As was the case with Columbia, online coverage had a major role to play as a source of news and information. And by now that should be obvious. Online is part of the breaking news palette as surely as newspapers, television or that vanishing breed, news radio.

Just as each of those media plays roles of varying importance depending on the time in the news cycle or the kind of event, the same is true for online. The Internet often is the only access point when a story takes place far away or when television, particularly the cable news networks, isn?t available.

News sites should shine when stories break after the paper goes to bed or in between local newscasts. At all times, they should be a constant and consistent source of reliable information.

Sorry to say but that isn?t always the case. Between registration screens, lack of information in a reasonable time and a variety of other issues, my efforts to stay informed online last week often felt futile and, even worse, frustrating. 

Many, many things went right, particularly as coverage moved into second and third news cycles. But even more strongly than I suggested in a column about Columbia coverage, news sites need to be better prepared for major breaking news.

Any site that doesn?t have what the editor in my house calls a ?911 plan? should set one up now; sites that already have them should update them now.

That applies especially to sites training consumers to come to them for up-to-date news and information. Sites that make no pretense to that effect aren?t letting users down when they don?t deliver during a crisis or are overachieving when they do. 

In addition to the all-important staffing and tech issues -- like making sure there?s enough server space, redundant storage, ability to update the site remotely and the like -- sites should think very carefully about their mission as news organizations.

This applies especially to sites putting up barriers to information as part of their business plan.

While I understand the argument of news sites that charge for access either to full content or to video content and say paid subscribers need to come first, I can?t say I like it. On the other hand, as someone who pays for some of my news access, I admit I might be irked to see it given away for free.

I like to think I?d be mature enough to cope with such a practice in the first few hours or first days of a major news story or national emergency, particularly if it?s video anyone with access to a television could see.  Subscription sites could use the open-access period to remind users of subscriber benefits and might find that their raising of the curtain brings in more takers.

I?m even less enamored of those sites that require registration but haven?t thought through how to handle access in times of emergency, or have decided access to non-registered users isn?t important. Such issues should be an integral part of the site-building process.

The chief argument against opening access is obvious: Registering is easy so shouldn?t be viewed as an obstacle.

I might have given in on this one had I not spent flustered minutes trying to deal with Belo?s ProJo.com in the middle of the night as news of the Rhode Island fire was unfolding.

Part of my problem stemmed from being registered at other Belo sites. I didn?t realize I only had to register once, and got completely confused when breaking news took me to several different Belo sites in a short span. I tried to register again and wound up with a mess that was finally resolved by getting a new password for one of my identities.

Kent Front Page

Kent County Times added a great deal to the coverage.

Even though the sites are designed for local access Belo needs to take into account that people from one city might have a reason to visit sites in other areas and make it clear that registering once is enough. [Recent examples: the Rhode Island fire (ProJo.com), the murder of St. Louis journalist Nan Wyatt (KMOV.com) and the loss of space shuttle Columbia (DallasNews.com,WFAA.com).] In fact, a large number -- perhaps the majority -- of entries in the Projo.com guestbook set up with Legacy.com came from out of state.

During the first news cycle following the fire, only registered users could get news from ProJo.com, and even then information that many people needed right away -- a contact number -- was tacked on to the bottom of the story. I left feeling the result had not been worth the journey. As the largest paper in a very small state, ProJo.com was the natural place to turn, and it should have been a primary source right away.

The late-night timing and the cable news networks? reliance on Rhode Island television affiliates provided the unusual opportunity to watch local news in real time while I checked out a few Web sites. If I had been in the area that night with a need to know, TV would have been the place to be.

I?m not sure if that was the case with coverage of the E2 nightclub stampede in Chicago where 21 people died in the early hours of Feb. 17. I was completely underwhelmed by the early morning coverage at the Web sites of the Chicago Sun-Times and the Chicago Tribune (a paper I have written for often over the years). The first story I saw on the Tribune site was from the Associated Press; a short while later I saw what appeared to be primarily the same AP story, only now it had a reworded lead and a Tribune staffer?s byline.

A week later, a visit to the special reports section -- prompted by the failure of the site to accompany fresh new stories with links to related E2 coverage -- turned up specials on Columbia and a host of other events or issues.  On the same page, a group labeled story collections? offered links to coverage from Baghdad and sex abuse, among other things, but nothing on E2.

