Articles about "Best Practices: TV and Radio"

WGAL photo

How WGAL TV kept the newsroom running when the roof collapsed

WGAL-TV (Lancaster, Pa.) News Director Dan O’Donnell was on the other side of the building from the newsroom at 3:20 Friday afternoon when he said he heard “what sounded like a truck backing into the building. Others said it sounded like thunder. Then ceiling tiles came down. The newsroom roof was collapsing.”

Engineers discovered a concrete support beam and slab had shifted and dropped. Luckily, no one was injured.

Snow packed WGAL-TV’s rooftop. A beam shifted forcing the station to evacuate. (Photo from WGAL used with permission)
Lancaster has been buried in snow for the last couple of weeks. “It was snow related,” O’Donnell said, “We covered three or four roof collapses before we had our problems. We had a foot of snow this week, 8 inches fell the week before. So there was a lot of snow up there.”

The WGAL team moved out of the newsroom to a downstairs studio. But when police and fire officials arrived, they ordered everyone out of the building. Everyone.

WGAL staffers stand in the parking lot of their own station to begin work covering the story about themselves. (Photo from WGAL used with permission)

“We went out on the front lawn and set up a newsroom there,” O’Donnell told me. “But with nobody in the station, we could not get a live signal on the air. There was nobody to receive the signal and punch it up on the air.” So the station had to find another way to report not only on itself, but on the storm that had blanketed the community.

“There is no doubt  that we, the television station, were the lead story in our market. But the newsroom knew that we have got to report on more than ourselves. We are a news organization and there is a storm coming through.”

O’Donnell was standing on the snow-covered station lawn when he said something out loud about needing to move the newsroom somewhere else quickly. An assistant fire chief heard him and suggested the station try the nearby city government building.

WGAL plans news coverage from its temporary newsroom inside a city municipal building. (Photo from WGAL used with permission)

Within an hour, newscast producers moved tables in the government office building to construct a make-shift newsroom. But there was still a big problem. No matter what, there still was no way to broadcast the news. “We used our website and Facebook to report,” O’Donnell said.

Once the newsroom was running, the WGAL team started producing streaming content for their website. But it took a lot of innovation. Reporters wanted to file stories, but there was no way to play the stories on the web stream. So they held up their iPads with whatever video they had captured and narrated and showed it on the tablet screen. A photojournalist focused on a screen while a meteorologist narrated information from the radar track.

WGAL news team hustles to set up a temporary newsroom in a city building, then starts live streaming coverage of a winter storm that hit the area. (Photo from WGAL used with permission)

Then there was the issue of the Olympics. WGAL is an NBC station and without an operation control room, the station had to scramble to find a way to get the network signal on air. Working with WBAL in Baltimore and WCAU in Philadelphia, the station was able to snag the NBC signal and keep the Olympics on the air.

The station also had the help of it’s parent company, Hearst.

Hearst Vice President for News, Candy Altman, told me, “After Hurricane Katrina, we as a company adjusted our broadcast interruption plans and in the WGAL situation, our corporate engineering team led by Marty Faubell jumped in to try and get them up and running as quickly as possible.  In the meantime, our digital content editor Ernie Mourelo got their livestream up on an alternate platform  via yo space so they were livestreaming news by 6pm and their website was being updated by their own web editor and our digital hub. Many stations were either getting ready or were immediately on the way. Our sales and traffic teams worked to adjust logs and our senior management team led by Mike Hayes, legal and programming teams worked with the cable operators.”

Hearst Vice President for News, Barb Maushard added, “The corporate team coordinated  help as we do for any station in an emergency.  We jumped on conference calls to figure out how to best address the unique challenges of the situation.  And then we started calling in stations like WBAL who sent engineers and equipment immediately.  WTAE who took in a satellite signal and routed  it for live streaming so the news could go on. We had five other stations preparing to send people with equipment to help support a remote location and several others volunteering to help.   There is never a shortage of people willing to help and quick to respond to the call.

O’Donnell says he’s already learned a lot of lessons. “What we did was employ our breaking news plan. I have never practiced the what-if-the-roof-collapses drill. The first thing that happened is there is a sense of disbelief that news is happening to you. For a few moments, it was hard to get people going. There was a moment of ‘we really are abandoning ship, we gotta go. We gotta go now.”‘

Cranes arrive Saturday to help inspectors survey damage at WGAL TV in Lancaster, Pa. (Photo permission WGAL)

Saturday morning, a crane arrived. Crews surveyed the wreckage, went inside and installed a steel beam to reinforce the damaged area. Barely 24 hours after the station was ordered evacuated, it was back on the air Saturday evening after inspectors said WGAL staffers could go back inside.

Inspectors allow the news staff to return to its newsroom in time for a 6 p.m. Saturday newscast. (Photo from WGAL used with permission)

The WGAL experience is a strong reminder to journalists of all media to have a plan for what you would do if you had to leave your office right away.

  • How would you continue reporting to your community? In the end that was Dan O’Donnell’s biggest concern. He said he felt WGAL had a duty to continue reporting on the winter weather and not get bogged down covering itself.
  • What will “corporate” folks need to know and how does your relationship with other stations in your group work when you need support for news and engineering?
  • The sales department will be affected by lost ads. Is there new ad opportunity online with increased content being generated for the online site in the short term?
  • Could you build a partnership with a radio stationto carry your online newscasts? 
  • Where could you go to set up an office that has Internet connections and enough space to work?
  • If you had to evacuate your newsroom in the next hour, what kinds of gear would you take with you? What will you leave behind and how would you quickly protect what you leave from damage?
  • What computer backups do you need to have in place if your on-site servers were damaged by something like a roof collapse, fire or flood? Can you access your online servers from off-site?
  • Do you know how to contact your cable carriers quickly?  Could you use the cable company’s facilities?
  • Is your office inventory up to date if you had to make an insurance claim? Where is that inventory list kept? Do you have serial numbers and the photos you would need to make claims?.
  • What does your company’s business interruption insurance cover? Would it help pay for a relocation?
  • Do you have a “go-pack” ready that includes emergency contact information for staff, enough cash to keep things running?
  • Have you considered any kinds of agreements with competitors, contractors or freelancers that could kick in during an emergency? What facilities might a university have that would house a newspaper, TV or radio staff, for example? Who else in your community might have a fully functional studio or a working environment similar to a newspaper office?
  • Could you contact your main equipment and software providers to help replace anything you lost in a disaster? Could those vendors and suppliers help you with loaned or rented gear during your emergency relocation?
  • Have you practiced a “bug out” to see if you could actually pull it off? A couple of years ago when a tropical storm passed through St. Pete, we “bugged out” of Poynter more or less to practice our response in moving a seminar off-site quickly. I learned a lot and have no doubt I could do it quickly if needed now. I highly recommend routine practice runs and hope you will never have to use the knowledge for real.

