When Big Story Breaks, Print Deadlines Be Damned

By: Steve Outing

If the producers on the online staff at the Sun-Sentinel in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, do a good job, they might just work themselves out of jobs. Because if they succeed with the path they’re taking, plain old reporters and editors from the newsroom might take over their responsibilities in the years to come.

The Sun-Sentinel Web site, called the Sun-Sentinel Internet Edition, operates with a staff of nine. But the Web crew is scattered throughout the newsroom as part of a comprehensive strategy to integrate the print and Internet operations of the company. The site’s sports producer sits at his desk in the sports department, attends all sports planning meetings, and is a part of the sports department, for example. Other Web producers have a similar work set-up in other editorial departments.

The outcome of this strategy is that the S-S Internet Edition has become a breaking news Web site. S-S print reporters regularly file information for breaking news stories for the Web site, and are getting in the habit of taping interviews and events to be used as sound clips on the Web, collecting video for the site, and otherwise looking for material during the story-gathering process that will wind up on the Web but not in print.

According to John Jordan, the Internet Edition’s senior producer, the Web site has been transformed into a breaking news site that often competes directly with television news. When a major fire broke out early in the day recently, the Web site got news online in 10 minutes — rivaling the local TV stations. It even posted street closure information to alert people who might be driving in the area, or curious enough to follow the smoke.

Such a breaking story as that fire can become the lead story on the Web edition’s home page, though later in the day it might get downgraded in presentation. By the following morning, the print edition might have news of the same fire played modestly on an inside page.

Jordan says that the newspaper’s management has made the decision that for breaking news, when it’s in the Sun-Sentinel’s best interest to get the news out as quickly as possible, it goes on the Web without regard to print deadlines. For stories that are exclusive to the paper, or that don’t have associated quick-deadline pressures, the print edition most likely will still reign supreme. There’s still concern about publishing some types of stories so early in the day that television stations can pick them up for their newscasts.

The newspaper has yet to break a major story — a la the Dallas Morning News’ Internet scoop on a major development in the Timothy McVeigh trial — on the Web. But Jordan says he and the paper’s editors are keeping their eye out for the right exclusive story to break online.

An event for which the newspaper’s editors wanted to publish news as quickly as possible was the Pope’s visit this week to Cuba. The S-S sent three reporters and a photographer to Cuba (in addition to some journalist’s from the Tribune Co., the newspaper’s parent), and reporters have been filing audio dispatches for use on the Web site. Jordan explains that the paper’s audiotex manager set up voice boxes for reporters to phone in their reports, then the audiotex files were converted to RealAudio format and put on the Web.

It’s all in the staffing

What makes this work is in large part the make-up of the online staff. While Jordan was hired from outside (he previously was the online manager for the Salt Lake Tribune), most of the other producers were hired from within the S-S newsroom. Thus, online producers already had established relationships with the various editorial department staffs, and it’s easier to get the print reporters and editors to do their part for the Web presentation of stories.

Probably the best online hire, says Jordan, has been Ray Lynch, who serves as a “rewrite” producer. When a big story breaks, Lynch may rewrite reporters’ initial dispatches for quick online presentation. For that fire, he got on the phone for some original reporting in order to get some sidebar information online quickly.

Lynch previously was an assistant city editor working with the paper’s crime/police reporters. Bringing him to the online staff was “a great move for us,” Jordan says, because the writers who used to report to him regularly come to him with material for use online. An outsider who didn’t know the personalities involved would have a much more difficult time getting that kind of cooperation. And Lynch sits among the city side staffers, so he’s seen as “one of us” rather than an outsider from the online department.

Jordan hopes to get that kind of presence in more departments. The Web site is currently looking for a graphics person, who will get billed to the online department but physically reside in graphics. That person will benefit the graphics department as well as the Web site, and in exchange, the print graphics staff will be available to help out more with the Web site. Jordan also hopes to add an online person to the copy desk, though that hasn’t been approved yet.

A key to getting the newsroom to cooperate and provide the Web site with breaking news is having the online producers sit in on editorial department planning and story meetings. With this Web presence, online components of stories get planned from the outset instead of after the fact, Jordan says.

Lesson learned

Jordan says the newspaper learned a lot last July, when fashion designer Gianni Versace was murdered outside his south Florida mansion. The first news of this major local story with international appeal wasn’t on the S-S Web site for 45 minutes, because the newspaper wasn’t prepared to act quickly to publish on the Internet and could initially offer only wire service accounts. TV beat the Web site, as did the Miami Herald’s Web site. The newspaper’s management realized that to be competitive in getting breaking news published online, it had to have a system and the personnel to act quickly.

With a new mandate to publish breaking news immediately, the S-S Web site has positioned the newspaper to compete with television news. Indeed, the site (as would any news site that commits to breaking news coverage) is well positioned as a news source for office workers looking for a news update at lunchtime. They may have an Internet connection, but not the means to watch the noon local TV news program.

Jordan envisions the day when publishing partly on the Web and partly in print is executed by a single staff. Perhaps there will be no need for a separate online staff of journalists (in this case called “producers”), and today’s online editorial jobs won’t exist, per se. “We’re moving close to that all the time,” he says.

(It’s worth noting that Jordan and staff don’t do some of the things that other online newspaper staffs do, such as produce an online city guide component of their site. The Tribune Company is a part owner of America Online’s Digital City venture, and Digital City South Florida is produced in the S-S building — but on a different floor than where the paper’s Web site staffers work.)

Contact: John Jordan, jjjordan@aol.com

Steve

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This column is written by Steve Outing exclusively for Editor & Publisher Interactive three days a week. News, tips, and other communications may be sent to Mr. Outing at steve@planetarynews.com

The views expressed in the above column do not necessarily represent the views of the Editor & Publisher company

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