Want a sustainable news product? Learn from sports and treat every day with a breaking news attitude
Newsrooms are busy places. But election nights for news teams – are some of the busiest.
I can recall a few years back on a visit to a newsroom on election night – for a really big election – how a conversation with the sports editor became much more memorable than any breaking election result that came into the news team that evening.
As the news team was putting the final touches on web updates and their front page stories, I made my way over to the sports desk to see how things went on their end that night.
It was busy, the sports editor said. Tons of late calls, three games that ended late and a late-breaking story about an athletic director who had resigned. There were some stories that developed late morning too that his crew had been chasing all day long.
News was busy, too, I said, sort of defending them. The sports editor with a smirk on his face – you've seen this before I am sure – leaned in close to me and said "it's always election night over here."
Funny, I thought, but totally right.
"If news had to do that every night, it would kill them," he said.
Funny again. And probably right.
Oh, the divisions and drama of a newsroom.
I thought about that conversation this week as the country watched major news in my hometown – Austin, Texas – develop around a 23-year-old who was putting bombs in packages that were killing people and putting this great city on edge. On Tuesday, the bomber killed himself as police surrounded his vehicle.
The coverage from local media was applauded by many and it deserved to be; it was good. Reporters using sources to break critical information, amazing video and photographs and just outstanding use of social media and digital tools. Long, long days for sure.
But it was really what you'd expect from news organizations in a metro market. It's what happens when news breaks. It's what we do. Think about papers like The Orlando Sentinel's impressive work around the coverage of the the Pulse Nightclub shootings a few years back or the Houston Chronicle's coverage last year of Hurricane Harvey. In times of major breaking news, news organizations rise to the challenge. It's sort of their job.
The public connects with journalists during times like these. They depend on journalists. And they find immense value in what they do.
But here's the problem and it's a big one: That value drops when news organizations aren't providing that kind of coverage and value. People ignore the call to pay for news and dropping a subscription is a lot easier. This week, readers throughout Austin wrote on social media how they were really happy to pay for their subscription and support local journalism.
But what about next week when they aren't feeling like local media is playing that public service role as much or it's just not in their face the way it is this week? The rosy feeling goes away. And maybe so do some subscriptions and revenue.
That's why every day needs to feel like a breaking news day in a newsroom. It does in sports, doesn't it?
Think about the things that make breaking coverage so good and make that happen daily.
• Planning: Budget meetings are fast, energetic and they are critical. No one is going around the table, asking someone to read us the world wire report. Forget that, let's talk about how we cover the crap out of this story today.
• Communication: People know where everyone's at, they constantly stay in touch and they help each other. They talk about what's coming, when and what's next. No one is talking about what goes on Page 1. It's about creating the best content for the day and figuring out what to do with the platform it goes on later.
• Writing: People produce like crazy for breaking news. And they care – more than normal – about their lede on that main bar. They don't write two daily stories and work a little on that Sunday story. They are motivated to provide as much information today in very meaningful ways.
• Design: They go big and bold and can't wait to pick up the paper the next day. There's no conversation about what should be our four-column photo. It's about how big can we go, who has the best photo today and how do we make sure our website has a presentation as big as print.
I can count numerous times in my career when I left a newsroom at the end of the day feeling so great about the future of journalism because of the work my team did covering something big and meaningful. That wasn't always a shooting. It was really about the effort and the journalism and not the topic or the severity of the news.
You need to feel that every day. When I walked into a budget meeting – even when there wasn't breaking news – with a breaking news attitude, the paper was about 1,000 times better that day. It's up to editors, as leaders, to set that tone. I worry that's just not happening enough on a daily basis. You have to create that urgency and excitement. Yes, it's hard out there. But we have to push.
A breaking news attitude is about identifying a story or two that you are really going to own that day. That you are going to do so well and cover so deep – throughout the day – that your audience looks at that coverage and feels that your service is a indispensable part of the community.
Sure, you may not have a serial bomber running around town, but you can treat your content and your product in the same very serious, urgent nature that you do during those breaking news times. You can take an average day and make it more spectacular by planning well, communicating over the top, writing the hell out of that story and designing big and bold. Wake up tomorrow and decide that even though it's Tuesday, we're going to run like crazy today to make something truly memorable. And then do it again the next day. Your audience wants it.
Having that same daily gusto delivers that value that readers throughout Austin were feeling this week. Editors have to stop going through the motions. Be better, way better today than you were yesterday.
We want a sustained news product, right? Well we have to give our audience a reason, every day to feel something. We know how to do this. We do it when big news breaks. Learn from what you do well during breaking news. Do it daily. Do it energetically. Do it like sports does it, every day. Erase that smirk off your sports editor's face forever.
David Arkin is the chief strategy officer for American Hometown Publishing. He's been a reporter, copy editor, design, editor in chief and corporate executive at a variety of newspapers and media companies. Follow him on Twitter @david_arkin
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