Al Tompkins helps lead Poynter’s Producer Project, March 21-April 29. Learn to expand your expertise as a TV producer with new writing, storytelling, coaching and ethical decision-making skills taught online and in person. Read more

Conan O'Brien discusses his life and the art of comedy during a forum at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston, Thursday, May 24, 2012. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)

Conan’s comedy bit hints at serious issues for local TV news

Just before the holidays, late-night comedian Conan O’Brien poked a little fun at local TV newscasts. In doing so, he illustrated some serious issues about the compromises journalists make in understaffed newsrooms.

O’Brien strung together clips of two dozen local news anchors reading an identical story – a consumer report about the supposed trend of holiday “self gifting.” The newscasts were broadcast in different cities – from Boise to Ft. Wayne to Dothan, Ala., but each of the anchors introduced the story with the exact same words: “It’s okay; you can admit it if you bought an item or two or ten for yourself.”

O’Brien has aired similar montages in the past, capturing repetition in local stories about such topics as Cyber Monday shopping, restaurants that serve political-themed food, and the news that actor Mike Myers and his wife were expecting a baby. The compilations are popular fodder for Internet discussions, where viewers attributed the homogeneity to “consumerist propaganda,” “controlled brainwashing,” and “corporations spitting out prefabricated copies of fake news.”

The truth is less conspiratorial. Each story O’Brien featured was supplied by a syndication service that distributes scripts, video clips, and fully-produced news packages to local stations. The self gifting story came from CNN Newsource, which claims 800 affiliates. (CNN is part of Time Warner, which also owns the TBS cable channel that airs “Conan.”)

You’re almost certainly watching syndicated content when your local newscast shows video of national or international stories. Stations also rely on Newsource for sports highlights, business and consumer reports, entertainment news, and stories CNN categorizes as “Caught on Camera,” “Animals,” “Kickers,” and “Easy to Tease.”

“Those services give us the ability to run different content in each show,” said Matthew Weesner, the news director at KHGI in Kearney, Neb., one of the stations O’Brien included in the self gifting montage. “We’re doing six and a half hours of live programming a day, and we’ve got a lot of space to fill with a pretty small newsroom.”

Weesner notes the arrangement with Newsource is not unlike the deals news organizations have maintained for decades with wire services such as the Associated Press. Still, Weesner says he wasn’t happy when he saw the O’Brien routine, which revealed that KHGI’s staff was “ripping and reading” syndicated content, a practice he discourages in his newsroom.

“People are supposed to be at least rewriting the lead sentence, and hopefully the entire lead-in to the package,” Weesner said in a phone interview. “As soon as we saw that happen, we said it was time to reevaluate how we do things so that something like that doesn’t happen again.”

“You hope they’ve done their due diligence”

Used appropriately, video syndicators can greatly enhance newscasts, bringing viewers important stories that are obviously beyond the reach of a local station’s reporters. It was through CNN Newsource, for instance, that WMFD in Mansfield, Ohio, broadcast news of this week’s Russian bombings and the website of KRDO in Colorado Springs had access to a report on the South Sudanese violence.

But the self gifting story — which can be seen in its entirety here and here — exhibits some of the pitfalls of syndicated content. Even if viewers don’t detect the canned intro, they might notice that the rest of the story has a generic feel, featuring non-descript video of an unnamed mall and, in some versions, interviews with unnamed shoppers.

Some stations also edited key facts out of the story or presented it in ways that overhyped its premise. The original CNN report was largely based on a survey from the National Retail Federation, which annually asks people “if they plan to take advantage of sales or price discounts during the holiday season to make additional non-gift purchases.” The survey concluded that self gifting has increased over the past decade, but consumers planned to slightly cut back on the practice this year.

KTNV in Las Vegas missed that subtlety when it called self gifting “a trend that’s exploded.” Meanwhile, KGUN in Tucson aired the story without attributing the data to the National Retail Federation or mentioning any source for the statistics at all. That’s not a small omission, as retailers have a vested interest in promoting self gifting to help drive holiday sales.

It’s likely that a local journalist, given time to report the story in his or her own community, could have produced a more informed, more original, and certainly more local examination of consumers’ holiday spending. But many newsrooms don’t have enough reporters to assign one to that story.

Perhaps more troublesome, they also may lack the resources to scrutinize or fact-check syndicated stories before they broadcast them verbatim.

“That’s a concern,” said News Content Manager Kevin Wuzzardo at WWAY in Wilmington, N.C., a station that’s appeared in several O’Brien montages. “That’s why you rely on established, credible sources like the Associated Press and the networks and CNN.”

“You hope that they’ve done their due diligence,” Wuzzardo said in a phone interview.

‘Rip and read’ is common, but do viewers care?

A CNN spokeswoman declined to comment directly on O’Brien’s parody, but noted in an emailed statement that ABC, NBC, CBS, and Fox provide similar news content for their local affiliates.

Indeed, the use of national feeds has increased as stations expand the number of hours they devote to local news while paradoxically cutting news staff and budgets.

“This is a sad state of affairs, but the TV equivalent of ‘rip-and-read’ content is prevalent in all markets,” said University of Hawaii Communications Professor Ann Auman, who used to work as a newspaper and television journalist. “Many of these stations are now owned by national corporate owners who have little interest in investing in news reporting in the local market.”

In an email, Auman noted that overreliance on syndicated stories results in local newscasts that are homogenized and lack local content and diverse voices. That not only makes the newscasts fodder for O’Brien’s recurring comedy routines, but also helps fuel viewer cynicism. And it encourages the Internet memes that cast TV news as a cog in a coordinated propaganda campaign.

“It doesn’t make us look very good,” said Weesner, the news director in Kearney, Neb. “To the average viewer who doesn’t fully understand how a newsroom works, that can be a problem.”

Related: Why local newscasters said ‘Yeah, baby’ about Mike Myers news Read more


Chicago TV station admits mistakes in airing misleading interview with 4-year-old boy

A Chicago TV station now says it made two ethical mistakes when it aired an interview with a 4-year-old boy last month.

The first mistake was interviewing a child at a crime scene. But things grew even worse when the station edited the boy’s interview in a way that made it seem as though the African American child idolized guns and criminals.

In fact, the child told the photographer that he wanted to be a police officer. The station edited out that part of the interview.

This 4-year-old boy was interviewed on-camera by WBBM as part of a story about teen shootings.

