How newsrooms can create a breaking news plan & why it matters

Jessica Parks sounded the alarm, rattling my smartphone as I drove to Stanford University. Before dawn that morning, she said, a worker at a nearby cement plant shot 10 people with a semiautomatic rifle and a handgun. Police were searching for him block by block.

“Should we activate the plan?” asked Jessica, now a Philadelphia Inquirer reporter but then a new student in Stanford’s graduate journalism program. I tapped the GroupMe app that one of her classmates had urged us to install and texted my 17 other students: “Mass shooting in Cupertino early this a.m. Meet ASAP in the journalism lounge.”

Within 20 minutes, a dozen young reporters huddled over a cluster of laptops. Jessica started a live blog for our website, The Peninsula Press, while faculty distributed multimedia equipment and a tentative story budget emerged. How did students who hardly knew each other respond so efficiently the morning of Oct. 5, 2011? The students had spent 90 minutes one week earlier — in my first class of the autumn quarter — devising a detailed breaking news plan.

At The Washington Post, where I worked as an editor from 2002 through 2010, digital leaders recently began to discuss adding such a plan of their own. Talks centered on how to quickly fill roles such as live blogger, videographer, social media editor and search engine optimization specialist, but also included fundamentals like technology support for storytelling tools and the content managing system.

Emilio Garcia-Ruiz, the Post’s editor for strategic projects, offered tips for how to think about the planning process:

  • Focus on roles, not individuals, and don’t get hung up on the normal newsroom structure. When time is of the essence, you may need to grab a reporter from Metro, an assignment editor from features and an online producer from sports. If your ace graphic artist is at lunch, go to your next best option until she’s back.
  • When envisioning roles, take into account all publishing platforms and be exhaustive. Not every breaking story will require that each position be filled. If you think too narrowly, though, you won’t be ready for a massive event.
  • Discuss how you want information to travel through the newsroom and onto your various platforms. What roles will be responsible for coordinating reporters in the field? Who is going to vet the feeds to discover inconsistency and repetition? Above all, how can you prevent mistakes from being published, especially on Twitter and in text or email alerts? In the words of Steven Ginsberg, national political editor of the Post: “Anyone can tweet news. In many cases, too many people do.”
  • Embrace the iterative culture that exists in many newsrooms. Don’t use staff turnover or technological barriers as reasons to put off planning. The latter point resonates with Clay Lambert, editor of the Half Moon Bay Review, which has three full-time and two part-time journalists. “In any given year, we might lose two members of our news team,” he said via email. “That would be a 40 percent turnover and mean that a significant portion of the staff would need retraining.”

Several other ideas emerged from email and phone conversations with editors around the country:

  • Think outside your walls. Non-journalists can provide valuable help. In Half Moon Bay, a coastal city 25 miles south of San Francisco, Lambert knows that disaster can come at any time. So he and his staff tap a network of informal agreements and contacts in their community, ranging from ham radio operators to local pilots to charter boat captains.
  • The value of a breaking news plan fades if you don’t update and practice. Andy Alexander, who ran Cox Newspapers’ Washington bureau for more than a decade and now teaches journalism at Ohio University, encouraged newsroom leaders to ask themselves two questions: Who is responsible for updating your breaking news plan as often as needed? And what systems are in place to test the plan, much like emergency response groups periodically react to mock disasters?
  • Keep a list of phone numbers close at hand. Ginsberg, of the Post, believes the normal tendency to rely on email can cost vital minutes in a breaking news situation. No matter the time of day or where you are, he advised, have a quick and reliable way to find the home and cell phone numbers of everyone on staff. “We are overly reliant on email,” he said via email.
  • Postmortems are worth doing. The Sacramento Bee finds value in reviewing what went right and wrong after a major event to identify training or communication issues that need to be addressed, according to Tom Negrete, the director of innovation and news operations. That October day in 2011, when my students had a chance to catch their breaths, we went through a similar process for the cement plant shootings, which left three dead. Good thing, too. Less than an hour later, Apple announced the death of Steve Jobs. We activated our breaking news plan yet again.

Does your newsroom have a breaking news plan? If so, tell us about it in the comments section.

R.B. Brenner is a visiting lecturer in the graduate journalism program at Stanford University and a Poynter Institute adjunct faculty member.

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