Behind the DFMies: January winners share breaking news advice

This is the fourth in a series of five Behind the DFMie reports on January’s DFMie winners.

Digital First Media journalists in New Mexico, Massachusetts and Ohio won January DFMies for their swift responses in covering a school shooting, a fatal crash at a high school and a police officer killing a pit bull.

January was a strong month for breaking news coverage in DFM newsrooms. Earlier posts about winners by the Los Angeles News Group and Charleston Daily Mail also featured strong breaking news coverage. This post notes three more breaking-news efforts:

  • Zack Ponce‘s coverage of a school shooting in Roswell, N.M., for the Carlsbad Current-Argus.
  • The Berkshire Eagle‘s staff coverage of a fatal crash at Pittsfield High School in western Massachusetts.
  • Stephanie Metzger and Eric Bonzar‘s coverage for the Morning Journal of a Lorain, Ohio, police officer’s killing of a pit bull that had attacked a child.

Zack Ponce’s school shooting coverage

On Jan. 14, a 12-year-old boy at Berrendo Middle School in Roswell pulled a gun out of his backpack and shot two classmates and a teacher. The Current-Argus sent Ponce to Roswell and quickly had a running liveblog incorporating Twitter updates and Ponce’s reporting and photos from Roswell. Editor Brandon Bowers coordinated with Thunderdome editors to make the live coverage available across Digital First Media sites.

Judges commented on Ponce’s work:

Dispatched into a traumatic and quickly evolving breaking-news story, Zack wasted no time in reaching the scene of the shooting and filing updates on the young victims and the shooter. While Zack deftly gathered details from police, educators and others on the chaotic scene, his colleagues calmly stitched together an informative and compelling real-time narrative online that surely helped comfort worried parents and a community shaken by the burst of violence. The team members’ collective performance that day, under difficult circumstances and intense deadline pressure, was a classic journalistic response to breaking news, deeply enriched by fodder from social-media tools like Tout and Twitter and incredible photos of the aftermath. Bravo to all involved!

Ponce reflected on the experience:

The Roswell Middle School shooting tested me more than any other circumstance so far in my young career. I learned how to balance the task of gathering information through interviews while remaining sensitive to the people who had to endure such a traumatic event. There were many times throughout the day when I felt uncomfortable because of the events children were describing to me, but I learned how to manage my emotions and stay composed in a high-stress environment. Whether it is asking better questions, or gaining someone’s trust, the shooting in Roswell has provided me invaluable experience that I will carry forward for the rest of my career. Of course I wish the event never happened, but since it did I am glad I was the one who was able to disseminate the information to the public.

Berkshire Eagle crash coverage

The same day as the Roswell shooting, a speeding car crashed into a perimeter wall at Pittsfield High School. The driver and a passenger later died from their injuries. The Berkshire Eagle staff responded with live tweeting, Tout videos, still images and reporting at the scene.

“We set up our re-write desk at the newsroom and compiled the initial breaking news story and assembled four additional updates to the unfolding narrative from reporter tweets and from reporters calling in more extensive information from the scene,” Kevin Moran Regional Vice President of News at New England Newspapers, wrote in his nomination.

Though the coverage didn’t start until about 3 p.m. (ET), BerkshireEagle.com set a traffic record (since broken) that day with 202,605 page views.

Using the hashtag #PHScrash, the Eagle staff drove strong Twitter engagement with tweets from the scene, getting dozens of retweets for several different tweets and attracting hundreds of new followers.

Coverage continued the next day when a second person died and both people in the car were identified, then another story and more video and photo coverage of a vigil for the victims.

Judges’ comments:

I admire their stick-to-itiveness. The team put a face on the story rather than simply make it a spot news story and be done with it. The initial story contained a lot of detail on the crash and didn’t simply rely on police information. The immediate coverage of the event through social media was a real service to the community by quelling fears about the crash harming anyone at the school and providing valuable traffic information to motorist. The multiple photo galleries were a nice element to the comprehensive multi-day coverage.

Eagle staffers shared some observations and lessons from their coverage.

Moran:

As far as social media with this local breaking news event, it was key to settle on a Twitter hashtag right away. We picked #PHScrash (PHS for Pittsfield High School) and used it with every update. (We’ve put this technique into our breaking news playbook.) That really helped the audience follow the story. Also, a staffer in the newsroom wrote the initial breaking news story off our tweets from the scene, and we updated the story numerous times off subsequent Twitter posts and a phone call or two with the reporter at the scene.

