Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Digital reporting lessons from the Colorado floods

A small workspace I carved out of the boxes of possessions
I packed and moved from the basement as my neighborhood flooded. 

Massive walls of water trapped me in my Longmont house for five days during the Colorado floods. Other journalists were trapped in our newsroom, living off Folgers and vending machine snacks.

Even a few years ago, my situation would have led me barely unable to contribute to the news coverage. But with a few digital tools and basic knowledge, I was able to help cover the flood live 24/7, other than a few hours each night of (reluctant) sleep.

Here are a few digital reporting lessons I took from my coverage of the Colorado floods:

1. Beats are meaningless when there's breaking news. You find a way to contribute and you step in. Some of my favorite coverage of the flood was by Denver Post food editor Kristen Browning Blas

One hour difference during the final days of the flood.
2. Stay flexible. Just like there's no way to predict what's going to happen in a natural disaster, there's no way to plan the coverage that will be needed. Drop your expectations of what a news story should look like or sound like and respond to community demands and questions. 

I am a narrative writer, but during the breaking news, I saw a hole for digital reporting; readers were looking to social media for their information, so how could we redirect that desire back toward the newspaper?  

As the spammers took over the Twitter stream, I saw a need to provide filtered, clean content for readers. I addressed these needs as they popped up. 

3. The readers are your on-the-ground team. I created Storify and Scribblelive articles that were centered entirely around what readers were already sharing. I was unable to leave my house, but by using the community's content, I was able to capture the scene everywhere. I was the curator, not the creator of content.

This is very different from traditional reporting. 

4. Don't hesitate; experiment. Got an idea? Publish it. Then watch how readers respond and let that guide and shape that project. For example, I created a "best of Boulder flood videos" Storify, which I thought was a great way to collect the best community videos in one space. But readers didn't care. I got a few hundred hits, but the interest wasn't there. I stopped putting my effort into this collection -- I didn't take it down, but I just left it alone -- and put my energy instead into the Storify that readers were clicking on: the best photos. 

No amount of deliberation and planning would have led me to predict that readers were seeking photos not videos. 

5. You are your promotion team. You must promote your stories on Twitter and Facebook. I promoted my stories on social media days before the Daily Camera finally picked them up and put the stories on their webpage, linked with flood coverage. But thousands upon thousands of readers still followed my stories because they found them on social media -- where they were looking for breaking news. 

I utilized popular hashtags, proactively sent links directly to community members, responded to questions to build dialogue and updated constantly with factual information to build trust. My Twitter name was a top Twitter trend during the first day of the floods because of this. 

If I had waited for the editors to find time to put the stories on the website, I would have missed reaching so many readers at a crucial time in the disaster. Likewise, if I had waited for editors to give me a go on the projects, I might never have created them. I created them first, then sent them to the newsroom. 

This is a backward way of reporting that is also nontraditional. But it was necessary to respond to the urgency of modern reporting. 

Trust yourself. Editors, trust your reporters. 

And reporters, constantly educate yourself and prove that you are self-motivated so when disaster does strike, you know the right way to report it, how to make it happen and your editors know they can trust you to exceed their expectations. 

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