Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Northern Star "flooded with news"

Four days before the Northern Star, the student newspaper at Northern Illinois University, was planning to roll out its new 24-hour news operation and redesigned Web site, the paper faced one of its biggest stories in years: a severe storm followed by a flood that forced the campus to close.

The newspaper staff was in a training session for the revamped news site Thursday afternoon when the story broke.

"Assignments went out and reporters snapped into action," Managing Editor Michael Swiontek wrote in an opinion blog about the newspaper's response to the story. "It was what an exciting newsroom can be — scrambling to relay horrible news."

The paper managed to post three news updates on its Web site before its server went down Friday, Swiontek wrote. But the site was back up Monday, with lots of follow-up stories on the flood.

"We got on-the-job training," Swiontek wrote in his blog. "Last week’s news was perfect practice for a great semester of covering breaking news."

The Northern Star's new Web site is a model for college papers around the country. The staff has pledged to cover news as it breaks, putting stories online first and posting updates on major stories throughout the day.

"Our first and foremost priority now is the Web site," Online Editor Justin Smith wrote in a column about the revamped Web site.

In addition, the newspaper is beefing up its coverage with new media enhancements -- blogs, photo slideshows, Podcasts, maps, charts and other graphics. (In case you're wondering what the old site looked like you can see it on this post.)

If you're looking for inspiration, watch for the Northern Star.

And if you're a Northern Star staffer we'd love to hear more about the revamped, re-energized site. Post a comment here.


Jim Killam said...

Thanks for the compliments toward our students. Our town and county did flood; however, actual damage to campus was not nearly as bad as some areas got. Campus closed on Friday mostly because people couldn’t get here, and more rain was expected. It’s been a mess, but don’t get the idea that we’re producing the paper while sitting in rowboats. And our campus community really did a great job in keeping people safe.

That said, our students have indeed done a fantastic job in covering a big story. We were in the middle of a training session last Thursday (which also was move-in day in the dorms) when the tornado sirens sounded. Everyone took shelter until the storm passed, and then everyone went to work. The flood came that night. On Friday, even though campus was closed, the newsroom was full … except for me. I live about an hour away and could not get to campus, so relied on e-mail and cell phone to keep in touch with editors. Reporters and photographers fanned out across campus and across the city. A few stories and road-closing lists were posted Friday to the old version of our Web site. A temporary blog also was posted, encouraging people to tell their flood stories. (This did not get a lot of response – readers were kind of busy – but was an idea we’ll use again.)

And then on Monday, when the new site launched and the first paper was published, there were 13 stories, numerous photos, an editorial, a column and a blog. An online slide show followed on Tuesday. Video is on hold right now; we have that capability but with the new site just launching, editors have decided it would overload the staff. It’s coming soon.

Speaking of which, the site today is nothing close to what we hope it will be in a few weeks. It’s tempting to try to roll out everything at once, but it has not proved to be realistic. I credit our online editor, Justin Smith, and his staff for realizing this and taking a calculated approach to the launch.

One secret to launching a new site is having an alumnus who’s a Web designer for the Washington Post. Jeremy Norman has been a huge help in working with our online staff to come up with this. Jeremy was our online editor in the early 2000s, when the site was winning every national award you could win.

So this has been a great experience for the new staff. Training week turned into baptism by … well, water. Classes hadn’t started; our students could devote their full attention to the story. A disaster certainly isn’t a positive thing for anyone, but good things can come out of it. Our staff bonded quickly, turned out great coverage and realized this can be a very good year.

Jim Killam
Northern Star Adviser

Rachele Kanigel said...

Thanks for posting the comment. It's great to get the backstory on this kind of thing.

We'll all be checking out the Northern Star for ideas and inspiration in the coming weeks.

Justin Smith said...

Hi Rachele,

Thanks very much for the generous coverage you gave the site. I'd like to note that I'm always available to discuss what we're doing here at the Star and to give whatever advice I may have to those who are interested. My contact information follows. Thanks again and definitely keep looking for the Star to do more in the future.

Justin Smith
Editor, northernstar.info
(815) 753-9642

Lionel Tipton said...

Rachele, Jim, and others:

We are a much smaller operation, but a story fell in our laps AFTER our final issue of the spring semester. On May 4, a tornado virtually obliterated Greensburg, Kan., which is about 46 miles from our campus in Dodge City. Now, four months later, school is back in session. I drove the editor and managing editor (also our main photographer) to Greensburg last Friday. The city administrator was willing to spare us some time (arranged 24 hours in advance). We published Wednesday (Aug. 29; we are a bi-weekly tabloid), and, now that the issue has been distributed campuswide, I am very proud of the way my two students handled this story and pictures. Five of our 12 pages are devoted to Greensburg. The editor also addressed her feelings in a sidebar commentary piece. Other stories concerned four of our school's nursing professors who volunteered in a shelter after the tornado hit; and a story on where to go on campus should a tornado hit, accompanied by a map that showed the "safe" places. Of the 10-12 on our staff, only a few have any prior experience. So, for them to undertake this package was huge, in my opinion. They performed their duties without question or complaint, and the final product was quite satisfying. That isn't to say there aren't a few relatively minor glitches (after all, it IS the first issue of the school year!), but given that, and given the fact that we added spot color, four additional pages and some other new features, I am very satisfied with the work the students did. We hope to have a Web site for the paper in the very near future as well.

My editor is a very sensitive person to the feelings of others and has a great touch with emotional issues such as this one.

I am quite proud that they were able to juggle classes yet still turn in a fine effort on this package.

Lionel Tipton
Adviser, The Conquistador
Dodge City Community College