Friday, May 04, 2007

Breaking News, Blog-Style

News organizations used a nontraditional approach to cover the Virginia Tech shootings.

By Leann Frola
Naughton Fellow

Old-school journalists, brace yourself. The inverted pyramid's taken a new twist.

One of the most popular ways news organizations covered the Virginia Tech shootings wasn't through the traditional 15-inch article. They didn't abandoned this format. But some gave priority to the blog-style story.

Virginia Tech's student newspaper, The Collegiate Times, took this approach -- posting continuously updated, time-stamped reports -- largely out of necessity.

The Collegiate Times' temporary homepage
Christopher Ritter, CT's online director, said the paper's site crashed on the day of the shootings around 10:30 a.m. So the site moved to what Ritter called an "emergency information page" -- a blue background with text, hosted by its parent company, College Media. With that format to work with, the best thing to do was just to get out the basics, Ritter said.

"We thought getting the information out was more valuable than an analysis," he said. "After we got the information out, then our reporters would do a story on it."

That day, the CT updated about every 10 to 15 minutes. The paper fact-checked with university relations or Virginia Tech police, and then posted. Making sure the paper put up accurate information was a major concern, Ritter said.

"One thing we've done really well is just reported the facts and not create a bigger issue than what's already been created by the tragedy."

The Roanoke Times took a similar approach to its Web coverage. Take a look at this string of updates.

Roanoke Times' blog-style story
Until more than 24 hours after the shootings, the blog-style snippets were the homepage's dominant story. They then moved to the top link under "Virginia Tech Shooting News." Online editor John Jackson said that's still a hot spot for users, and he wanted to make way for an overview in the centerpiece spot.

But in the heat of the story, Jackson said, leading with the blog format was the best approach.

"When this occurred, that was sort of our knee-jerk reaction to do that," he said. "It just made it easier for us to get information back from reporters in the field, as well as designating a person making the entries."

Updates came quickly -- some as fast as one- and two-minute increments. Here's an example from the day of the shootings:

1:06 p.m.

Virginia Tech campus is quiet, with few students walking about. Most buildings are evacuated and police are telling people to leave and not come back today. Dormitories are locked down.

A heavy police presence is evident, with armed officers visible all around the Drillfield.

Freshman Hector Takahashi said he'd been in a class in Pamplin Hall, near Norris Hall, around 9:30 a.m. Students were talking about a shooting in West Ambler Johnston.

"Then all of a sudden, we were like, 'Whoa -- were those shots?'" he said. There were two quick bangs, then a pause, then a fusillade of at least 30 shots, he said.

1:05 p.m.

Multiple people in the Virginia Tech athletic department have said all players have been accounted for on the football, men's basketball, women's basketball, softball, golf and men's tennis teams. Reporters are trying to contact coaches of the other teams.

The next scheduled on-campus athletic event is a baseball game Wednesday against William and Mary.

Blacksburg town offices are closed for the day.

From the calls and e-mails he's received, Jackson said readers have been appreciative of the fresh, easily digestible information. The blog-style story brought in 261,258 page views that first day. Jackson said a usual heavily trafficked day is passing 7,000 page views. And a story classified as "most read" on a normal day has about 2,500 page views.

The Times used this format for several breaking-news stories in the past, including a carbon-monoxide leak last July at Roanoke College and a manhunt for William Morva. The paper found it worked well, because the browser-based site allows only one person at a time to update an article.

Using Existing Blogs to Cover the Story

The Roanoke Times and The Collegiate Times created a blog-style string to cover this story. But several national news organizations used existing blogs to report it. And those blogs go a step further than the stories from the two Virginia papers -- by pulling together information from other news organizations.

The New York Times uses this technique with its blog The Lede.

The Lede began almost a year ago to "fill vacuums in our coverage in the continuous news cycle," according to Mike Nizza, a reporter for the blog and the site's former homepage editor.

Nizza described it as "connecting dots on stories out there of wide interest." But since the day of the shootings, when he started reporting for The Lede full time, Nizza's taken more of a breaking-news approach.

the lede
New York Times' blog The Lede
"I think we take whatever approach works for whatever's out there," he said. "Obviously this is a pretty special story. Developments have been coming in fast and furious."

The Lede appeared under the dominant photo on until the day after the shootings, when it was bumped down the list.

USA Today's blog On Deadline had similar placement on the homepage -- underneath the dominant photo, although in smaller type.

On Deadline aims to mesh as many resources and news organizations' information as possible into a form readers can better interpret, network editor Patrick Cooper said.

"We're working very quickly, summarizing what people have to offer and shooting people off in those different directions," he said.

The Virginia Tech shooting incident was its biggest story ever.

on deadline
USA Today's blog On Deadline
On Deadline set a blog record for the site on the day the shots were fired. Although USA Today keeps its traffic numbers confidential, Cooper said a significant amount came from outside sources -- especially and Google News, which placed the blog high on its page early that day.

The post that provided a link to the blog on described On Deadline as a "shot by shot" blog. Cooper said it really didn't offer a minutia of the campus, but it did detail the information in a "tick-tock format" with a mix of local and national content.

Blogs like these, he said, really offer their audiences a new avenue for how they approach stories.

"The breaking-news blog is developed to fit the situation," he said. People are "looking for more, they're looking to be informed, and the blog format is a way that's approachable. At the same time, it gives them almost unlimited depth to explore."

Here's a final thought from Cooper on the role of breaking-news blogs:

The information, the links and the context go hand in hand. It's our job as journalists to piece the story together, whether the deadline is this evening or as soon as possible. That hunt for information not only turns up the links, but it also builds perspective. We can see how people are playing stories, how they're wording things the same or differently, what angles make their coverage unique. The more we can expose that process to readers, by giving them context for what's out there, the better off everyone is. And, for sure, all of online news should be working in that direction. But breaking-news blogs have a critical challenge here. Playing in a world where everyone's fast, the story you tell along the way matters.

No comments: