Wick Communications

Lessons learned from Tucson

In journalism on February 18, 2011 at 9:22 am

Editors Teri Hayt and Poli Corella of the Arizona Daily Star provided tips this week for handling the unimaginable – a news event like the multiple shootings that occurred in Tucson Jan. 8, 2011. Here are the highlights:

  1. Make a plan, but be flexible.
  • The Daily Star had a disaster plan but it wasn’t given much TLC. At the very least, make sure editors know home and cell numbers of everyone on staff (I think that means everyone – not just the editorial staff. There are occasions when ad and circulation and production might become extra eyes and ears in the field.)
  • “Gear up for mobile,” Hayt says. By that she means, know who has smartphones and cameras and laptops and who can file from the field…
  1. Marshal your forces… but don’t wear them out.
  • Hayt said she started a phone tree, calling the editors who called individual reporters and photographers. (It should be noted that her staff includes an editor, managing editor, assistant managing editor, metro editor and a full copy desk. Most of us aren’t that lucky.)
  • Corella got “first responders” to the scene.
  • Hayt said she was heartened when the entire news staff arrived for duty within hours of the Saturday shootings. She also knew she had to send some of them home. “You need people who have fresh eyes who will be available days later,” she said.
  1. Use the Web for all it’s worth.
  • Corella quickly learned that he needed one “gatekeeper” on the Web. Writers and editors were tripping all over themselves with updates. He took over to give the coverage more coherence even amid continual updates.
  • Invite readers to contribute content. The main photo in the Sunday paper was given by a reader. With that in mind, Corella worked Twitter and Facebook hard. He says that most of the comments that have come about the newspaper’s coverage have come via Facebook and not the newspaper’s homepage.
  • Hayt says to make sure staffers are familiar with social media and know the newspaper’s policy. (Here are a few tips.)
  • Think big and don’t be afraid to blow up your Web site. The Daily Star completely changed the look of its homepage based on a quick brainstorming session. Hayt said it took two hours to redesign the homepage. You can see the results at the top of this post and the quick sketch on a whiteboard here.

4.     Set the right tone.

  • Be consistent with story placement. Give the victims the same coverage you give the suspects … and that means all of the victims. (Hayt says the federal judge and the congresswoman got more coverage by virtue of their positions, but that all victims got front-page play.)
  • Respect that this is a tragedy. While terminology like “mass murder” and “bloodbath” may be right for the national media, they may be entirely wrong for the community newspaper.
  • Don’t lie, cheat and steal to tell your stories. Unlike the National Enquirer, you have to live with your readers forevermore. If you violate the trust of local police, or sneak onto private property to bother locals – as other reporters might – you will regret it later.
  • Convince your sources that you are the right outlet to tell this local story. You know the people. You have the background. You are uniquely qualified to tell these stories in your town. As Hayt says, ”I am here. I am your neighbor. I can tell your story better than anyone else.”
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