Digital Journalism

Note: Man, oh, man, this page needs an overhaul. Shorter. Snappier. Less bragging about things that happened in 2006 and are old hat these days. Done some neeto stuff much more recently. Will tell all y’all about it soon. — Lou

The best journalists have always known that delivering the news is about more than getting the facts and being able to turn a phrase. It’s been about connecting with the audience on terms that engage it — through effective storytelling, through design, through outreach, through community participation. The Web’s provided us with a few (OK, a bit more than a few) more tools, but that hasn’t changed.

Lou knows all about dynamic storytelling, about aggregation, about writing for mobile, about SEO, about analytics. He can shoot and edit video. He knows social media is about conversation, not broadcast, and he’s up on the latest trends and tech. He knows smart digital strategy isn’t about using every tool in your box; it’s about understanding which ones fit your story and audience best, and why.

He knows it’s a lot like every other kind of strategy that way.

Here’s some of what Lou’s done in this very Webby world of ours:

DIGITAL INNOVATOR

In 2006 and early 2007, Journal Register Company papers were still operating under strict, Web-phobic rules. The company was worried giving away content on the Web would mean eating into print sales, so most papers only posted a few stories, and no obits — the idea was to give readers the bare minimum online, and push them toward the print paper.

But that year, Lou got a phone call from management: The handcuffs were coming off, at least for a few editors. It was time to play.

Lou, then managing editor of the Kent County and Warwick Daily Times, had no particular training or experience with Web-focused journalism. Neither did anyone on his staff. But he led a small strike team of clever and open-minded journalists willing to help shoehorn neat and engaging features into a primitive CMS that had no intention of accepting them.

Together they produced:

  • Special reader forums around major news events: The deaths of two teens in separate car crashes on the same spot, hours apart, shook the towns of West Warwick and Coventry. An online memorial for the teens produced hundreds of responses, reproduced in the print edition for several days.
  • Liveblogs for quickly moving stories: During a mycoplasma outbreak that shut down three school districts, the liveblogs offered raw facts and links to polished news presentations alike as they became available. Information was added in real-time; if the governor announced a new safety measure at 1:30 p.m., the blog told readers about it by 1:31 p.m.
  • Multimedia enhancements: Residents interested in the release of massive piles of evidence regarding the Station nightclub fire (which killed 100 people 3 years before Lou’s time as editor) didn’t just read about the details in the Times; they could review the evidence firsthand. Lou and his team distilled hours of police dispatch recordings and amateur videos into easily digested segments. They provided PDFs of key documents and transcripts of witness testimony. They brought an extra dimension to the reporting no small paper in the state could match.
  • Previews of upcoming editions: Want to know what’s in tomorrow’s Times? Readers during Lou’s editorship knew they could check in each morning for a working story list, and again by 4 p.m. for a refined version. The Times‘ reporters learned a lot from would-be sources eager to weigh in on the stories that would fill the next day’s edition.
  • Community blogs: In-house columns did fairly well, but the Times saw even more success by partnering with Rhode Island’s most potent political blogs, to bring their content to its readers. The Times linked to the blogs via their RSS feeds and its staff became active on their sites. The bloggers appreciated the extra engagement, and started citing the Times’ own coverage with much higher frequency.
  • Other aggregated content: Need real-time election results? Government meeting schedules? By drawing in content from public resources through automation, the Times‘ site became a one-stop shop for community needs.
  • Web-only reporting: Special projects like the Times’ Sunshine Week report collected more information, more detail, than could comfortably be produced in print. Lou and his staff brought that depth to Web readers with extra stories and links to online resources.

 GOING DIGITAL FIRST

In 2009, the Daily Record’s newsroom became a digital-first operation, almost by default. Copy desk duties (which Lou had helped lead) were moved to the Asbury Park Press. But Lou took the newly created post of deputy digital editor, working in collaboration with the existing digital editor, Jim Namiotka.

Some of his accomplishments and initiatives:

  • Digital-first training: Lou coached reporters in the use of social and other new media — to better promote Daily Record content and to better facilitate story research.
  • Social media innovation: Lou created and ran the Daily Record’s “Morris County Crisis and Crime Watch” topic-specific Facebook page, which gathered 950 fans in its first two months (up to 1,760 fans as of June 2012). Within three months, it had surpassed the Daily Record’s main Facebook presence in followers. He helped promote the #njsnow Twitter hashtag in anticipation of February 2010’s major storms, and found an eager audience of Twitter users who helped collect information such as inch counts on the ground (then used as source material for an interactive map) and who provided photos from throughout the coverage area.
  • Special digital enhancements: Lou supplemented coverage of news events with widgets capturing social media chatter on high-profile topics, the Daily Record’s Road Patrol hazard-reporting tool (on traffic and commuting stories) and staff-generated or aggregated video.
  • Digital analysis: Lou monitored site traffic metrics and adjusted the DailyRecord.com presentation based on the lessons they suggested. Often, close attention to unexpected results provided new story leads.

TEAM EFFORT

At Patch.com, Lou’s been at the head of a team of digital-only journalists. He’s refined his focus and skills related to analytics, multimedia production, multiplatform presentation and UGC solicitation. Under his direction, a team of about five full-time journalists has produced hundreds of videos, solicited dozens of local bloggers and spread the philosophy of Patch as a community platform, not just as a news site.

One very notable recent success: Coverage of Hurricane Irene and October 2011’s freak snowstorm. Sites in Lou’s region proved the only reliable place for consistently up-to-date news on closures, outages, flooding, road blockages, hazards and other vital information. Just as importantly, the sites were nexuses for readers to share news. Because of the momentum that Lou and his team created, and the solid base of up-to-the-minute information they provided, Patch became the go-to place for those in and around Morris County, New Jersey to share their experiences—through special forums, live chats and other UGC-focused features. Some posts generated hundreds of user responses, full of useful information and engaged conversation.