I found a special section at SunTimes.com with a portrait gallery and bios of the dead. Good. It stops on Feb. 18. Not good. 

Once ProJo.com ramped up, the site became the go-to place I expected. Important contact info was moved to the front page where anyone could see it. The condolence book, the discussion board and a weblog by Sheila Lennon were accessible without registration through links from the front page -- although anyone who clicked on one of the registration-only links might have left without figuring that out. That confusion could be eased by clearly identifying open-access material. 

By Tuesday evening, Lennon?s admirable weblog was the equivalent of nine 8x11 pages, full of useful and often fascinating items but overwhelming for anyone not keeping up with it at least once a day. The weblog format can be a useful tool in the breaking news arsenal, and it wouldn?t hurt for planners to consider how to implement one. Would it be edited before posting? Would it actually break news? Would it link to reg-only internal pages?

My experience looking for information about the fire in West Warwick highlighted another flaw of still-in-beta Google News: stories from ProJo.com and other Belo sites didn?t show up. The registration-only sites repel Google?s crawler, which also could be seen as a flaw in Belo?s philosophy that keeps its sites from getting wider attention. A Google spokesman tells me the company is willing to work with sites to resolve situations like this.

During my rounds, I came across instances of newspaper sites directing visitors to the print edition for full coverage. On Friday, for instance, the New Haven Register?s site referred visitors to the next day?s paper and to smaller sibling Kent County Daily Times, West Warwick?s local paper. Both papers are owned by the Journal Register Co.

Kentcountytimes.com isn?t as sophisticated as the Belo Interactive operations, but with far fewer resources than its bigger-city colleagues, the site and the paper added a great deal to the coverage. I?ve continued to visit regularly, and I especially appreciated the chance to read the editorial about covering a hometown tragedy.

In St. Louis, Stltoday.com protected a scoop by posting a synopsis of a column by Bill McClellan, featuring a confession by Nan Wyatt?s husband that he had killed his wife; Web users were told the entire text would be in the next day?s paper. The full column was posted online the next morning, though the readers of the synopsis had no reason to expect it. 

Was the paper wrong to guard its material like that? It was a scoop with a capital S and, as callous as it sounds, it?s the kind that can drive newspaper sales and needs to be protected from TV.

It felt a little like a bait and switch. It could have been handled better by letting Web users know when the column would be available online.

Sometimes criticism doesn?t come easy. 

As a member of the Greater St. Louis community, I knew only too well that Nan?s death was the latest in a series of blows starting with the passing of sportscaster Jack Buck last year. If I -- who knew Nan only as a fellow journalist and as a listener -- felt like I?d been hit in the gut, the pain her colleagues at KMOX-AM were feeling the night of Feb. 18, could only be imagined. 

And yet, as much empathy and sympathy as I had for them, I felt let down when I went to the KMOX Web site hours after her death had become public and it was as though nothing had happened. Other area news sites had reports ranging from AP stories to the script from the 10 p.m. news. KMOX.com, which should have been the primary source of information, was a desert.

The next day a tribute was posted and news stories started to appear, although oddly at one point the story was below several older and/or non-local headlines.

Should I give them a pass because this news was so close to home?

I thought I might be able to until I heard an ad on the station reminding me to go to KMOX.com for the latest news and information, and it hit me: It would be a long time, if ever, before I?d trust the Web site to be my first or even a primary source for online local news. Given that KMOX radio is my first button push for news in the car they should have a good claim on me as an online user. 

I might be more forgiving if I hadn?t just watched another local news site deal with the sudden, albeit natural, death of St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Greg Freeman. Within a short time, StlToday.com, the paper?s online home, was the best place to go for information. You can't ask people to trust you as the place to turn to for news unless you back it up.

Staci D. Kramer is Editor at Large at Cable World and was a contributing editor to Inside.com. Based in University City, Mo., Kramer's clients have included Time, Life, the Detroit Free Press, the Chicago Tribune, The New York Times, Multichannel News, APBNews.com, mediainfo.com, Editor & Publisher, The Sporting News, St. Louis magazine, several major papers in Canada, and numerous others. Her work has been syndicated by the Los Angeles Times Syndicate, reprinted in two books and she has co-produced a segment for "Nightline."