The lessons of breaking news coverage can make your newsroom better every day
Ask the staff of almost any newsroom when they are at their best, and you’ll usually hear:
When news is breaking.
Because everyone comes together, they'll say. Ideas come from everywhere and everyone. We try things. And for once, we’re certain that we’re working on coverage that our community needs.
So here’s my question:
If they know these ingredients contribute to their best work, why can’t they adopt them all the time?
What lessons can they take from their coverage of breaking news that they can apply to their everyday coverage? How can they collaborate more, create a more involved and inclusive atmosphere, take more risks and produce coverage that more often connects with their community?
For answers, I turned to editors and news directors whose newsrooms have been involved in some of the country’s most important breaking news coverage. They covered the protests in Ferguson and the Orlando massacre, the death of Freddie Gray and the Oklahoma City bombing. They told me how their staffs covered those stories as they broke, and they shared how they managed the continuing coverage over weeks and months, even years.
Hearing their experiences, it struck me that while the news events themselves were extraordinarily compelling, their coverage was elevated by discreet management strategies — and that those strategies could be applied in the newsroom every day.
Here are some of the lessons I gleaned from what managers told me:
Just go talk with people. Kirsten Wolff, news director at WESH in Orlando, recalled the massacre at the Pulse nightclub:
"When the usual breaking news hits, it’s easy for us to cover because we are reacting to something we’ve all, sadly, seen before.
But we had never seen this before.
The sheer scope of the loss of life. The hatred and cold-blooded calculation of it all. The many different communities directly impacted by the violence. To cover it appropriately meant getting away from our basic breaking news playbook.
We had to find new voices to represent groups that often go unrepresented in our coverage and our communities. We relied heavily on our crews to find those voices, to get them to talk to us, and, once they did — to tell their stories honestly and completely… We truly did not set the agenda. We listened and then made many of our coverage decisions… It ensured our tone and tenor were true to the community and true to those who lived — and died — in this attack."
Watch or read any news report these days and you’ll see what happens when journalists under great pressure to produce turn to the same reliable (and predictable) sources over and over again. We hear some of our community’s voices a lot; we rarely — or never — hear others. To be sure, the Pulse massacre brought particular attention to unrepresented voices that needed to be heard — but that need exists every day.
So if our ongoing objective is to produce coverage that truly reflects the community, why not throw out the old playbook, the one with all of those tried, true and willing-to-take-your-call sources, go out and just talk with people — especially people who “go unrepresented” in your coverage?
Who knows what you'll learn?
If the work is really important, assign staff to it full-time. It’s been almost two years since the newsroom of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch began covering events in Ferguson following the death of Michael Brown. Editor-in-Chief Gilbert Bailon recalled one tactic he used to cover the story over a prolonged period:
"As time extends, you need to ensure that you have a core of editors and reporters who are dedicated to that ongoing story. They need to be detached from other duties to allow the time needed for in-depth reporting, open records requests, source building in the field, travel if needed and database inquiries. That said, constricting newsroom resources make doing that harder as staffers must work 24/7 to keep the website and print editions alive. At smaller or mid-sized newsrooms, that challenge heightens. But a core team needs to cut loose from other coverage while the story evolves."
Bailon gets why it’s so hard to cut staffers loose from their other responsibilities in order to focus on a major story. He and his newsroom have lived the dual challenge of doing more with less. But he also has experienced, as most news managers have, the frustration of seeing staff with a host of competing responsibilities fail to bring their best work to any of them.
So maybe the Ferguson coverage is so important, this decision seems obvious. But could we apply the same approach more often? Could we, on a more regular basis, identify our most important work and assign full-time staff to work on it?
The answer is yes, you can. As manager, you can devote your resources to whatever you choose. The question is not could you, but would you? That will require some tough choices. But let me ask you: Would your community benefit more from one memorable piece of work than several forgettable ones?
Use a shared goal to involve as many members of the staff as possible. Call it collaboration on steroids. Newsrooms thrust into coverage of big breaking news seem to organically discover its magic.
Lisa Cianci oversees local news coverage for the Orlando Sentinel. She recalled how her staff responded to the nightclub massacre:
"The newsroom quickly came together in such a selfless, thoughtful way. People in departments who didn’t know each other or rarely interacted were out there, side by side, getting the stories… The week after the shooting I invited everyone in the newsroom to come to a brainstorming session to talk about long-term shooting ideas. So many people showed up — again, people you wouldn’t necessarily expect to see. And they didn’t just come to listen. Lots of great ideas were tossed around, and we are working on several of those now."
