The Weblog: Tough to Beat on Breaking News
Just as Florida Today's John Kelly realized that something was horribly amiss with the shuttle Saturday morning, his computer crashed and he lost access to the best news-breaking tool at his disposal: a weblog called the Landing Journal.
The paper switched to an old-school tool -- watching TV -- and Online Editor Dave Larimer posted a headline online based on broadcast reports. Within 20 minutes or so, Kelly's computer was back in action and he was back online with the Journal.
For journalists lucky enough to discover it, the Journal emerged as a valuable resource in the early hours of coverage. It also underlined the broader potential of weblogs -- even if they are subject to computer crashes on deadline.
As Jon Dube pointed out in an item on his Cyberjournalist site, the Landing Journal helped Florida Today get "the news out fast and (provide) readers an easy way to see the latest news without having to comb through long articles and figure out what's been added since they last read it." Poynter's Steve Outing followed up with this suggestion in his E-Media Tidbits column: "Next time a really big news story breaks in your news organization's back yard, create a temporary weblog."
To find out what some of what it takes, Poynter Online exchanged e-mail with three Florida Today staffers: Reporters John Kelly and Kelly Young, who produce the Journal with colleague Chris Kridler, and Mark DeCotis, a staffer at the paper since 1985 and the former editor of its award-winning Space Online site. An edited transcript follows, with comments from DeCotis at the bottom.
Poynter: The first indication of a problem appeared on your journal at 9:20 a.m. Saturday. At what time did you get the first indication of possible trouble? What did you do before posting at 9:20 a.m.?
John Kelly: We had two people in place Saturday morning. Chris Kridler went to the landing site to watch. I stayed in our trailer nearer to the Vehicle Assembly Building.
A couple of bizarre things happened. In the couple minutes before 9 a.m., a couple of things said by NASA controllers struck me as odd -- there seemed to be a garbled transmission, then a nonchalant mention of loss of signal which is not immediately a tragic indicator, and then a series of calls from the ground for a com check. It was that call when I realized what was happening. I started to type an entry saying they'd lost communication and weren't getting a response. Then my computer locked up, crashed and had to be rebooted.
The other computers in our trailer could not connect over our DSL line, of course. Our online editor, Dave Larimer, smartly was watching television and noted something not quite right. He immediately headed for the office while I scrambled to somehow connect to get an entry online. Dave was able to get a headline online just as the contrails of debris fields were being reported over Texas. At the landing site, Chris Kridler was calling back to the trailer and wanted to know what the heck was going on. There was no shuttle on the horizon, no explanation to all of the journalists and VIPs gathered out there, and confusion was building as the countdown clock reached zero (touchdown time) and then started counting upward.
Our Internet connection returned and we were able to return online and, even then, tried to be as calm in our entries as possible although by 9:20 a.m. those of us who understand the dynamics of how the ship operates knew she was gone.
Poynter: How long have you been doing these journals? We noticed the journal you built for launch. Have you produced journals for previous missions?
John Kelly: Florida Today started these journals, and they've since been replicated by many other online sites. We do them for every shuttle and rocket launch, as well as spacewalks. The pattern is clear: high-interest events in which we need a vehicle for getting news online fast, almost in real-time (as long as a technical glitch does not strike at just the wrong moment).
As journalists we do a lot of preparedness for launches that those inside the business will understand perfectly. Those outside might find our preparations somewhat disturbing. Oddly, however, we take landings somewhat for granted. Over the years, we and other news outlets have relaxed how we deal with landing coverage.
We're providing somewhat less frequent updates in the landing journal than we might in a launch journal, partly because little is happening on orbit. The astronauts are passive participants after a certain point with computers "driving" it. Thus, our guard is somewhat down.
As journalists we do a lot of preparedness for launches that those inside the business will understand perfectly. Those outside might find our preparations somewhat disturbing. Poynter: Where did the idea come from to create weblogs for shuttle missions? What was the reaction from readers, sources, colleagues, etc. to the launch journal you did for Columbia back on Jan. 16?
Kelly Young: We usually get a few e-mails every launch, usually along the lines of "great job" and that sort of thing. If we misspell something or goof a bit, they let us know that, too. I know traffic was really high for the first Delta 4 and Atlas 5 rockets to launch from here last year. I'm sure we got a few e-mails Jan. 16, but nothing out of the ordinary. I think I remember e-mailing someone the best places to watch the launch.
John Kelly: We get some fan mail, I suppose, as well as some suggestions. The journals generate a following of regulars too. It's typically a knowledgeable group of readers, too -- from people inside NASA's own offices, to their families at home, to rocket fans around the world.
Poynter: As members of the space coverage team at Florida Today, did you have a disaster plan you called on for today's coverage?
Kelly Young: We have a shuttle launch disaster plan in place before every mission. Some stories are in the can and ready to go. As for landing, we weren't quite as on top of things, but a lot of the copy we had was adaptable.
John Kelly: Our disaster plan is intended for launch disasters. Since for the first 100-plus times the shuttle always showed up on the horizon, one tends to let the guard down. Because our launch disaster plan, for the first extra editions anyway, is heavy on the What Happened and How Did People React angles, we were able to react quickly. We had preparedness ready and moved quickly to get a story filed, regularly updating it much as the AP might on a big story. This offered some challenges that we were not quite prepared for because the story was happening in Florida, Texas, Louisiana and Washington, and there were witnesses all over the western United States.
We had to quickly adapt our plan to get stories online and ready for the paper while at the same time making sudden travel arrangements for reporters heading a lot of different places. Our managing editor, who was flying elsewhere, was actually our first person on the ground in Texas. Kelly Young and I were here by late Saturday night once the initial bases were covered with the breaking news story.
Poynter: How do you juggle the task of updating the journal with your responsibilities to report and write stories? (Especially on a day when you're writing the lead story of an Extra.)
Kelly Young: Very carefully. There's no good answer to that. Sometimes, you just borrow liberally from the journal and try to put it into context.
John Kelly: That's one place where we know in advance the journal helps. It focuses your reporting. It makes you pay attention to details you might not otherwise notice. You're listening more intently to the radio communications between the shuttle and mission controllers in Houston, listening for some colorful tidbit or for anything out of the ordinary. So, sure, we had some material already in our journal that was helpful in formulating the early plan for the main story. Also, we knew our audience would demand quick updates, and the journal provides a vehicle for that, too.
By sticking with it for a few hours longer we made sure that our website was up to date with the latest developments without constantly having to file a revised version of the whole story, which of course was changing by the second. Also we owed it to our readers. We've got some loyal followers on that site and we knew that people were going to stick with us for a bit because they know that we know how the space shuttle works, how NASA works and how to interpret the cryptic information coming out of Houston. I think we did well with that while avoiding some of the more sensational jumping-to-conclusions stuff that appeared in the early moments after the shuttle broke up. Perhaps Kelly's answer is best: very carefully.
Kelly Young: There are typically three reporters at our KSC bureau during launch and landings. One stays glued to his or her laptop except for breaks. He or she listens to NASA TV. The others are like gophers. The gophers often end up writing the stories, but that isn't always the case. John did launch and landing journals this time (He also wrote the mainbar for Sunday's paper). I've done a number of the journals in the past and Chris is a whiz.
John Kelly: Chris Kridler is a super-human journaler.
Poynter: What are some of the other implications of a converged news operation on a story such as this? How does your work online help or hinder what you're doing in print? Do you have a television partner? Are you getting many requests for TV news interviews?
Kelly Young: We work with Channel 6, the CBS affiliate out of Orlando. Our editors in the main Melbourne office have had more TV experience, so in the past few days, they have been doing the TV interviews. We've had a couple of requests for interviews, but there hasn't been a lot of time lately.
John Kelly: Our online site feeds our print operation and the newspaper drives people online. Local readers know they can go there for launch journals. But one thing about our online site is scope. It's international. It's like running a whole separate publication. We file a lot more space stories there than appear in the newspaper. We partner with Space.com for some enhanced coverage. We post more international space wire coverage. We've got a strong audience nationwide and overseas because people count on us for saturation coverage of NASA and the space shots as well as watchdog journalism on the agency and budget. Of course, I'm biased.
Poynter: Your journal is a bit like live running coverage on TV. What advantages and challenges does it present to journalists usually accustomed to once-a-day newspaper cycles?
