Interactive News Is Newspaper-Wide Effort In Spokane

By: Steve Outing

Steve’s next column will be published Wednesday, March 27.

Ken Sands is an “interactive editor” at The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Wash. He’s one of two people with that title out of a staff of 132 at the 100,000-plus-circulation daily. (A third interactive editor was reassigned to be the paper’s ombudsman.)

No, Sands doesn’t work for the online department. He’s a member of the editorial division, and has worked at the newspaper for over two decades.

And that makes the S-R unusual in the newspaper world. Here’s a newspaper that has adopted “interactivity” as a mantra, that has appointed staff members to the job of soliciting and facilitating public interaction with the newspaper, and that makes a point of putting the Web first and print second — at least on occasion.

Evolving interactivity

Actually, having interactive editors on the print staff is not new for the S-R; this dates back to around 1996. Their mission is to “inspire greater citizen participation in solving community problems.” But what is new is the experimentation by the paper with intense interactive coverage of local sports events. The first big play was an interactive approach taken to coverage of the four-day State B high school basketball championships in early March.

Sands joined the sports reporters of the newspaper in covering the tournament, which is a big deal in Spokane. The paper usually sends multiple staff members and the coverage eats up several pages of newsprint each day. While his colleagues took the traditional sports reporting approach, Sands covered the event from a wholly different angle:

* Before setting off to cover the tournament, which features the top teams from small high schools in Washington, he notified about 100 newspaper readers from a newsroom database about his plans for covering the tournament. These readers had expressed an interest in being potential sources for newspaper sports stories.

* Sands took a laptop with a wireless Internet connection to the arena, and throughout each day he filed short items to a State B Web log or blog (or “B-log,” as Sands called it). Items included Sands’ first-person reporting at the event, as well as readers’ observations — often received through e-mail or instant messaging, which he received on his laptop while sitting in the basketball arena.

* Sands and his colleagues created interactive online slide shows, featuring photos of various activities at the tournament, accompanied by audio. They also produced audio features such as sound clips from each team’s school band. (Many of the bands were “truly awful,” he notes, but that was part of the fun of the audio feature.)

To be sure, Sands produced a quirky package on the popular local tournament. He covered stuff that sports reporters would be unlikely to find or care about: cheerleaders’ tips on how they fix their hair; the search by the “Dairy Princesses” (representing the dairy association that is a sponsor of the event) for ice cream after the arena sold out; and how to properly “dress” a German sausage.

Now, that might seem like so much fluff. Would anyone really care about cheerleaders’ hair and German sausages? But Sands says he was shocked by the reaction to his coverage, especially the blog. (The full blog was available only online, and the print edition ran selected blog items each day, with references to the Web site.) Readers were invited to contact Sands with tips, and he received around 200 e-mails plus “an uncounted number of personal contacts.”

“The blog got so popular, and I was so recognizable by the end of the tournament, that fans and even the players were approaching me to tell me stories,” he says. “I’ve never seen anything like it in my 21 years here.”

Sands is excited about the prospect of repeating that interactive reporting experiment. “Based on this one little experiment, I have a feeling this is going to be huge,” he says. “Readers love the interaction, not only with us but with other readers. We got story tips like never before.”

Experiment No. 2 is taking place later this week, when Spokane’s Gonzaga University, a small Jesuit school in Spokane with a basketball team on a hot streak, is in the NCAA basketball tournament. The S-R is rolling out similar treatment to the State B event, and Sands has started another blog.

Next stop: breaking interactive news

This concept of interactive reporting is spilling into topics beyond sports. The paper hasn’t done it yet, but the idea is to take a major breaking news story — when the opportunity arises — and treat it in a similar (but more serious) interactive manner.

As an example, Sands theorizes a story where the city council debates a bill that would require cat owners to license their pets. The paper’s Web site would set up e-mail discussion forums and chat rooms, which reporters would monitor. The paper’s database of reader sources would be notified about the coverage, and invited to participate with their opinions and tips.