A story published last week on the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education’s website first raised questions about the interview. Dori J. Maynard, president of the Institute, said, “We have long been worried about the ways in which the media helps perpetuate negative stereotypes of boys and men of color, but this appears to be overtly criminalizing a preschooler.”

On Thursday, WBBM Vice President and News Director Jeff Kiernan told me via e-mail, “The airing of the 4-year-old’s soundbite was a mistake, and the writing and the editing of the soundbite was a mistake.” He added, “WBBM-TV takes responsibility for the story. It was wrong to air the story in the first place.”

The video, which Kiernan says was supplied by a stringer, included this exchange:

4-year-old boy: “I’m not scared of nothing.”

Photographer: “When you get older are you going to stay away from all these guns?”

Boy: “No.”

Photographer: “No? What are you going to do when you get older?”

Boy: “I’m going to have me a gun!”

In describing the story on the 4:30 a.m. news, WBBM anchor Steve Bartelstein called the boy’s reaction “disturbing.” After the clip aired, he commented, “That was scary indeed.” Co-anchor Susan Carlson responded, “Hearing that little boy there, wow!”

The boy’s comments begin 38 seconds into the video:

Another video of the interview tells a different story. and The Maynard Institute got an email from a source who identified himself only as The Chicago News Watchdog that included another portion of the interview with the child.

That version makes it clear that the interview with the child was taken out of context. Here’s the complete exchange, with the deleted portion in bold:

Photographer: “Boy, you ain’t scared of nothing! Damn! When you get older are you going to stay away from all these guns?”

Boy: “No.”

Photographer: “No? What are you going to do when you get older?”

Boy: “I’m going to have me a gun!”

Photographer: “You are! Why do you want to do that?”

Boy: “I’m going to be the police!”

Photographer: “OK, then you can have one.”

(We have not posted the video online due to ethical and legal considerations.)

Bob Butler, a vice president of the National Association of Black Journalists, wrote the Maynard article and a follow-up. He said the video was met with scorn at the NAACP national convention in Los Angeles this week.

The Maynard Institute report quotes a WBBM spokeswoman as saying the station took unspecified “corrective steps” against the people who were responsible for editing and writing the story.

WBBM’s Kiernan told me that the station considered issuing an on-air statement about the video. However, “we did not want to further compound our mistake by focusing on the child who shouldn’t have been on the air in the first place.”

“Anytime a child is involved in a news story,” he continued, “it is to be dealt with sensitively and responsibly and certainly with the permission of a guardian.”

Guidelines for interviewing juveniles

I wrote some guidelines on interviewing juveniles for the Radio-Television-Digital News Foundation Journalism Ethics project on interviewing juveniles, which we’re republishing in their entirety below.

There are circumstances where hearing the views of young people can prove valuable in our understanding of how they see the world around them. Adults need not be the only ones who express worthy views of news events. It is the method journalists use to collect the views of young people that raise the most challenging ethical questions.

Journalists should exercise special care when interviewing juveniles. Especially in breaking news situations, juveniles may not be able to recognize the ramifications to themselves or to others of what they say. Journalists should be especially careful in interviewing juveniles live, because such live coverage is more difficult to control and edit. Juveniles should be given greater privacy protection than adults.

The journalist must weigh the journalistic duty of seeking truths and reporting them as fully as possible against the need to minimize any harm that might come to a juvenile in the collection of information.

When interviewing juveniles, journalists should consider:

Journalistic Purpose and Quality of Information

  • What is my journalistic purpose in interviewing this juvenile?
  • In what light will this person be shown? What is their understanding or ability to understand how viewers or listeners might perceive the interview? How mature is this juvenile? How aware is he/she of the ramifications of his/her comments?
  • What motivations does the juvenile have in cooperating with this interview?
  • How do you know what this young person says is true? How much of what this young person says does he/she know first-hand? How able are they to put what they know into context? Do others, adults, know the same information? How can you corroborate the juvenile’s information?
  • How clearly have you identified yourself to the juvenile? Do they know they are talking to a reporter?

Minimize Harm

  • What harm can you cause by asking questions or taking pictures of the juvenile even if the journalist never includes the interview or pictures in a story?
  • How would you react if you were the parent of this child? What would your concerns be and how would you want to be included in the decision about whether the child is included in a news story?
  • How can you include a parent or guardian in the decision to interview a juvenile? What effort has the journalist made to secure parental permission for the child to be included in a news story? Is it possible to have the parent/guardian present during the course of the interview? What are the parents’ motivations for allowing the child to be interviewed? Are there legal issues you should consider, such as the legal age of consent in your state?
  • If you conclude that parental consent is not required, at least give the child your business card so the parents can contact you if they have an objection to the interview being used.

Explore Alternatives

  • What alternatives can you use instead of interviewing a child on camera?
  • What are the potential short-term and long-term and consequences of this person’s comments?
  • What rules or guidelines does my news organization have about interviewing juveniles? Do those guidelines change if the juvenile is a suspect in a crime and not a victim? What protocols should your newsroom consider for live coverage that could involve juveniles?
  • How would you justify your decision to include this juvenile in your story to your newsroom and to viewers or listeners, to the juvenile’s parents?

The Golden Rule for Interviewing Children: Do unto other people’s kids as you would have them do unto your kids. Read more


8 essential skills for anchors (& any journalist) covering breaking news

Anchors and reporters scrambled in response to alerts that President Barack Obama would be making a major news announcement Sunday night. As Brian Stelter of The New York Times wrote:

“According to Brian Williams, the ‘NBC Nightly News’ anchor, some journalists received a three-word email that simply read, ‘Get to work.’ ”

We know what happened next: coverage of the historic news about the death of Osama bin Laden. Media critic Jon Friedman watched the broadcast coverage and liked what he saw:

“Commentators were careful to keep intact their professional objectivity and not share openly in America’s sense of victory and jubilation over a deeply hated foe. Anchors on the networks tried hard to remain newsy and not give in to their emotions.”

He named names and networks, with specifics on what they said and did well. It brought to mind the same recognition of quality live coverage during Sunday’s precipitating event, the tragedy of Sept. 11.

When broadcast journalists get to work on breaking news, it’s a moment that always separates the mere readers from the true leaders. The best news anchors and “live” reporters make their work look easy, but it isn’t. Beyond voice, looks or delivery, the best possess what I call “skills without script.”

They communicate with command, comfort and clarity, even — or especially — when a story is developing so rapidly that formats and scripts are useless.

“Skills without script” are built on mental agility, critical thinking and continuous learning.

Here are eight essential “skills without script” that I teach to journalists.

1. Knowledge base: An understanding of issues, names, geography, history and the ability to put all of these in perspective for viewers. It comes from the journalist’s commitment to being a student of the news.