I kicked myself later for not having launched a ScribbleLive liveblog on this. But as a result, we now have and continue to develop a breaking news checklist to remind ourselves in the heat of the moment about all the digital tools at our disposal — and which ones are the best ones to pick for various breaking news situations. For coverage of this kind of breaking news, we know to drop everything and deploy people to the scene and have folks in the newsroom monitoring social media, posting updates, etc.

Stephanie Zollshan, visual news journalist:

When I was covering the crash, I got there just a little after the victims were put into the ambulances because I was far away when the call came in and rushed to the scene. Even though video is not my specialty, having the past experience of covering spot news with video as well as pictures was a second nature response. … If I had done anything differently, I would have made another video but my gear was getting soaked in the rain and had gotten as much of the scene that the police were allowing us to get.

Tom Tripicco, Eagle managing editor, made the decision to tweet the news based on scanner reports. He also made the call to continue the coverage well past the breaking news event was over:

Very quickly after hearing the scanner chatter — hearing there was entrapment … that one person was semiconscious and breathing — I very quickly got an understanding how bad it was. Twitter was the place for instant communication. … And I was very glad to have been involved with the decision to cover the vigil as well as we did and to make that a priority. … At least the feedback I heard from people who covered it suggested it was very much appreciated from the friends and family.

Nathan Mayberg, Eagle digital journalist, was first on the scene. With police and other authorities not in a position to speak with the media minutes after the crash, he used observations, iPhone photos, witness interviews to inform:

I interviewed every possible bystander at the scene and was able to get quotes from multiple witnesses. Witnesses can often be the most important people to talk to at the scene of a crash or crime.

Dick Lindsay, Eagle digital journalist, who worked the scene when authorities were in positions to speak with the media:

Teamwork and being in the right place at right time were keys to coverage. After Nathan Mayberg initially went to the scene [Nathan, during a long lull, came back to the newsroom to add updates to the breaking news story online], I followed up by going out there and got additional eyewitness quotes. I was able to speak directly with superintendent of schools who confirmed none of the victims were city school students. Mayor Bianchi was also at scene and told media gathered in a brief, impromptu interview that one person was dead and another taken to hospital, information he was told by police at the scene.

Ben Garver, visual news editor:

I covered the vigil at night. With some criticism of the drivers in reader comments, I was a little concerned that the event might be unfriendly toward media. Nothing could be further from the truth. The vigil pulled the community together and celebrated the two men who died in the crash. The event was full of human warmth and caring words for the two men and the people who lost them.

Morning Journal’s pit bull coverage

Metzger and Bonzar share the Midwest DFMie for their coverage of an officer’s killing of a pit bull that had attacked a child.

Judges’ comments:

The story shows how digital and visual journalism builds off of traditional, shoe-leather skills; it’s a typical breaking news story made exceptional by the use of video. I was particularly impressed that the reporters were on the scene quickly enough to shoot the video. It showed that they were doing all the things reporters have always done — monitoring sources, hitting the pavement, etc. — but simultaneously thinking about digital presentation. That takes quick thinking and shows that video isn’t an afterthought for this team.

Another judge:

The video gives you a true sense of the chaos of that moment.

Bonzar explained his coverage:

If I can give one piece of advice to fellow crime reporters, it would be “Always be listening.” Constantly having an operable scanner, even while traveling in a vehicle, helps reporters seize breaking moments like this. Along with diligent scanner monitoring, good communication with fellow reporters and a bit of good luck in regards to being in the right place at the right time helps us serve the public in an honest and fair manner.

Metzger:

The source of this story’s success was keeping open ears. While my colleague, Eric Bonzar, was shooting film and photo, I found myself listening to bystanders and police officers for information to find out what happened. The neighbors became an excellent source for information, considering many of them had seen the incident take place and some had even become part of it. Listening to their remarks and listening to the orders and conversations of police officers proved to be incredibly helpful. From a digital standpoint, this story certainly showed me that video can capture moments that even the best ledes can’t describe. Eric’s video showed the importance of quick thinking and reaction, which consequently gave way to an exclusive visual component to the 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.

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