Cianci also shared a detail that got me thinking about why collaboration seems to happen so naturally during breaking news:
"One of our goals was to write obituaries for every person who died and to get them online as quickly as possible. That was a newsroom effort, and people from all corners – sports reporters, folks in the library — helped accomplish that."
What brought “people from all corners” together around that obituaries goal?
It was shared.
Everyone knew the goal and saw how they could contribute to its achievement. Indeed, the sheer challenge of covering such a tragic story offered the newsroom a shared goal — and people put aside their routine interests and got behind it.
If your newsroom, strapped as it is for resources, would benefit from greater collaboration “from all corners,” maybe you need to do more than simply issue a general invitation to contribute ideas.
Start by offering the staff a clear, well-developed vision — one they can visualize and share — and then spell out (with their help) how each one of them can contribute to its achievement.
Stretch your ambitions. Trif Alatzas, publisher and editor in chief at The Baltimore Sun, talked about how his newsroom responded to the unrest that followed the death of Freddie Gray:
"One of our proudest moments… was the day the city released 7,000 emails involving communications during the riots that we requested through the Maryland Public Information Act. The city released the emails to all the media at once and our staff jumped on the story to provide many updated online reports as well as a rich package for print the following day. The coverage highlighted various things in the email documents that provided new information. It was a remarkable effort of teamwork and our readers received information that was unmatched."
Counting the heads in your newsroom, it can be tempting to respond to the release of 7,000 emails or thousands of campaign finance records or days of trial transcripts with reined-in ambitions.
But just as the release of 7,000 emails offered the Sun newsroom a choice between ordinary and extraordinary coverage, scores of other news developments offer your newsroom that same choice, week in and week out.
I recall learning, shortly after I arrived at The Philadelphia Inquirer in 1982 and became South Jersey editor, that school board elections were about to occur. I surely let out a gasp when I was told our three primary coverage counties were home to over 100 of those boards — all of which had taxing authority. How many results, I asked, do we gather on election night?
About 15, I was told. Why, I asked, don’t we do them all? The answer was one of limited infrastructure; we weren’t resourced to gather — or publish — live results from over 100 school boards.
Well, within two years, we got them all.
Accomplishing that didn’t take remarkable reporting or editing skills; it simply required us to build a network of stringers and contacts who could gather the results quickly and phone them in. The biggest requirement was ambition.
The great thing about ambition is that every time you successfully stretch yourself, your belief in yourself and your staff grows. Before you know it, you are attempting and achieving more than you once thought possible.
When your staff is focused on today’s coverage, you think ahead. Every veteran of breaking news coverage knows that with each passing day, maintaining a high level of coverage gets more challenging. Fatigue sets in. Bureaucracies clam up. Explaining the “why” is more difficult than reporting the “what.”
Cianci recalled that period in the Pulse coverage at the Sentinel:
"So how do we keep the momentum going on this story? For one thing, my 'asks' to management happened really quickly, before other fiscal issues could come up. The sports and entertainment editor, Roger Simmons, suggested we commission a poll to gauge residents’ feelings about gays, Muslims, gun rights, etc., in the wake of the Pulse shooting. We did that pretty quickly. And we are going to do the same poll six months from now to see how those feelings have changed. The polls are not inexpensive, but Avido Khahaifa, our editor, did not hesitate to say yes."
At WESH, Kirsten Wolff also was thinking ahead:
"Putting in FOIA requests is helpful because you know in a story of this magnitude you’re not going to get them overnight. Reports have been starting to come in. As they do, we cover them. The bulk of what we want has not been made public yet. The key here was to take a few minutes shortly after the shootings and put in the FOIA requests. That way it was fresh in our minds about what happened, which agencies were key, and how the investigation was going. You still need to stay on the agencies to ensure they haven’t let the ball drop. We do that every week or so. Just check in and ask where they are on our request."
Especially at a time when the public can find out what happened from almost anyone, producing distinctive coverage requires news managers to keep their heads up. Look ahead a week, a month, even a year and make coverage decisions that will position the newsroom well at those points. If the issue involves public policy, ask what conversation your community should be equipped to have in six months. What coverage could you produce that would enable that conversation to take place?
Anyone can cover what’s happening today in plain sight. What will you cover tomorrow that no one else is anticipating?
Take care of people. Joyce Reed is vice president of content for Griffin Communications. She was recalling her newsroom’s coverage of the bombing at the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in April 1995, and the toll that coverage took on her staff.
