Unbolt enterprise reporting from the ‘Sunday story’ with these questions

project_unbolt-logo

(Editors note: The following post was originally published on Steve Buttry’s blog.)

A leading challenge in unbolting newsrooms will be to help enterprise reporting break free of the “Sunday story.”

Project Unbolt logo

For decades, most newsrooms with Sunday papers target their best enterprise for that day, when space is generous and daily news is usually light and readers are likely to spend more time with the newspaper. But Sunday is an awful day for web traffic. Our digital audience is more engaged during the work week.

The Digital First approach to enterprise reporting has largely been to publish our Sunday stories online Saturday or Friday (if the reporter turns them in on time and we finish the editing early enough). But our best enterprise still gets muted impact with the digital audience, publishing on the weekend or late in the work week. And the content still generally revolves around a long text story that was planned for print.

Planning for enterprise stories needs to focus on how and when we tell the story digitally. Presentation of some of that content as a Sunday print story should be an afterthought (like digital planning often tends to be now). We might not develop a single approach that we use for all enterprise stories, but through experimentation develop a handful of approaches that work for different types of enterprise stories.

As I help Digital First Media newsrooms “unbolt” from their print workflow and culture in Project Unbolt, I have suggested that we develop some questions to consider in planning enterprise stories. I’m not suggesting that all these questions be considered for every story (it’s quite a long list), but some of them (and most or all of the umbrella topics below) should be considered for every story.

Crowdsourcing questions

  • Should we crowdsource before or after reporting (or both)?

  • How should we crowdsource: Social media, live chat, print, story, combo?

  • What do we need from public? (Tips, information, data analysis, photos, videos, memories, experiences, community info, location-specific info, etc.)

  • Is crowdsourcing inappropriate for this story (investigating rumored wrongdoing, for instance, where crowdsourcing might damage a reputation before verification of facts; or crowd unlikely to know)?

  • Does the situation in the question above mean we shouldn’t crowdsource or should it just cause us to be extra careful (or vague) in our crowdsourcing? For instance, if we’re investigating reports of sexual abuse by a coach or member of the clergy, we wouldn’t crowdsource a question such as “If you were molested by Coach (or Rev.) Badguy, please call us at …” But can we ask in another way: “We’re interested in reaching current and former members of …”? The answer may be no, but we should consider alternatives.

  • Would a tool such as Google Forms or SeeClickFix help us gather information from the community?

  • Does crowdsourcing hurt or help us competitively (we need to be aware of where we lean & be careful to consider the other possibility)?

  • Beyond crowdsourcing on our own branded social media accounts and staff members’ individual accounts, should we crowdsource with specific niches of the community who might have interest or knowledge in the topic, posting requests on community Facebook pages or groups, using @ mentions, hashtags or direct messages to reach out to specific Twitter accounts, etc.?

Data questions

  • How can the Thunderdome data team help us with this data project?

  • What information for this story is available in public databases?

  • What information for this story is stored in private databases that sources might share with us?

  • What information that we are gathering or could gather will be more useful if structured as data?

  • Can we access the data?

  • Are the data sets posted online, so we can  download or scrape, rather than requesting or fighting for it?

  • Is it available in a usable format?

  • Has someone else already made the data accessible, so we can just link to them?

  • What questions do we need to ask in data analysis?

  • How do we want to visualize the data?

  • How to we want to present the data so that users can find the answers to their particular questions?

  • What privacy concerns does the data raise? Are we addressing them ethically?

  • What tools do we need to access, analyze and present the data?

  • What skills do we need to access, analyze and present the data?

  • If we don’t have the skills, can we learn them?

Investigative questions

  • Who is likely to have the information we need?

  • What would be their motive for giving us that information?

  • Would we be asking them to violate the law in giving us information?

  • If so, how can we protect confidentiality (not just by our willingness to go to jail, if necessary, but by our ability to protect our electronic communication from compromise)?

  • What records or data on this topic are public (or should be)?

  • What people have access to records or data that may not be public, or that are explicitly confidential under the law?

  • If a record is supposed to be confidential, does the citizen about whom the record is created have access? Might that person share it with us?

Video questions

  • What role should Tout play in this story? Should we use a hashtag or widget for the story?

  • What role should longer video play in this story?

  • Should we do this story as a full-length documentary?

  • Should video support text in this story?

  • Should text support video in this story?

  • Should text and video be integrated in this story, using a tool such as NewHive or Scrollkit?

  • Should the reporter shoot video?

  • Should a visual journalist collaborate with the reporter and shoot video?

  • Should a visual journalist do this story alone?

