Karen Peterson

Karen Peterson: New twist on breaking news feels like old times

Staff Photographer

It’s funny how sometimes doing the most newfangled thing can bring you right back to your old-fashioned roots.

That seems to be the case with the breaking news desk we launched in November.

The company’s goals for our Real-Time Desk are packed with references to “digital” and “social” and “video,” all relatively new to newspaper journalists who have been in the business for decades.

But basically, it’s about getting journalists out on-scene as quickly as possible, talking to people about what happened, and sharing what they learn with readers in, well, real time.

That was a muscle we hadn’t been exercising fully. So a couple of months ago, we recommitted to local breaking news.

The effort started with a push by David Montesino, our photo editor and assistant managing editor, to get photographers more quickly and more frequently to news scenes. He began scheduling one to be on duty early each morning — when news often is popping — to respond to breaking news tips.

He had one goal for them: quickly send back photos and videos that will get the reader out to the scene.

The TNT newsroom came into its own last year with video production, producing an average of five videos a day. We had 2.3 million video views in 2016, a 40 percent increase over the previous year. Video is a powerful new tool.

Our digital producers then package those visuals with stories and post them quickly online. We have the sources and community knowledge that often help us beat TV at this approach.

Then we turned to the reporting side of the equation.

The News Tribune had two breaking news reporters in the form of day-side and night-side cops reporters. They checked in daily with police and fire agencies and wrote a lot of perfunctory pieces, mainly about crimes and fires and maybe the weather. Almost all of that was done over the phone, and they worked mainly during the week.

But we also expected them to produce what we call “enterprise” stories, the longer pieces that run on the front page. These require time to research, interview and write, all of which took them away from breaking news for many of their work hours.

We made some changes.

First, we asked cops reporters Stacia Glenn and Kenny Ocker to focus solely on breaking news. We asked them to do more of their reporting live from the scene, like we used to before cellphones and the internet made it easier to do from a desk. That resulted in getting more voices into the stories from people involved, and deeper looks into many incidents.

Then we added a third reporter, Craig Sailor, to the team. That allowed us to provide the same coverage on weekends. Our Real-Time Desk is live 5:30 a.m. to 11 p.m.

We moved all of the reporters and online producers into the same central pod in the newsroom, along with Montesino and Ian Swenson, our assistant managing editor for digital. To respond quickly, they need close and constant interaction.

Not only do digital producers publish our breaking news, they are out looking for it. They track Facebook and Twitter to see what local people are talking about and monitor other media to be sure we’re not missing anything.

We also bought new scanners that connect better with the new South Sound 911 dispatch system. In addition to a table-top model for the Real-Time Desk, we bought hand-held scanners for photographers and reporters to use in the field.

Then we made one last change. We had to set a new bar for which breaking news we would cover.

Previously, a wreck that caused a traffic tie-up on I-5 would get a couple of sentences online, if we covered it at all. Nowadays, we routinely publish a story with photo and video on such incidents.

Our readership on those stories is surprisingly high. People want news now about what’s happening around them.

We’re also surfacing another kind of story on the Real-Time Desk — the Just Plain Interesting story.

These stories often don’t fall cleanly on a government or other topical beat. Our closer attention to social media and willingness to follow up on general story tips is leading to JPI stories that are tracking with readers.

When we asked Sailor to focus on those, he knew what we meant: “You mean those stories everyone is talking about and we never write.”

Yes, those stories. And Sailor is particularly good at writing them. One sad story in this category was the recent disappearance and death of Indian restaurant owner C.J. Singh, one of our most-read stories last year.

Our readers appear to like what we’ve done.

In the third quarter of 2016, Ocker and Glenn combined for 1.2 million page views online, or about 26 percent of newsroom-generated story page views.

In the fourth quarter, though we didn’t start this effort until midway through, the three Real Time reporters combined for 2.1 million page views. That was 33 percent of newsroom story views.

Things look a little different in our newsroom these days. You’re more likely to see a photographer run out of the newsroom, camera gear in hand. You’re more apt to see journalists huddled, debating if this news tip fits the new mold for stories we jump on. You’re more likely to hear them ask, “Hey, is this a story?” (Sometimes yes, sometimes no. We’re still learning and fine-tuning.)

Truth is, it’s fun.

And although this work starts with a digital focus, it is affecting the menu of local news offerings in the paper — more short crime stories and more human interest stories.

Ideally, this effort gives beat reporters more time to go deep on their subject areas, rather than being pulled off for breaking news.

We’d love to hear what you think of the changes. We encourage you to share ideas for local stories — important and interesting — at newstips@thenewstribune.com or at 253-597-8688.

Karen Peterson: 253-597-8434, @TNTkpeterson