Tuesday’s earthquake was a perfect “example of a breaking news story that called for audience engagement to be at the center of news reporting,” as Matt DeRienzo, a group editor of Journal Register Company’s publications in Connecticut, wrote in a blog post describing his company’s new-gathering efforts. I quote him mainly because the Journal Register currently is pointed to as a digital-first model, which a heavy emphasis on the Web and on social media, and yet as I read what DeRienzo describes I was struck by the parallels with what I knew had gone on at a number of the properties in my own Media General. JRC gets plenty of positive press, we don’t, so I’ll point out a few of the success stories.
In the most detailed story I have received so far, Ike Walker at WCMH in Columbus, Ohio, describes a big success using Twitter — and key to it is something mentioned a few months ago in a post by The Lost Remote:
“Within a minute of the quake hitting here our email inbox was filled with people asking what had happened. We tried to answer as many of them via email as possible but immediately switched our strategy to social media. Within a few minutes we had started the hashtag #columbusquake and were asking for people to share their stories and locations. The #columbusquake hashtag generated a large number of submissions and made it easier to track conversations in real-time with our users. Lesson learned: when you have a big event like this and you want to dominate the conversation at least on Twitter start a hashtag.”
Beyond Twitter, he has more often-repeated lessons — have staff dedicated to Web-first efforts, pay attention to what people in your audience are saying, and respond to them:
“As people continued to send us stories we used them on air and then created a Google map with pinpoints to map all of the stories showing how widespread the reports were. Because the reports were coming in so fast we had to dedicate a person to handling the map. I don’t know yet how many people clicked on the map however the story got almost 30k page views.
“The conversation continued on Facebook with our staff jumping in and engaging users.”
Kevin Justus at WSPA in Greenville/Spartanburg, S.C., says his station was soliciting information from the audience via social media 20 minutes before others in the market:
“Immediately after we felt the tremor we sent out a simple ‘Did anyone else feel that shaking?’ on Facebook and Twitter. Within 10 seconds we had more than 50 comments, so we knew it was an earthquake. We continued to cover the story on social media as the information came in. Our Facebook wall became a forum for our user’s experience with the earthquake.”
And cross-promote your online and social efforts, not only purely as promotion but also because during a news event such as this, phone lines and websites might be overwhelmed. Kari Pugh, the interim managing editor at the News & Messenger/insidenova.com in Prince William County, Va., just outside Washington, says she heard from readers that the phone and Internet were so overwhelmed in the region that the only news they were getting at times was from text relaying the updates to the insidenova.com Facebook page:
“We gained about 300 Facebook fans yesterday, and we were the only news source for people because Internet and cell and landline phone lines were clogged. They said they were able to get our FB updates via text. We posted continuous updates about damage, traffic, evacuations, aftershocks from the time it happened til about 1:30 a.m.”
(For a refresher on tips for “mastering live news,” have a look back a post on the subject at Steve Buttry’s blog.)