5 lessons the St. Louis Post-Dispatch learned from covering Ferguson

A demonstrator throws back a tear gas container after tactical officers worked to break up a group of bystanders on Chambers Road near West Florissant on Wednesday, Aug. 13, 2014. Credit: Robert Cohen

A demonstrator throws back a tear gas container after tactical officers worked to break up a group of bystanders on Chambers Road near West Florissant on Wednesday, Aug. 13, 2014. Credit: Robert Cohen

The teamwork and quick thinking required to tell the biggest story in St. Louis transformed the newsroom at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

During a conversation with Poynter senior faculty Kenny Irby, Post-Dispatch director of photography Lynden Steele and video director Gary Hairlson discussed how covering Michael Brown’s shooting and the protests that followed forced the paper to reconsider its safety precautions, its policies for licensing photos and the way its reporters prioritized their coverage.

Poynter pulled out some of the lessons from the interview and listed them below:

1. Raw video rules
Raw video was a huge traffic driver during the Ferguson protests, helping the paper accumulate about 1.5 million pageviews during one week, Hairlson said.

When reporters and photographers were too busy to edit footage on the spot, they would often send quick snippets of video to Hairlson, who would piece them together and make sure they were published.

2. Train your reporters to take video before big news breaks
The Post-Dispatch began training its reporters how to shoot video about six years ago, an investment that paid off when they began shooting during the protests without being asked.

“It’s one of those things where we really didn’t have to tell people to shoot, they just automatically started doing it,” Hairlson said.

One of the most popular Post-Dispatch videos from Ferguson, Missouri wasn’t shot by a member of the video staff, Hairlson said. It was a footage of a man talking about the motivation for looting, captured by a reporter.

3. Figure out a plan for photo licensing in advance
Requests from media outlets seeking to license the Post-Dispatch’s photos and video was a major distraction, Hairlson said. The calls were so frequent that they interrupted the normal workflow.

“They were through the roof,” Hairlson said. “And it was the point to where we were getting 10 to 12 a day.”

Hairlson recommends finding someone outside the newsroom who can handle requests to purchase and license content during busy breaking news situations.

4. Communication is key to safety
After Post-Dispatch photographer David Carson was assaulted while trying to photograph a burning gas station, he made sure to send a text to his editor that said, “I’m OK.”

This text was in keeping with a strategy employed by the paper to keep track of the staff’s whereabouts during the sometimes dangerous protests in Ferguson. Steele periodically texted his photographers to make sure they were OK and kept them in pairs so they could keep in touch and support one another in hazardous situations.

5. Give exhausted staffers a break
As the week wore on, the long hours began sapping the energy from the photography staff, Steele said. He recalls talking to Carson one night and realizing from the conversation that he was exhausted. Carson took the next day off.

Working from home conducting interviews or editing is one way to decompress, Steele said.

Covering a huge story that draws national and international media is physically and emotionally draining, Hairlson said. It’s important to take some time off to renew focus.

“You just have to take a step back and get your head cleared, emotionally and physically and jump back in,” he said.

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