Our online site feeds our print operation and the newspaper drives people online. John Kelly: I came over from the AP in Chicago, so I've got a strong deadline background as well as solid broadcast experience. That helps. On this beat, there's no such thing as a once-a-day news cycle. The competition won't allow it. The audience demands immediacy. Once you get used to it, you just can't think any other way. I can tell you those few minutes we could not connect Saturday morning seemed like a torturous eternity.
Poynter: Any early lessons learned from the coverage of the latest disaster?
John Kelly: Off-site backup technically so that if we ran into a sudden disconnection, we could have gotten someone else entering journal news. That's one immediate thing, but you can't prepare for anything. Just a couple days out there are a lot of things I might do differently. Most of them are logistics-related rather than journalism related. We knew where we were going reporting-wise. Covering the geography was something we were not prepared for, but who was?
Poynter: Any indications how people are finding your coverage on the Web?
John Kelly: We're getting a great deal of feedback, mostly what you might expect in a time like this. Very emotional and astounding numbers of tips, suggestions, guidance, etc., from the aerospace community in our hometown and elsewhere. You've got to remember we've got the most knowledgeable reader base on this issue than other outlets. That's not to say we did not get some bizarre electronic mail too.
Poynter: Can you tell us a bit about each of your backgrounds?
Kelly Young: I've been covering space at Florida Today for two-and-a-half years. My subbeats are unmanned missions and space science, but we're a pretty fluid bunch as far as beats go. Before this, I was covering city government for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
Chris Kridler, who typically covers manned space, has been at Florida Today a little longer than I have, but she just joined the space beat last summer. She was technology editor before that.
John Kelly: I was a special assignment reporter for the Associated Press in Chicago. I'm a computer-assisted reporting specialist with a strong background in public-records-driven investigative journalism. And a bit of a space geek. So the chance to cover the industry at Cape Canaveral was very attractive.
Poynter: Do you plan to continue the journal as this story unfolds?
John Kelly: No, but the website will stay fresh. I was just thinking as I wrote this that it could be some time before we do another journal.
Mark DeCotis has been a reporter and editor at Florida Today since 1985, and is among the few veterans contributing to Saturday's coverage who also were involved in the coverage of the Challenger explosion 17 years ago. DeCotis also is the former editor of the paper's website and was editor of its pioneering and award-winning website Space Online.
Poynter: Can you tell us some of the similarities and differences between today and what it was like in the Space Center region when the Challenger exploded 17 years ago?
Mark DeCotis: The main difference is that Challenger exploded right here, shortly after launch, and was witnessed live by thousands here and millions on TV. Those images were seared into our memories and the impact was immediate and lasting. Few people saw Columbia destroyed and even then it happened more than 200,000 feet up. The main difference I noticed this weekend was life went on. With one exception, sports events went forward. People went about their business, albeit it with heavy hearts. The interesting contrast however, and this points to your third question, is that nationally, because of the advent of 24-hour news and the Web, many, many more people were made aware of Columbia within a short time and the story resonated around the world, and maybe because of that, felt a connection to an event that did not unfold live as Challenger did.
Poynter: What lessons might have been learned in that 1986 coverage that apply going forward?
Mark DeCotis: That this is a marathon. Yes, it was a sprint on the first day to produce two extras and then the Sunday newspaper but this story will be with us for months and we have to respond accordingly. In 1986, the field of competitors was much smaller, but no less intense. What struck me watching the NASA briefing on Sunday -- in comparison to 1986 -- was the quite large presence of TV stations from around the country, not to mention the dot-coms. Because of the growth of the media this has become a community story and the community is the world. However, it also is a story where a certain amount of sophistication is required of the reporters and expected by the readers and viewers and listeners. It challenges everyone to be accurate and not be sensational but at the same time to cut through the red tape to get to the real meat of the story.
Poynter: The World Wide Web wasn't a factor in 1986. How does the Web alter the paper's role in the coverage you're providing today?
Mark DeCotis: Fortunately we have been in the Web business for years and have the resources and the experience to deal with a very fluid story in a responsible way. We are sophisticated enough to be able to deal with it at a multimedia level and provide our audience with coverage on many fronts. The Web environment puts more responsibility on reporters and editors to produce news continuously, but once again we have been in this end of the business long enough to be able to take it in stride.