A framework for newsrooms to interactively communicate with readers in a crisis

Over the last decade, newsrooms have adapted their breaking news coverage in order to better manage the information flow that comes from reporters on the scene, official sources, and user-generated content on social media channels. Newsrooms play a vital role in generating and curating that content.

But their role in crisis situations has been disrupted.  

Nontraditional players have stepped in and created innovative ways of engaging and connecting audiences when news breaks. Think Facebook with its safety check tool during the terrorist attacks in Paris, Google’s public alerts and crisis response maps, Twitter with hashtags like #PorteOuverte.

Traditional media outlets are still primarily a “push” medium: They gather, verify and disseminate information as quickly as possible, pushing it out to their audiences. But the new players, like the ones mentioned above, are more interactive and more responsive to their networked audiences. They reflect a shift in the way people interact during crisis situations and are illustrating creative ways to serve the public good.

There is an opportunity for traditional media outlets — especially local newsrooms — to make breaking news more participatory. There are several compelling reasons to do so:

  • Maintaining relevancy. Local journalism outfits are struggling to hold on financially. Their advantage over the digital behemoths? They know their communities better than Facebook, Google and Twitter. Breaking news offers the opportunity to show it.
  • The opportunity to build new “editorial products.” This term was coined by Jonathan Stray in a 2015 Nieman Lab article. In the piece, he advocates partnering coders, reporters, and developers to build new products for the user. Journalism is evolving and this is the future.
  • Strengthening existing networks. In the case of subscription- or membership-based newsrooms, the members are a network of their own, sharing brand identity and a mindset oriented toward civic engagement. Giving them tools to participate in a story is likely to strengthen that bond. Subscription-based newsrooms also benefit from having a multitude of eyes and ears that can, in effect, be deputized into newsgathering.
  • Leveraging core competency. In contrast to Facebook, Google, Twitter and other such companies, newsrooms are suffused with institutional experience and journalistic training. These professional skills are incredibly important in times of crisis, when information needs to be accurate, timely, and effectively delivered.

My goal moving forward is to develop specific recommendations for newsroom leaders that could better prepare them for the next big story. Tools, platforms and networks will evolve, but there should be a strong framework that emphasizes identifying community needs in real time and having flexibility within the newsroom to respond quickly.

There are several areas I will focus on including:

  • How newsrooms can apply design-thinking methods during a breaking news event, turning the focus of their efforts toward specific audience members.
  • How newsrooms can build social media verification skills in existing staff so that reporters, editors, producers, etc. can more easily identify fact from fiction (doctored images, recycled video, etc.).
  • How newsrooms can be more transparent in their newsgathering efforts, involving experts in the community to help report the story.
  • How newsrooms can rearrange their physical space to adapt to breaking news.
  • Identifying ways to prototype these recommendations on smaller scale stories, in advance of an actual crisis.