2. Ability to process new information: Sorting, organizing, prioritizing and retaining massive amounts of incoming data.

3. Ethical compass: Sensitivity to ethical land mines that often litter the field of live breaking news — unconfirmed information, graphic video, words that potentially panic, endanger public safety or security or words that add pain to already traumatized victims and those who care about them.

4. Command of the language: Dead-on grammar, syntax, pronunciation, tone and storytelling — no matter how stressed or tired the anchor or reporter may be.

5. Interviewing finesse: An instinct for what people need and want to know, for what elements are missing from the story, and the ability to draw information by skillful, informed questioning and by listening.

6. Mastery of multitasking: The ability to simultaneously: take in a producer’s instructions via an earpiece while scanning new information from computer messages, texts or Twitter; listen to what other reporters on the team are sharing and interviewees are adding; monitor incoming video — and yes, live-tweet info to people who have come to expect information in multiple formats.

7. Appreciation of all roles: An understanding of the tasks and technology that go into the execution of a broadcast, the ability to roll with changes and glitches, and anticipate all other professionals involved.

8. Acute sense of timing: The ability to condense or expand one’s speech on demand, to sense when a story needs refreshing or recapping, to know without even looking at a clock how many words are needed to fill the minute while awaiting a satellite window, live feed or interviewee.

Whenever viewers have the chance witness the control room of a broadcast facility or observe live at the scene during breaking news events, they are inevitably amazed at the on-air calm that transcends the off-air chaos.

That’s the essence of skills without script and the measure of the best broadcast journalists.

Previously: How to publish credible information online while news is breaking Read more


5 Twitter tips for the TV anchor (or anyone)

KMBC-TV anchor Kris Ketz — who was recently named one of “Local TV’s Top Tweeters” by Broadcasting & Cable magazine — has come up with some effective tips for using Twitter as a TV anchor. I talked with him about his top five:

1. Be consistent

If you’re going to have a Twitter account, you should use it on a daily basis — at least during working hours. Just like your audience members can rely on you to be on the air, they should be able to rely on your tweets for information.

If your account identifies you as a member of your news organization, that makes you a social media representative for not only news content but for your company.

Ketz says it’s important to know what your audience wants and to be consistent in your offerings. “If people are following you then chose to stay with you,” he said, “that’s a good sign you’re on the right path.”

Since the publication of Broadcasting & Cable list, Ketz’s Twitter following has grown to more than 4,000.

Try this: Start a routine. Every morning before KMBC goes on the air, Ketz tweets the station’s top headlines. It’s something his followers can rely on every weekday morning to get the top news in Kansas City.

2. Be available

Your followers should feel as though they can @mention you with a valid question or concern and get a response. Just make sure you stay professional when answering them.

“Never forget you are a journalist first. Being careful with opinions is always a must,” Ketz said. “I always say I would never say anything on Twitter that I wouldn’t say on the air.”

This doesn’t mean you have to check your DMs and @mentions 24/7, but do your best to respond to compliments, complaints and questions on a daily basis.

Try this: If you can, tweet during commercial breaks while you’re on the air. If you’re active during the times you’re most visible, followers may send you tips, pictures and updates on breaking news that you can both retweet and share on the air (with their permission, of course).

3. Add a personal touch

Social networks such as Twitter and Facebook can help your audience understand what goes in to being a TV journalist.

“I’ve always maintained as hard as journalists work to tell other people’s stories, we do a lousy job of telling our own,” Ketz said. “Vehicles like Twitter and Facebook can help fill that gap by offering people a view of … yourself that they won’t see anywhere else.”

Your TV audience already has an idea of who you are based on your work. Twitter offers the opportunity for you to facilitate and expand discussions on these topics. Ketz said his Twitter account reminds him of nationally syndicated sports radio host Jim Rome and his rule for listeners who want to call his show: “Have a take and don’t suck.”

Try this: Start tweeting about a personal hobby or interest. Ketz often tweets about his son’s high school football games.

4. Offer an inside view of the industry

Twitter gives you the ability to tell the stories behind the stories. Adding pictures, short videos or behind-the-scenes observations to your tweets gives your audience exclusive bits they won’t get on the air.

“Twitter or Facebook can help supplement your main coverage in a variety of ways,” Ketz said. “Think of it as another reporter’s notebook and the possibilities are many.”

Try this: During your next major news event, offer up a picture of your work space or a screenshot of a breaking news video. Doing a live shot? Show your followers the truck or introduce your photographer.

5. Don’t waste your audience’s time

It’s tempting to link back to your news organization’s site with every tweet, but followers will start to feel like they’re being spammed. “I always try to choose (retweet) news that I think people would be interested in,” Ketz said. And he does this, even when the information isn’t coming from KMBC.

Even if the tweet doesn’t lead back to your website, users will remember the accounts that give them accurate, useful information quickly and consistently.

Try this: Retweet other news organizations’ tweets from time to time (like @BreakingNews) and give local journalists who aren’t part of your company Follow Friday love from time to time.

Have any other tips? Help start a running list by sharing them in the comments. Read more


Brokaw: ‘There’s Always a Reason to Turn Over a Rock & Find Out What’s Under it

It’s been six years since Tom Brokaw stepped down as anchor of “NBC Nightly News,” but he’s just as committed to journalism as he ever was. 

When I spoke with him by phone last week, he was busy following conservative and liberal blogs to see what they were saying about the elections, which he helped cover Tuesday night as a special correspondent for NBC. He was also in the middle of writing a New York Times op-ed and a new book.

Tonight, Brokaw is visiting The Poynter Institute to help celebrate its 35th anniversary. In advance of his visit, I talked with the journalism legend about the changing role of the news anchor, the need for more one-subject broadcasts, and the reason you won’t find him on Facebook or Twitter.

Changing anchors, philosophies at evening news stations

The anchor position at the three evening newscasts has changed significantly during Brokaw’s years as a journalist. Most noticeably, it’s no longer dominated by men.

“I thought it was inevitable that we would sooner or later have female anchors,” Brokaw said. “The gender line has been crossed in so many areas, and it was crossed some time ago when it came to the news broadcasts.”

The outlook of the evening newscast anchors has also changed. Brokaw said Walter Cronkite, the late “CBS Evening News” anchor, believed that the evening news ought to consist of the “hottest stories of the day” and questioned the need for a mix of stories on topics such as health and science. Over time, though, it became evident that people paid attention to that type of coverage and that the evening newscasts should provide it, Brokaw said.

Reporters’ willingness to use certain words and phrases on air has also changed. Brokaw, who watches all three evening news shows, recalled a time when the “Nightly News” was reporting on the dangers of toxic shock syndrome.

