In terms of high-impact news stories, 2013 had its fair share. But how were these stories covered online by leading news outlets and what lessons were learned, and noted for the future?

Journalism.co.uk asked digital news experts to define the stories of 2013 which were particularly significant in terms of digital journalism.

Mark Frankel, assistant editor of social news at the BBC

Mark Frankel- Typhoon Haiyan

“Typhoon Haiyan was pretty momentous for us," Frankel told Journalism.co.uk, "not just in terms of the disaster but also in the way we were able to get a range of different reporters into various areas of the Philippines".

Among the BBC's coverage was a Q&A with Tim Wilcox in Tacloban on how aid was being distributed into communities, something Frankel admits was not without its “logistical issues”.

First the news team had to make contact with Wilcox and his producer, then secure a line to the internet and ensure that it was available for enough time to enable Tim to respond to tweets which were being submitted by members of the public using the hashtag #askbbctim.

“We've done Q&A's on all sorts of things previously but the interesting thing about this one was that it was done on location and in the midst of a major developing story,” explained Frankel.

“Although we only held [the Q&A] for half an hour it was nice to be able to feedback to the audience and to engage with them on some of the pertinent questions that people were raising with a correspondent who was right there in the centre of things.”

Mark Little, founder and CEO at Storyful


Mark Little - Boston Marathon bombing

Little said that that the game-changing stories for him this year were the ones that confirmed trends in online journalism.

“I think in the way the Boston Marathon bombing was covered, we realised breaking news in its traditional form is over,” he said. “When you see the mistakes made by big broadcasters or newspapers who were quoting what they saw on Twitter, you realise that the days when news organisations could compete to 'own' breaking news are over.

"Trying to be first in an era when everybody an eyewitness is pointless."

Trying to be first in an era when everybody an eyewitness is pointlessMark Little, Storyful
Little stressed that it was important for news organisations to note that getting a scoop should never take priority over verifying information gleaned from social networks and other sources. Several news organisations were criticised for wrongly reporting an arrest had been made following the attack in Boston.

"With that story, there was a realisation among our the partners that sometimes being first is not the most important thing," he added. "I think that was a major shift within the news business."

David Cohn, director of news at mobile-first news outlet Circa

David Cohn Cohn also noted that the events in Boston were pivotal for Circa in 2013.

“The 'biggest' parts of the story took place over one week and through it all we covered various angles and allowed somebody 'following' the story to get only the information that was new to them,” he explained.

Circa's goal is to push the important information out fast, Cohn added, and "not to overwhelm, but provide the information that pushes the story forward".

- Nelson Mandela's death

The recent death of Nelson Mandela is another good example of a big, ongoing story which Circa was able to make easily digestible by allowing its users to only view essential updates.

“It's a new way to manage the "planned obituary" for world leaders of his stature,” said Cohn.

One thing Circa has learned this year, he added, is the persistence of news stories.

“Whether it's the George Zimmerman trial or the shooting at a Colorado high school, stories persist over time and a reader keeps context.

“Since the phone is with them in almost all their daily situations, the challenge is for the phone to present information that respects the context they've kept. That's the fundamental question Circa posses.”

Cohn also said that, at a core level, news organisations need to be receiving information about readers as much as they are transmitting information.

“It shouldn't just be about what pages a person visits, it should be ‘what information does this reader know about this story,’” he explained. “That detailed information allows you to serve them better.”

Sarah Brown, producer at CNN iReport


Sarah Brown iReport Brown said that one of the most outstanding stories for her this year was an iReport posted by an American woman who alleged she'd been sexually harassed as a foreign student in India.

“We noticed this story was getting an enormous amount of traffic from Facebook - literally hundreds and thousands [of views] - from India,” Brown explained. “And when a community is pushing something, you have to take note of that."

The piece, which triggered further research by iReport and additional coverage by CNN online, kickstarted a massive debate on the news site and received hundreds of comments, from both men and women.

“People were saying they felt very ashamed, and others were saying, 'well, this is a fact of life for Indian women as well and also women all over the world'," said Brown.

Off the back of the initial story, iReport generated four or five pieces of additional content. Brown noted it is important “not to just stop with one piece of content" if a story is getting a lot of response.

When a community is pushing something, you have to take note of thatSarah Brown, CNN iReport
The main thing iReport learned from that story, Brown said, is “if a community is urging you to look at something, look”.

“We do do have iReports that go viral and they're always worth looking at because they can be pointing towards a very interesting part of the story that we just haven't assessed or haven't seen,” she added.

Brown also noted she had seen a wider change in attitude towards UGC since joining iReport 18 months ago.

“What's really interesting about iReport and user-generated content is how integral it's become to CNN as an organisation,” she said.

UGC has become an important part of not just news-gathering, Brown added, but also “fleshing out stories, adding background, adding colour, adding a bit of 'spice'."

“I think there's been a bit of a sea-change [towards UGC]. It's no longer seen as an add-on.

“If you have an iReporter who's lived in a country all their life, often they'll know the story better than you.”

Richard Moynihan, social media and community manager at Metro


Richard Moynihan - The murder of Lee Rigby

Metro saw a large spike in online traffic after breaking the news of Lee Rigby's murder on Twitter, Moynihan said.

But, he added: “We knew that once you've got the Sky chopper going up and everyone else covering it, our relevance to the story begins to fade.”

To counteract that, the Metro news team decided to cover the story in a way they felt was most relevant to their readership.
“Our audience is really busy and it was a big complicated news story with lots of rumours and conjecture and new developments,” explained Moynihan. “So we decided to just focus on the facts and present it in an very easily digestible breakdown of events, with a map and videos that had emerged on social of [Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale] being on the scene".

The idea of only covering stories that they feel will be of interest to their audience is central to Metro's philosophy. “We always ask, “what's our relevance?'”, explained Moynihan. “How can we do things differently? What's the conversation you would have with a friend about this story?”

He added that priority tends to be given to “social, shareable content” rather than straight news leads that may not be of interest to Metro's audience.

- The papal inauguration

A good example of this was Metro's coverage of the papal inauguration in March – potentially four days of waiting for smoke to emerge from a chimney.

“This was not the kind of thing our audience was going to love for four solid days,” explained Moynihan, “and also it was being covered everywhere else. So we decided to do a liveblog where the joke was there was no smoke.”

Metro went all out on the humour angle, "getting carried away" with Photoshop images and designing pie charts showing the ratio of smoke from the chimney, which were all one colour.

The blog took off on social media and "from there it just snowballed", said Moynihan, with other news outlets and famous comedians linking to the content.

“At one point a pigeon landed on the chimney in St Peter's Square. That was the most exciting thing that happened until the actual smoke came out after two days," he explained.

Moynihan said he was influenced by the Guardian's coverage of a cricket match that got rained off where the sports reporter started an off-the-cuff liveblog about the fact it was still raining – and nothing else.

“We played up to the fact that liveblogs are kind of just shoe-horned in for the sake of it. But it was lovely seeing how well it went down with other people.

"It gave us the confidence to try and do more of that kind of content, April Fools' jokes and stuff. And I think it made people notice Metro a bit more too. It was a top story for us for a long, long time.”

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