SRCCON is one of my favorite events of the year because of this. It’s a small conference for people who work in newsrooms, based around hands-on, interactive workshops. This year, Hamilton Boardman and I facilitated a workshop called OMGWTFBBQ, focused around breaking news events.
(Real slides. The rest of the slide deck is here).
Both Ham and I often work in urgent and/or breaking news situations. For Ham, who helps run breaking news coverage at the NYT, it’s all about setting the newsroom up for success. How will they communicate? Collaborate? Staff for on-call coverage? For me at WordPress.com VIP, it’s all about having a plan that my team can quickly execute in the event of breaking news or an outage. Who plays what role in an urgent situation? What type of alerting do we have? How do we notify our clients?
For the workshop, Ham and I wanted our attendees to step out of their day-to-day roles and think about breaking news from the perspective of someone running a newsroom – in the hopes that this will help them better prepare for urgent situations in the future.
We broke the attendees into five groups. This was the initial prompt:
Part 1: Staffing and Planning
Staffing: You run a newsroom, and depending on how well-funded it is, you have hiring constraints. With the limited number of spots you have, staff the team that will help you with this breaking news event.
Planning: With this team, put together a plan for your news event. Considerations:
- What is your newsroom’s definition of “success” for breaking news coverage?
- How will you communicate?
- How will you delegate?
- Who is your competition, and how will your team “beat” them?
- How will you prepare for the unexpected?
Each team was given a publication and scenario to represent. Here’s what we had for them:
TechCrunch (6 Staffers): Your team is covering the 2017 WWDC keynote address. Lucky you, you will have 2 press badges with access to the Moscone Center. There have been rumors about Project Titan, and Apple hopes to give Tesla a run for its money.
Lawrence Journal-World (3 Staffers): You are a well-loved but financially depleted newspaper (and website) in this university town of 96,000 people. People here rely on you to know what is going on in their community. How do you prepare for breaking news?
The New York Times (11 Staffers): The 2016 Summer Olympics are coming soon and this is a big, tent-pole event for The Times. Video, graphics, photography, live coverage, in depth articles, profiles of the athletes, the latest scores, medal counts are just some of the things you might focus on. And then there’s the news and controversy swelling around Brazil’s preparations for the games, it’s struggling economy, impeached president, and Zika.
Buzzfeed (5 Staffers): You OWN viral. “Breaking news” is a daily affair for your team. But lately, your web traffic has gone down as newsrooms have adapted your approach for news coverage, and millennials are reading your news on Snapchat and Facebook Instant Articles. The VMAs are coming up, and you guys will need to be smart about distribution and creative about your approach, so that you stay relevant in the ever changing digital news landscape.
Politico (8 Staffers): Hillary Clinton and Donald J. Trump will meet for their first presidential debate on Monday, September 26 at Hofstra University in Hempstead, NY. As one of the nation’s top sites for political coverage. You have the budget to send 3 people onsite. What is your plan?
To make the staffing exercise more realistic, we gave each team a list of jobs they could start with.
- News director / Lead Editor: Oversees, coordinates, and runs the newsroom.
- Reporter: On the ground, seeking primary sources for information.
- Photographer: iPhone, Instagram, SLR, your whiz photographer can do anything!
- Photo editor: Need an image to help tell a story? Your photo editor helps you source and edit images for your stories.
- Copy editor: While your copy editor adores AP style, he/she is best known for thorough fact checking.
- Social media editor: With a neck-ache from always checking his/her phone, your social media editor is on the ball, helping uncover sources of information or disseminating your headline stories.
- Frontend developer: With an eye for design, your frontend developer focuses on the user interface of your website and applications.
- Backend developer: With your paltry salary, you somehow scored a jack-of-all-trades developer, comfortable in PHP, Ruby, Python, Android and iOS development! She or he can do whatever you put them to.
- Story/assignment editor: This person selects, develops, and plans reporting assignments, and often helps source/produce stories, interactives, videos etc as needed.
- Editorial researcher: Takes an academic look at a topic and uncovers all related papers, books, interviews, and primary sources, and can add real depth to any story.
- Interactive editor: This editor specializes in storytelling that is engaging. A mix of journalism and development skills, he/she helps bring a story to life, whether via web interactives or AR apps.
- Graphics editor: Listen, we aren’t good at math. But this editor is. Charts, graphs, maps, numbers, financials, electoral votes, polling information – she/he can help readers understand the numbers.
- Columnist: Your columnist is a bit of a handful, but he/she is full of passion about [insert topic]. This person helps give your publication a voice, and he/she has a pretty impressive social media following.
- Videographer: Your video person is happiest when he/she is out of the newsroom, shooting footage that no one else can get. Staged shots are boooooring, let’s get some exciting events.
- Video editor: Part director, part sound, part post-production, part cameraperson – this person is best in an editing room pulling together footage to tell a great story.
- Designer: Print or web, this designer can pull together beautiful packages via CSS or InDesign.
- Illustrator: You eschew stock footage and have the budget to work with an in-house illustrator who helps give your stories an attitude and voice.
- Data specialist: Want to identify trends that no one else can? This person has a master’s in data science, an expert in Python, and prefers to swim in big data.
- Senior Snapchat Editor: This person is essentially a one person R&D team, and a powerhouse in social media. This editor was the first in the country to tell a story via Pokemon Go (we didn’t think it would be possible).
