Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Flat-footed in Omaha

The Omaha World-Herald was caught completely flat-footed today when a gunman killed eight people in a local mall, producing the worst online coverage in memory by a newspaper with a major story breaking in its own backyard.

If you work at a newspaper, please don’t let what happened in Omaha happen to you. We’ll discuss the fundamentals of contingency planning in a few minutes. But first, let’s review the carnage – and I don’t mean the tragic casualties at the mall.

Less than half an hour after gunfire broke out at the Westroads Mall shortly before 2 p.m. today, local television and radio coverage was well under way, according to a detailed account at Omaha City Watch, a blog written by Jim Minge and Sean Weide. The television coverage included all the trimmings: live shots, interviews with survivors, details about the assailant who evidently killed himself and pictures taken by eyewitnesses at the scene.

As for the Omaha World-Herald, its Omaha.Com website crashed within minutes of the event and was not revived for nearly three hours, according to City Watch. At this writing, more than nine hours after the event, the creaking site still is unable to reliably load a page. (UPDATE 12.6.07: Twenty-four hours after the shooting, the site is not responding at all.)

But Omaha.Com readers weren’t missing much. Once the outage was overcome, readers got a single lead story and roundup of predictable harrumphing from local politicians. There were no splash graphics like those at Fox News; none of the hundreds of reader comments like those at USA Today; nothing like the eyewitness photos and elaborate aerial map at CNN, and no sign of the extensive live video aired and webcast throughout the day by KETV and other local outlets.

While Omaha.Com managed to post a single, well-hidden video, its production values were so weak that it was difficult to hear the shaken victims over the sounds of idling emergency vehicles. The site asked people to email comments, pictures and video but none were in evidence nine hours after the event. The newspaper hastily launched a blog on the Blogger.Com platform that invited user comments, but the one-paragraph blog – and the resulting handful of comments – were painfully lame.

After working in the business of electronic content delivery for more than two decades, I know that anything can go wrong – and will – at such inopportune moments as a Super Bowl or emergency like the one in Omaha. The best way to prevent such embarrassing collapses is by over-engineering your systems and training all hands in a well-orchestrated disaster-recovery plan.

But the worst problems in Omaha were not technical, but editorial. The poor coverage evidently was caused by a lack of contingency planning on the part of editors, web producers, reporters, photographers and all the other people who are responsible for rapidly, thoughtfully and accurately gathering the information and visual assets necessary to tell a story like this in the age of multimedia.

While the print product remains the primary business at newspaper companies, their websites are strategically important not only for their long-term revenue potential but also because of their immediate power to engage readers and, most importantly, non-readers.

Even though newspapers are no longer part of everyone's daily information-consuming routine, they still rank among the first places many people will turn during a powerful and emotional event like the Omaha shootings. If the newspaper delivers a timely, compelling and sensitive report, it has a good chance of winning new fans and influencing advertisers to ship more dollars their way. When it fails, as Omaha.Com did, it reinforces the concept that newspapers are irrelevant has-beens.

While no one can plan precisely for a tragedy like this shooting, newspaper people – who should be ever mindful that any number of online and broadcast competitors are trying to eat their lunch – should have protocols in place to drop everything they are doing to swarm a big story.

This includes not just calling the cops, covering the emergency rooms and interviewing the victims but also gathering the electronic assets that make modern storytelling possible. In addition to traditional reporting, newspapers now and ever more need to task reporters, photographers and videographers with hunting down the photos, audio, videos and first-person anecdotes that enrich contemporary coverage by letting real people tell their own stories.

This, not the day-old, dispassionate, inverted-pyramid, third-party narrative that guys like me used to write, is the future of the media.

32 Comments:

Blogger Martin Cahn said...

By way of quick introduction, I'm the senior editor of the Chronicle-Independent, a thrice-weekly in Camden, SC. We're pretty small, so we don't have the resources to do even a good-sized fraction of what you outlined here.

However, what we can do is think of how we can prepare with what we have.

A few months ago, I did a story of how the law enforcement agencies, hospital and other emergency related agencies in our county were teaming up for a school shooting training scenario. It was actually the first of three sessions they're holding between now and the end of next year.

