What if newsrooms treated every day like eclipse day?
I loved coverage of Monday's solar eclipse. Here's why:
- It showcased the creativity of newsrooms across the country. As Kristen Hare pointed out, newsrooms came up with really original ideas to cover the celestial event, ranging from working with kid reporters to flying drones to designing delightful front pages. One reporter from Idaho went camping. Vox showed what people would see in each zip code. The Guardian played a practical joke on readers (and showcased their underwhelming photos).
- The coverage was fun, audience-centered and offered clear explanations on everything from how crickets and cattle might behave during the totality to how to take pictures on your cellphone to how to protect your eyes.
- Newsrooms covered the eclipse, but they also watched it. (See, for example, these photos from staffers from The New York Times, The Intercept, NPR, WNPR, The Washington Post, the Branson Tri-Lakes News, and the Greeley, Colorado Tribune. As one staff writer at the Post joked, “Now we know why democracy dies in darkness. The entire newsroom decamps to the roof for the eclipse." How often do we let ourselves take in a news event with the same amount of joy and awe as our audiences? It was wonderful to see newsroom staffers empty out into the streets and simultaneously become reporters and audience members.
- It made us go outside and talk to strangers, neighbors, and friends. Many of the events covered by newsrooms across the country were communal. By the very nature of the event, we were forced to get off of our screens. Reporters covered how schools, festivals, museums and office workers were brought together for an outdoor moment midday.
- It was documented by everyone. It was both a national story and a local one. And it was a story everyone could participate in. Everyone wanted to take pictures — of the eclipse, of the people watching the eclipse, of the fog that prevented some people from seeing the eclipse, of the shadows. Everyone wanted to share them. And we wanted to see what everyone else had made and experienced.
On Monday, I watched the enthusiasm of the Internet bubble up and it made me think: What if newsrooms treated other days more like eclipse day?
Of course, not every day contains an astronomical event on the level of the moon’s shadow crossing the Earth’s surface. And not every news event is like the eclipse or the Olympics or a presidential campaign, where newsrooms show off really innovative ideas because they can plan them in advance. And this doesn’t mean we need to have wall-to-wall exhaustive coverage — that would burn people out.
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But it shouldn’t take a big event to elicit all this innovative storytelling from U.S. news organizations. How can we extend or repurpose the types of creativity on display earlier this week and keep that innovative spirit burning all year long? And how do we capture the serendipitous joy that comes from these kinds of events and bring them to bear on under-reported topics?
Think about other kinds of stories that can put a reporter in an audience member’s shoes: One of my favorite podcasts is HumaNature from Wyoming Public Radio. The reason? The host purposely doesn’t prep for her interviews, so her questions come across as genuinely curious and original, and she learns about the people she’s interviewing along with the audience. Can you replicate the kind of curiosity and genuine awe that people felt during the eclipse?
Treat a random day or under-reported story as your next eclipse day: Gather people together from different departments, or better yet, from inside and outside of your newsroom (or people who work in your organization, but not in the newsroom). Pick a story type. Ask the people to generate 20 different ways to cover the story. Cover a ballot proposal in seven different ways, like Fritz Klug did. Cover an entire election through the eyes of one person. See what happens.
Think about how you could extend your innovative “big event coverage” to other events: Weather events are easy: Everyone can be a reporter on what’s happening in their backyard. The Washington Post’s Weather Watchers program is a prime example of this. People sign up to receive free meteorology training from the National Weather Service and then they help tell readers of the Post about weather conditions. How might we extend this to other desks within a newsroom?
Twist the traditional way of telling a story on its head: When I worked at NPR, the Visuals team held a science fair to teach others in the building about their work. Could a desk in your newsroom hold a science fair? Partner with a local choral group? Project the news onto the side of a building? Release stories as part of curriculums?
Think about ways to build community: Part of the joy of Monday's eclipse was that people emptied out of office buildings, schools, and stores en masse. How do we replicate that year-round? Is there a way to ask both reader and reporter to take a certain action (a photo, an observation) at a certain time? How might we think about ways in which place or time add to the sense of community or willingness to participate?
Correction: This post has been updated to fix a quote from Washington Post staff writer Steve Hendrix.