  • Should we livestream any events or interviews that are part of this story?

  • Should we do any interviews with distant sources as Skype or Hangout calls, recording the video?

  • What video is available from sources or the community that would contribute to this story?

  • What video can we curate from social media or other digital media for this story?

Photography questions

  • What photos should the reporter shoot?

  • What photos should a visual journalist shoot?

  • What photos should we solicit from the community?

  • Should a visual journalist take the lead on this story, telling it primarily or exclusively as a photo story?

  • Should this story include a Media Center (a DFM photo gallery tool)?

  • Should this story include another slideshow tool, such as sound slides or a video that’s primarily or exclusively still photos with audio?

  • Should this project have a Pinterest board or Instagram hashtag?

  • How should you use photos to promote the story on social media?

Social media questions

  • Are people talking about this issue on social media? If so, should we curate the social content and/or look for sources in social media?

  • Should we embed tweets, Facebook posts, YouTube or Tout videos or other social content into the main story and/or curate for a sidebar?

  • Should the story include a Tout widget and/or hashtag?

  • Should the story include a hashtag for Twitter or Instagram?

  • How should we use social media in crowdsourding?

  • Should the story involve creation of any larger social media presence than simple updates, such as a Facebook page, Pinterest board, Pegboard, Twitter account, RebelMouse page, YouTube channel, Tout account, etc.?

  • Should the story have its own Facebook page or group, as the New Haven Register did for its reporting on missing persons or as ProPublica did for patients harmed by doctors?

Storytelling tool questions

  • What is/are the best tool(s) for telling this story?

  • Are multiple locations important to the story? If so, do we need to use a mapping tool such as Google Maps or Crowdmap to tell this story?

  • Do we want to use a collaboration tool such as Spundge or Hackpad for this story?

  • Will the story use information curated from digital sources? If so, should we use a tool such as Spundge, RebelMouse, ScribbleLive or Storify for curation and/or publication?

  • Should we use ScribbleLive in this story (an enterprise story can be related to an event, or we could use for a live chat).

  • Does the story unfold over time in a way that makes us want to use a timeline tool such as Dipity or Timeline JS?

  • Would a tool such as Google Forms help us gather information from the community?

  • Does the story have multiple types of elements that we can integrate into a single story using a tool such as Scroll Kit, NewHive, Thinglink, Prezi or Intersect?

  • Would a quiz help in telling this story? (Remember that the most-read New York Times story of 2013 was a quiz.)

  • Do we want to request help from Thunderdome for storytelling tools such as motion graphics?

Writing questions

  • Should this story package include a text story?

  • Is this a narrative opportunity?

  • Should this story include (or be) a listicle?

  • Should this story be written in chunks, with the chunks of text integrated in some form with other elements?

  • Should this story be in quiz form?

  • Should this be a serial?

  • Is a traditional newspaper-style string-of-paragraphs story the best way to tell the text part of this story, or should you take a different approach, perhaps “chunkifying” it?

Linking/embedding issues

  • Before reporting: Reporters should remember (and editors should remind reporters) to collect the links they use in their reporting and use them in the story to provide attribution, depth and context.

  • Before and while writing: Reporters should remember (and editors should remind reporters) to add links as they write.

  • In editing: Check links to be sure they work (and that the cited material is still there). Watch for facts where attribution could be strengthened with links or where links could provide added depth or context.

  • Did the reporter use source documents that can be embedded in the story using DocumentCloud, Scribd or SlideShare?

  • If social media posts are cited, should they be embedded?

  • Have we looked for related YouTube clips to embed?

Publication-timing questions

  • Is this a one-day story? If so, what’s the best day to run it (independent of our print preference for Sunday publication of enterprise stories)?

  • If we uncover something newsy in the course of working an enterprise story, should we publish it immediately as a news story, rather than wait to finish the full project? If so, how can we use publication of the news story as a crowdsourcing opportunity to advance the larger project?

  • Is this a multiple-day story. If so, when should it start? When should it end?

  • What’s the news peg? Should that dictate the time of publication?

  • Do we want to extend the story with a live chat following the publication of our reporting? Do we involve sources? Just the journalists involved?

  • Do we need a RebelMouse page or another tool to curate related pieces of the project as it unfolds over time?

Print publication questions

  • Does the story include a text story, photo(s) and/or graphic(s) that will work in print? If not, should it not be a print story at all, or do we need to adapt part of the content to print?

  • Should the Sunday story be a week-in-review wrap-up of a digital series that ran all week?