“One of my colleagues said, ‘I’m not going to mention ‘tampons’ on the air.’ I said, ‘Wait a minute …’ Times have changed,” Brokaw said. “These broadcasters are doing an admirable job of getting the right mix in the evenings.”

Breadth of sources, changing consumer habits lead to lower ratings

Whether or not the evening newscasts have been offering the right mix of stories, their ratings have plummeted. Several factors have contributed to this, Brokaw said. First off, there are more blogs and start-up sites to go to for news nowadays, so there’s more competition.

“The other part is that Americans’ social habits have changed,” Brokaw said. “What happened is that we’re a much more mobile society now. Our daily patterns are far more different than they were.” He pointed out, however, that millions of people still turn to the evening newscasts as a trusted source of information. All three newscasts saw total viewer growth in the week leading up to Election Day.

Brokaw said the three major networks are trying to meet their audiences where they are — online and on their smart phones and tablets — and said he expects there will be more synergy between what’s shown on TV and what’s available online moving forward.

Devoting the evening broadcast to one subject

Brokaw said one of his mistakes as an anchor was not advocating for more one-subject broadcasts.

“We did nearly that when we were ramping up to go to war. We said, ‘tonight we’re going to take you through the critical decisions, what we know and what we don’t know,’ ” Brokaw said. “I think there could have been more one-subject broadcasts. And the value that the network news could have brought was, ‘We’re going to give you as much of this subject as we possibly can.’ ”

This could have been especially helpful for viewers when the economy was cratering, Brokaw said. And it would be an effective way for all three of the evening newscasts to dig deeper into the housing crisis — an issue that has “been underreported even though we’ve been covering it for some time.”

The evening newscasts occasionally report on a story several nights in a row. “Nightly News,” for instance, recently launched a series of stories about reinventing America as an “education nation.” It’s rare, though, for them to dedicate an entire show to one topic.

Fascinated by social media, but not convinced it has news value

There’s an @TomBrokaw Twitter account, but it’s not Brokaw’s. Despite the various ways that news organizations are using social media to tell stories, Brokaw said he thinks there’s still a lot we need to figure out about its effectiveness.

“We’re still mid-passage in determining the impact of all this new technology,” said Brokaw, who’s not on Twitter or Facebook. “We’re trying to absorb what it means to our individual lives and how it fits into a pattern that’s useful for us.”

Brokaw, who said he’s developed a growing interest in social media, recently moderated a discussion about it during Stanford University’s roundtable, “Generation Ageless: Longevity and the Boomers.” Facebook’s chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg, talked during the discussion about how the social networking site can enliven boomers’ lives.

Still, Brokaw wasn’t convinced enough to join. “I have too many invasions of my privacy as it is,” he said. “I’m thinking about just signing up so I can share things with my granddaughters a little more, but I worry I’ll read things on their Facebook that will unnerve me.”

As for Twitter? He doesn’t believe it’s taken form yet journalistically. “I don’t get Twitter,” Brokaw said. “I know that it’s very popular and that it’s a quick way of getting a text blast out, so to speak, but an awful lot of it seems to be … just stuff that fills air.”

He pointed to the Mumbai attacks, when Twitter was flooded with news and photos of the chaos. “It alerted the world to what was going on,” Brokaw said, “but was that journalism or was it just a cry for help?”

WikiLeaks information needs to be presented in context

Context is key when reporting on military reports, said Brokaw, who has done extensive coverage of the Iraq war and created a related documentary.

“The difficulty is always when you get a flood of documents dumped on you and you feel like you have to get it on the air,” Brokaw said. “Do you give it enough time and enough meaning for your readers so they understand what’s going on?”

The New York Times, The Guardian and Der Spiegel did a good job reporting on the WikiLeaks documents, Brokaw said, but he wasn’t all that surprised by the findings.

“Most of the stuff about WikiLeaks I think we already knew,” he said. “I don’t think there was any ‘Oh my god’ moment.”

Being first on the scene of a story, writing well

When asked what advice he would give to today’s journalists, Brokaw focused on the importance of good writing and curiosity.

“Journalists: learn to write. Text messaging is not writing,” he said. “Whether you’re writing for a newspaper, online or on the air, get better at writing.”

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Brokaw, who’s written five best-selling books, says curiosity, hard work and contacts led him to a series of career “firsts.” He was the first U.S. anchor to report that the Iraq war had begun, the first American anchor to travel to Tibet to report on human-rights abuses, and the first and only anchor to report from the scene when the Berlin Wall fell.

“The line that I developed is ‘it’s always a mistake not to go.’ You can sit around and debate, ‘Should I leave for this story or not?’ If I went, I always found something happened,” Brokaw said. “There’s always a reason to turn over a rock and find out what’s under it.” Read more


Live Coverage of Philippine Hostage Situation Sparks Criticism, Debate

When journalists in the Philippines heard that a man was holding tourists on a bus hostage on Monday, they were faced with a tough question: Should they broadcast live coverage of the situation?

Many broadcast news outlets decided to go live, giving viewers front-row access to a crisis that led to the death of eight tourists and hostage-taker Rolando Mendoza, a former police officer who was fired last year after being charged with extortion and robbery.

Journalists’ live coverage and involvement in the crisis has sparked discussion about three key issues that Filipinos continue to debate:

  • The disagreement between journalists and the public over how the situation should have been covered
  • The need for greater communication between journalists and the police during hostage situations
  • The differences between how the Philippines and the U.S. have applied ethical guidelines to crisis situations

Why the media coverage sparked criticism

News consumers used Twitter to publicly blame the media for risking the lives of the tourists and for enabling Mendoza, who had access to a TV in the bus, to track how a police assault team was responding. Viewers were especially concerned that live footage of Mendoza’s brother being arrested caused the hostage-taker to become more violent. Shortly after the arrest, shots were fired from inside the bus.

Many tweeted and posted to Facebook a link to an 11-year-old Poynter story in which ethics guru Bob Steele wrote about why journalists shouldn’t provide live coverage of hostage situations. They faulted the media for not following the guidelines and for interviewing Mendoza during the standoff.

One local radio station did a live interview with him. ABS-CBN, one of the Philippines’ major broadcast networks, also interviewed him but aired it later. And at Mendoza’s request, one broadcast journalist showed up to help with the negotiations.

Tony Velasquez, a senior news correspondent for ABS-CBN and an anchor for ANC, its English-language news channel, said the station considered the implications of its decision to broadcast the hostage situation live. He pointed out that the decision would have been easier to make if there had been better communication between police and journalists.

