In October 2017, social video news provider NowThis launched @newsroom, a Twitter account intended to combine the best of the company’s real-world and social reporting.
The launch coincided with a major court ruling in the US city of St. Louis, where a police officer was found not guilty of murdering an African-American man despite evidence to the contrary.
NowThis sent 10 producers organised in three field teams of video journalists to St. Louis, and coordinated their reporting activities publicly through the @newsroom Twitter account.
With journalists producing live streams on the ground and editors back in the newsroom in charge of live tweeting events, monitoring footage, posting video content on social media platforms and coordinating with potential interviewees, the publisher was able to cover one story from many different angles, with each of the teams feeding the other both online and offline.
"The idea of sending a team that large to do a breaking news event was a very new thing for us to do, it was an experiment to coordinate the coverage," said Andy Carvin, former senior editor-at-large, NowThis News, speaking at the International Journalism Festival in Perugia last week.
NowThis was the only national news organisation there, having had a tip-off that the verdict was going to be not-guilty, and the coverage allowed the public to experience what it’s like for a newsroom to report a major story on the ground as it happens, while simultaneously allowing the NowThis newsroom to have a birds-eye view of what was happening via social media.
"We didn't know where reporters were going to be at any given time ," said Carvin, who stayed in the newsroom as lead editor for the coverage.
"But it was very organic and fluid in that everyone on the ground did different tasks at different times, which allowed us to be nimble.
"I used social tools to figure out what was going on on the ground, from the Facebook Live map to Twitter lists. These became vital for me to have situational awareness to see when and where people were relaxed and angry in the crowd. I used it to warn the reporters what was going on in the areas they were not in."
Kim Bui, former editor-at-large, NowThis News, was the most senior member of staff on the ground, there to focus on producing live streams on Facebook and Periscope.
"We learned that you can't cover a protest by yourself – rumours ran high, and we had to make very quick decisions," she said.
Her team made sure to stay in groups of two or more. They didn't have press badges, so there was nothing to prevent them from being arrested, and for safety it was often necessary to have someone on the lookout while another was going live.
"We used WhatsApp to coordinate with each other and the publishing team – notifications let us answer questions easily and take direction from the newsroom, from speaking louder in the live streams to coordinating safety, telling each other where we were," she said.
There were often times where Bui and her team had to run, dodging potentially violent situations or arrest. The number of viewers continually increased even as the camera work was getting more shaky.
"Audiences like raw material. I think there is an assumption that live video has to be high quality but for breaking news it doesn't matter – it is gritty and they feel like they are there."
In one moment during a Facebook Live, a car almost drove into someone. In another, rubber bullets were shot near the journalists and the reporting team had to run for cover among screaming crowds.
Carvin was also able to prevent the team on the ground being arrested as he was watching other people's live streams and could see where kettling, a practice of controlling and arresting large crowds during demonstrations or protests, was happening.
"I could see where the police were and could see what formations they were placing themselves in – using Google Maps, I could draw a map for the reporters to walk to avoid the police," he said.
"It is hard when you are surrounded by people," Bui continued.
"And the cell phone signal is not great, you don't know where you are supposed to go and it isn't safe – every minute I was looking down was a minute I was putting myself and the team in danger."
The team spent over a week out on the story, and produced so much pre-recorded and live footage that it crashed their server.
"Almost all of our energy was put into local real-time logistics, but hardly any thought was put into what would happen afterwards," said Carvin.
Bui agreed, adding that "in retrospect, we should have had a production manager or producer in charge of longform projects who could look at the whole content and decide on the stories, not decide ourselves when we were exhausted".
"Looking back some of them weren't great, and it took four months to produce four longform pieces when we got back as we had other work, so it was too long and a mistake on our part," she said.
Although the coverage went well, this type of reporting isn't necessarily appropriate to cover every major story, as other news organisations will be at the scene too.
Additionally, it was a huge and expensive undertaking. Both Carvin and Bui pointed out that if the team could go back and do it again, they'd already have a backpack ready to go with spare batteries, duct tape, a water bottle and a sharpie, at the minimum.
Preparing beforehand would have made their lives on the ground much easier and less stressful, and in this situation, safer too.
"We found it was important to train our teams to be nimble and able to swap roles at a moment's notice if needed," Bui said.
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