In our old building I had an office with a window onto the newsroom. Above the window, on the newsroom side, three TVs fed a steady stream of cable news to the producers and reporters.Sitting at my desk, I knew instantly when something big was happening because people would stop what they were doing and gaze intently at the spot over my window. I sensed their alarm before even they could articulate, or know, what was going on.So in our new newsroom, we intentionally positioned the newsroom TVs over the studio windows. The hope was that hosts working inside the studios would get that same early warning from the body language of producers in the newsroom.Tonight I was routing cool information onto one of those monitors (more on that soon), and was gazing up to evaluate and adjust the display. David Garland, a music host who was on the air at the time, came out of the studio and into the newsroom."Is something going on?" he said. "You keep looking up at the TVs."
- Getting early warnings on those stories
- Scheduling hosts and producers all night
- Deciding where to send reporters and producers
- Engaging the audience
- Ensuring strong staffing the day afterAs we prototype and plan for Election Night 2008, here are some of the issues that have come into play:A Foregone Conclusion?One of our crystal balls is FiveThirtyEight.com, a fantastic, transparent analysis of polling data. The most beautiful part? Nate Silver runs 10,000 simulations of the outcome based on the errors and fluctuations possible in every poll. Ten thousand prototypes daily. Wow. Below is today's chart of how many electoral votes Obama gets in each simulation:
Live Election CompanionWe had a smashing success running our live debate companion during the candidate face-offs. People were able to participate in real time and get insights from our public radio luminaries.On election night, what's the right way to have people involved? Set aside a key hour for a similar chat? When would that be? Have it open all night? Would that be a valuable experience? Better to have a running blog of updates?On this, we're open to input. Comment below if you have any thoughts.[WNYC's election night coverage begins at 7 p.m. and runs through the following morning -- online at wnyc.org and in New York at 93.9FM and AM820.] UPDATE ... Our digital election team met today and decided to run the Live Election Companion, with participation from our on-air hosts, from 8 p.m. to 11 p.m. on the WNYC and The Takeaway websites.
Our newsroom works. Which is news.For three years, we tried to design, from scratch, the best radio and online news facility possible. We moved in this summer, and the recent debates and breaking financial news suggest we got pretty darn close.The key, I believe, was our central point of view:-- During the most confused, stressful, and destabilizing moments, everyone is grounded in the familiar -- logins, phone lists, audio systems, etc. This allows the staff to sort out the fast-moving story, not rarely-used protocols-- Routine, hourly news is produced with the benefit of communications and production systems robust enough for breaking news-- Training people in daily news production automatically prepares them to handle the unexpected-- On-air producers work amid the reporters and editors, not in a separate control room, so they are closer to the facts-- On-air hosts can look look left to see the producer (and the rest of the newsroom), and right to see the audio engineer-- Those sightlines allow for peripheral visual cues, such as concern on a reporter's face, or people intensely watching TV monitors-- The News Hub is a technical extension of the studio complex, and has the intercom system used to talk directly with hosts and engineers; conversely, the hosts can address the entire newsroom through the News Hub monitor speakers to request facts, pronouncers, even water.-- A web producer seated at the News Hub is integrated into the editorial system and instantly privy to all plans and decisionsIt's not perfect. We produce two news shows on two different frequencies in the morning, and have trouble monitoring both at the News Hub. And our beautiful sightlines become tough brightlines as the sun sets beyond our western windows.But those panes do provide an unexpected feature for hosts and the entire newsroom: ambient warning of approaching storms.
In a breaking news situation, nobody should need to move.A simple concept, with several implications:
How do you read 11,000+ pages of a First Lady's schedules? Ask 11,000 friends to help! Today on the Brian Lehrer Show, that's exactly what we're going to do.Hillary Clinton just released her schedules from her First Lady days, and we're going to ask listeners to pick the week of their birthday in any year of the schedules and look for things that are interesting or surprising ... and post the findings on a Brian Lehrer web page.As WNYC reporter Andrea Bernstein pores through the pages, she'll also keep an eye on the web postings for gems listeners find. Let's see what this "professional-public" collaborative journalism project (or "pro-am" in journo jargon) can discover.
Example 1 -- Crisis Information Flow
At WNYC, we used Post-It notes to simulate how information flows through our newsroom to air during a breaking news situation. "Facts" were represented by shapes, and we watched how they moved (or didn't) through the process. We learned a ton, which you can see in our full case study, including a 15-mininute movie. What we learned improved our coverage of a big news story that broke the very next day.
Example 2 -- Full Scale Drill
We've also done a full-scale crisis drill, simulating a dirty-bomb attack. This involved the entire news and technical staff, who responded to information (wire stories, witness information, etc.) sent to them roughly once a minute for an hour. Due to the sensitive nature of this drill, I have not posted our case study. If you are interested in learning more about it, please contact me. Prototyping Station PreparednessExample -- Blackout Plans
To test our backup power, we regularly cut power to our facility (usually late at night) and make sure it still works. During the day, we actually relocate hosts to our backup room, as they'd do in a real outage.l Just three weeks ago, two of us got out of our chairs, walked to a key breaker box, and took a new look at which switches we'd have to throw in a blackout. In the process, we realized there were no backup lights in that room, so we wouldn't have been able to see the switches! We solved this with a $15 power-failure light.
Prototyping Operations Elsewhere in Your City/RegionExample -- Make Other Arrangements
Be ready to move somewhere else; we've had to do it twice (once on 9/11, once during the northeast blackout of 2003). We've arranged with another local studio to be our backup facility, and we have key equipment and supplies in place there now. Our full news and technical staff will be visiting the facility to see, touch and feel what it's like to set up there. We're also installing our own set of phone lines so we can do live call-in programs -- which have been essential components of our crisis coverage.TipsClick here for a 2-page PDF of helpful tips and tricks for public radio stations.