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Feb. 24, 2011, 1:30 p.m.

Metro after midnight: How The Washington Post tapped night owls to make a transportation story social

There are many types of stories that are universal to newspapers around the country — and “public transit in danger due to budget cuts” is probably somewhere high on the list. The trick, as any good editor or reporter knows, is making the story interesting and compelling to readers, to relate it to their lives and make it worth spending more than five minutes to read.

In that measure, The Washington Post has succeeded with its Metro After Midnight series, a Story Lab feature chronicling two nights in the life of the train network. More than a series of strung-together “how the man on the street feels” comments, Metro After Midnight was an experiment in deploying new newsroom tools to create a narrative, using comments as cues for reporting, curating Twitter reactions and photos, and packaging the whole affair (online, at least) using Storify. In the world of newspapers, it’s not atypical to put together a feature package in a matter of days, but Metro After Midnight is a case study of new media in action — not for the big, blow-out stories or events, but for the regular, week-to-week coverage that newspapers are typically consumed with.

“We really wanted to have a sense of what it felt like to be out there,” Story Lab editor Marc Fisher told me. “Everyone in the area knows the Metro system really well, but they don’t know what it’s like at those hours.”

It all started with a blog post on the Dr. Gridlock transportation blog that outlined plans to close the Metro at 12 am on weekends. A poll asking whether late night Metro service was essential got a response from more than 1,500 readers, many in favor of keeping late-night service. The outpouring continued in the comments and on Twitter as readers mixed outrage, sarcasm, and more than a few pub-crawling stories.

Clearly there was a story to be mined, but Fisher said they didn’t want to go down the typical route of quotes and anecdotes. It was the type of story that demanded scene-setting and characters, and a reporting effort that required the ESP to be at the right place at the right time to watch things unfold. It was also a story that could be loaded with reader-submitted content.

“My instructions to reporters were to make it a very observed piece, follow people as they move through the system, from bar to train and home,” Fisher said.

Over the nights of February 12 and 13, four reporters, a photographer, and videographer fanned out across the Metro system — just around the time the bars and clubs were filling up. Fisher said they needed Twitter users to act as spotters, to locate which stations and train lines were the busiest. Reporters hit both the far spokes and the hub of the Metro, finding riders coming into the city from Virginia and Maryland, and those desperate to get back late at night. (And in one special case, helping a wayward nursing student home.)

Along with short bursts on the blog, reporters used the Story Lab Twitter feed to paint a picture of late-night life on the Metro. While not always real-time, the blog was updated over the course of the weekend and attracted what Fisher calls “not insignificant” traffic to the site.

In a way, the blog posts (close to 400 inches of copy) and Tweets were the type of notebook entries that typically feed a larger story package, and in this case they did, landing on the Monday Post on February 14 (along with a fun video accompanying the story online). But Fisher said Story Lab’s ethos is to lay bare how reporting works and experiment with the conventions and tools of storytelling. That was one of the reasons the team used Storify to aggregate blog posts, photos, and reactions from readers.

“It’s like a chemistry lab: You’ve got to figure out the right mix of media to use both to attract folks and let them tell their stories in the most useful way,” Fisher said.

The Story Lab process is also about learning what works and what doesn’t, and in this case Fisher said one lesson is that quality matters when getting a response to a call-out to readers. When dealing with social media or reader-generated material, the focus can be on volume, how many comments, tweets, pics, and likes a call-out garners. Fisher said the team got a smaller response, but one that offered a good variety of reactions and helped guide its reporting. “It was more useful than it was cacophonous in the stampede of eyeballs to this particular call-out,” he said.

By resources and reach alone, The Post is obviously on a different scale than many newspapers in the US. But the mission of the Story Lab is likely one that many news organizations can identify with, attempting to find the combination of new and old media, traditional reporting and social tools, all in the service of providing readers with information they need.

“The whole philosophy of Story Lab is to open up the whole reporting process from the conception of an idea to the fully polished print and web version of a story,” Fisher said.

Image by Logan Brown used under a Creative Commons license

POSTED     Feb. 24, 2011, 1:30 p.m.
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