Breaking News: All-Platform Ownership

It can happen in an instant. It can happen when you least expect. It happened in Hesston, Kansas - just outside of Wichita last month. Three killed and 14 injured in a workplace related shooting. It was originally reported as a standoff at a home but, in fact it turned into three-scene major breaking news story and a mass shooting involving a disgruntled employee using an AK-47 semi-automatic rifle to gun down his co-workers. When this sort of story happens is your entire station ready? Do you have a simple news, digital and marketing plan that can inform and engage your community? The team at KWCH had that plan. Perhaps because of its readiness through deadly tornado coverage or breaking news coverage of stories like the plane that hit an airport building in October 2014 the team at KWCH knew how to respond. For 58 hours they field anchored live either wall-to-wall or within every newscast. 

News director Brian Gregory, director of digital Shawn Hilferty and director of creative services director Dom Gauna marshalled their teams into action.  In addition to immediately dispatching an anchor to the scene along with his full staff of reporters and photographers, Brian called in people who didn’t even work for KWCH who specialized in various skills like photography. The first news crew arrived on scene minutes after the incident and before the shooter was shot and killed by police.  Wall-to-wall coverage was underway on-air and in the app. But, perhaps the biggest lesson learned in the coverage of this tragedy was the power of community and how important it is to leverage your social media connections to crowdsource for information.

“We dedicated someone to produce videos, a separate digital editor to our live blog, one person to monitor Twitter and another to monitor Facebook,” said news director Brian Gregory. “Two hours in we had the names of victims and even though we didn’t name them until 18 hours later the next day we were already working leads and talking to family members.”

“I’ve been doing this 19 years and to have victims’ names as quickly as we did was unbelievable,” said Gauna.  Gregory says 85% of the leads came from social media tips and especially the station’s Facebook LIVE efforts - the fact that police had shot the gunman, the names of the victims, even the name of the gunman who the station identified after verification two and a half hours after the incident and ahead of any other local or national news organizations.

When it came to the Facebook LIVE effort Gregory made this point, “We deployed sports reporter Jacob Albracht who came in on his own to help. You don’t have to be an expert in this role you just need access to information. Many of the comments in Facebook LIVE provided leads and Albracht knew where to take that information and how to get the latest information in the newsroom. The phone number for the company hotline came to us on Facebook LIVE before officials gave it to us.”

Albracht quickly got up to speed with the basics and then used Facebook LIVE as a “transparent transmitter” of breaking news.  Off and on Albracht essentially filibustered intermittently for the next two days on Facebook LIVE. In many ways he mimicked what it was like to be a viewer hungry for the NOW and delivering in an unscripted fashion. KWCH management stressed that during big breaking news coverage EVERY member of your news department and even your station team is important so you can listen to the valuable two-way input that can define a community and define what your brand stands for.

“We spend our lives on TV doing one-way communication,” said KWCH digital director Shawn Hilferty. “It’s become very clear in the past couple of years especially breaking news coverage is two-way communication.”
Getting the information as immediately as possible allowed the station to better strategize day two of the coverage. The day one social media advantage KWCH had in knowing who the victims were and assigning staff to surface their stories that first evening allowed them to concentrate its day two coverage on honoring the victims while other news organizations focused more heavily on how it went down - a story well told by KWCH on the day of the shootings.
“Clearly defining roles for all platforms whether it’s for on-air, digital or social listening is critical. Having the information minutes or hours ahead of other local and national news organizations is what it takes to seize the opportunity in the moment. It’s who seizes the moment who wins,” said digital director Shawn Hilferty. “The real world is urgency and what impact the story has on our viewers.”