“Most of our colleagues agree that our overriding goal of delivering information justified keeping the live broadcast on air,” Velasquez said via e-mail. “But in retrospect, some have also acknowledged that the authorities could, and should, have put their foot down when the situation was getting critical, and directed that live coverage be cut before any provocative action against the hostage-taker would be taken.”

Maria Ressa, head of ABS-CBN News & Current Affairs and managing director of ANC, talked in an e-mail interview about the uncertainty and chaos surrounding the hostage situation. Police provided little guidance, she said, and they brought family members to the scene and allowed them to speak freely with the media.

“In my view, covering these situations is always a struggle between journalists, whose goal is to tell the story, and authorities, who must resolve the situation,” Ressa said. “Controlling the information is part of resolving that. If authorities are in control, they lay ground rules. It makes journalists’ jobs easier.”

Police, who were widely criticized for botching the rescue attempt, have since admitted that the assault team that tried to rescue the hostages was inadequately trained.

In an effort to help both police and the media, President Benigno Aquino III has assigned government officials to meet with various media groups to set up parameters for covering future hostage situations.

Addressing cultural differences in coverage

Ressa and others from ABS-CBN said that journalistic practices widely accepted in the U.S. are not as relevant halfway across the world.

“Every country has its own tradition of journalism and culture, which can change the way journalists operate,” Ressa said.

She was one of the first people to tweet a link to Steele’s guidelines on Monday, but by Tuesday she was defending why journalists acted otherwise. In response to criticism of the media, Ressa tweeted: “In phil, where some officials even turn to journalists to negotiate, the rules are very different. Hostage sitns vary with culture & context.”

This isn’t the first time that the media in the Philippines have provided live coverage of a hostage situation or tried to interview a hostage-taker. During a similar bus-hijacking incident in the Philippines three years ago, most local radio stations interviewed the hostage-taker live from the scene, Ressa said.

ANC’s “Media in Focus” cable TV program addressed the differences in how the American and Filipino media cover hostage situations. The program tweeted highlights from a “Media in Focus” interview between Ressa and Vergel Santos of the Philippine Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility. One tweet read: “Ressa: In this country, have journalists ever NOT interviewed a hostage-taker? Vergel Santos: It’s the least you could do.”

Jojo Malig, a copy editor/writer for ABS-CBN, talked to me via e-mail about the differences in coverage.

“Reporting live from hostage scenes is standard in the Philippine media setting,” Malig said. “Viewers/listeners/readers expect media interviews with hostage-takers, kidnappers, and terrorist-groups. You cannot say that the way the coverage was handled was wrong, because it was expected to be that way.”

But was it?

Many in the Philippines, Ressa explained, have expectations of the media that may differ from those in other nations. And they rely on the media differently.

“People do expect live coverage, and we’re criticized if we don’t give it,” Ressa said. “We have weak institutions and endemic corruption, and focus group discussions show media is one of the few institutions Filipinos trust. When they have problems, they run to us. Part of the reason is because when we deploy news teams to disaster areas, we automatically deploy a public service team as well.”

Reassessing the decision to go live

Though the hostage crisis has ended, the conversation about how it was covered has in many ways just begun. Journalists and news consumers are now assessing the media’s coverage and how it could have been handled differently.

Paul Pajo, a lecturer for applied mathematics at De La Salle — College of Saint Benilde, created a survey for anyone interested in the media coverage. Pajo said in an e-mail interview that he’s hoping to use the survey results (which he is still collecting) to gauge how media coverage aligned with Steele’s guidelines.

At ABS-CBN, Ressa has been having ongoing conversations with her colleagues about other ways the station — and the media in general — could have approached the story.

There are alternatives to live coverage, Poynter’s Steele told me in a phone interview. Echoing much of the advice he offered more than a decade ago, Steele pointed out that journalists could have reported from the scene but not gone live. By not airing live footage of crisis situations, he said, journalists can omit details that could potentially harm the individuals involved.

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He suggested that journalists covering hostage situations ask themselves: What do the viewers need to know, and when do they need to know it?

“Clearly, people needed to know a lot about this very volatile situation in the streets of Manila, and they needed to know it quickly,” Steele said. “But did they need to know it instantaneously? That would be hard to justify.” Read more


YouTube Connects San Francisco TV Station with Citizen Journalists

There’s a brand new videographer at KGO-TV in San Francisco: you.

As part of its ongoing “uReport” effort to solicit user-submitted content, the ABC station is now working directly with YouTube and taking advantage of its YouTube Direct technology, which lets news sites request, review and re-broadcast user-generated videos.

The experimental partnership, which launched in late July, is aimed at marrying the editorial acumen of a traditional newsroom with the user-generated immediacy of online video. At the heart of the experiment is a video pipeline with enormous breadth, from viewers to independent local media organizations to YouTube to KGO.

When people visit KGO’s site, they’re presented with a familiar YouTube-style uploading interface. The videos that users submit are added to their own personal YouTube accounts, just as they would be if they uploaded them to The difference is that the videos are also placed in a pipeline for KGO to review.

“YouTube is the platform that is providing the infrastructure,” explained Olivia Ma, YouTube’s News Manager. “And ABC 7 is serving as the editorial arbiter as the content comes in.”

Producers select videos to feature on the station’s newscasts and have several a day to choose from, said Jennifer Mitchell, KGO’s director of Web operations. Recently-featured videos include a piece of public art being assembled along the waterfront, a late-night party at a local museum, and Spanish soccer team Real Madrid leaving a San Francisco hotel.

YouTube has offered its platform to news organizations in the past, but this is the first time the company has worked in direct collaboration with a local outlet.

“We’re definitely seeing this as a starting place for YouTube to get our feet wet in the local news space,” Ma said, “and we’re hoping to learn a lot.”

Local news sites bridge journalist/citizen divide

The collaboration reaches across four types of participants. There’s KGO, the broadcaster; and YouTube, the platform. There are regular folks with video recording devices who just happen to be in the right place at the right time. And there are numerous local independent video organizations that YouTube has involved.

A crucial question, said YouTube’s Ma, was “how can we connect news organizations with the citizen reporters on YouTube who are already practicing newsgathering habits?”

So YouTube brought the Bay Area Video Coalition into the conversation. BAVC is a local media powerhouse, a nonprofit that provides training and technical facilities and recently assumed operation of the city’s public access television facilities.

Wendy Levy, BAVC’s director of creative programming, has facilitated the relationship between YouTube, KGO and citizen journalists. “What we want to do is to be able to create a vibe of community and a high level of technical expertise,” she said.