"Keeping the story alive and maintaining energy was not a great problem in the aftermath of the Murrah bombing — perhaps because of the arrests, trials, and ultimately (Timothy) McVeigh’s execution. The core group of journalists who covered the bombing felt a very personal sense of loss and, I think, had a great desire to 'see the story through to its end' — thus, they remained motivated through the almost two years or more of coverage. I think after that period of time, several seasoned journalists lost some passion for the business — and, ultimately, left the business. They would confide that they just didn’t have the desire to tell stories of lesser magnitude anymore and the emotional drain finally took its toll."
The Sun’s Alatzas watched his staff display that same dedication:
"Our biggest challenge was making sure people took time to recharge. The staff remains so committed to the work and for telling the stories correctly that they always wanted to make one more phone call, track down one more source or uncover one more nugget of information."
And in Orlando, Wolff also took steps to address the staff’s mental and physical fatigue:
"As for energy — that was key for me given the scope of this tragedy. Our management team worked hard to ensure our people got the support they needed. From food, to counseling, to rest — even therapy puppies and a day of massages. We made sure our people were taken care of and had our support. I also asked our company for help — producers, crews, digital support. Having some fresh people come in for a few days here and there was incredibly helpful. I’m lucky enough to work for a company that knows how to handle big stories and support the newsrooms."
News organizations have come to expect that working around the clock to cover a major news event — especially one that involves so much death and suffering — will take a serious physical and emotional toll on the staff. Managers respond, as Wolff said, by making sure “our people were taken care of.”
Increasingly, I think newsroom managers need to make sure of that all the time.
More and more, as I visit newsrooms and ask journalists and their managers how everyone is doing, I get the same answer:
It’s easy to understand why. When you combine the relentless pace of change, the uncertainty surrounding the future and the demands of doing more with less with the inherent difficulty of news gathering, fatigue is to be expected. It’s not just physical fatigue. It’s emotional as well.
And remember, journalists don't only live professional lives. All of you are dealing with stresses outside work, too. Those stresses can be even more significant. It all contributes to the fatigue.
Keeping a staff fresh during big breaking news is important. But keeping a staff fresh throughout the year is equally important if you desire a highly motivated, energized, committed work force.
Massage days once a month? Why not?
Encourage relationships to form. I asked editors whether their newsrooms experienced any lingering effects of their major coverage effort. Griffin Communications’ Reed pointed to this one:
"Especially the Murrah bombing story strengthened newsroom relationships. While we provided counselors, many staff members preferred solace from their newsroom friends. They experienced the horrific story together and helped one another persevere."
Another seemingly obvious lesson: Shared experiences, especially those involving something important, bring members of the staff closer.
The benefits to the newsroom of such relationships are clear. Collaboration occurs more naturally. Familiarity with your colleagues' work and challenges enables you to offer ideas. In a very real sense, their goals become important to you because you are important to each other; both of you become more comfortable asking for, and offering, help.
So how could you foster a growth in those relationships in times when there is no need to cover a mass shooting or terrorist bombing?
Look for opportunities to form partnerships and teams. Sure, team up staffers to do stories, but what about pairing them to play with a new social app or to help plan a public event or to teach something to their colleagues? Even in times like these, when staff is spread thinly (and often singularly) to “get everything done,” you have the authority to create the shared experiences from which relationships grow.
Ask the staff to help you figure it out. What could they team up to accomplish? How would it make your newsroom better?
Be in the mix. One more lesson, from Bailon in St. Louis, who remembered his role during the Ferguson coverage:
"As a senior manager, we have to extra present working the room and debriefing. help synthesize the coverage breaking online and in print, but also keep a close on eye on the staff to keep them focused and fresh. There will be disagreements and countering ideas. What photo to use? What staffers to tap? Which department has to shift resources? The senior managers need to meet those issues head-on and efficiently. You do that by being in the mix yet allowing the people to do their jobs and use their creative energy. Be present and visible."
“Be in the mix… Be present and visible.”
For managers with so much on their plates, this is a tough one. Not only for the time required, but also because of the fine line between being “in the mix” and micromanaging.
But it’s a balance worth achieving — every day.
Managers who know what’s going on and who know their people, can offer help in the right measure. They can support without dictating. They can limit their second-guessing. They can create an environment of trust.
How do you achieve that balance? For starters:
- Offer more questions than answers.
- Listen more than you talk.
- Be accessible to your staff — as predictably as possible.
Seems to me the manager’s most satisfying moment as a decision-maker is when you can simply support your staff’s plan of action. Sure, sometimes you’ll feel the need to take things in a different direction, but play that card too often and you’ll train your staff to wait for your decision — a sure sign that their development has stopped dead.
Bottom line: Don't wait for big breaking news to do the things that help your staff do their best work.