Broadcast journalists also should learn to report what they do best and 'link' to the rest

The news coverage of the ongoing crisis in Japan reminds me of one of the better items of advice I’ve heard given to online journalists:

“Report what you do best, and link to the rest.”

I’ve found some insightful, thoughtful coverage of the disasters online, from stunning photo graphics to an engaging first-person account of trying to land a plane immediately after the quake.

Unfortunately, on TV, I’ve watched a lot of garbage, too.

Tim Goodman last week, in that previous link, tore apart the U.S. cable channels for their simplistic questioning and sensationalistic reporting in covering the Japan disasters, noting that they’ve fallen short of their international competition:

“Covering this trilogy of terror in Japan really underscores how much better prepared reporters and anchors need to be. The incessantly simplistic and embarrassing questions need to stop. Someone needs to tamp down runaway speculation. Also, the attention on the Middle East in past years has dulled producers’ sense of keeping experts from Asia on the source list.

“It’s a shame that going online to watch videos from NHK, BBC and Al Jazeera English was far and away the best option for Americans.”

While I agree with Goodman’s harsh assessment of the U.S. cable channels, I disagree that “it’s a shame” that Americans have to turn to other nations’ reporters for better international coverage.

I’m just glad that those options are out there, and thanks to the Internet, American audiences now can access them. If there’s a shame here, it’s that we have to go online to find this coverage, and that our cable channels are not bringing it to us, instead. I wish that American journalists, facing limitations in logistics, training and background, would recognize that other reporters on the scene are doing a better job and instead refer us to their work, rather than wasting scarce newsroom resources trying to duplicate something that they cannot.

This isn’t to say that U.S. news organizations can’t cover foreign news. As Goodman even pointed out, CNN’s Tokyo reporter, Kyung Lah, has done an admirable job bringing perspective to her network’s coverage. But that’s because she’s based in Japan, knows the culture, understands the ongoing narratives and has sources in the region.

If U.S. news organizations are willing to make those commitments by maintaining well-staffed foreign bureaus, then they should expect to meet or exceed coverage from others. I’d love to see the U.S.-based cable and broadcast news channels staffing more bureaus around the world. But I’m not so naive as to believe that CNN, MSNBC and especially Fox are about to drop more money on international coverage, unless it involves temporary spending to cover a fresh new war. And the days are over when news organizations could expect to parachute reporters into a situation and have them deliver better coverage than their readers can find elsewhere.

It’s past time for broadcast journalists to end the days to of parachute journalism and instead learn a lesson from online news: Report what you do best and start linking more to the rest.

Of course, a hyperlink – in the literal sense – as of this point is not yet possible on traditional cable and broadcast television. But as video on demand becomes more popular, I anticipate the rise of video hyperlinking. All one would need would be a network address upon which a particular piece of video resides, and to employ existing technology for on-screen linking.

Perhaps this will happen first on a service such as Netflix’s. Imagine watching an old TV sitcom, then clicking or tapping an onscreen prompt to jump to the movie that sitcom was parodying. Video hyperlinking might make it possible for future generations to understand why we thought ‘The Simpsons’ was funny.

And it could allow TV journalists the power of sourcing and referencing documentation and additional reporting that their online colleagues now enjoy.

But what about lost traffic? What about advertising eyeballs? I can hear the complaints now. But we heard these same complaints from print journalists transitioning to online a decade ago, and they learned the value of becoming a curator as well as a reporter of the news. There’s money in being the initial source to which people turn in a crisis. Broadcast journalists, given time and technology, will learn those lessons, too.

Until that technology arrives, broadcast journalists would better serve their viewers by choosing not to deploy their own reporters to every far-flung story, but instead to identify and run on their channels superior coverage from local sources, whether they be from native news organizations or other organizations’ local bureaus. This already happens in the initial moments of breaking news stories; I’m suggesting that the relationship should continue for the story’s duration.

To keep down the costs of acquiring this additional video, news networks should more fully develop video-sharing alliances with other national and global news broadcasters. Such alliances might also create a need for some of our domestic broadcast newsrooms to raise their game, to begin providing coverage of domestic news that meets the standard of international journalists, so that they will agree to video swaps in the future. (Don’t forget the first half of the advice: “Report what you do best.”)

Ultimately, as with many lessons about journalism in the Internet era, it all comes down to building community. By building a stronger global community of broadcast journalists, we can bring the best possible coverage to the individual communities that each network serves.