To that end, BAVC adapted its existing videography and digital media classes to fit KGO’s specifications. To create a greater sense of community, BAVC sought volunteer students from local organizations that already produce video, including The Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, Youth Media Outlook and a local Gannett blog called “The Bold Italic.” So far, more than 100 people have taken part in a class Levy described as “mobile cinematography.”

Muni Diaries, a site that focuses exclusively on the public transit system in San Francisco, is one of the citizen journalism sites that has received training from BAVC and created videos that KGO can use.

Editor Eugenia Chien, who also reports for New America Media and public radio station KALW-FM, said she has encouraged the site’s readers to take BAVC’s training program and has started assigning video stories to those who have completed it. The videos readers create then become part of the pipeline of user-generated, hyperlocal content that KGO can select from.

“Compared to larger ‘mainstream’ news organizations, local websites like Muni Diaries have an audience that is arguably much more engaged in a conversation about local news,” Chien said. “On Muni Diaries in particular, our audience already contributes content regularly.”

Creating a virtual assignment desk

Ma said that by using YouTube Direct, KGO can create its own virtual assignment desk that enables the station to request footage or reactions. The community can then respond to those requests.

In Ma’s experience, that interaction between broadcaster and community has proven crucial. “We’ve seen that with YouTube Direct, partners who invest in the community and make their audiences know that they really want to hear their ideas are going to be really successful,” she said.

KGO currently uses an “Assignment Desk” Twitter account to track down sources. So far, the station hasn’t used YouTube Direct to request footage of breaking news events, and none of the featured video has included interviews or voice-overs. The station has, however, suggested different topics for people to address in the videos they create.

Setting up an incentive for users

Incentives for each of the parties involved is crucial to the success of the experiment. KGO gets free content; YouTube gets users; partner organizations get the prestige of partnering with major companies. But what’s in it for citizens?

“A lot of people still really care about TV,” said Ma. “It’s still the easiest and fastest way to get your message out to a lot of people all at once. … The idea is that you can help decide which stories get covered, and how the media is portraying your neighborhood.”

Levy said she hopes that merging old and new media will have a democratizing effect, allowing mass media to represent a more diverse audience. “A lot of times traditional broadcast news is whitewashed, and unique perspectives are marginalized,” she said. “I just don’t think that plays anymore.”

News consumers’ habits have no doubt changed in recent years. Online, many users want to participate in the shaping of local stories. This focus on hyperlocal content is of particular interest to YouTube.

“YouTube is a global site, but we’ve found through some user behavior on the site that there’s a strong interest in local content,” said Ma. “We feel that there’s a lot of opportunity in the local space. We’re hoping to learn as much as we can to understand what types of footage people submit when they’re asked to document news and events around them, and ideally we’ll be able to take this model and see if we can get other broadcasters to want to do that same thing.”

After just a few weeks, the program has already had an impact on the content users submit.

“Before we partnered with YouTube, we were getting mostly breaking news videos and photos, which was great,” said Mitchell. “But what we’re getting now is more just a scene from your community. A day in the life of where a person lives. … We’re calling them ‘Bay Area Scenes.’ “

Although Mitchell acknowledged that it’s still too early to draw any conclusions, she said she is optimistic that the experiment will prove valuable: “At the end of it, if we come out knowing what worked, that’s a great learning experience.”
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Learn to Tell Better Stories with Al’s New Video Tutorials

News directors, teachers, reporters, videographers and producers have been asking for this for years. I finally have produced a series of short videos that I believe will help you write better stories for broadcast, whether they are viewed over the air or online.

It is tempting to think of this as a “TV thing,” but I am convinced it will be just as useful for print and online folks who now find themselves producing video stories. It has other applications, too — a minister friend of mine who watched the “finding focus” video said he was going to tell his fellow ministers to watch it.

Here’s how the tutorials work: Click one of the links below. You will be directed to NewsU, Poynter’s e-learning site. You can watch a free preview of each lesson (about three minutes or so). If you like what you see, download the paid, full version of each tutorial, which runs less than 15 minutes.

Al’s Morning Meeting readers get the individual pieces for half price ($4.95) as a way to say thanks for sticking with me all these years. (The regular rate is $9.95 per tutorial.) To get the discount, enter the promo code PPVTALT10.

Or you can get all three tutorials packaged together for $14.85: Telling Memorable Video Stories: A Poynter Tutorial Series. (You don’t need a promo code for the package.)

Here’s what you’ll learn in each tutorial:

Find Focus for Your Video Stories: The three-word guideline that will give your stories laser-beam focus.

  • How to ask the question that identifies what your story is about
  • How to use a three-word guideline to keep your story on track
  • How to select key information to tell the story

Five Motivators to Engage Viewers: Surefire themes to connect your audience with your story.

  • Five main reasons that people watch and read stories
  • How to use these motivators to make your story pop
  • How to avoid overused themes that can water down your work

Start Your Video Story with a Strong Open: Tools to hook your audience with your opening words.

  • How to use conflict and surprise to write a strong story open
  • How to transform worn-out leads into openings that connect with your audience
  • The essential elements for effective leads

I can’t wait to hear what you think of these. What other topics do you want me to cover? Drop me a note at Read more


Nashville TV Stations Say Collaboration, Social Media Were Key When Covering Floods

One week ago, Nashville, Tenn., found itself in crisis. Three months worth of rain fell in 24 hours. Rivers flooded interstates, neighborhoods and landmarks. Experts say the storm caused more than $1.5 billion in damage.

But Nashville has suffered through this one largely by itself. There was no looting, the storm had no name, nobody forecast such a catastrophic event and the networks didn’t send their anchors to stand in the water and talk. Maybe it was just bad timing with a suspicious package in Times Square and an oil slick moving toward shore.

Nashville-area media have been remarkable. TV and radio stations stayed on air with marathon coverage, hour upon hour of raw information, video and photos as the story unfolded. Newspapers and TV stations have made expansive use of websites and social media to help the public understand what was unfolding. 

That became vitally important as big sections of the viewing area lost power and relied on smart phones to deliver video, photos and basic information about the rising water.

WTVF-TV’s newsroom flooded and the station had to quickly move operations to another floor while broadcasting live. WSMV-TV quickly organized a telethon featuring big name country music stars, and WKRN-TV ran a 16-hour stretch of uninterrupted coverage.

WZTV, the Fox station in town, struggled a great deal to keep serving viewers. The staff was only allowed in the station for short periods of time during the floods because the station is located in Metro Center, which is surrounded on two sides by the Cumberland River. The station used Facebook extensively to try to keep the information flowing.

I talked to my old friend Neysa Ellery, the assignment manager at WTVF, about the lessons she learned, or re-learned, in this disaster.  You can read her full list of tips here.

