Anatomy of a local breaking news story

On Friday, I was having a late lunch with a colleague from the business/advertising side of The Washington Post. We were talking about how our company’s hyper-local strategies should evolve. It was a great conversation that I wish could have lasted all day.

As we were talking/eating, I noticed the TVs in the restaurant all showing live video of one of the mega resorts in Las Vegas on fire. I have several friends who now work at the Las Vegas Sun, so this story was interesting to me for at least a couple of reasons.

When I finally got back to my computer at the Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive offices and saw how my buddies were covering the fire at the Monte Carlo hotel, my jaw nearly hit the ground. And every time I checked back, they continued to add layers and layers to their newspaper site’s coverage.

It started with a live blog updated by several members of the newsroom staff. I’m not sure how often the blog was updated, but it had new content every time I looked at it. Obviously, tons and tons of updates to it throughout the day.

Then came the photos.

Then came the overview of the Monte Carlo hotel and this incredibly well-done historical context of the fire.

Then came the videos. Here is another. And another, which seems to go with this very funny blog post.

And what made this so impressive was that with the exception of the videos, which I thought were pretty dang good, all of this coverage came while the hotel was still burning.

This was a local newspaper covering a breaking news event as it was unfolding.

The Sun’s site even had an easy way for readers to submit photos through Flickr and YouTube, as well as reader comments all over the place.

To me, this was a nearly textbook example of how a local newspaper should cover a big breaking news story in its community in the iPhone era.

But is it how most local newspapers would have reacted?

(And don’t try to tell me the Las Vegas Sun has a huge newsroom, especially for a newspaper in a town with 2 million people. Dave Toplikar, the newspaper’s online managing editor and a very good friend of mine, tells me the newspaper’s newsroom is probably around 30-40 people total.)

It seems to me that in 2008, there are probably about five ways a local newspaper might cover a breaking local news event like this:

  • No. 1 — Throw some resources at it in real-time, becoming the definitive source online for the story as it is happening. Constant news updates. Great background info. Multimedia that is worth looking at — at the very least, some decent photo galleries if you’re not going to do video. I’m talking about web reports that combine speed, accuracy and compelling visuals with overwhelming comprehensive coverage in a way that creates something that shows your readers that your newspaper’s website is the only place to go for information on this story.
  • No. 2 — At the very least, keep the web site updated. Even if in kind of a half-assed way.
  • No. 3 — Run a big story in print with a big photo. The next day. After the story is over. Treat it like your print predecessors would have back in 1978, pretending that no one knows about the story until you tell them about it in print. The next day.
  • No. 4 — Go apesh*t in print. The next day. But in the midst of the overkill print coverage, there are thoughtful analysis pieces that treat the story like a Day Two story. Which in 2008, it is.
  • No. 5 — Do a mixture of No. 1 and No. 4. Treat the web and print like they’re both important, with print coverage that acknowledges that we live in a world where both CNN and the Internet have been around for at least a few years. Or maybe even a few decades.

So, the question is simple: How do you think your newspaper would cover a big-time, local breaking news story in 2008?

Would it be 1, 2, 3, 4 or 5?

If it’s 2 or 3 (and possibly even 4), I’d be thinking about getting that resume ready if I were you.

When a story in your hometown is all over CNN, MSNBC and Fox News, it’s best not to let cable news organizations who are only going to be in your town maybe once or twice a year (if even that often) to kick your ass.

Do you really want your local audience saying: “Well, I tried to look on the newspaper’s website, but it was loading so slow. And when it did finally appear on my computer, the newspaper’s site didn’t really have much on it. I turned on CNN, and they were all over the story. So, I just kept it on CNN for the rest of the day.”

If you are a newspaper publisher, right now — and I mean right this very second — go ask the people who are in charge of your website if they are ready for 100 times the normal traffic that your website would typically get.

When our team was in Naples and Lawrence, we had alternate templates that we could deploy on our sites for just this very reason.

Yep, you read that correctly. We didn’t buy tons and tons of back-up hardware and servers for emergencies — though that’s not a terrible gameplan. We simply had another version of our site ready to go on a moment’s notice that was built to be very low in graphics.

In Naples, the alternate templates were used for our coverage of Hurricane Wilma, while our site was getting killed with traffic.

In Lawrence, the alternate templates were used for a big breaking news KU basketball story (such as Roy Williams leaving, a player leaving early for the NBA, etc…) or when the Drudge Report would link to us, which happened a surprising amount of times on back in the day.

When a local story becomes national news, the local newspaper must own it. As it is happening.

That’s how people now expect to get their news.

Back in 2005, when Hurricane Wilma was about to smack the Naples area, our news organization made a commitment that when it came to real-time coverage, we were not going to get beat on this story by CNN or The Weather Channel or any other news organizations.

And that commitment came from the highest level of not only our newsroom, but from the highest levels of our entire organization. The newspaper’s publisher and even the folks at Scripps’ corporate offices in Ohio were doing everything they could to ensure that we were the definitive source for information during this important time for our community.

In today’s world, it’s irresponsible on about 20 different levels for a local newspaper to get its ass kicked by CNN on a local story. Yet, we’ve seen it already happen several times in just the last few months.

Now more than ever, newspapers have to show our communities that we are as relevant now — if not more — than we have ever been. Yet, as an industry, does it feel like we are doing that? Or does it seem that many in our ranks are just yearning for things to be like they used to be before that damned Internet?

Which is all the more reason why I want to throw some love to all of my friends at (and the Las Vegas Sun’s newsroom) for their remarkable work in covering the Monte Carlo fire.

On Friday.

As the story was actually happening and mattered the most to their local audience.


Post Script:

It’s now about 7:50 on a cold Saturday evening here in Washington, DC. As I was getting close to posting this blog, I decided I would take another look at the Sun’s site.

And there’s already an updated blog on the site about the magician who performs at the Monte Carlo that was just posted. I don’t give a crap how good the web team at your newspaper is, if the newsroom doesn’t have real buy-in, your newspaper’s new-media strategy will never work.

With a quick look at the site’s blogs on the homepage, it looks like the newspaper’s newsroom has published at least five blogs today, three of which have been posted in the last hour.

Read this story from Saturday’s print edition of the Sun, and you can see how creative the newspaper’s print coverage was. (My favorite part of this story — at least the online version of it — is actually how a few journalists from other newspapers around the country are commenting on how good the story is.)

You now have the biggest answer as to how the Las Vegas Sun really pulled all of this off on Friday.

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Dad. Journalist. Nerd. Music lover. Baseball fan. Puckhead.