With the added element of an interactive reporter with a wireless laptop, you can imagine the journalist sitting in council chambers covering the meeting, while simultaneously receiving e-mail and instant messages from citizens concerned about the issue. That’s interactive journalism, where a reporter’s sources aren’t just “official” ones, but everyday citizens with a stake in an issue.

It’s about serving both

The newspaper’s interactive coverage is a convergence of print and online. It’s an unusual approach, in the case of the basketball tournament coverage, in that the editors start with planning for the Web, then go back to determine print coverage, says S-R Managing Editor Scott Sines. The interactive team looks at a total coverage package, including many components that can be presented on the Web but not in print — such as live scoring results, audio and video coverage, and a blog that’s updated throughout the day. “We wanted to present the whole experience” of being at the tournament, Sines says, and that’s easier to accomplish on the Internet — because of its multi-media and instant publishing capabilities.

Sines points out how the newspaper’s interactive team regularly works to bring citizens’ voices into the Web site and paper. It’s got to be more than about letting readers post to message boards and chatrooms. The S-R‘s other interactive editor, Rebecca Nappi, produced a feature for the 6-month anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks and told the stories of local Red Cross and other volunteer workers who went to New York and Washington, D.C., to help out. Instead of writing the standard interview story, Nappi helped the workers with writing their own accounts of their experiences, serving as coach and editor to non-writers.

As you can see, the interactive team at this newspaper is trying to break the mold of traditional newspaper journalism.

Lessons to be learned

There are a few key points to take away from the Spokane experience with interactive journalism — which is still in a fledgling state.

First, this is a newspaper-wide effort. It’s not just the purview of the online department. Indeed, the online staff (2.5 employees) focuses mostly on Web development. Unlike at most newspapers of the S-R‘s size, they do not have to spend their time on posting repurposed newspaper content to the Web site. Rather, the newspaper’s copy editors have been trained to publish to the Web. Sines explains that instead of having 2.5 people capable of posting content to the Web, there are 7 or 8.

While this set-up is obviously good from the management view (copy editors perform additional duties), it also can be seen as beneficial to the line editors. They learn new-media skills that will make them more valuable to their current and future employers, and get training in a cutting-edge field.

Back in the small new-media department, those employees are not primarily charged with creating original Web content. Instead, the paper’s newsroom — led by an interactive team — has the job of creating content that feeds both print product and online service. Long term, the goal is to expand the idea of newsroom journalists producing not just text but also audio, video, and multimedia content.

Sines says that the interactive team was developed entirely by retraining existing staff. “We can’t afford to hire a 15-person Web staff, and I don’t think that newspapers (of our size) should be doing that,” he says. The journalists that the paper hires should be able to look at a story and say, “This will work for the Web, this will work for the print edition.”

With this approach, the S-R Web site has improved — going from a primarily “shovelware” site with a tiny staff, to one that publishes innovative content developed specifically for the Web.

Sands, who spent most of his career as a traditional print-side reporter and editor, says he’s committed to improving the journalism at the paper. Interactive reporting does exactly that, because it enables reporters to expand their sources to include the public.

The Spokane interactive experiment is still immature. Neither Sines or Sands professed to be proud of some video content produced for the site, but they’re happy with some of the audio work. In time, Sines hopes that the staff will learn to do better video content — and effectively compete with local television (even the station down the street that’s owned by the same company as the newspaper.)

In the case of the State B tournament, the Web site’s instant coverage of the tournament can be seen as bettering TV news. Internet users who cared about the event got instant satisfaction, instead of waiting for the evening TV newscast.

Other recent columns

News Sites Need To Get Flash-y, Wednesday, Feb. 27
Newspapers: Don’t Blow It Again, Wednesday, Feb. 13
Product Placement On Newspaper Web Sites?, Wednesday, Jan. 23
Use Web To Supplement Your Print Edition, Wednesday, Jan. 9
Preparing For the Upturn, Wednesday, Dec. 19
Industry Must Cooperate To Save News Sites, Wednesday, Dec. 12
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