Untangling the Web: Terror and tweets on the net desk

I often fall into the trap of thinking I can predict the news in the Middle East. Days like last Thursday remind me that I can’t.

By ELANA KIRSH
August 22, 2011 12:47
Security forces manning a checkpoint near Eilat

Security forces manning a checkpoint after Eilat attack 311R. (photo credit: REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun)

Last Thursday started out like a fairly standard day on the JPost.com Internet desk, slower than usual even. Summer is always a lull period for news. Editors were mainly engaged in checking for updates from Syria, setting up the homepage for the weekend, creating feature articles, moderating talkbacks and scanning local news sites for details of protests planned for the next few days. Nothing out of the ordinary.

And then a beep came through on the pager from Magen David Adom. Injuries in a shooting attack on a bus near Eilat. No further details.

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One of the editors wrote it up, published a news brief. Our crime reporter, Yaakov Lappin, called to confirm the story. Our military reporter, Yaakov Katz, phoned in more details. It became very clear, very quickly that this was going to develop into a big story, and we moved it to the top of the site.

We began following our emergency procedures, which unfortunately Breaking News editors in Israel know all too well: Put together all the details that are immediately available, write up the story clearly and succinctly, and publish it as the site’s main story, pronto. Then, start following up on the latest details coming out and verifying reports. That’s stage one.

Everyone picked a television channel, and started scanning Israeli websites, radio stations and social media. The phone ran off the hook. We took countless dictations from the two Yaakovs, and even had some confusion about who was who at some frazzled point in the afternoon.

This started around noon. No one had eaten lunch yet. No one moved from their desks.

Over the next few hours, the series of attacks unfolded before us, and despite the propensity to become jaded in this line of work, I was shocked. First reports were vague, then it appeared there were injuries, a second attack, soldiers killed, a third attack, explosions.

At one point there was a radio report of an explosion in Beersheba which was picked up by international news wires before being retracted minutes later. A lesson that, especially at times like these, all stories must be properly attributed and verified.

News briefs were churned out minute by minute, grouped together into stories, and constantly edited and rearranged. Dealing with such an onslaught of information requires constant revision, and stepping back from all the minute details to look at the big picture.

Stage two of our emergency procedures is the researching, commissioning, writing, editing and publishing of the “spin-off stories” including reactions, analyses and eyewitness accounts.

First and foremost, the main story at the top of the site, the story with the casualties and the attacks, the retaliations and the details, was constantly updated and edited. Defense Minister Ehud Barak spoke, and a separate story was put together. Police statements: another story. Then came MK reactions, international reactions, and the Israeli protest movement canceling a demonstration planned for Saturday night, in the wake of the attacks. Quotes from Egyptian sources denying that the attacks originated from south of the border. Then Prime Minister Binyamin Netanayhu spoke - another new story.

At this point a fourth attack took place, another shooting, sending the order spiralling yet again. The top story was rewritten and re-edited, with a focus on keeping the order of events clear enough for readers to follow, yet detailed enough to still be informative.

The third stage of the emergency procedures involves complementary materials, such as photos and videos, to give readers a broader picture of the developing story. For this, our Blogs editor stepped in to create an initial photo gallery to publish on the site. Also pitching in was our Lifestyle editor, helping a newer Breaking News editor who had been thrown in the deep end, and an intern who was trying to finish up a feature on her last day in the office and instead ended up moderating the hundreds of talkbacks flooding onto the site.

To be clear, this is not a story about the difficulties an Internet desk faces when trying to keep up with such tragic news, but rather a tale of how the story was told. Reporters and editors tend to develop an air of cynicism working with events like this, especially in a volatile area such as Israel, but this inevitably vanishes in the heat of the moment. All that matters is the story, or the stories to be more accurate, getting them right, and getting them online as fast as possible.