Guess what the next phase is: an aftermath scenario in January that includes handling the public and the press. We've decided to participate, treating the 3-hour scenario as if it were real.

How will all four of our news reporters (including myself) and our editor handle dropping everything we're working on for such a huge, breaking story? We publish Monday-Wednesday-Friday. If the scenario takes place on a Friday, the public won't see our coverage until Monday (our Web site is very, very, very minor stuff), "losing out" to TV and daily newspaper outlets in nearby Columbia. Would we print a special edition to keep up, or go deep for better, if later, coverage because of our relationships with the local agencies?

It's going to be interesting, regardless. My main point was that even folks that work at small papers like mine do need to be prepared, however they can. Participating with local agencies on scenario-based training is just one way. But there's always a way.

No excuses, World-Herald.

3:17 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

this is easy, simplistic criticism. omaha.com presumably couldn't help it if its web site went down for three hours (unless it's doing everything on the cheap as most papers' do these days).

besides, when something like this DOES happen, people turn on tv. they DON'T race to their computers.

indeed, there doubtless are many, many more examples of slow newspaper web sites on breaking news stories, and they don't have the escuse of crashing at an inoportune moment.

7:19 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't know what you are talking about, and contend you are blinded by your Silicon Valley interests. Omaha.Com works fine for me. Main story "Omaha's Deadliest Hour" is a compelling read, and I thought the the sidebar "Deathly Chill Grips Omaha at its Heart" struck the right note in this tragedy. They did quote local politicians, but what's wrong with that. It was in a sidebar, separated from the eye-witness accounts, and local politicians might have some reaction about taxpayer spending that would be of interest to Nebraska. Those of us living in fly-over country don't need left-coast businessmen telling us what sort of coverage we should have of our tragedies.

7:19 AM  
Blogger rknil said...

Well, this is the sort of thing that happens when newspapers obsess about the tiny design details of the print edition.

Too many newspapers are woefully unprepared for today's market. They need sweeping changes in their philosophies and their staff. Clinging to an allegedly avant-garde method that has produced few to no results is not the way to go.

7:49 AM  
Anonymous Nick said...

When a local woman went missing (and was later found murdered), a local paper in my area, the Canton Repository, responded to the avalanche of hits on its Web site by stripping down the front page. Basically only coverage related to the missing woman was put up. It sped up the load time and gave most people what they wanted anyway.

8:25 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Amen. The Omaha World-Herald failed the people of Nebraska (and I am one) with their useless website. The OWH employee-owners, nostalgic for their former stranglehold on newsgathering and news dissemination throughout the entire state, would much prefer that readers buy extra editions of the print paper from street hawkers than gain timely access to any information "online," via that horrible family-splintering invention "the Internet."

Every aspect of Omaha.com has sucked from the day it was launched and it is apparently still using the same vintage-1998 (World-Herald joined the Internet party a few years late) back end technology now that it was then.

8:31 AM  
Anonymous ScottM said...

Two schools of thought. Sure they were flat footed and are missing a big opportunity to better serve their community and help the world understand this story. Their web page is pretty barren of extra content. Basically its a regurgitation of the paper.

Even the largest websites like MSNBC and CNN sputter when there is a large story like this one. But omaha.com didn't stand a chance and still isn't loading its front page.

That being said i have also worked at a newspaper that was fully converged and had a much smaller circulation. You name it we had it. Stories, blogs, galleries, sound bites, videos, live chats, podcasts etc. And I thought then and still think it is excessive. No one clicks on the audio links. No one really cares about the podcasts and blogs. We were often so focused on quantity of outlets that oftentimes you lose track of quality.

9:02 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

On the evening of the Virginia Tech shooting, I checked the Roanoke Times website. There was scarcely mention of it on their home page -- maybe they were "saving" the stories for the next day. In general, it appears that Tier 2 and Tier 3 newspapers don't do a good job at breaking major, evolving news on their sites.

9:11 AM  
Anonymous Arizona reporter said...

