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Breaking news online: How two Pulitzer finalists used the web

As we noted yesterday, the Pulitzer Prize for breaking news went to The New York Times for its coverage of the Eliot Spitzer scandal. But since breaking news is perhaps the one area where Internet journalism most outshines print, we wanted to take a look at the two other finalists in the category and tease out a few lessons and strategies for when big news breaks.

THE HOUSTON CHRONICLE

The Houston Chronicle was cited “for taking full advantage of online technology and its newsroom expertise to become a lifeline to the city when Hurricane Ike struck, providing vital minute-by-minute updates on the storm, its flood surge and its aftermath.”

Pulitzer Prize Administrator Sig Gissler noted that the Chronicle’s entry was all-online — not a print clip in the lot. Editor Jeff Cohen credited the Chronicle’s “fully integrated” newsroom. “We cover news any way people need news. We cover it online, analog, digital, straight media — any way you can serve it up our staff is serving it up.”

From a planning perspective, a hurricane offers the advantage of several days’ advance notice, and the Chronicle began to ramp up its Hurricane Central page well before Ike reached Texas shores. The site mixed traditional news stories about Ike’s approach with service pieces on storm preparation.

But perhaps the key figure in the Chronicle’s pre-storm coverage was Eric Berger, who blogs about science issues as SciGuy. He began writing about the storm when it was still a distant Atlantic threat, and that both activated the online community Berger had built over his blog’s lifespan and brought in new readers.

“During a storm, he really acts like a weatherman for the paper,” said Scott Clark, vice president in charge of Chron.com. “We present him to readers as a trusted voice you can pay attention to.” Berger blogged around the clock, posting new storm models as they were available and predicting the path of Ike.

Berger held several live chats leading up to the storm that attracted an audience that, at any given moment, reached up to 14,000 people. “The idea that a science writer could be speaking live to an audience that would fill a basketball arena” was remarkable, Clark said.

As it became more apparent the storm would hit, the Chronicle website was building up other aspects of coverage, Clark said. “We used two kinds of things. The first was the traditional kind of updated story that gives continuity and applies news judgment, for people who want to come in and see what’s new. But the problem is in this type of situation is there’s so much material. So that was paired up with a live blog that included dozens and dozens of reporters and photographers.” About 150 posts a day went up, he said, and many were dedicated to exposing and clearing up the Ike-related rumors that were sweeping through town. During the storm, staffers produced 90 videos that were collectively viewed more than 1 million times.

One of their most ingenious moves was launching the Ike Answers blog. Instead of burying answers to reader questions in a traditional news story, the Answers blog made the process transparent — on questions ranging from where all those fallen tree branches end up to whether charging a cell phone in your car will run down the battery. (That last one was answered with help from NPR’s “Car Talk” guys.)

And the Chronicle was creative in compiling and using the knowledge in its audience. It created crowdsourced databases tracking which gas stations were open for business, where power was still out, where storm damage was worst, and which area residents were still missing. In all, Clark said, the databases held about 12,000 reports from readers.

In all — between buildup, the storm itself, and the aftermath — Chron.com generated 18 million page views and thanks from its community. “There has been a recognition that certain types of stories are really online stories,” Clark said.

THE ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH

One of those stories came on Feb. 8, 2008, when a man named Charles Thornton walked into the city hall of Kirkwood, Mo., and began shooting.

In the Post-Dispatch newsroom, the paper had only recently shifted to what managing editor Pam Maples called an “online first” approach. The paper had only recently integrated its online and print staffs so that “we didn’t have one of those online units sitting over in the corner.”

While the Kirkwood shootings were not an event on the same scale as Hurricane Ike, they also did not offer the preparation time Ike afforded the Chronicle. The first shots were fired in Kirkwood moments after 7 p.m., as the city council completed the Pledge of Allegiance; the Post-Dispatch’s first online post moved at about 7:20.

The site’s pageview count climbed through the night as Post-Dispatch staff continued to report. A stringer for the paper had been covering the council meeting and witnessed the first shootings, but by the end of the night “virtually everyone” on staff had participated in some way. In short order, the Post-Dispatch’s site had posted videos, slideshows, audio interviews, a condolences blog, and an interactive graphic — along with five main stories and four sidebars. Much more followed in the coming days.

The Pulitzer Board cited the Post-Dispatch’s combination of “speed and rigor” in its coverage; Maples said “we were aggressive, pushing the limits of where you go.” That included identifying the dead before officials were willing to. But it also meant holding back when a local TV station falsely announced Mayor Mike Swoboda was dead. (Swoboda died months later from complications from the shooting.)

                                   
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