- Make Up Your Own: It’s your newsroom, who do you want to hire?
Part 1 Discussion
Once everyone completed their staffing and planning, we had folks tell us about what they did. Techcrunch hired a whiz backend dev to help in case the site fell over, while Politico focused on research and did not hire any engineers. Buzzfeed hired a snapchat editor who was also a video reporter to cover the VMAs, to make sure they could scoop whatever happened at the event. NYT spent a lot of time staffing their 11-person Olympics desk, choosing Slack as the main form of communication and dual social media roles (one on the ground in Rio, and one back home). Lawrence Journal-World, with only 3 people to staff, wrapped up quickly with a reporter, visual journalist, and editor who all could do many different things.
Part 2: OMGWTFBBQ!
Seconds after everyone presented, news broke in the conference session. OMGWTFBBQ NEWS IS BREAKING! Everyone had 8 minutes to figure out what to do given the new information. Huge props to Ham for writing these silly scenarios, they were both entertaining and challenging.
Execute: GO GO GO! Given your staff and plans, you now have 8 minutes to execute a plan according to your original checklist.
If there’s a twist: In the wise words of Tim Gunn, make it work.
TechCrunch: The keynote starts off like so many others — it’s been an amazing year for Apple. A glossy video showing smiling people at Apple Stores around the world runs and gets the crowd in a good mood. As the lights come back up after the video and Tim Cook steps back onto the stage, there seems to be the silhouette of a very large object shrouded in a black cover near the center of the stage. Could this be the much-rumored Apple Car? But just as Tim is about the unveil the new product, the wifi in the Moscone Center creaks to a near halt and even the live stream starts to freeze up. How has your plan held up? How will you beat your competitors?
Lawrence Journal-World: It’s a Saturday evening in late May and a category 4 tornado has just torn through Lawrence. There are rumors that it may have touched down near a high school gymnasium where a senior prom is underway. The power goes out in your newsroom. And one of your key teammates has a teenager who attends that high school. What do you do? How do you communicate? How do you report news?
The New York Times: Once the Games begin, athletes are quickly getting infected with Zika. By day 5, a number of windsurfers get sick from “superbacteria” in the toxic waters. By day 7, 30 percent of the remaining events are cancelled, including all outdoor water events (sailing, rowing, windsurfing) because of the toxic water quality. You had prepared a number of interactives and data for events that will no longer happen. To make things worse, two of your five staffers in Rio have also been infected with Zika and are down for the count. What do you do? How do you pivot your storytelling? What other desks in the Times newsroom do you pull in for help? Do you tell your remaining reporters to come back for their safety?
Buzzfeed: It’s a languid Friday morning in late August. Taylor Swift and Kimye have been feuding all summer and the VMAs are only a day or two away. Taylor, Kanye and Kim will all be there. All anyone can talk about is what might happen. Your team is gathered in a conference room at an unreasonably early hour of the morning (10am), going over your final plans for your VMA coverage when an intern comes barging in holding up her phone showing an Instagram photo: Kim has posted a picture of Taytay lying on a bed and wearing a blue-and-black dress (or is it gold-and-white??) with Kanye, buck naked, lying wrapped around her. It’s a near perfect recreation of the iconic photo of John Lennon and Yoko Ono. The. Internet. Is. Officially. Broken. But is it real? Can you put your plan into action? How will you beat your competitors?
Politico: Over the weekend, one of your top reporters receives an audio file from an anonymous source deep within the Trump campaign. The recording appears to document a very lewd and sexually charged phone conversation between Mr. Trump and a female top advisor. You know you have a bombshell on your hands, but you still have some reporting you need to do, so you aim to run the story a day or two after the debate. But midday Monday, you get wind that the recording may have also been handed to a reporter at The Washington Post. So around 4 p.m., you post the story and the recording — immediately upending the presidential race and drawing unprecedented traffic to your website. Your story is sure to be a centerpiece of the questioning at the debate. But as the debate gets underway, The Hair Brigade, a renegade band of pro-Trump hackers, unleashes a massive DDOS attack on politico.com. Your site is completely down. How do your plans look now?
Part 2 Discussion
The teams scrambled to figure out their alternate plans… while laughing at how ridiculous some of them were. Unfortunately, Politico didn’t hire an engineer but instead had to rely on social media channels for reporting. Buzzfeed said this was their dream come true. NYT and Lawrence Journal-World were struggling to continue with their reporting without their original staff. And TechCrunch relied on their social media editor to cobble together any information they could, from what sources were slowly uploading via 4G.
It was a terrific discussion, and I wish we had time for more! Ham and I both had a blast assembling this workshop and facilitating.
One thing we did ahead of SRCCON is that we ran the workshop once before with friends (by bribing them with beer and guac). Doing a test run for any workshop is a requirement (I’ve written about this before). It made us work out the kinks of the scenarios, be more specific in our prompts, create job descriptions, get a clearer sense of timing, and understand the kinds of questions participants would ask.
If I could run this workshop a third time, I would have saved more time for a discussion and wrap-up at the end. Ultimately, we hope that the participants had fun, and had the opportunity to think differently about planning for breaking news.
More reading: I recently attended an inspiring workshop galled The Product Game, which was way more elaborate than this simple setup. Take a peek here.