It sounds to me like you're saying there was little of the cartoonish news displaying performed by the national media. This doesn't excuse the paper from not covering the story in depth, but don't mistake fancy fillers for actual news reporting.
No splash graphics, eh? Of what? Stick figures of where the bodies fell?
Hundreds of reader comments? Most reader comments on these kinds of stories are nothing more than expressions of sympathy, anonymous rants for gun control, someone calling someone else a dipwad and away we go.
An aerial map of a shopping mall most Omaha.com readers are already familiar with?
No live video of police tape, the broad backs of seven cops and, gee whiz, maybe we'll get lucky and a body covered in a white sheet will be brought out?

9:18 AM  
Anonymous Mark said...

This didn't start yesterday. The World-Herald web site has always been awful. It's no wonder that whenever a major story is breaking in Nebraska, all of the blogs link to the Lincoln Journal-Star site, or one of the Omaha TV stations' sites. Omaha.com requires registration, isn't reliable and has lots of pop up ads. And don't get me started on its ugly design and poor search feature.

9:29 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Say what you want, but if you paid any attention to all the blogging and TV, you heard 35 different versions of the story -- none of them quite correct. At the end of the day, the OWH will have the most accurate, best coverage of all. All the Web stuff that occurs on the spot is way over-rated

10:47 AM  
Anonymous G Gross said...

In addition to doing our own pre-crisis thinking on how our staffs would handle a major breaking story, one of the things the Internet gives us an opportunity to do is to engage our readers before the fact and discuss breaking news coverage with them, to determine how better to make use of our resources during a major story.

Given the rate at which newspaper staffs and resources are shrinking around the country, such planning becomes ever more important.

To borrow a line from a certain TV commerial, people are smart. Those conversations with readers that begin with "I wish you guys would--" or "Why don't you--" can lead to a rethinking and redirecting of breaking coverage that can benefit our audience -- and ourselves.

Greg Gross, Breaking News Team
San Diego Union-Tribune

10:54 AM  
Blogger John said...

The WH's failure needs to be viewed in the context of the firing of the University of Nebraska's head football coach last month. That was big news (though it obviously doesn't compare in magnitude to the shooting at Westroads) and, of course, omaha.com crashed. A week or so later, when a new coach was hired, the site was inaccessible again. This is not a technical problem, a case of a newspaper getting overwhelmed by a flood of Web surfers. This is an institutional problem, an entire newsroom of dinosaurs who have no regard for the power of the Internet. They regularly hold stories, sometimes for days, so that they can get the proper play in the print edition and not be "stolen" off their Web site. Up until a few weeks ago, dozens of stories were still behind a pay wall, reserved for subscribers of the print edition only.

If you ask The WH's editor what the problem is, as I did once (I used to work there), he responds in insolent monosyllables. It's hard to believe that he cares. When I left two years ago, his computer wasn't even fitted with the Harris editing system the newsroom used.

It's a shame. The paper has a wealth of resources, and talented journalists. Their story on the shooting was top-notch. It's too bad that no one outside of Nebraska was able to read it.

11:05 AM  
Blogger Gordon W.S. Lane said...

Well, I'm a newsperson for one, but more importantly a news-reader first, and let me say that I don't give a damn about this shooting, and I wouldn't care if my local paper only had a brief synopsis of what happened and a note on whether I can go back to the mall now or not - though I would expect that info to be posted in as many easily accessible and networked manners as possible including things like SMS, RSS, e-mail and others. But I'd prefer to wait a month or even more to read the narrative about the man and the societal issues that led to the event. I want the well-honed story, not the sensational crap found in the rush to be the first with the most info online.

Maybe I'm just an anomaly amongst readers, but the most I know about this mall shooting is what I read in your post above, and I don't expect to know anything more. Maybe that should say something about what sort of news is important. I dunno. Maybe I'm wrong. I'll figure it out one day, but for now, I feel you are berating a news source for not sensationalizing a random and rare event like 24-hour cable TV did.

I wonder if this story really needs to be covered the way you expect it to, or whether your expectations are not derived from need but from traditions.

Just a thought.

11:07 AM  
Anonymous NittanyStreak said...

Newsosaur said:

"There were no splash graphics like those at Fox News; none of the hundreds of reader comments like those at USA Today; nothing like the eyewitness photos and elaborate aerial map at CNN, and no sign of the extensive live video aired and webcast throughout the day by KETV and other local outlets."

