“Winning” breaking news is a non-stop battle. But if you think the only goal is to be first, then you’re missing the most important parts. Here’s what every newsroom needs to know about winning breaking news.
By Tim Wolff, Vice President of TV and Digital Publishing Innovation, Futuri
In the newsroom days of my youth, I thought this was how we would win breaking news:
- Word would come into the newsroom that something big was happening, something worth breaking into programming for. The assignment desk editor, simultaneously on the phone and shouting at the producers, would be staring at the televisions with the competitors on the screen, sweating and hoping they didn’t break in first.
- Then, my station’s animation would start, and we’d be on the air first.
- The assignment editor would say something like, “Yes, we won the breaking news!”
What I didn’t realize then is that we hadn’t won breaking news. At least not yet.
As winning the breaking news battle moved online, then onto mobile, the adrenaline is the same, but the methods are different. Now, when word comes of breaking news, one poor digital or assignment desk staffer frantically types out a push alert (maybe even taking a second to proofread it) while the rest of the newsroom stares at their phones, hoping the competition doesn’t push it first.
When we’d “win,” there’d be an audible sigh from that poor person who had to get the push alert out with the weight of the newsroom on them.
But what was true in television is true in digital: being first doesn’t win breaking news.
I’ve known assignment editors and digital staff who were judged by station leaders almost solely on how well they did in being first, especially if research showed that viewers thought their station was losing at breaking news.
But here’s the thing about viewers: they don’t remember who was first. And they don’t really care.
It’s about the coverage
If a viewer sees you break in on TV, but your coverage is terrible, they will flip to the other stations. When those stations are on the air, the viewers will stay with the one doing the best job; and that is who they will credit with winning breaking news.
It’s true for breaking weather, too. At one station where I worked, we had so thoroughly proven that we were the leader in weather that when our competitors would break in with severe weather, their ratings would go down. Their viewers knew we had the best coverage, so they would turn to us immediately.
It works that way in digital, too. If I get a push alert from the first station to break the news, and I open the story and there are two sentences there, that’s fine. It’s breaking. If, 20 minutes later, there are still only two sentences there, then I’ve moved on and I’m reading the competitors who’ve added context and information. I won’t easily come back to that first brand, and I certainly won’t think they won the breaking news.
This is an area where newspapers have made gains on TV stations in breaking news. In most cases, the newspaper staff is immediately working to add context around breaking stories, with more immediate depth and information around the who, what, when, where and why–and the immediate history of the location. On the national stage, digital publishers like Heavy have made a business out of this.
Getting the second-day story today
Locally, newspapers have also been quicker to adapt to what we used to think of as the “second-day story.” On the first day of big breaking news, it’s about getting the facts out, and letting people absorb that information before hitting them with what it means, or the perspective, or the investigation into the conditions that led to the breaking news. Those used to be the second-day stories. In today’s media environment, however, consumers have gone to every site to look at what they have about the breaking story. And they have absorbed all that information quickly, immediately pivoting to how something could have happened, or what it means. They may go on Twitter or Facebook, or other forums, to get perspective. In other words, they are looking for the second-day story, and they are looking for it almost immediately. The “second-day story” is now the “second-hour story.”
Inside the newsroom, we’d find those stories by getting together and throwing out ideas. Someone (like the news director) would pull out a sharpie and start writing out all the angles to pursue on a whiteboard. Now, this may be happening on video chats with Slack, but the concept is the same: everyone shouts out every angle they can think of.
Of course, we’d always have way too many angles to pursue, especially immediately. It would fall to the newsroom leaders to use their experience to judge which ones to focus on. Almost invariably, later that night a different station would pick a different angle, and we’d be kicking ourselves for missing that angle. And because we didn’t have ways to do much new reporting overnight, it would fall to the next day for us to catch up on it.
There are two ways to avoid that. First, having experienced leaders who are always right in their judgment will help a lot (OK, I caught you there—any experienced news person will tell you they don’t always get it right).
Second, there are tools today that can help. We now have the ability to tell, in real-time, what questions are viewers are asking about the breaking news.There are SEO tools that show what is being searched, and social tools that show what is being shared. One tool, Futuri’s TopicPulse, will even show you the stories a specific target audience is likely to share, and further notes which ones aren’t getting much news coverage yet—giving you a huge advantage in knowing which big-story angles to pursue first.
Practice, train and have a plan
Each of these elements happens quickly, and your news team can’t be recreating the wheel every time breaking news happens. No matter how big or small your staff, each person working needs to know what to do, and they need to know the priority order. Just as critical, when you build your plan, don’t just build it for the workday when you’re there; build it for overnights and weekends, too, when you might just have one person in the newsroom.
It might look something like this: Get information – Alert others in newsroom – send push alert – post basic story – keep getting info to whoever is publishing or on air – update digital story – when basic info is covered, start working second-day angles – source info from search and social – add and update stories.
Of course, depending on the position and your structure, those elements will vary. The point is that there needs to be a plan anyone can follow, from your most experienced journalists to your entry-level desk workers covering weekend overnights.
Having a plan helped our newsroom when a mass shooting happened early one Sunday morning. The inexperienced, part-time desk employee knew exactly what to do, and it made all the difference in our brand being first with important information. The news team that came online knew what to do next, and that gave our coverage context and the ability to add the right angles long before the competition. Most of all, combining our experience with search and social listening helped us answer our community’s most important questions in a time of crisis.
This won’t be the only time I write about winning breaking news; there are a million key actions to take by everyone involved, and they are all worth diving into. But I hope these steps help you turn your newsroom into a breaking news winner long after that first push alert goes out.
- Have a plan
- Publish quickly and update with context
- Listen to the questions your audience has
- Answer those questions with facts and perspective
- Ask yourself later not just whether you were first, but whether you were best
One final note: if you fail, learn from it. Do an honest, open deep-dive debrief with everyone involved. Failing on one breaking news story won’t kill your brand; failing to learn how to be better will.
Tim Wolff is Vice President of TV and Digital Publishing Innovation at Futuri. He has 20+ years of experience as a digital and broadcasting leader who’s led top-performing teams across the country at companies including Gannet, Belo, and Cox Media Group Ohio, which includes three daily newspapers, three radio stations, WHIO-TV, and more. Wolff, who holds a Master’s in Journalism from the University of Missouri, also makes a mean green chile stew.