RJI Fellow’s playbook will help newsrooms collaborate on natural disaster coverage

Pooling resources and collaborating on projects in a wire service type situation can help newsrooms more adequately cover breaking news such as weather events, said Fergus Bell, co-founder of Pop-Up Newsroom.

Bell, a 2019-20 RJI Fellow, said he has heard several people express a need for extra hands during such a situation. That inspired him to get involved.

Unfortunately, these types of events don’t give much warning, so he decided to develop a playbook to lay out how to pull off a collaborative pop-up newsroom effort. The playbook includes budgeting, organizational concerns, who’s going to be involved in the collaboration, communication needs, where newsrooms partners will be located and how to work with competitors.

“If you are part of this you’re going to get greater access to resources that can help you, greater access to information and support in getting information out to the communities that you serve,” Bell said. “That is the idea of by being stronger together.”

Bell said he hopes to bring the playbook, which he’s developing during a fellowship at the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute, to newsrooms where there are major weather events including Florida, the Gulf Coast area, the Carolinas, the New York and New Jersey areas and West Coast earthquake areas.

Need for collaboration during breaking news

Executive editor Stephanie Pedersen last year faced covering Hurricane Florence and its multiple week recovery with a 12-person newsroom at the Myrtle Beach Sun News.

“With a staff of 12 people, you’re going to get burnout,” she said. “You’re going to get not great editing, after several days in a row.”

Thankfully, McClatchy had implemented a plan about a year earlier to have its newsrooms lean on one another during such events. As Hurricane Florence approached, help came from newsrooms in Raleigh, Charlotte, and Rock Hill, North Carolina. Someone brought in drones to shoot the flooding, which helped evacuees determine whether it was safe to return home.

There were producers in Sacramento, California, and other places out West who were helping with social media production, she said.

The news partners also identified where they were duplicating coverage, so each publication could focus on its own local coverage.

“We really relied on each other across the region to make that reporting stronger and we had a lot more eyes looking at things from different perspectives,” Pedersen said.

It’s estimated that the McClatchy papers produced about 750 stories across the region about Hurricane Florence’s impact.

Pop-up newsroom

Bell and Tom Trewinnard, of Meedan, started Pop-Up Newsroom in 2017 after being inspired by the collaborative nature of the Electionland project. Since then they’ve created pop-up newsrooms to help track misinformation during elections and to lead a social newsgathering experiment for ProPublica Documenting Hate project.

In addition to helping orchestrate pop-up projects, Bell is the founder of Dig Deeper Media, where he consults with news outlets and broadcasters to help them devise new strategies for news processes such as verification and digital newsgathering.

The RJI Fellowship project is Pop-Up Newsroom’s fourth experiment.

Right now Bell’s team is populating the playbook with information they’ve learned throughout the fellowship and from previous pop-up newsroom experiments, said Bell.

Bell said although storms don’t give much warning, there has been plenty to learn from others, past weather events and previous pop-up newsroom experiments.

What they’ve been learning

For example, he worked with the Missouri School of Journalism and its newsrooms last fall to learn about the needs and workflows particularly of small newsrooms.

A workshop team mapped out all the sources of information (governments, health departments, etc.) during a crisis, how they would receive this information (social media, phone calls, file transfers, etc.) as a way to form the most efficient way to get that information to the newsrooms that need it, he said.

Visiting the Missouri School of Journalism also gave him the chance to learn about a student capstone project that helped small radio stations become more prepared during natural disasters. This project was prompted after a federal law designated radio stations as “first responders” during these types of events.

One revelation was learning the importance of tailoring the playbook so that it could work for a radio station with only one person.

Testing the playbook

The plan is to launch the playbook to several newsrooms to test later this year, said Bell. A student team at AdZou, a full-service, student-staffed advertising agency at the Missouri School of Journalism, is working with Bell’s team to identify the best ways to market the playbook to potential test newsrooms and gain buy-in. Although Bell’s team won’t be able to test the playbook on a breaking news event, they plan to create a simulation of possible scenarios to gauge what works, and where there are any remaining barriers, he said.

Bell said he hopes the playbook will eventually be adaptable for other breaking news events, but the first iteration will be just for weather events and natural disasters.

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