Training key to helping journalists become comfortable with Web 2.0

Mike Noe is the editor of the Rocky Mountain News’ website.

When Denver hosted the Democratic National Convention in the summer of 1908, American Indians were still referred to as “wild” by famed Rocky Mountain News journalist Damon Runyon. Delegates were entertained by snow hauled in from the nearby mountains. And the Rocky chronicled the convention in a broadsheet format. It would be three more decades before Colorado’s first newspaper would take a chance on publishing in the tabloid format that its readers still embrace today.

To say the least, 2008 was a far cry from that 1908 DNC. A staff of 150 field journalists covered this year’s convention 24 hours a day for five straight days, posting vignettes, photos and video to So much content poured into the site at once that we used two scrolling windows on the home page to channel the flow of information. A nurse at a local hospital told me she was glued to the site throughout the week, checking back whenever she could to see the latest updates on protests, celebrities and the delegates.

Planning for the convention started well before January. We purchased LG VX9900 for several reporters so they would be able to shoot photos and video for the Web site. Early in the year, we contacted other newspapers within the Scripps chain about using reporters, photographers and videographers for the event. And the editor made it clear that the Web was the newsroom’s first priority.

Judging from the 2004 conventions, we knew protests and demonstrations could play a significant role in our coverage. Editors began planning to station journalists and photographers throughout downtown Denver to cover any disruptions and immediately post the information on the site.

We knew we couldn’t use our traditional workflow of channeling content through our print system. Even e-mail would be clunky with most of our team limited to tapping out messages on their mobile phones. We decided on Twitter. It had gained recent fame in Sichuan earthquake as a news gathering tool. And it integrated nicely with our new online content management system.

In late Spring, reporters began practicing with filing short, headline-formatted new items to Training sessions took about an hour and most picked up the new format quickly. By the time the convention rolled around, everyone in the newsroom – including editors and the copy desk – had been trained. We combined each person’s RSS feed into three main RSS feeds that fed the following categories – official events, parties and celebrites, and protests. Users were then able to follow the updates through scrolling windows on, or on their own mobile phones using their personal Twitter accounts.

For more substantive news accounts, we trained our staff to file directly into the Ellington system using laptops with air cards. Once the reports were on the site, a team of copy editors in the newsroom cleaned up any typos or problems.

We applied the same concept to photos and video with Flickr. Reporters and photographers sent images and video into accounts specifically set up for the DNC. Then a team of editors would review the images or video and place them with the appropriate story. The concept worked well when police surrounded several hundred protestors outside the Rocky’s downtown office. Within five minutes, reporters, Web producers and copy editors had posted several photos of the confrontation.

We also set up a page where users could submit DNC-related photos or video of protests, celebrities or themselves directly onto the site. A warning noted that the feeds were unedited.

You can see examples of what we did on the following pages:

Twitter archives:

Live coverage:

Flickr photos:


Special wrap-up video produced by the Rocky and Media Storm:

Some key things we learned from our convention coverage:

  • Keep it simple: With the Web taking center focus, the temptation for some editors was to create Web categories for every topic we covered. The problem is that you can create a maze of content silos that a user will ignore. Most of our users visited the home page, multimedia page and individual story pages.
  • Train, practice and train again: Our first attempts at Twitter were rough. One example was when we sent a reporter to a campaign fund raiser with the instructions “Tell us what is going on.” That was about the extent of her instructions. She wasn’t allowed into the actual event so she was stuck in a hotel lobby. In addition to the candidates and political players coming in and out of the building, we received reports on a custodian cleaning floors, what delivery people were bringing in, etc. Our follow-up instructions included cheat sheets with examples of what we were looking for – details they would report in the paper, nice, tight sentences, constant updates.
  • Also make sure your staff is comfortable with the technology you’re using. We picked events leading up to the convention to get them used to the phones, cameras or laptops they would be using. You want technology to be second-nature when the big event begins.