Boy, it sure is a shame that the local newspaper in Omaha couldn't exploit this situation with gripping images of terrified and teary-eyed Christmas shoppers.

If only the newspaper had "splash graphics" with phrases like, "Tragedy in Omaha," "Mall Madness" or "Holiday Horror" accompanied by dramatic music to really drive home their journalistic credability.

It's a shame the newspaper couldn't get some aerial views of people being wheeled out on stretchers or an illustrated diagram of the mall complete with little chalk outlines of where each person was shot and killed. That's information everyone should have at their disposal.

It would seem to me, Newsosaur, that you aren't calling for better media coverage from a local news outlet - you are looking for more exploitative news coverage. And perhaps you are right, maybe local news should take a page out of the national media's book, and become a bunch of ambulance chasers.

Who need journalistic credability when you can cash in on scare tactics and broadcasting terrible emotionally-driven images.

11:13 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It is most definitely an institutional problem. Reporters at the newspaper didn't even have personal e-mails until about 2 years ago.

I went to Omaha.com expecting additional insight, and couldn't get on until about 1 a.m. And what I found there was sadly behind just about every other source I checked.

Today's paper was a little better, with two pages of "eyewitness" and "on-the-scene" accounts.

But that blog was a joke.

Without any good competition in the Omaha market (except online), the newspaper has become a dinosaur.

12:02 PM  
Anonymous j.t. said...

a number of papers block access to stories on their web page to paying subscribers only. the anniston (ala.) star is one of them. if you buy the star's print edition you have free access to stories on its web page. and, of course, you can pay for access only to its web page. but you have to pay for everything -- except maybe editorials and the publisher's weekly column.

12:02 PM  
Blogger Chuck Kershner said...

"After working in the business of electronic content delivery for more than two decades, I know that anything can go wrong – and will – at such inopportune moments as a Super Bowl or emergency like the one in Omaha. The best way to prevent such embarrassing collapses is by over-engineering your systems and training all hands in a well-orchestrated disaster-recovery plan."

Having spent 25 years with wire services (20 with Reuters/5 with UPI), I find it interesting that newspapers, which were so good at ink on paper, now believe they must also function like wire services because of the internet.

I cite the quote above from Mutter's commentary as an example of what many organizations DO NOT DO, whether they are print or electronic. Over-engineering costs a lot of time, money and personnel, and many companies weigh the cost against a random system collapse. In the end, it comes down to risk: How much do you want to spend to reduce or eliminate the unplanned, unknown, unpredictable. Sounds like the Omaha paper learned by experience.

However, to confuse a newspaper with a wannabe wire service version on the internet is I believe unfair if Omaha's 'core' business is newspapering not interneting.

Many seem to be placing considerable attention on the virtues and values of the internet web site because they are sexy, seamless and relatively easy to do, forgetting that if that is ALL you have to do, you can focus all of your resources on this one function. Trying to do a newspaper and a web site and be all things to all people requires a more elaborate operating plan - and the trained staff and resources with which to do it.

Some papers do it extremely well, and still get out a newspaper; others I believe are slowly abandoning their print for the ease and cost-effectiveness of an internet site. I may be only a single voice, but I think the NYTimes print edition has suffered considerably as more attention is paid to building up NYTimes.com with its added attractions of audio and video and endless sidebar offerings.

I own and small weekly. We have a stable paid subscription base for the print edition and offer a "taste" of it for free on the web. I may use the web for a big breaking story but I'm not about to give away the farm for free at this time. Maybe some day, but not today. I think this is a conundrum many papers, large, medium and small, still struggle with.

The Omaha situation was compromised by a system failure - which can happen to any of use, print or web - from which the newspaper, I'm sure, will have learned a few valuable if painful lessons to help it avoid a recurrence. - Chuck Kershner, executive editor, Clinton (NY) Courier

1:05 PM  
Anonymous perls said...

