Speeding along in the dark wilderness of new media, new tools and constant change, it pays to drive with your high-beams on bright.
When you see more, you help your audience see more. You also avoid blind spots. For example, don’t just do this on the train fatality without also linking to this on the train fatality. Even when you are doing a brief, see if there are tweets about the topic. When you spend more time looking for color or tidbits on social media, there will be many benefits. Just one: You will be more likely to notice as a big topic blows up and demands more coverage.
There are three steps any reporter can take on any story that will turn up those high beams. Here’s a quick list, then more on two case studies.
1. Search. Whatever you are writing about, others are writing about it, too. They may be other journalists, they may be posting on Facebook or other social media platforms. They may have posted on the site of a business, school or government agency. In addition, of course, there is your own archive — for your blog or your news organization.
2. Aggregate. Collect the best of the material you found. Index it to point out the best parts, and what those sections illuminate.
3. Link. Write your story and include links along the way. Add a “see also” box at the end. Provide concise navigation points, anchor phrases that link to other material on your site or other sites. A good rule of thumb is that each screen of text should include at least one link.
Example 1: The Amtrak story is already becoming one of the most discussed routine accident reports. It’s a 13-graf story, so routine there is no byline. One named sources is quoted. One law enforcement agency is named with a note that it provided no other information. The writer dug up some information from the clips. Straightforward, some context, solid sourcing. Done.
I’m pointing to it, and others are as well, for what it does not include. There were people on the train, creating and distributing their own content. One of those passengers, Steve Buttry, a journalist and social media expert, spent hours tweeting updates, collecting data on similar incidents, posting photos. He collected all of that on his own blog. From the first tweet about the train stopping at 12:36 a.m. to the tweet announcing it was moving again at 2:53, Buttry and a handful of followers helping with research provided plenty of color and solid information about the accident and the emergency response.
How could the anonymous reporter have found this? Some tools: Twitter search, an app called Ban.jo that Buttry has praised for geo-based social media searches, other specialized search tools including Social Mention and one of my favorites, Muck Rack, which collects tweets from journalists (the Muck Rack search box opens when you log in).
Could there be links even if there are no social media mentions or other sources about your topic? Yes, take the reference to the small-town police department: Havre de Grace. The anchor phrase “Havre de Grace police department” could link to the paper’s own search archive on the department. The address mentioned could have linked to a Google map showing the 400 block of Webb Lane in Havre de Grace. A map link does appear in a shaded box on the left side. Many readers don’t need all that. The reader who wants it will either be frustrated that you didn’t bother or delighted that you did. It’s your choice.
What about the rare instances when you are covering a horrible transit mess and Steve Buttry is not a passenger? What about a garden-variety feel-good story on a national TV show coming to your town?
If there are people involved, there will be material out there.
Example 2: In December, “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” announced it would do a show in Knoxville. The News Sentinel had a staff reporter do a brief. It was so routine there was no byline, but it covered the basics. In about 10 minutes, I found a dozen tweets, including a photo, and created this Storify.
Could the Maryland reporter have found Steve’s tweets and linked to them? Could a Tennessee reporter have found the same tweets I found and added a link in the middle of the web version of that article? A lot of discussion about journalism is about extraordinary events. When we think through better ways to handle the ordinary tasks, and invest enough to make them a bit better, we raise the quality level every day.
It takes a few more minutes. That investment gives a reader more options. It shows your readers you are on the road shining your brights.