Friday, October 13, 2006

Preparing for the big story

Every college newspaper encounters a big story from time to time. A rainstorm floods the campus. A distraught student jumps out of a dorm window. The university president abruptly resigns. A melee breaks out after a big game.

You have to be ready to make decisions, collect the information quickly and report it to your readership. Here are some tips on getting yourself and your staff ready for the big story.

Before the event:

1. Assemble a staff contact list. Put together a list of contact information (e-mail addresses; cell, home and work phone numbers; work and school schedules) for your entire staff. Make sure each staff member has one and post them around the newsroom.
2. Develop a disaster plan. Figure out how you will work if the power goes out in your newsroom. Think about using battery-operated devices and alternative work places. Set up an alternative printing arrangement in case you can’t print the paper the usual way.
3. Create a breaking news culture. Make it clear everyone should call in or report for duty if they hear of a major story.
4. Create cooperative arrangements. Develop relationships with other campus media so you can share resources in the event of a major story.
5. Train for the big story. Just as athletes train for the big race or the big game you've got to train for the big story. Make sure you have some writers who can write really fast, that reporters know how to look up public documents at a moment’s notice; that designers can create infographics; that online producers can post stories and photos from anywhere.

As the news breaks:

6. Assemble a team. Assign reporters, photographers, editors, graphic artists, online producers and designers to work on the story. Break the story into manageable assignments and make sure each team member understands his or her role.
7. Staff your newsroom. Keep a few key people in the newsroom to take phone calls and assign stories and photos as new developments arise.
8. Assign a rewrite person. Designate one or two of your best – and fastest – writers to put together the major story as reporters in the field call in information or send dispatches.
9. Think visually. Look for graphic elements that will help tell the story – timelines, explanatory graphics, locator maps, info boxes.
10. Keep your readers in mind. Think about what readers will want and need to know – names of people injured or killed; shelters and other services for people affected; places to donate money, food or clothing.
11. Plan a package. Don’t try to tell the story in one big article. Think about sidebars, lists, infographics, bios of key players, timelines, info boxes and other devices to make the story engaging and thorough.
12. Develop a logo or project title. Think about a catchy title that you can use for the breaking news package and follow-up stories. If you have time, create a logo to go along with it.
13. Make use your Web site. Post a news bulletin on your Web site as soon as the story breaks. Continue to update the story as it unfolds.
14. Use multimedia storytelling online. Use audio, video, slide shows or photo galleries, and other multimedia devices to tell the story on your Web site.
15. Create an online community gathering spot. Set up bulletin boards or a memorial page where readers can share photos and comments about the story.

Following up:

16. Assess your coverage. Have a staff discussion evaluating what went well and what didn’t. Learn from your mistakes.
17. Brainstorm. Have the staff develop ideas for follow-up stories and new angles.
18. Editorialize. Use your editorial page to reflect on the big story.
19. Make space for letters to the editor. If you get a large number of letters to the editor, create extra space for them or post a letters section on your Web site. Let your readers know you’re listening to them.
20. Ask why. If a deadly fire breaks out, examine fire inspection reports. If a winning coach resigns unexpectedly, look at the factors that drove him or her to leave. Look at university policies, local and state laws and other factors that may have contributed to the crisis.
21. Don’t drop the ball. Most big stories demand follow up. Keep on the story until it’s really over. Follow up on lawsuits, reports, indictments and other news that may come weeks, months or even years after the news event.
22. Take care of yourselves. If staff members are upset or traumatized by the event, get help from your campus counseling center. You may want to bring in a counselor to address your staff.

For more information on covering tragedy, consult the Dart Center for Journalism & Trauma.

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