  • Should some aspect of the story (perhaps something that works best in print) be held back to give the Sunday story something fresh or exclusive? (Don’t use this question as a slippery slope to slide back into Sunday-story thinking.)

  • Since Sunday is the best day for print enterprise stories, but digital enterprise stories should publish during the week, how should the print version reflect the earlier digital publication? Should the digital version promote the Sunday story in any fashion, especially if the Sunday story includes something that’s not in the digital version?

  • Should we follow publication of the Sunday story (and previous week’s digital story/ies) with a live chat on Monday or some live event during the following week, such as a town meeting?

  • Does the package warrant a special print section? (I can’t imagine many enterprise packages where the answer would be yes, but it should be a consideration.)

Secrecy/confidentiality/transparency issues

We want to be more transparent and engaging with the community in our reporting of enterprise stories. But we still should consider some factors that might lead us to secrecy or caution in enterprise reporting:

  • Is this story likely to be competitive? If so, we don’t necessarily back away from transparency, but we might consider how to use crowdsourcing and/or incremental reporting to get ahead on a story, to beat the competition and mark a story as ours. Sometimes we might have a valid concern about alerting the competition through transparency, but be aware of most journalists’ default setting of favoring secrecy here. Transparency is usually better.

  • How firm is our information? If we are seeking verification of information from the crowd, we want to avoid spreading misinformation. Editors should be involved in crafting crowdsourcing inquiries, so we are confident that we are seeking information without reporting what we haven’t yet confirmed. Or, if we think specific information should be shared with the public, we should be specific and clear in what we know (and how we know it) and what we don’t know.

  • Would partial information damage a reputation? When we are working on potentially defamatory stories, we need to proceed with caution and not report names or allegations in partial stories or crowdsourcing requests.

  • Would transparency spook sources? If crowdsourcing requests or partial reporting might be likely to scare potentially helpful sources from working with us, we should consider making personal contact with them before going public in any way. Similarly, if crowdsourcing requests or partial reporting might be likely to prompt powerful sources to close down access to data or less powerful sources, we should consider being more cautious.

  • If transparency would skew results of our reporting, we might want to consider waiting. For instance, if you’re going to make public records requests of local government agencies, blogging about it in advance might prompt them to be more helpful than they normally are to a citizen requesting a public record.
  • If we’re dealing with confidential sources, how do we protect their confidentiality? Would employer access to work computers or phone records compromise a promise of confidentiality. Would police access to work or personal computers or phone records or social media conversations (ours or the source’s) expose a relationship we thought was confidential or expose the actual content of our conversations? Do we need to take secrecy measures such as email encryption or burner cellphones to protect confidentiality?

Digital presentation

  • Should this story have a portal page to all coverage (probably most important if it’s a continuing story)?

  • Should we curate all elements and continuing coverage in a RebelMouse page (perhaps the format for the portal page)?

  • Should the portal page have an easy-to-remember URL within the branded domain (nhregister.com/CTSunshine, for a Sunshine Week project in Connecticut, for example) or even have its own URL such as CTSunshine.com, (possibly redirecting to a portal page on the domain).

  • Can we alter the basic design of the article or section-front page for the portal page to present the project most effectively?

  • If our design and/or CMS limits display in ways that would hinder presentation of this project, should we plan a WordPress blog for presentation of the portal page and/or the whole project or parts of it?

Metrics

These questions might not necessarily apply to individual stories but more broadly to enterprise stories and how we measure their success and impact:

  • Are page views and/or uniques the best way to measure the success of an enterprise story?

  • What are the most appropriate measures for the effectiveness of an enterprise story: comments, engagement minutes, anything else?

  • What is the social-media engagement with the story (shares, likes, tweets, RTs, pins, +1s)?

  • Where does the story rank in relevant Google searches?

  • Are there ways to measure (and record) impact beyond the digital contact with the story on our site: Responses to sources, if the story included opportunities to volunteer, donate, request help, etc.; policies or practices changed; arrests, indictments, resignations, etc.

What are other questions (or whole categories of questions) we should consider? How are you answering these questions? Please feel welcome to share links that you regard as excellent examples of digital enterprise journalism and explain how you addressed some of these issues.

I’ll share some case studies as my DFM colleagues work on unbolting from the Sunday story.

Steve Buttry

By Steve Buttry

Steve Buttry is Digital Transformation Editor for Digital First Media. He oversees our efforts to transform newsroom operations and culture to more effectively pursue our digital goals. His duties include responsibility for social media and community engagement. He has visited most DFM newsrooms personally, leading workshops and coaching editors and other journalists in following the Digital First approach.

Leave a Reply