I also e-mailed Sandy Boonstra, Matthew Hilk and Matthew Zelkind (news directors at WTVF, WSMV and WKRN respectively) and asked them to look back on the last week to tell us what it has been like and what they have learned. You can read their edited responses below.

Al Tompkins: What has surprised you most about this disaster?

Matthew Hilk: I have been surprised at how long our newsroom can sustain wall-to-wall coverage — and how much easier wall-to-wall coverage is to execute, as opposed to sporadic cut-ins and newscasts. The flow of information remains constant and monitored when you stay on the air and live online. Our viewers seemed to appreciate that.


Matthew Zelkind: People helped people. I am so proud to be part of a community that has been so selfless. They are helping people they don’t know. The donations of time and money and food and raw work have been remarkable. One of our photojournalists, Alan Devine, had a fire in his house, which is in bad shape, and he still brought his videotape from the story he was working on that day. He walked into the newsroom covered in soot.

Most of us know somebody who lost their house or had severe damage to their house. It is hard when you see something so horrible. One of our crews came upon a body Sunday. It is so overwhelming the magnitude of what is happening here; people do not realize it.

Sandy Boonstra: I was surprised by how quickly the emergency response teams were able to get things cleaned up. On Saturday I-24 was a lake, cars and small buildings were floating down the interstate, people were drowning in their cars. I thought it would be days before that road would be reopened because of the debris, but it was opened the next day. Of course, the rain wasn’t through and the flooding became worse every day.
What has your newsroom had to learn from this disaster?

Boonstra: We lost our entire newsroom, so we were dealing with that and with people who were personally affected by the floods. And then, of course, we were faced with covering one of the biggest stories that has hit Middle Tennessee. So we had to learn how to separate our own crisis from the one we were covering. Editing out of closets, reporters writing in the hall, oh and no bathrooms! Our team came together and we kept going through the chaos. The biggest struggle was not getting overwhelmed by it all.  

Zelkind: You see things and you almost can’t believe. The stadium where the Titans play has 6-feet of water. Another stunning moment for me was the evacuation of the Opryland Hotel.

Katrina dumped 10 inches of rain on New Orleans. Nashville got 18 inches of rain. They were rescuing pregnant women from the interstate. One man clung to a telephone pole but nobody could reach him.  The next day, one of our crews came across his body.

We could not use microwave for live shots because of rain fade interfering with the shot. We used UStream, which uses wireless phone cards to send video back to the station.

Hilk: Our newsroom has a well-defined breaking news/disaster plan for coverage. We parse out duties very specifically to help navigate the chaos. However, there are two duties on the roster that I will assign next time:

1. One person from among the newsroom decision makers needs to periodically survey the outside world. A couple of game-changing perspectives for me came when I left the building on day three and saw so many people starting to get back to normal, and when I delivered some food to crews on day five, when I saw just how many homes — even in the “minor” flooding areas — had lost everything inside.

2. One person needs to be the honcho of all human needs. We have all tried very hard to do our best to enable some survival basics — food, rest, time to check on the family.

In the future, we should designate one person just to look out for our people and their human needs independent of news needs.
Looking back, what do you wish you knew a week ago that you know now?

Boonstra: I wish someone would have told me we would lose our entire newsroom. Actually, maybe I wouldn’t have wanted to know in advance.

Zelkind: I don’t know if you can ever prepare for something like this until you have lived it. The toll on your staff is incomprehensible. They call it the “train effect”; you see it come, you watch your city flood, you watch your neighborhood flood, you see people trapped and being rescued and you are sitting there in awe of the magnitude of what you are witnessing. 

We have had to learn the new ways our community can flood. It has never seen anything like this before and we had to learn it live, on the air with our viewer’s help.

How have you used new technology(s) to cover this story?

Zelkind: Besides UStream, which has been a great technology for us, we have had significant amounts of “citizen journalism” to help us. You can’t be everywhere. You start using first-hand accounts from people. People sent us video and pictures. 

Last Monday we provided 16 hours of constant coverage. We used e-mail as the main mechanism for people to send us video and pictures. We also used YouTube video and phoners, and people would call in and tell us the stories behind the video, like people saying “Hey, I am watching that video and I know the owner of that house. … They had one payment left on the house.”

For hours we took calls and ran video. It was amazing. I had people live on my air offering places to live and offering their cell phone numbers live on the air. It was basic communication and it brought out the best in people.

Boonstra: During the first days of the flooding we were not able to do traditional live shots because of the storms. Instead we used a lot of Ustream video from our photographers. It really added to the coverage and made it possible to get the video on more quickly.

Hilk: Early on, the flooding was fueled by severe thunderstorms, which restricted liveshots. Our lifelines to sustain wall-to-wall coverage were webcams, UStream reports and video reports fed via reporters’ Blackberries.
How important has Web coverage been to your storytelling process?

Hilk: Web coverage has been critical. During the worst day of the flooding, recorded 8.5 million page views, an all-time record, and a massive number in its own right.

Boonstra: The Web was a critical part of our coverage. The continuous breaking news e-mails really helped to get the word out to people who had no electricity and could not get updates on television.  Also, the thousands of viewer-generated pictures and video helped us tell the story of what was happening.

Zelkind: Web was vital. People could access stuff through their phones but did not have electricity to watch us on the air. Last weekend there was horrifying rain, flooding and survival. Then it broke down to disbelief and people comprehending what had transpired. The third phase is recovery, but for two days people were often just cut off. 

How have you used social networks to help tell the story?

Boonstra: All our stories were on Facebook and we also sent out tweets. Our reporters updated Facebook pages with photos and updates throughout our coverage.

Hilk: Our Web staff translated much of our online content onto Facebook, but to be candid, days of wall-to-wall coverage really left us in a position where our social media coverage could have been better in this case.

Zelkind: Twitter was huge. We did a ton of it. We got first-hand accounts and we were able to answer people’s questions and sooth fears. We took a ton of questions and put them on TV. Part of what surprised me was how much just talking and providing basic information reassured people.

Why do you think this story has gotten so little national attention?

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Hilk: National media coverage of a weather disaster tends to be quick when it follows the stereotype of a local area — hurricane coverage in Florida, snow coverage in New England, etc. It tends to be slower when the story involves unusual weather for an area. Nashville doesn’t have a reputation for floods. This is not unlike the other flooding calamity I was involved in covering — the 2004 floods in Pittsburgh. In that case, 12,000 homes and businesses were damaged or destroyed, but national media were very slow to notice.

Boonstra: I do think that the oil spill and the Times Square-attempted bombing took the national spotlight. But, with all the deaths that have occurred and the mass destruction, I am surprised the networks did not all send a correspondent to Nashville.
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