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Covering BREAKING NEWS.. Blend the new and old-school

In the news business, every day has the potential to blow up with huge breaking story.

Last Wednesday was one of those days.

[Just to fill you in on a little background information… For the past two years, federal investigators have been building a bribery case against Cuyahoga County Commissioner Jimmy Dimora, a top government official in the county. On Wednesday, FBI agents arrested him and seven other officials, culminating the biggest government corruption probe in the area.]

This is one of the biggest stories of the year in Cleveland, and our newsroom had an “all-hands-on-deck” approach to our constant coverage, which was a great blend of new-age journalism and traditional reporting and storytelling skills.

The activity started around 7 a.m. when one of our photographers, who was parked outside Dimora’s house, called the newsroom to say that four FBI agents just entered his home. A few minutes later, he called back to say that Dimora walked out of the house in handcuffs, and was driven away by the agents.

Suddenly, there was a buzz in the newsroom.

We knew that only our photographer and the Plain Dealer had crews staking out Dimora’s home, so we had a jump on the story. And we wanted our audience to know we had the lead on the story.

Immediately, I wrote up a short story saying that the agents had entered Dimora’s home and drove him away in handcuffs. I then posted the story, and immediately tweeted out the information with a link to our site.

Before the story had even posted on our site, we broke the news on Twitter.

We also sent out a breaking news alert to everyone who has our iPhone app and to the users who have signed up for our e-mail alerts, and we posted the information on our Facebook page.

All of that transpired over the period of about five or six minutes.

We focused on spreading the news on all the different platforms because we didn’t want to force our users to come looking for the information. We wanted it to find them. If you allow users to go looking for the info, you risk losing them.

Once I posted the initial story online, I then worked with my boss to showcase our content to direct viewers to our specially built county corruption page, which has all of our stories, videos and photos from the two-year investigation.

I then updated the story with a detailed explanation on the background of the corruption-probe, which had been written by our investigative reporter in preparation for a potential indictment. We also showcased an excellent text and video package with a history of the probe.

Within 15 minutes, we had the breaking news posted, along with the detailed background on how federal investigations arrived at that point, and had distributed the information across our platforms using social media.

On the television side, reporters, producers and photographers quickly mobilized a plan to cover the complete story. After about 30 minutes of the story posting online, we broke into Good Morning America for a breaking news hit with all of the information.

By that point, a few thousand people had already read the news from our website or on Twitter. (And we were the first of four stations to break in with the news).

During the TV hits, promoting our online coverage was key, and I went on the air to explain what we were doing online and how viewers could get information throughout the day.

We knew that people were heading into work and weren’t going to get the information from television, so in addition to our traditional online content, we also had a live stream of our coverage so that viewers could watch from their computers at the office.

From a information-gathering standpoint, our photographers and reporters were spread out throughout the city to get different perspectives on the story, and one of our photographers got the money shot of the day, when he caught Dimora flipping the bird to the camera.

As soon as that video came back to the newsroom, we knew it would go viral. We immediately posted the picture on Twitter and our website, and within a few minutes the picture was trending on Twitter for the Cleveland area, and we were getting all kinds of feedback from our viewers.

After about an hour, the initial shock of the news started to die down, and my boss and I discussed what we needed to do to keep people checking our site throughout the afternoon. We knew that just being first with the news meant nothing if we didn’t have the total package.

The challenge we had was that so much information was pouring into the newsroom and it was difficult to showcase all of it, without losing some of the value in the shuffle. After a quick discussion, we decided that the best approach was post all of the documents, raw video and viewer reaction.

We also built a video page so that viewers could easily find all of our different packages, as well as the raw footage from some day’s events.

As the day went on, the story changed several times… Dimora gets taken in handcuffs, Dimora gets indicted, seven others get indicted, Dimora flips the bird to the camera, Dimora appears in court, Dimora speaks after court, officials respond to the indictment…..

The story changed so much, and we wanted to allow our story to change with it. I monitored the main story for most of the day, and I updated it about 75 times with new information, videos, photos and documents. Like all stories on the web, this one evolved, and it was important for us to demonstrate to our audience that we were updating the story with new information as we received it. We wanted to own the story.

The strategy seemed to work, as the traffic for the main story stayed high throughout the day. Unlike most stories that peak quickly and then start losing viewers, this one maintained a large audience throughout the day, and I think the constant evolution played a big part in that.

Later in the afternoon, we wanted to give viewers another element, so we put together a 45-minute webcast and live chat, which included updates to the story, legal analysis from a lawyer, historical context and interaction from the audience. During that webcast, we took questions from the chat, and then answered them on the air, giving our audience an immediate response.

By that point, the news was already out there, so people did not want the same story told over and over.  They wanted know why, and what it meant, and we used our later television broadcasts to serve that purpose.

After the dust had settled, we re-arraigned our site to make sure that all of the content from that day was easy to find an clearly labeled. The next day, we ran an analytical story from one of our reporters that asked the question, “What’s next for Cuyahoga County,” and also showcased a slideshow of the images taken throughout FBI sting.

Working on this story was a great example of how newsrooms have changed, and how new technology can enhance—not undermine—some of the old-school principles of the profession.

We got this story first because we had someone at Dimora’s house, just in case he got arrested. There’s certainly nothing new about that strategy. But we then used Twitter to break the news.

We used our web product to updates viewers with the news, and then used TV to take the story to a deeper level, answering the question, why does this matter?

Our goal across all platforms was to give the viewers as much information as possible, in a timely and accurate manner. I’m not sure if we had the best possible coverage, but I know that our website had one of our highest traffic days of the year, and I think that reflected our approach to the story.

If you have thoughts or ideas about what we did, or how we could improve please let me know. I’d be glad to hear them.

Category: Hard News, New Media Thoughts, News, WEWS

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