Michael Jackson's death and its lessons for online journalists covering breaking news

Every major breaking news events offers its lessons to the news organizations that covered it. And today’s death of singer Michael Jackson should lead newsrooms to reexamine how they handle breaking news in a hyper-competitive, instant-publishing environment.

I wrote last week about how news consumers used Twitter to express their displeasure, in real time and with a critical social mass, with CNN over the news network’s coverage of the developing election protests in Iran. Yesterday, Twitter again became the forum for a global event, as millions gathered on the microblogging site to share rumors about, then to confirm, then to mourn Jackson’s death.

AOL’s celebrity gossip site TMZ appeared to have been the first to report the singer’s death. Other news organizations, appropriately, waited to confirm Jackson’s passing themselves before reporting the news.

But thousands of Twitter users did not wait for additional confirmation before retweeting TMZ’s report, or sending out their own tweets about Jackson’s death. Even after the Los Angeles Times confirmed the passing, other news organizations held back before publishing the news to their Twitter feeds and e-mail alert lists.

Digital journalism leader Steve Buttry nailed the problem, appropriately enough, on his Twitter feed:

Should Washington Post and NY Times rebrand their news alerts as news “reminders”

This, after previous tweets:

Half hour or so after Twitter told me Michael Jackson died, Washington Post email alert caught up. Still waiting for NY Times “alert.”

@semayer & @conniecoyne The surprise isn’t that Twitter or TMZ are first, but the time lag between them and WaPo & NY Times “alerts.”

News organizations do not need to fall in line behind sources such as TMZ when a report like Jackson’s death breaks. The Twitterverse’s been wrong about alleged celebrity deaths before. But in this situation, smart news organizations should acknowledge to their followers and readers that they know the report is out there and that people are talking about it, and report where the organization is with its own reporting.

How hard would it be to tweet: “TMZ reports Jackson has died. We cannot confirm. Working on details”? Or “No confirmation on rumors about Jackson’s death. We’re in contact with authorities”?

The trouble is, of course, that it’s hard for the person making the calls to confirm the story to take time to tweet it. Or to update the website. Not to mention the site’s discussion forums, e-mail lists or Facebook page.

Which brings me to my first lesson from Jackson’s death:

In a breaking news situation, assign some to report and some to publish. But don’t ask anyone to do both.

Perhaps a few hyper-efficient bloggers can work the phones, monitor the Twitterverse, update social networks and write for the website… all at the same time. But newsrooms with multiple staffers on hand at any given moment shouldn’t have to rely on a single person to step up and assume the role of multimedia superstar. Large staffs (even diminished ones) remain traditional newsroom’s competitive advantage during breaking news. Why waste it?

Editors should divvy assignments, putting one staffer in charge of monitoring and updating Twitter, another to handle forums and Facebook, and others to work the phones or scene to report. The team must communicate clearly and continuously so that information flows swiftly and the paper’s readers and followers remain as up-to-date as anyone in the newsroom.

Yes, this means acknowledging rumor. But, as Twitter showed today, traditional newsroom silence on rumors don’t make them go away. Engaging with the audience in these confusing moments helps establish to your readers that your news organization is plugged in, responsive and working for them. No, you shouldn’t be reporting unconfirmed reports as fact. (And I haven’t suggested that anyone should.) But the worst thing you can offer you readers on Twitter is silence. Report on your reporting, if that’s all you have. Readers will appreciate the transparency.

So let’s go to lesson number two, and something that readers will not appreciate:

It’s time to drop e-mail as a breaking news medium

E-mail remains a great way to communicate with readers who prefer that medium. Many readers love to get regular updates on what is available on a website, so that they can keep in touch no matter whether they’re able to check the site on their own or not. And e-mail’s also an excellent choice to let readers know about enterprise stories or other exclusives that the news organization is breaking.

But doing as Buttry described, and sending a “breaking news alert” hours after everyone from Helsinki to Honolulu has been tweeting the news just embarrasses the news organization. There’s no better way to reinforce the message, “Hi, just to remind you: We’re clueless and slow!”

Better not to send the e-mail at all. Twitter’s become the go-to medium for breaking news. It’s past time to retire the e-mail “breaking news” list for these kinds of minute-by-minute events. Leave e-mail as a follow-up to expose readers to truly unique reports and perspective, once you have them reported and available.

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.