Seattle in 1999. The World Trade Organization conference has turned into a riot. Police are teargassing tens of thousands of protesters, downtown Seattle stores are being looted and the Seattle Fire Department refuses a request from the police department to turn fire hoses on the crowds.
There are about 100 or so credentialed reporters in the melee from local and national outlets. I was writing for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer at the time and was one of them, with about five other reporters covering the riots and four or five photographers. Our editors were several miles away in the newspaper office, along with a transcription and rewrite staff. AT least for different newsroom supervisors were communicating with folks in the field, with many of us getting overlapping or contradictory directions.
It was a mess. And it spoke to the idea of having a central, single point of contact who could coordinate everything. There was no issue with chain of command, and there usually isn’t with news organizations in crisis. But there was an issue with getting the word out.
Afterwards, an editor and I proposed a simple system: One line editor and one graphics editor become points of contact between field staff and the central office. Those two editors are the only ones talking to the reporters and are also field staff advocates (for supplies, reinforcements, etc.). We even went further and suggested creating an on-scene command post (this was in the days before bring your Wi-Fi) so the editors could step outside and see for themselves what was happening.
It’s one of those little things, we argued, that makes a huge difference to the reporters on the ground.
When information comes into the central newsroom, it’s fragmented. It’s even more so in the age of social media where we have to stitch together stories tweet by competing tweet. It’s hard for editors — who are not only editing but also planning and coordinating — to see the whole picture. That’s mitigated by the presence of a single person handling the inputs.