I Wanted News Now, I Got It the Next Day

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By: Steve Outing

My local newspapers (and TV news operations) failed me the other evening last week.

Here’s what happened. … My 14-year-old daughter came home from her day at Fairview High School (in Boulder, Colorado) on October 17 with an alarming story about an alleged threat. What my wife and I heard from her was that a note had been found on a wall in a boys’ bathroom, saying something along the lines of: “You may think Fairview is safe, but on October 18 you’ll learn that it’s not.” (Through reporting in subsequent days, we learned that the actual message was, “October 18, 2006, is when ‘it’ happens. Watch how safe we actually are.”)

Fairview’s principal also sent an e-mail to parents alerting them to the threat (but without describing it, so we had nothing to go on but gossip among teenagers). He described extra security measures that would be put in place on that day, including extra Boulder Police officers and school district security officials patrolling the building through the day. Parents also were told that if they felt it appropriate to keep their kids out of school on the 18th, that was fine and absences would be excused.

That’s some scary stuff for the parent of a high school kid — coming not long after some horrific school killings at a Bailey, Colorado, high school and an Amish school in Pennsylvania. Fairview is a big school, with about 2,000 students; it’s not far in geography or socio-economic makeup from Columbine High School, site of the worst-ever U.S. school shootings. This is important news — and especially so for the large Fairview community of students, parents and families.

So, when I heard about this (the evening before the threat day) I, of course, went straight to the website of the local daily newspaper, the Boulder Daily Camera, looking for information. Nothing.

OK, maybe Camera reporters haven’t heard this news yet. Worse, maybe they know but haven’t gotten around to putting it online yet, or they’re writing it up for the next day’s paper and the news will go online later in the evening.

Well, if the Camera has nothing, then let’s check the Denver daily papers’ websites. … Nothing.

How about local TV stations’ websites? … Nothing until around 9:30 p.m., when I spotted a short news item (not much information) on one of the stations’ sites.

The Fairview High School website? … Nothing!

There are a few things you can say here. The obvious one is that the professional newspaper reporters on the night before the threat day were either missing an important brewing story, or had decided that it’s not significant enough to rush it to the web. (It turned out to be the latter. Camera editors became aware of the threat when parents did, when the principal’s e-mail went out. A Daily Camera reporter filed a story about the threat and police response for the next morning’s paper, which went on the front page. The story also was on the Camera website, of course, but not until after midnight, when I last checked DailyCamera.com and went to bed.)

I can rationalize the non-urgent approach if I put myself in my old news editor shoes (and that old mindset). Threats at schools happen all the time. Is it really necessary to make a big deal out of something like this Fairview threat? By pumping out limited information too early, would that unnecessarily alarm parents and result in panic? Can’t it just wait till the next deadline and we’ll write a short story about it for the morning print edition, which will get posted late in the evening on the newspaper website?

If you’ve been following my columns for any length of time, you won’t be surprised at my reaction: That’s old-media thinking. And it’s one of the reasons the newspaper industry is in trouble.

Here’s the deal:

Even if you, as a news editor, decide that this threat at a local high school is not earth-shattering to the whole community — or you don’t want to publish prematurely for fear of inducing panic — it is INCREDIBLY important to the couple thousand families with kids going to the school. My wife and I had to decide whether to send my daughter to school or not on the 18th based on very little information.

Faced with a need for information, the obvious place to turn is the local daily newspaper or local TV news outlets and their websites. But the evening of the 17th, the professional journalists were of no help.

If newspapers want to remain relevant in the Internet age, then I think that they’ve got to figure out how to be useful in instances like this. A segment of the Boulder community desperately wanted information now, not the next morning. Newspapers need to learn how to better collect it and deliver it.

My daughter had some information. Know where she got it? MySpace and Instant Messenger. Fairview students spent the evening of the 17th posting gossip and news about whether or not they were going to school on each others’ MySpace pages. And they IM’ed each other. I watched this in action on my daughter’s computer.

Was the infomation accurate? Much of it about the actual threat, probably not. Was it gossip? Much of it, probably. But it’s all anyone had that evening.

Here’s what I think newspapers and their websites should do in a situation like this:

1. Recognize that this is an important story to a segment of your audience, and figure out how to get them information right away, even if the facts are still unfolding. Understand that what may seem inconsequential to most in the community — just another threat at a school — is the most important news of the hour to those affected. Thus, it warrants publishing any information you have immediately online, not holding it till the presses roll. (Do I really need to restate that point at this juncture in the evolution of news media? I hope not.) And I’m not just picking on the Daily Camera here. All local media in the Denver area did pretty much the same thing; oddly, there was no sense of urgency to get information out quickly in order to help Fairview parents make decisions about the next day.

To be relevant and useful to community members, local newspapers should be on top of stories like this right away.

2. Go outside the box when it comes to reporting. With not much information to be had, a reporter put on this story likely would have had enough to fill a few inches of column space and produce a brief story about an alleged threat, a letter to parents going out from the principal, planned increased police presence, and the possibility that lots of students would stay home on the day of the threat. That’s not much, but it should be published online as quickly as possible.

