Breaking news stories online for local media

Breaking news stories are curious beasts. Not only do they often see the national media descend on somewhere most people would be hard pressed to find on a map, it also provides an excellent chance for local media to excel themselves, be it breaking news in hourly bulletins for the local radio station, or in-depth coverage and analysis by the local paper, often built on the strengths of intimate local knowledge and contacts. As somebody who, on more than one occasion, has been part of that slightly smaller feral pack, I've never yet seen a paper or radio station disgrace themselves with their coverage in print or on air.

But, as we're now in 2008 and on whatever version of Web 2.0.1.7.3 we're on now, how do our local media shape up online?

Across the pond Rob Curley (via Martin Stabe) has a detailed account of how one local paper nailed their online coverage for a major event, including liveblogging, photos, video, and in-depth history, all before the event was anywhere near a close.

Curley also poses the question: how would have most local papers reacted? He then sets out five options, which are worth repeating here (although I'd recommend you click through and read the whole post):

"It seems to me that in 2008, there are probably about five ways a local newspaper might cover a breaking local news event like this:

  • No. 1 — Throw some resources at it in real-time, becoming the definitive source online for the story as it is happening. Constant news updates. Great background info. Multimedia that is worth looking at — at the very least, some decent photo galleries if you’re not going to do video. I’m talking about web reports that combine speed, accuracy and compelling visuals with overwhelming comprehensive coverage in a way that creates something that shows your readers that your newspaper’s website is the only place to go for information on this story.
  • No. 2 — At the very least, keep the web site updated. Even if in kind of a half-assed way.
  • No. 3 — Run a big story in print with a big photo. The next day. After the story is over. Treat it like your print predecessors would have back in 1978, pretending that no one knows about the story until you tell them about it in print. The next day.
  • No. 4 — Go apesh*t in print. The next day. But in the midst of the overkill print coverage, there are thoughtful analysis pieces that treat the story like a Day Two story. Which in 2008, it is.
  • No. 5 — Do a mixture of No. 1 and No. 4. Treat the web and print like they’re both important, with print coverage that acknowledges that we live in a world where both CNN and the Internet have been around for at least a few years. Or maybe even a few decades.

So, the question is simple: How do you think your newspaper would cover a big-time, local breaking news story in 2008?

Would it be 1, 2, 3, 4 or 5?

If it’s 2 or 3 (and possibly even 4), I’d be thinking about getting that resume ready if I were you."

Although Curley's dealing with America and newspapers here, his points are equally valid for local British print and broadcast media.

If you've got a story of national interest, it's reasonable to assume that a large number of people both inside and outside the audience area will go to the websites of local media as the first or second choice to get information. If the online coverage is poor (and for radio remember that not everybody can listen at work, but chances are they'll be able to do a bit of surfing) then not only will potential readers go back to BBC and Sky, there's also a good possibility they simply won't bother next time something similar happens, be it of national interest or, as is more likely, a big story for the local patch but of limited or no interest to the national media.

I recognise I'm making a lot of assumptions here, as I've not had the chance to surf around every local media site during a breaking story, but even at this period of time the current prognosis falls short of Curley's recommendations [1]

Firstly, print. I've seen some newspapers that will 'break' stories online. There are a couple that include the whole story, although they're few and far between and most sites I've seen still say something along the lines of "for more on this story see tomorrow's paper". Others just reproduce the day's content, while some barely even get that far. As for any potential to include liveblogs and photos... well, I'm not entirely sure how they'd fit in or on. Given that most local papers are only slowly waking up to the idea of blogging, and many hide their blogs away in different-to-find areas of the website, I'm not confident.

Still, at least the majority of them are streets ahead of many local radio station websites, some of whom don't even bother sticking local news up online. For an interesting comparison, have a browse around the respective sites of Oxford's local paper and radio station [2].

I'll hold up my hands here and say that, as somebody with a background largely in local radio, I can come up with various mitigations. Many radio newsrooms just don't have the staffing to be able to deal with both online and on-air during a breaking news story [3]. Also, there's the argument that as they're breaking immediate developments at least every hour they've covered that angle.

To a certain extent there is a point there. They'll certainly have covered plenty of different angles before the local paper has even gone to press. But if you get an on-the-ball local paper who follows Curley's suggestions, that suddenly becomes a very different matter indeed. Also, in this age where the boundaries between media types are ever thinner, to stubbornly stick to what you do best (and many radio stations produce excellent coverage) is storing trouble up for the long term. Neglect these at your peril.

Technology should make it easier for journalists from both mediums to send back pictures and video from the scene asap. Having a journalist liveblogging and tying together news strands keeps the story running and is definitely a valid form of journalist. Radio stations could upload extended interviews from clips that make it on-air. To be fair to radio, there are some stations who are very proactive to uploading audio and keeping their news sections updated. From a brief surf around, they don't appear to be in the majority, sadly.

We've not even touched on photo and video submissions from the readers and listeners here, and if the journalist is being really proactive, they should hit Flickr, Technorati, Twitter, Facebook and Myspace and get searching for what those closest to the scene are saying. Of course there's the ethical considerations about contacting the users, but the point here is the sites mentioned should be par for the course for any journalist these days.

I'm well aware I've over-generalised here, and have tarred all local media with the same brush. But from what I've seen, both in the past and current day, I don't think there's many traditional local news sites ready to do as good a job online as they do with their traditional media outlets. If you know of any really good examples of the local media embracing online, please do leave them in the comments as I'd be interested to see them.

[1] Note: for the purposes of this blog post, I'm not including BBC local radio for a variety of reasons, although some of the criticisms could be applied to these stations, albeit in a slightly different way.

[2] Yes, I know the latter has a 'blog' on the front page, but by my book, that barely qualifies as one. Where's the interaction, the comment, the trackback, the separate pages? It's a blog Jim, but not as we know it.

[3] Hopefully I'll get round to writing a long piece hitherto only semi-formed in my head on online radio presence and staffing, among other things.