A Painful Social Media Foray for Seattle Journalists
It was a lesson learned under horrible circumstances, but a lesson nonetheless. When four police officers were shot and killed in a coffee shop in Washington this week, local media mobilized to follow law enforcement as the suspect was tracked down. It wasn't the first time social networking was used to supplement media coverage, but this time it made breakthroughs in substantial and useful ways.
12/04/09 4:00 AM PT
It is one of the saddest, most shocking stories for a journalist to cover: the murder of a law enforcement official.
Four Lakewood, Wash., police officers were shot to death at a Tacoma-area coffee shop Sunday morning -- apparently targeted just because they were cops -- and a dangerous, armed suspect was sought in the Puget Sound region for nearly 48 hours. As in any large metropolitan area, Seattle's media organizations ramped up their coverage, sent reporters everywhere, marshaled all their resources to tell this story in an accurate, timely fashion.
For what might have been the first time during a big local news story, social media became a major storytelling force. I'm not talking about this being the first time Twitter is used by a news organization to supplement coverage of breaking news (see Iran's elections, the Miracle on the Hudson, etc.). The consensus from Seattle-based media watchers is that the microblogging social network may have broken through to add to a big story in a substantial and useful way. TechFlash executive editor John Cook did his usual thorough job writing about this on Monday, as the suspect was still on the loose.
Eyes on the Ground
Of course, it's Seattle, one of the world's epicenters for technological innovation, where I'm guessing a majority of media professionals are more open-minded to digital newsgathering techniques. Yet it's also a city that lost one of its two daily newspapers earlier this year. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer shut down print operations and has morphed into seattlepi.com. Layoffs have hit TV and radio stations. The subject of journalistic business models surviving deeper into the 21st century -- and the impact of that on its citizenry -- has been explored in greater depth here than in most other cities, I'm sure.
The tweets that helped add detail to the big picture were coming from trained journalists and ordinary citizens. Reporters tweeted from swat team stakeouts and neighborhood searches, but so did people living in those neighborhoods. They all found their way to the Twitter hashtag "#washooting," and news organizations sometimes took their staffing cues from what residents sent in from smartphones or computers.
I know, because I wasn't just watching this as a news consumer. I worked the afternoon/evening anchor shifts Sunday and Monday at Northwest Cable News, a Belo-owned regional network that is associated with NBC affiliate KING-TV and is based in the same building. @KING5Seattle did its part for the media collective that Twitter enables, sharing links from other news organizations and from citizens reporting unusual police activity down the street. A citizen tweeted about cops searching on their street; KING sent a nearby reporter to check it out.
I followed developments on the Twitterverse from my computer at the anchor desk while waiting for Pierce County Sheriff's spokesmen to step up to a forest of microphones and several locked-down camera positions. Yet my contention is that this story isn't just about social media. It was about the Internet in general and a blend of Web-based updates and old-school, shoe-leather journalism from the Seattle Times that forced the Pierce County Sheriff's to change its media strategy on Sunday.
First things first; the Times' Twitter game plan.
The last paper standing in Seattle had used social media during recent elections. "But we did more with social media in covering this story than we've done before," SeattleTimes.com managing editor Kathy Best told TechNewsWorld. "Not only did we embrace Twitter in a way we never have before in terms of having at least 10 staff members tweeting literally around the clock; we also used Dipity (an online timeline platform) to map and bring together a lot of content. We had so many stories that just managing it all and making it easy for people to find was a challenge."
SeattleTimes.com put those staffers' tweets high on its home page, giving readers a true, real-time glimpse of the manhunt and aftermath of Tuesday's shooting death of the suspect by a Seattle police officer.
Another sign of the Times' willingness to push the digital envelope on this story: It experimented with Google's new communications/email/social media hybrid, Google Wave. Unfortunately, my experience checking out the Times' Wave confirmed my earlier review that it's not ready for prime time. After finally figuring out how to get in on the conversation, it was akin to being teleported into the middle of the New York Stock Exchange during a major selloff. Verdict: Lots of potential, but the application is in beta for a reason. "We brought Google Wave to its knees," Best laughed.
Still, "I think they were brave to try Google Wave," said Kathy Gill with the University of Washington's digital media program. "Google Wave is so new, however, that they needed to have someone on there to keep moderating it and pull out all the off-topic stuff. People were talking about Wave, not about the topic (the shootings)."
Gill offers suggestions to the Times and other media organizations on surfing a Wave for news events on her blog. She thinks the Times is being pushed by similar experimentation by its former print rival, seattlepi.com. "Having so many reporters using this real-time communications tool, I think it's fabulous. I hope that when they go through their review of this, they decide to keep it."
Twitter, Radio and the Need for Speed
As area police searched for Clemmons on Monday -- and finally found him on Tuesday -- Linda Thomas was behind the mic on the 5 a.m. to 9 a.m. shift for Newstalk 97.3 KIRO-FM. But she was also tweeting the latest developments and coming to the same conclusions as Gill and others. "This is the first time everybody in the local media seemed to get how to use Twitter," she said. "It wasn't just 'big developments in the Lakewood murders - tune in at 11,' it wasn't just teasing what they're going to do, it was putting out information in real-time. People got it."