But a reporter making a few phone calls does not make the full picture these days. How about those MySpace pages of Fairview students? A reporter could go online, check out the chatter in the comments and bulletins that were being posted, get a sense of the situation, and then report it. MySpace alone likely would turn up some students to interview — if not to gather actual facts about the threat, then to gauge the level of fear or apprehension about going to school the next day.

Now I’m going to go out on a limb, and journalistic purists probably will throw darts my way. I think that in a situation like this, it’s reasonable to use a news website to point people to whatever sources of information (or quite possibly misinformation) exist.

That might mean:

* Acknowledging as quickly as possible that this school threat situation is happening, and that few facts are known at this hour.

* Possibly quoting from students’ MySpace pages (but I’d leave out identities unless you get their permission) to give a sense of students’ feelings about going to school on the threat day, as well as the gossip that’s swirling within the community.

* Pointing and linking to online venues and forums where the situation is being discussed, and information and (yes) gossip are being bandied about.

* Being upfront and blatant in explaining that the venues you’re pointing to — where the situation is being discussed online — are of dubious reliability, but you’re giving your online users an opportunity to dig into the situation deeper on their own, as long as they understand the risks.

On that last point, recognize that as a parent, I did exactly that myself. I wanted information and I used what I could find on the Internet to dig for it, recognizing that it could be — probably was — inaccurate. So why not do news consumers like me a favor and point me to it from your newspaper site. As long as you’re not endorsing the accuracy of it and warn me what I could be getting into, I won’t hold you accountable for steering me to gossip. Call it what it is, but let me make the decision about whether to view it or not.

3. Open the gates to the public to share what they know. OK, here I go out on a limb again. … What I would like to see in this particular situation is a short news item stating what reporters do and do not know, followed by a call for people involved in the story — students, parents, teachers and school administrators — to share what they know, and what they’re feeling. Allow the responses to be published directly online.

Request specific types of information. Parents: Will you be sending your kid to school on threat day? Students and teachers: How are you feeling about going to school on threat day? Students: What did you hear about the threat on the day it was announced? … The resulting information would not be a story, but rather an open forum that happens to be hosted by the newspaper.

Think like Craigslist. … I suppose that’s my message here.

I’m advocating trusting your readers. Let them have their say; resist the age-old editor’s urge to separate the wheat from the chaff. Let the audience decide for themselves what’s valuable. Just stay on top of things, so you can quickly delete any abuses that may occur.

And you know what? Setting this up would take scarcely longer than what it takes a reporter to write up what’s known at the time. All you have to do is tack on an open forum and invitation for the involved public to share what they know, then monitor what happens.

4. Build up a useful citizen reporting network. A lone education reporter isn’t going to get far on a story like this Fairview High School threat one. But we talk a lot in new-media circles these days about networked journalism (or citizen journalism, as some still call it). There might have been people in the Fairview community on the evening of October 17th who did know more about what was going on, and would share it if asked and are given a venue.

When a news organization opens itself up to public interjection into the newsgathering process, the news product can go beyond what’s possible with traditional reporters alone. The news becomes a mix of verifiable facts unearthed by professional journalists and useful but unverified reports that can add to the story.

And part of the role of the professional journalists in this process is to oversee and manage the public dialog, interjecting some caution if things start to get out of hand, and shutting down those who might abuse the situation.

The resulting hybrid journalism becomes more useful — just like what I was looking for on the evening of October 17th.

But it requires that the newspaper industry go out on a limb.

The Camera’s reasoning

I spoke to Daily Camera managing editor Kevin Kaufman late last week, after the Fairview threat story had died down, to understand what was going through editors’ minds as this story was unfolding. He told me that his staff became aware of the situation at about the same time parents learned of it, from the Fairview principal’s e-mail.

Kaufman says that editors debated what to do in terms of publishing information online quickly, but they were concerned that with little information initially — and key players not returning phone calls — that could unnecessarily cause panic. The vagueness about the threat in the principal’s e-mail made editors cautious, he says.

Kaufman also cites some practical reasons for not jumping on this story online — which other newspapers of similar size and resources will appreciate. While the Camera’s website is kept up to date with breaking news through the day, modest website staffing makes that difficult during the evenings. And a clunky content management system — about to be replaced soon — makes it difficult for print-side editors to quickly and easily update the website with breaking news when the online staff has gone home for the day.

With a fairly young reporting staff, Kaufman says that MySpace and Facebook are routinely used as reporting tools. On the eve of the Fairview threat, however, Kaufman says his reporters didn’t find anything useful on MySpace.

While Kaufman says he recognizes that MySpace is utilized by its users to trade information in the way I described above, he worries about its potential for starting rumors and misleading people — or worse. Still, he says, it’s something that parents should be aware of. Perhaps the “citizen journalism” that springs up in such venues could serve a purpose when there’s a decided lack of verifiable news.

(I’ll close with one last suggestion. This story would have been an ideal one for a temporary news blog, which could contain snippets of detail added through the evening as new information was learned. While you wouldn’t do this for a minor story, the Fairview threat story probably qualified. After all, it did end up on the front page the next morning.)

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