When an 18-ton freeway sign slams onto the pavement, bringing 6 miles’ worth of rush hour traffic to a snarling halt, journalists instantly see the makings of a breaking news story. Equally, when a descending jet careens off the runway, slamming into nearby structures before bursting into flames, the inquiring minds of readers and viewers want the latest details.
Both scenarios became reality in San Diego County last week, and in both cases, media outlets, from newspapers to television stations, fed the public’s interest by turning to the No. 1 venue for breaking news these days , the Internet.
“Our goal is to always be the first ones to have it posted,” said Jennifer Brady, managing editor for 10News.com, the Internet arm of ABC affiliate KGTV Channel 10.
Brady has worked for the station for the past 10 years , nine of which have been devoted to working on the Web site. Within five to 10 minutes of last week’s accidents, 10News.com had posted breaking news alerts with taglines promising to give viewers continuous updates.
“There was a time, I think, in the newsroom when the goal was always to get it on the air first, but I think it’s grown now to be a matter of getting it on the air and getting it on the Web as soon as possible in both cases, which often means the Internet is first,” Brady said, noting that Web postings are generally easier to speed along because they don’t interfere with programming schedules.
According to Brady, the priority ranking for breaking new Web postings is generally text-photo-video clip.
Andrew Kleske, online editor for the North County Times, said that interest in “upping the ante” with Web site operations grows consistently year to year for his paper, which is based in Escondido and owned by Iowa-based Lee Enterprises.
“When something happens, everybody knows that they have to put down everything they were doing and help get a story on the Web as soon as possible,” Kleske said.
Brady said she first saw Web sites become crucial components of local media operations during the fatal student shootings at Santana High School in Santee in March 2001 when people anxiously wanted more information. A year later, when Sabre Springs resident David Westerfield went on trial for the kidnapping and murder of his 7-year-old neighbor, Danielle van Dam, Brady said that intense public interest in the case led readers and viewers to search for updates on the Web while at work rather than wait until they got home to see the next televised broadcast or print edition. Through both of those events, the public was able to start a habit of expecting the Web to have the latest information on stories, Brady said.
The thrill of the online chase is not the only motivating factor for today’s journalists relying on their company’s Web site to convey breaking news. Both Brady and her counterparts at NBC affiliate KNSD 7/39 and the San Diego Union-Tribune said they see clear spikes in the number of users to their Web sites whenever breaking news hits, and those spikes can justify higher advertising rates and more revenues for the company.
“That’s the good thing and the bad thing about the Web; you can really see who is paying attention to you,” said KNSD News Director Greg Dawson. “(Increases) depend on the story, sometimes it might double, other times the numbers increase tenfold.”
While the North County Times has an integrated newsroom that combines all online and print resources seamlessly, the San Diego Union-Tribune decided in May to create a separate breaking news team for its Internet arm, signonsandiego.com.
Tom Mallory, editor of the four-person team, said the public has a “tremendous appetite for breaking news,” and his department was formed to ensure that readers didn’t have to wait for the next day’s newspaper edition to find out what they want to know. In some cases, the team is fed information from beat reporters as they work on stories for the next day’s paper, helping to process bits of information as they come in and have been verified. In other cases, team reporters are the first on the scene, bringing information directly back to the office to post on the Web. That was the case Jan. 23, when a recycling truck struck a freeway sign on northbound Interstate 805 at 7:35 a.m., causing massive traffic delays.
Because the accident occurred so close to the paper’s Mission Valley offices, a team reporter was able to arrive on the scene quickly armed with a camera phone. According to Mallory, signonsandiego.com first posted a traffic warning about the incident at 7:42 a.m., just seven minutes after it occurred. The first story about the crash was then posted at 8:15 a.m., with updates posted at 9:15 a.m., 10:30 a.m. and 1 p.m.
For most broadcast outlets, Brady said staffing strategies for breaking news vary greatly by what time of day a story breaks and how close the station is to airing a newscast. She also said that just about everyone in the newsroom is equipped to cover a story via remote access these days using phones and wireless Internet access.
“If you want to be in the news business, you have to understand that breaking news is part of it and show that you’re in it to win it,” Kleske said.
When a private jet plane crashed at McClellan-Palomar Airport in Carlsbad the next day, killing all four passengers aboard, Kleske said a story was posted at nctimes.com within an hour of the incident, and at least 20 updated postings had occurred by 2 p.m.
Dawson stressed the value of posting a breaking news item as soon as possible, even if only two lines’ worth of information can be confirmed.
“In the newspaper it looks kind of odd to have just two lines about something; but on the Web, it’s not so odd,” Dawson said, noting that the purpose of acknowledging breaking news as quickly as possible is so viewers and readers don’t assume a particular outlet isn’t aware that there is breaking news.
Typically, KNSD is able to post breaking news alerts within minutes of learning of the incidents, Dawson said.
According to Dawson, the idea is to make sure the public knows they can keep checking a particular Web site for updates rather than choose to focus their attention solely on a competitor’s site believing that they are the only ones who have caught wind of the breaking story.
“Pretty much when there’s a big break, everybody’s focus becomes about that,” Dawson said. “As soon as we have something that’s confirmed we want to get that on the air (and on the Web).”