Twitter has supplanted radio as the most immediate medium, according to Thomas, who also blogs about the media as TheNewsChick on seattlepi.com. "Twitter is even faster," she told TechNewsWorld. "It takes a certain amount of time to put a news product on TV, a certain amount of time to get a product on a Web page. It takes no time to get information on Twitter, Google Wave, and even to some extent Facebook. That's where the audience is. They're saying, 'I want to know right now, not at 5 p.m.'"
However, that immediacy requires extra vetting. At one point during the Times' coverage, I saw an address involving a police search that was proven incorrect (in a nice way) by another tweet. Crowdsourcing comes to the rescue, but "we also put a real emphasis on trying to get it right the first time," Best said. "That, frankly, was one of the coolest things about having (Times executive editor) Dave Boardman using Twitter, because Dave was bringing a real journalistic ethic to it. The tweets that he did were very careful. He was double-checking stuff. We were also using Twitter to fact-check what others were doing. The value of something like Twitter is that you can correct quickly, but we try hard to get it right the first time on Twitter, just like we do in print," Best said.
The Seattle Times' fact-checking and source-working came to the fore Sunday afternoon, when its Web site ended up identifying a suspect -- before the Pierce County Sheriff's were ready to reveal that information.
Breaking the News on the Web
In between updates from Pierce County Sheriff's spokesperson Ed Troyer, I checked SeattleTimes.com and saw on the front page that reporters had confirmation on a suspect name -- Maurice Clemmons, a 37-year-old with a long string of convictions in Arkansas and Washington state. However, Troyer had yet to name a suspect. I'll swear on a stack of Associated Press stylebooks that mere seconds after that story appeared online, reporters at the command post were getting text messages from assignment desks, and tweets were flying with links to the story.
Troyer was forced to step to the microphones about 15 minutes after I noticed the Web page, confirming the Times' story by saying something to the effect that "we had to do this before we were quite ready."
It only appeared on the Times' Website after editors made sure it wouldn't compromise the investigation and it would fit the paper's balancing act of serving its online and print readers. "We had two sources, we knew the journalism was solid," Best said. "We knew we had the right guy, and we were confident of the information. And then you go the next step and say, 'Is this something we hold back for the newspaper?' Probably not. National news organizations are chasing it, so that was almost a no-brainer. We've got it, let's break it.
"So how do you break it?" Best continued. "What tools are the best tools? So we tweeted it, we sent out a breaking news alert and we put it on the site, and we did it in that order, but almost simultaneously, because we have these ongoing discussions all the time -- how do we have a healthy, financially-viable newspaper AND news Web site? How do we have them both without one damaging the other? It makes those kinds of decisions easier."
Of course, sometimes the needs of a printing press run make that decision for you. Thomas was at her radio station at 3 a.m. Tuesday morning when Clemmons was shot dead by a Seattle police officer who had come upon the suspect as he was looking under the hood of his stalled out (stolen) car. "By the time the paper came out, it was already dated, but online they were relevant," she said. Everybody always has the competition in mind, but "the winner was anybody who was following the local Twitter feeds. They really got information that was valuable and timely."
Lessons Learned, Put in Perspective
She's still catching her breath from a hectic 48 hours, but Best says SeattleTimes.com will study what worked and what didn't, from both traffic-generation and journalistic perspectives. There's no doubt Twitter helped with the journalism; the Web site didn't emphasize Facebook that much, and Google Wave needs work. One thing is clear to her: "If anybody had any doubt about legacy media being able to play in an online news environment, I hope at least in Seattle that we erased some of that."
That includes the skeptics in her own newsroom. There have always been true tweeting believers, but "it's people who have thought that Twitter was stupid or frivolous in the newsroom have now been coming up to us and saying, 'Hey, I finally saw how this can really be useful, can you teach me how to do this?' And that is huge."
It's also very encouraging validation for what I've been writing about in previous columns. Twitter isn't the be-all, end-all for journalists, and critics need to stop conflating its valid use with widely publicized celebrity abuses. Yet it can be another stream of potential sources, another reservoir of color on the storytelling palette. It was exciting to watch Seattle media use it in the right way. Other cities should study the example for their own purposes. Best says she's willing to talk to other media about it.
I would have given anything, however, to have all this happen for any other story besides the death of four police officers -- shot as they were beginning another workday, using their computers at a coffee shop with free WiFi.
TechNewsWorld columnist Renay San Miguel started his journalism career with his hometown newspaper in Texas in 1979. He moved to television in 1985, anchoring, producing and reporting in Austin, Dallas and San Francisco before joining CNBC as a technology correspondent from 1997 to 2000. Following a stint with CBS MarketWatch, which included filing tech stories for the CBS Early Show, San Miguel joined CNN Headline News in 2001 as an anchor/tech reporter. He also contributed digital content for CNN.com. After his 2007 departure from CNN, San Miguel founded Primo Media and now freelances in television/online reporting and media consultation.