This is old news. The World-Herald is weak on the web, always has been. Their editors seem to have an inflated view of who they are. As an Omahan and a reader, I know they have some talented writers, one of whom is a friend of mine. But the editors don't let their talent shine, nor do they apparently have a clue about where the medium is heading. Perhaps one day they'll wake up and figure it out. Maybe today was the day. Probably not. This paper will suffer until new leadership takes it over. I would resist from partaking if the bashing if I didn't know for a fact the editors at this paper are completely full of themselves. They could use some humility.

1:27 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

World Herald management views access to information as a means of social control, and always has. It has been clear in recent weeks with the big sports stories that crashed their site that management deliberately maintains low capacity on omaha.com to drive local readers to the print edition of the paper. Unfortunately, their decision to continue this policy and not even temporarily add capacity in order to make information available to Internet users during a major breaking local story of national interest just shows all too clearly how crass and out-of-touch the OWH truly is. The newspaper is usually deep in cahoots with the local Chamber of Commerce and other civic booster types in trying to promote an image of Omaha as a growing, modern and cosmopolitan city. The World Herald's online response to this tragedy should make the company a laughing stock in the newspaper world, they have shown themselves to be nothing but a company bent on preserving their small-town fiefdom and maintaining the (offline) status quo.

Get with it, OWH. The Internet: it's not just for child predators anymore.

2:59 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am in Florida and I use the Omaha World Herald site regularly. I have never had a problem accessing it from any high speed connection. I was able to access it after the event that unfolded @ Westroads. It was running a little slow but that is not unusual considering the amount of traffic it was seeing. I did not see any crashes throughout the past 36 hrs. Preparation is good, even though I was unable to check the names of the prople involved till the next day, this doesn't seem unreasonable to consider the feelings and privacy of the victims and their families in the first hours of notification. Perhaps if there was a little more control by the media as OWH showed, we wouldn't have terms like paparazzi, and Big Brother. And remember that News Organizations have alwas been and always will be a regurgitation of each other, that is how we as people communicate, by repeating what we hear or find. It is the basis of preserving history.

12:06 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As an Omahan who works during the day, often omaha.com has been the first place I turn for news. So, when I heard about the shootings, I immediately logged on to omaha.com to find out what was going on. I go online because I don't have a tv in my office (so, please don't think that all media consumers immediately turn on the tube). I was shocked that the site was down, and it was down for the rest of the day, with spotty performance since then.

As others have mentioned before, this is not the first time omaha.com has crashed. In an age where newspapers are continually fighting for their viability, their inability to transition to the online medium does not bode well for their future.

There are mixed reviews on the OWH's current coverage of the incident. As someone in the pr industry who often works with both print and tv reporters, I can tell you that the OWH reporters will take their time to get the story accurate, whereas the tv reporters will stick to their "if it bleeds it leads/no sense of decorum" attitude. The OWH has some talented reporters, but they are way too understaffed to keep up on a story like this.

7:27 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I guess if I want eye-candy graphics (oooo, look, the little killer guy moves!) or video of teenagers calling this sad young man a hero, I'll have to go someplace else. But if I want serious, thoughtful, professional journalism about this tragedy in Omaha, I'll take the World Herald. I can trust them to be accurate and not waste my time with meaningless drivel. Could their website be improved? Sure, especially in the technology department. What a shame it couldn't take the traffic. I expect there will be some lessons learned.

7:42 AM  
Blogger mo from ne said...

The reason why I think the OWH fails online is because a few years ago I went to an event for young journalists where Harold Anderson, publisher emeritus, of the OWH told us that the Internet was a fad.
They have a beautiful new building, some good reporters, and photographers but everybody there is constrained by the green eye shade wearing, good old boy network who went to UNL J-school management that still has trouble with things like female reporters.
I hate that this is what we have to depend on for our print news.

8:18 AM  
Blogger JoeMerchant24 said...

I left a fairly progressive paper in Lincoln to take a job at the OWH a few years back.

It was seen as a "step up" and the pay was a nice boost.

In less than a year not only had I left the OWH, I left journalism.

The newsroom environment is 1973 without the typewriters. There is no forward-thinking, just "keep the ship on the path."

Their idea of advancing their online presence is to severely limit content to subscribers only.

There are good people who work there. Several are stil close friends. But management won't let them compete in a multi-media world.

