There were major developments in possibly the biggest news story in Columbia over the last decade. It’s a story that every student who has entered the Columbia Missourian newsroom since 2001 knew about whether they were involved in coverage or not.
The news broke as I was supposed to be wrapping up my morning shift. I worked as long as I could before I had to leave for class, and then worked in the newsroom as soon as I got out of class. I finally had to leave for class at 5 p.m., but it was tough to walk away.
My colleague Joy always tells students on days like this to think about the lead of their cover letter. Since I had procrastinated on my weekly reflection paper due Wednesday morning, this became the lead of that paper at 9 p.m., and I think it is better for it. I am proud of the journalism that was done, and I was glad I was able to be in the newsroom to witness the behind-the-scenes work of students and faculty.
To understand what happened, beyond what I included below, go here for the Missourian’s main story.
Reflection for Nov. 6:
About nine and a half years ago, I was sitting in the lecture for the Columbia Missourian reporting class, and someone rushed in to say there had been arrests in the Kent Heitholt homicide case. A few reporters left the class to cover a news conference and start putting together a story.
At the time the Missourian had a website, but stories were usually published to it at midnight every day after the stories had been edited for the print edition. The link the Missourian is using for that first arrest story seems to reflect that process, but it’s possible a story was published earlier in the day. I don’t recall how the news was broken.
Fast forward to Tuesday, one of the teens arrested and later convicted in the killing had his conviction overturned. Ryan Ferguson has been fighting the conviction for nine years and finally won an appeal. I got a call from another news editor at 8:25 a.m. Tuesday alerting me to the news. As the early morning editor, I began the work of sharing the news on social media and making it the prominent story on the website.
One of the things I did was upload the opinion from the court to the Missourian website through a service called Document Cloud to give readers the original source. I highlighted the key paragraphs from the opinion and embedded those on the main page of the Missourian website. Later, we uploaded a motion filed for Ferguson’s immediate release and embedded a key paragraph in a story.
The case has been covered nationally and has been talked about a lot on social media (a Facebook page for Ferguson has more than 68,000 likes). With that in mind, the community outreach team began gathering live reactions on social media to the news.
For a news conference later in the day, a staff member was live tweeting, and a video live stream was set up. The live tweeting was combined with other media outlets’ tweets in a live coverage window embedded on the website.
In 2004, we never could have imagined all the ways there would be to tell and report this story.
There are a lot of imperfections in this new age of journalism, but as James Fallows writes for The Atlantic, there is great opportunity for new ways of telling stories, providing information directly and engaging with the audience.
Fallows admits the troubles in this age of clicks and the emphasis on “going viral” and uses Gawker as his case study. But he also points out that sensationalism and other issues were also present during the “golden age of journalism.”
If we are aware of the changes happening in journalism, “we can try to buffer them,” he writes. The greater benefits might be harder to see until we look back on the change, but change is not all bad.
In the midst of the changes, the biggest concern for any news outlet should be credibility. Traditional outlets on the web have more credibility than nontraditional online news sources, according to a study by Debra Melican and Travis Dixon. This is not a time to sacrifice that credibility with readers, and nontraditional sources will have to work to earn it.
Major news events in the last year have certainly put credibility at risk for traditional and nontraditional sources in the rush to be first to report something new. As the New York Times reported, this had a detrimental effect on the family of Sunil Tripathi, who was wrongly identified as a suspect in the Boston Marathon bombing on Reddit. The report picked up steam when journalists from BuzzFeed, NBC News and other outlets began treating it as fact.
I might be naïve, but I expect credibility to be the issue that shakes out the good from the bad. The Gawkers won’t disappear — the tabloids at the grocery store still haven’t — but the sources that have fostered credibility — whether traditional or nontraditional — will gain ground and become sustainable.
In the meantime, we should keep the traditional sources alive even if on “life support,” as Fallows says, to prove to readers the value of those sources.
I like that Fallows points out that it’s possible we are not at the end of this change but near the beginning. It’s been 17 years since many newspapers first established websites, according to research I’ve done for my lit review. For me, as an almost 30-year-old, that feels like a long time. But in terms of historical change, it is still a short time period.
The changes in the telling of the Ferguson story over nine years reflect just some of the benefits we will see out of this new age of journalism.