When news that a Cal Poly student had gone missing hit the Mustang Daily newsroom, editors knew they had a big story on their hands. The next morning when the student’s bike was found at the base of a local mountain, the implications for the story were larger. The editors were on the cusp of a breaking news story and a potentially huge influx of traffic.
Then a body was found. And like clockwork, the traffic spiked.
Was the Mustang Daily prepared? Strategically, yes. They had five editors on the scene of the incident. Technically? Perhaps not. Their site went down for a few minutes (and was quickly fixed when CoPress received the notification). Here are a few steps the editors could have taken to prepare. (Full disclosure: one of the authors of this post, Lauren Rabaino, is a former editor of the Mustang Daily.)
1. Keep your site delivering the story
When you’re about to break major news, you will need to prepare your Web site for the upcoming onslaught of traffic. If you’re using WordPress, that will mean making your site as static as possible. WP Super Cache contains a feature known as Lock Down that allows you to make your site completely static — in other words, posts will be saved as flat HTML files, dramatically decreasing server load and dramatically increasing the chance that when someone visits your Web site, they’ll be served something other than an error. There are two drawbacks to using Lock Down that you should know about up front:
- Comments will not show up until the page is refreshed, either manually or by turning off Lock Down.
- Updates to stories will not be pushed without dumping the cache manually.
These, however, are small prices to pay for making sure visitors can read the article at all.
If you don’t have WP Super Cache installed already, you should — it smoothes over spikes in traffic and reduces server load even when it isn’t in Lock Down mode.
To enable Lock Down mode, go to Settings -> WP Super Cache.
Near the bottom of the page, you will see a button to enable Lock Down mode.
At the top of the page, you will see an option to Delete Expired and Delete Cache. If you update one of your articles or want newer comments to show on the page, you will have to hit Delete Cache.
If you are a CoPress client and you expect a huge spike in traffic, let us know ahead of time and we’ll be around to actively monitor your site and keep it delivering pageviews.
2. Make sure your article gets read
Google News is a great way to gain traffic, especially when big news breaks. If your site isn’t already on Google News, or if your site is incompatible with Google News, fixing any problems and submitting your site for review should be the first step of optimizing your Web site.
When updating the story, the decision about whether to do a write-thru or post a new story goes a long way toward driving traffic to your site. Google News will not re-index a news story after it has been published, even if you use a sitemap generator like Google XML Sitemaps. Therefore, if there is any sort of a major development in the story, and certainly if there is one big enough to warrant a change of headline, it is imperative the article is put into a new post for SEO.
Targeting your regular readership is also important. Plugins like SMS Text Message and Courier allow you to quickly and easily notify your readers when news breaks or when there are updates. Be sure to use keywords in your tweets so anyone going to search.twitter.com can find your updates. For developing news, create a new #hashtag related to the topic for readers to follow throughout your coverage for example (#missingstudent or #polydeath).
Twitter can be an easy way to notify readers, but by far the best social networking site for you to focus on is Facebook. If there is a Facebook page or group concerning the news, post a link to your Web site. Have your reporters post links on their walls and Twitter accounts. Together, these two mediums can drive hundreds or thousands of visitors to your Web site. For example, the day news broke about the student suicide at Cal Poly, more than half of the Mustang Daily’s pageviews for the day were referred from Facebook (56.6 percent, to be exact).
All these strategies should be deployed within minutes of the article’s post. If you are one of the first media organizations to report on the news, you need to hook as many readers as possible and convince them that your newspaper is the ultimate source on this subject. This is only possible if they learn about it first from you.
When you update the article — which you should do, frequently — or when a big update comes in that warrants a new article — which should happen, though with less frequency — be sure to let your readers know. Don’t spam your readers, but find a point right before they start feeling harassed when they’ll be grateful for keeping you informed.
Finally, if you are expecting you might create a new story when a big enough update comes in, link your homepage on Facebook and in e-mails instead of the story itself, so when readers visit the site they see the newest news first. Also, when you create a new story, it is a good idea to link to it at the top of the old one.
3. Develop an editorial strategy
The best way to break news is to have a game plan in place so you’re not scrounging for reporters and photographers at the last minute. Here are a few steps you might want to try:
- Designate a breaking news “leader.” This person can be in charge of delegating responsibilities to reporters and photographers when news breaks and posting Twitter and Facebook updates throughout the day.
- Have a breaking news emergency kit. The worst thing that can happen when news breaks is that the video camera is checked out or the batteries are dead. If you have the resources to do so, keep a spare camera, tripod and batteries in the newsroom solely for breaking news purposes
- Know the workflow. You don’t have to have a multi-sourced, 500-word article before posting updates to your site and Twitter. Break news as it happens and get your staff into the mindset of posting breaking news nuggets as it happens. Updates can always come later.
- Listen to your readers. Breaking news is perhaps one of the best opportunities to use reader feedback while reporting. Let your readers submit their questions and tips via social media so you can integrate it into the reporting process. If the breaking news event is a scene (fire, protest, etc.), seek user-submitted photos and video.