9:30 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Anonymous said...
besides, when something like this DOES happen, people turn on tv. they DON'T race to their computers

Dear Anonymous:

With that kind of thinking, your business probably IS anonymous. When big local news happens, people don't rush to their TV set because they're probably not at home. They're at work, in front of their ocmputers, watching the news unfold. You don't get it.

1:24 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As one blogger already said, this is old news. Omaha.com is a disaster, from its design to its frequent crashes to the obvious philosophy that it must be merely an electronic doppelganger of its print edition. This probably worked in 1997, when newspaper web sites were under the auspices of marketing or advertising departments and weren't staffed for up-to-date news and information. This approach doesn't work in 2007. There really shouldn't be any debate about it.

I appreciate those who want to read the complete report "at the end of the day." Most people, though, want to know what their local newsgatherers know when they know it. I'd venture a guess that most defending the OWH either work there, know someone who does, or still expect modern newspapers to merely be 'newspapers with Web sites', and not 'news enterprises that deliver news across multiple platforms.' Newspapers can't afford to be the former category.

There are news organizations in Nebraska -- JournalStar.com down the road in Lincoln comes to mind immediately -- that are functioning as multiple-platform news enterprises. The World-Herald, meanwhile, appears to unable or unwilling to accept that the Internet is about users' needs, not journalists'. They seem to still cling to the illusion that the media can continue to control the dissemination of information. Sad.

Even if they bought new servers and underwent a full site overhaul tomorrow, they're still too creaky and staid an organization to do much right away. Because their leadership didn't invest in online when financial times were good, they now find themselves now amid hiring freezes, unable to dig out of this hole. It'll take them years if they ever decide to join the 21st century. And that's a big if.

7:16 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As one blogger already said, this is old news. Omaha.com is a disaster, from its design to its frequent crashes to the obvious philosophy that it must be merely an electronic doppelganger of its print edition. This probably worked in 1997, when newspaper web sites were under the auspices of marketing or advertising departments and weren't staffed for up-to-date news and information. This approach doesn't work in 2007. There really shouldn't be any debate about it.

I appreciate those who want to read the complete report "at the end of the day." Most people, though, want to know what their local newsgatherers know when they know it. I'd venture a guess that most defending the OWH either work there, know someone who does, or still expect modern newspapers to merely be 'newspapers with Web sites', and not 'news enterprises that deliver news across multiple platforms.' Newspapers can't afford to be the former category.

There are news organizations in Nebraska -- JournalStar.com down the road in Lincoln comes to mind immediately -- that are functioning as multiple-platform news enterprises. The World-Herald, meanwhile, appears to unable or unwilling to accept that the Internet is about users' needs, not journalists'. They seem to still cling to the illusion that the media can continue to control the dissemination of information. Sad.

Even if they bought new servers and underwent a full site overhaul tomorrow, they're still too creaky and staid an organization to do much right away. Because their leadership didn't invest in online when financial times were good, they now find themselves now amid hiring freezes, unable to dig out of this hole. It'll take them years if they ever decide to join the 21st century. And that's a big if.

7:17 PM  
Blogger Eugene said...

Not sure as to the point of this post. One newspaper website failing the day of the big story is indicative of a dying industry? I don't agree. Plenty of papers do decent work online when big stories break. The 'flashy graphics' line is a hoot.
One could argue this blog looks like something out of '97. It is EXTREMELY text-heavy, no photos and doesn't seem to take advantage of the medium.
Sort of like, I dunno -- the newspaper you're bashing?

6:05 AM  
Anonymous Louise said...

If half the people posting here work for the World Herald, I think the other half are disgruntled ex employees. Kinda funny. By the way, I live in Omaha. And I know that when CNN and whoever else have milked this tragedy for as much as they think it's worth and left town, the World Herald will still be here trying to understand and explain. They're the only ones who actually care about Omaha. To everyone else, it's just another story.

10:32 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"But the worst problems in Omaha were not technical, but editorial. The poor coverage evidently was caused by a lack of contingency planning..."
So, if the page was down, how do you know the worst problems were editorial? I'd look in your own backyard before accusing others.

10:08 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The OWH is getting a new publisher on Jan 1. Expect to see massive changes thereafter.

8:44 PM  

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