online journalism · writing

The three stages of an online news story

imagesWhat is one of the key differences of telling news online to any other journalistic medium? The story never ends.Whether it is the audience discussing the story or just the insatiable need of news websites to continue to publish new content for a fickle click happy reader, stories need to have a life longer than just one perfectly crafted story.

The evolving story is particularly important considering the importance of keeping a news website’s homepage, fresh. Online news sites need repeat visitation to stay viable and to do that they need constant new content. With this in mind, I have come up with ‘Three stages of an Online News Story’ as a way of ensuring you can get the most from a single story idea.

 1. The story before the story

This stage is all about involving the audience in the story before you have actually started the story. It could be as simple as posting on the website or social media a request for questions. For example:’The Lord Mayor is opening a new childcare centre today, what would you like us to ask her?’ Or it could be just letting the audience know about the stories on the news list. Of course you won’t publish that you are working on a juicy exclusive, but so much news content is generated from an event, media release or statement that all competing media will be aware of. Publishing a list of these stories and asking for audience input is a great way of not only generating content, but also creating an audience for a story that has not yet been reported. If a member of the public has submitted a question or idea or even if they are just interested in the stories you have highlighted, they will check back to read that story.

2. The story

This is the stage that most resembles what a journalist did before the internet. This is where you actually collect the information and write or produce (depending on the medium) the story. But the key difference is that you need to file quickly – as soon as you have some information. This means, filing a few pars from the event  and then beefing up the story later. Or filing one side of the conflict, while awaiting response from the other. In this instance you are filing what you have and then notifying the audience that you are chasing a response from the other party in the dispute/ conflict etc. Then when you have this response you can rework the story again, providing fresh content. In this method of story development you are letting the audience behind the curtain. You are not filing a complete story. You are filing the information as you receive it. You are letting the audience see the journalistic process that goes into the story. This not only ensures lots of fresh content to keep updating the website, but also keeps your readers engaged.

It is also important at this stage of the process, that you recognise audience contributions collected in the first stage. Hopefully, you will have received at least one good question or suggestion – outline in your story the question from the reader and the response received. There are a number of purposes for this. Firstly, you are showing that you recognise and value the reader – and let’s face it who doesn’t like to be recognised. It may give you a new and more interesting story idea – remember your audience as a collective will always know more than you. It will also help build a culture that encourages ‘quality’ input from the audience. By highlighting the ‘quality’ or reasonable questions or suggestions (as opposed to the inevitable crazies) it is like saying ‘See if you provide something like this, we’ll recognise you and highlight your contribution’.

3. The story after the story

At this stage you should have a reasonably complete story up on the web. You have outlined all of the key facts and hopefully received comment from all relevant parties. Now is the time to reflect on how the audience reacted to the story. This is the stage where the journalist should join the discussion. No, I am not saying that you need to respond to every comment. You certainly shouldn’t be engaging with the crazies – your job is hard enough. But you do need to ensure that the audience feels valued and recognised. Now is the time to answer any questions that may have been asked. It might also be appropriate to correct any misinformation that may have surfaced in the comment thread. If the story is particularly contentious or relevant to your audience then there may be an opportunity to refresh the story using audience feedback or reaction. Again, this is enabling fresh content.

Of course not every story will enable all three stages.But I think these stages are a good way of helping facilitate journalists into thinking about and creating a new story workflow – one that is better suited to fast-paced environment of online journalism.

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