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How the Bay Area News Group used Slack to improve internal communication during breaking news

Here’s an idea to steal and adapt: The Bay Area News Group streamlined communication using Slack by creating three #bigstory channels — announcement, feeds, and logistics. The process simplified how editors and reporters communicate during big, breaking stories. It also created sub-channel threads to keep the conversations separate and easy to follow.

This is a series on Better News to a) showcase innovative/experimental ideas that emerge from the Knight-Lenfest Newsroom Initiative and b) to share replicable tactics that benefit the news industry as a whole. This “win” comes from Pamela Turntine, deputy metro editor in charge of budgeting the Local sections for the Mercury News and East Bay Times.

Question: What problem were you trying to solve, and why was solving the problem strategically important for your organization?

Answer: The question of how to keep messages together when dealing with big breaking news stories was important in our switch from email to Slack as a newsroom-wide communication tool. Before the switch, we often had enormously long email strings that made it difficult to keep track of the conversation. We hoped to solve that problem in Slack by creating three big story channels — #big-story-announcement; #big-story-feeds and #big-story-logistics. #big-story-announcement was created for top editors to send out major announcements about a particular story; #big-story-feeds was simply where reporters in the field would send feeds for the re-write reporters in the office to pull and write the story; #big-story-logistics was for all other forms of communication involving logistics, directing and redirecting reporters, developing new angles to follow, tips, pressers, news releases, etc. For really big stories such as a major earthquake, we would use threads as sub-channels to keep conversations together and from overlapping. So for instance, we would create the following sub-channels: PLANNING TODAY, WHO’S WHERE, LOGISTICS, BUDGET, PLANNING AHEAD, WHAT’S HAPPENING NOW. We could always create newer sub-channels as needed.    

Q: How is this approach related to Table Stakes (e.g. one of the 7 Table Stakes and/or an outgrowth of the Knight-Lenfest initiative, etc.)

A: Other newsrooms in our Table Stakes program suggested Slack as powerful tool for communication; I was charged with implementing it at BANG. (We worked with the American Press Institute to help teach key people in our newsroom how to use Slack who then helped train the rest of the staff.) Big breaking news drives the content that metrics show is the most important to our local audiences, especially in real time. These Slack channels allow us to tackle Table Stake #1: Produce and publish continuously to meet audience needs. The feeds channel allows our reporters and editors to provide updates with more immediacy, while the logistics channel allows us to continue coordinating updates that are especially relevant to our readers in real time.

Q: What worked?

A: It was a challenge to get reporters and editors to transition from one form of communication to another. The main opposition refrain was, “Why do we need to use Slack when we have email?” Some grasped the idea that Slack was a quicker form of communication, but a few struggled to find it useful. The #big-story channels were extremely effective, though, during the Wine Country Fires in 2017.

We had just finished training everyone in Slack when the fires broke out. Reporters in the field were able to use Slack where email was not available and that enabled us to update stories immediately as new feeds came in. The story we did in the first 24 hours that focused on the siege of Santa Rosa was made possible by improved communication and drew nearly 400,000 page views. The logistics channel helped us realize we were lacking a big picture gallery — featuring before-and-after-photos — which generated 3.1 million page views. The logistics channel also allowed us to better coordinate our 200 overall articles, which drove more than 4 million readers, most of whom returned to view multiple pieces of content.

Q: What didn’t work?

A: The three big-story channels took time to work out some of the kinks — just keeping everyone sending messages in the right channel. Some reporters and photographers were still using #big-story-feeds when they should have been using #big-story logistics (which is basically everything but the kitchen sink). So what happened is that #big-story-feeds would become clogged with a bunch of messages and photos that made it difficult for the re-write reporters to follow. It’s a work in progress and has gotten better as we have covered other big news stories, such as the YouTube shooting and more major fires in 2018.

Q: What happened that you didn’t expect?

A: It’s a challenge trying to keep everyone on the same page during major events, especially when the adrenaline is running high, so that some would not remember to use specific channels for the intended use didn’t surprise me. It was just a matter of redirecting people so their messages didn’t get overlooked because they put it in the wrong channel.

Q: What would you do differently now? What did you learn?

A: We would reinforce the intended use of the channels early on so reporters and editors know where to send messages and also determine when sub-channels might be useful.

Q: What advice would you give to others who try to do this?

A: Patience. Don’t expect everyone to get it right all the time. Just let them know where they need to send their message. After the few complaints about transitioning to Slack, I can say that it is now widely used. It was worth the effort and has effectively changed how we communicate.