Personal and technical lessons from trial coverage

Personal and technical lessons from trial coverage

IMG_5296I’ve waited a while to even start writing this post, because the experience was huge and I needed some distance to see it clearly. Even now, I’m not sure I can process everything that happened during the 15 weeks of trial or weeks of planning that preceded it. But I do have some preliminary thoughts about personal and technical lessons that I believe are ripe enough to share.

Personal lessons:

  1. This project was a significant milestone in my personal development, as a manager and strategist. It was my first long-term endeavor that required managing staff and resources across multiple departments. In that we never failed to produce what we promised, even for a single day, I feel like this was a test I passed.
  2. It may also have been the one time where my passion for my work in general was overtaken by one particular story. My belief that this was the right way to tell the story was never shaken and that very likely provided the impetus I needed to push through the difficulties and the fatigue.
  3. One of the key elements of our plan was the rotations of staffing to keep people fresh and provide some time for everyone to shake off the emotional content of the case. This became difficult as staffing changes evolved over time, including a teammate who left for another opportunity, but we had just enough robustness in our organization to carry us through. It gave me a new appreciation for the unending challenges facing the leaders who successfully keep a newsroom (or company) moving indefinitely.
  4. I should have expected the attrition that occurred in our project, but I did not — I had never headed up an independent team for so long. The result was that I took on additional roles for myself and the frequency of our staff rotations had to change. This tired people out, including myself, and now feels like the biggest single failure of the coverage project. A good newsroom is like a shark, always swimming, and the exhaustion that came from this project could have been harmful to our momentum.
  5. As the leader of this effort, I was also repeatedly consulted about the affects of this work on the larger business. It is something that originally upset me, as a journalist who has previously been sheltered from balance sheets for ethical reasons. In retrospect, I know that scrutiny was a lesson that will teach me to prepare for those questions in my future and help me to safeguard my own employees’ ethical independence.

Technical lessons:

  1. YouTube saved us significant bandwidth costs (several tens of thousands of dollars worth), but the earnings were nearly nonexistent. Ads or banners only rarely appeared. That severely hurt our ability to be self-supporting. But, in the context of my experience with the Waldo Canyon Fire, which cost my employer quite a bit at the time, this was a good choice despite the lack of income.
  2. Viewership was remarkably stable throughout the course of the trial, with spikes on big days as you would expect. There is a strong hunger for trial content from viewers around the world, but they also crave explanations that journalists can provide.
  3. Search engine optimization in YouTube titles was difficult, in part because we were posting both live streams and recap/highlight videos. In the end, I believe this was the best strategy: Episodic content titles should be consistently formatted and easy to find while the highlight titles were most searchable when their titles were specific to their content.
  4. Our chatrooms became vibrant communities, though trolls appeared with frustrating frequency. In fact, some people would be helpful and supportive one day and then turn into vitriolic monsters when someone who disagreed with their viewpoint showed up. Running the chats (we had two) could’ve been a full-time job, if we’d had the resources. Frustrations aside, the chats helped to keep our coverage on course and guide the explanations we chose to offer. Of all the resource expenditures that came with this project, I am most conflicted about the cost and benefit of the chatrooms.
  5. One of our most popular and useful resources were the attorney experts. Their contextual answers and willingness to spend so much time with us helped immeasurably to fill the long and unpredictable recesses with valuable information. They also became popular staples with the chatroom participants, who took to asking them questions by name and often got answers in return.

One final thought percolates out as I re-read this: I am very proud of the performances from everyone who took part in this project and proud of myself for seeing it through. It was the right thing to do for this story, for the community and for my own connection to the story.