And of course, while dealing with this insane workload and pace, we were struck by the mother of all Murphy's Laws - that computers will fail you when you need them most. Anyone who was following the developing story online likely noticed that the technical infrastructure supporting JPost.com, as well as other similar sites, was laboring to keep up with the weight of online traffic. During the first few hours of the reports our traffic was over seven times the average, and over the whole 24-hour period it was more than double the previous day’s. It was not just reporters, editors and news buffs reading this story minute by minute - the figures show that casual readers as well were closely following the developments.

The Internet is where it all comes together in a situation such as this, from a journalistic point of view, though of course, the real action was in the South. As well as taking phone updates from our reporters in the field, listening to the radio and watching television news, the JPost Breaking News editors and I received and verified a significant amount of reports using online resources.

First, Twitter. Almost without exception, the most up-to-date information we were getting on the desk, aside from our correspondents in the field, was from the Twitter feed of Avital Leibovitch, the official IDF Spokeswoman to the international press. Her tweets, short, fast and to the point, were invaluable to the desk, as well as to foreign media the world over. On Facebook as well, top Israeli politicians such as Tzipi Livni, Danny Ayalon and Avigdor Lieberman routinely use the social network to disseminate statements, photos and other information, and Thursday was no exception. In fact, the first official US response that we saw was found on the embassy in Tel Aviv’s profile page.

And what would we have done without Gmail? Even as he was getting on a plane to Eilat, Yaakov Lappin was Gchatting breaking details, and within a couple of hours of landing he had uploaded video footage to YouTube, which our Breaking News editors embedded into the police story on the attacks. Yaakov Katz had a timeline of the events in our inbox within minutes of a phone call requesting it.

Covering a story like this online, minute by minute, in a clear, succinct and informative fashion would have been near impossible without such tools.

At some point in the afternoon, hours after the first beep had come onto the pager and after dozens of briefs and stories had been written and edited, we realized we were starving, and luckily there was a spare apple and a bag of almonds lying around the news room, to get the morning Breaking News editors through to the end of their shifts. In a hero’s move, my boss somehow got a plate of rice and lentils onto my desk, without which I may not have survived to tell the story. Clearly a food clause needs to be inserted into the emergency procedures.

The late afternoon, evening and night carried on at much the same furious pace. Barak made another statement. Netanyahu held a press conference.

The penultimate stage of the emergency procedures, when the initial story has simmered down, is the planning stage, though of course only so much can be anticipated. We enlisted the help of a graphic designer to put together a special section to gather the day’s articles, and started looking at stories expected to come out over the weekend. Nothing uplifting, to be sure. Funerals. Retaliatory strikes. Assessments of the terrorists’ backgrounds and affiliation.

The final stage of our emergency procedures is this column - the debrief. Did we catch the story as soon as possible? Was our reporting clear, accurate and timely? What could we have done better? What lessons do we take on for next time?

Just after midnight: A tweet from our crime reporter: Eilat totally calm at present. Sweeps continue north of city.

And yet as Eilat slept, I sincerely doubt that any of the Internet desk staff had yet passed out. Not the editors who finished their work at midnight, who would have still been buzzing with adrenaline after one of their busiest shifts ever. Not JPost’s managing editor, who had been coordinating with programmers, Internet technicians and our video reporter only an hour earlier. Certainly not the editor working the graveyard shift, sorting through the stories from the past 12 hours, and uploading analysis and eyewitness pieces which were being printed in Friday’s paper. And not me, combing through everything, coordinating with the editor on shift and writing up this day-in-the-life, while everything was all still fresh.

Despite the action of working in media in the Middle East, the news cycle often seems like a broken record. I fall into the trap of thinking that I can predict the news, write speeches before they occur, poke holes in foreign press reports and guess what’s coming next. Days like Thursday catch me off-guard, and remind me that I can’t. That this is when journalism is at its most important, and when the platitudes about technology being at the forefront smack us in the face, in the form of hundreds of news briefs in close succession. That when the big, unexpected stories break, all the preparation in the world, search engine optimization and widgets, trends and user interface, fall to the wayside as we focus on getting clear, up-to-date and accurate news to the people.

The writer is the Internet desk manager at The Jerusalem Post.

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