Drawing lessons from DFM’s coverage of Sandy Hook

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When I first heard the news of the Sandy Hook tragedy I was sitting on a hotel balcony in Negril, Jamaica. It was the second day of a long-awaited vacation. Already my inbox showed hundreds of emails as Thunderdome and DFM newsrooms mobilized to cover this heartbreaking story.

By the time I returned a few days later we had dozens of journalists assigned to coverage, roughly 35 of which came from other DFM newsrooms, including The Denver Post. We had set up a remote newsroom and were coordinating the sharing of content across our national network of newsrooms.

My colleague Steve Buttry, Digital First Media’s director of digital transformation, gave a more thorough accounting of Newtown coverage in a recent post.

This was the first time Thunderdome had partnered with newsrooms on this scale to cover a national event. We immediately began an internal discussion on how to learn from this experience and apply those lessons to future newsroom collaborations.

“We have tried to make introspection and analysis a key component of Thunderdome,” said Robyn Tomlin, editor of Thunderdome. “We recognized early on that this would be an incredible opportunity to learn – from our successes and our mistakes.”

Based on the size and complexity of this project, we separated our approach into three phases. The first was to gather online survey data from our three primary groups of participants. This would give us a foundation of data from which we could begin to identify positive and negative themes.

Thunderdome staff – We had approximately a dozen staff participate in coverage. This included reporting and editing, as well as coordination and sharing of content.

Visiting DFM journalists – This group was of special importance as they were dropped into an unfamiliar newsroom and would have a unique view of operations.

Network editors – We used existing protocols to begin sharing content just moments after the story broke, but the nature and volume of content was unprecedented.

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One way we gathered feedback after the fact was through a SurveyMonkey questionnaire sent to journalists who had used or participated in coverage.

The survey information proved invaluable and participants were eager to contribute to this process. Almost immediately key themes began to surface and we compiled these into nine ‘challenge areas.’

Our next step was to gather Thunderdome staff to discuss each ‘challenge area’ and document suggestions on how they could be fixed. We lined the walls of our conference room with large sheets of paper, with a ‘challenge area’ at the top of each.

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Another shot of the conference room during our staff discussion.

We’d budgeted one hour for this meeting but it ended up taking two-and-a-half. By the end everyone had contributed and we had at least partial consensus on all issues.

“Was it perfect and problem-free coverage? Of course not, and the real satisfaction is learning from our mistakes and trying to figure out how we can be better journalists next time,” said Troy Turner, news channels editor for Thunderdome. “ That truly defines the spirit and dedication of what this team’s about.”

Our next step was to condense this into a final report we could submit to our regional editorial leadership for approval. We built this on the previously identified ‘challenge areas’ and provided a checklist of action items for each. Our goal was to create a reference manual editors can refer to when national news breaks in their community.

screenshot of final report2013/02/screenshot-of-final-report.png" width="435" height="164" /> The national coverage guidelines that resulted from our experience at Sandy Hook will be used by DFM newsrooms to guide future responses to breaking news situations.

We are now distributing copies of this completed and approved report to all DFM newsrooms. This was a challenging story for any news organization to cover. Our hope is that by learning from this experience we can continue to improve how we work together to create quality journalism, no matter where the story breaks.

Mark Lewis

By Mark Lewis

Mark Lewis is the Communications/Operations Editor for Project Thunderdome, a centralized team that produces high-quality non-local journalism for Journal Register Company and Media News Group properties on all platforms.

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