Breaking news hits. Bullets fly, people are panicked, and your newsroom kicks into high gear. It’s the moment journalists brace themselves for, but will your digital media strategy pan out?
Kiplinger Fellow Sue Allan might have had that thought in October — albeit fleetingly — when an Ottawa gunman went on a killing rampage at the National War Memorial and then opened fire in the nearby Parliament building.
The managing editor of digital for Maclean’s was en route to the magazine’s Ottawa bureau when the shooting began.
“I opened the door to discover my colleagues running out,” she said. “For about 30 seconds, I wondered if I should press ahead with (my) appointment — Maclean’s publisher was in town. (In fact, the meeting did go ahead, just without me.) The next few minutes were devoted to alerting the Maclean’s newsroom in Toronto and recruiting resources.”
Soon much of the city, including the bureau office, was in lockdown. Sue worked to setup a central contact list of the magazine’s key reporters and editors, as well as at sister radio and TV stations.
“Although our Ottawa building would end up on lockdown into the late evening, my colleagues kept finding a way out to report,” Sue said.
The magazine’s digital coverage centered on its live blog, using ScribbleLive to stream news content and tweets. They also used SoundCloud recordings collected on the scene. Here’s how the Maclean’s staff approached its digital coverage:
“The Maclean’s bureau is small, so you could easily argue that I should have sent him back to the scene,” she said.
As Parliament Hill went into lockdown, Toronto reporters started calling the 308 Parliament members they thought might be on the scene. The Ottawa reporters sent everything to Nick, who worked to construct a coherent and accurate narrative “amidst myriad unconfirmed reports during a very short period of time.”
“We worked with diligence and without concern that we were first with breaking details. In the chaos, we tried very hard to report only facts,” Sue said.
Mclean’s uses the engagement platform ScribbleLive in its daily coverage of Parliament, so Nick employed it to stream his blog but also post tweets, videos and photos of other staffers.
“We pulled their tweets directly into the liveblog, which gave our readers instant access to our reporters’ thoughts and observations,” Nick said. “Those reporters also sent longer dispatches, which we assigned a point-person to format and posted on our liveblog.”
Ideally, reporters would have filed directly to the blog, but because they were busy reporting, Nick said he posted for them.
Also embedded in the liveblog were SoundCloud recordings that reporters collected on the scene: gunfire in Centre Block, eyewitnesses and Royal Canadian Mounted Police officers describing the scene.
“The reporters also sent audio from interviews as much as possible,” Nick said. “The platform’s versatility allowed us wide latitude: we could embed SoundCloud in any stories we posted, but we could also toss those embeds into our liveblog. The clips were short enough that readers could listen quickly without getting bogged down in all the information in front of their eyes.”
The take away
The resulting blog comprised 293 posts — not as long as some other breaking-news blogs, perhaps, but providing updates that most mattered.
“Readers stuck around,” Sue said. “The average time on page for the blog was more than 15 minutes.”
Even as Sue’s team worked to give minute-by-minute coverage, the newsroom was producing a special section that ran in the digital edition Thursday evening — a day after the shooting; a radio show and podcast that aired the following Saturday; and an in-depth print piece that included a 6,000-word oral history as told by survivors.
“We worked hard on Oct. 22 to harness the story as it played on social without compromising the standards we would apply to any other journalism produced by the newsroom,” Sue said.