Thursday, February 17, 2011

Planning an investigative project for the home page, not just the front page

At 3 a.m. last Sunday, I put the final touches on the multimedia project I’d been working on for months, squeezing it between daily assignments.

Presumed Guilty,” was live on the web. It’s about Ronnie Rhodes, who’s spent 30 years in prison for a crime he says he didn’t commit, and the disturbing nationwide exposure of wrongful convictions.

For the first time, I had spent more than a year planning how a story would look on the home page of, instead of just the front page of The Wichita Eagle.

Used to be, you’d work on a project for months, and end up with a story in the Sunday paper. That was it.

Rob Curley inspired me to change the way I thought about that process, after visiting him in Las Vegas during the SPJ National Convention.

What Curley told me in Vegas didn’t stay there.

“Every project we plan, we plan for the web,” he said. Then the stories go to print.

That was my goal.

I’d begun blogging the report the previous summer. That would become more valuable than I ever imagined. When the blog needed a post, I dug deeper to create a current entry. Video posts became rough cuts for the final multimedia.

As I collected documents, I threw them up on Document Cloud. As I came across web resources, I posted them to Publish2, so I could easily compile link lists.

The story was done a week before I’d normally turn in a Sunday piece. I spent the last week doing the final cuts of videos.

By then, we’d had more layoffs. This time they hit the copy desk. We left on Friday the stories still awaiting a final edit.

Consequently, the stories hit the desk like every Sunday piece for print – that Saturday night.

So Eba Hamid, our online producer, and I waited until the stories went live at midnight. We got on our home computers, fired up the Gmail chat and worked furiously into the wee hours of the morning.

It was finished -- a piece I’m as proud of as anything I’ve ever done.

Then we waited for reaction. We offered several avenues for community communication.

For months, people commented on the blog posts, and I listened, letting them point me to addtional reporting they wanted, such as Rhodes’ disciplinary reports in prison.

For the final piece, we set up a live chat on Monday with the law professor whose students had helped research the case. Although we’d done those chats about weather and sports, I’d never done one with a crime story. We added a Twitter hashtag in case people wanted to comment there, instead of on the stories. I posted a link on my Facebook profile to provide more opportunities for interaction.

On Sunday, I made sure to check out the comments on the stories, respond and answer questions.

Later that day, Curley tweeted about the package and then posted a comment on my Facebook page:

“This is how it's done folks: great text/real journalism. multimedia/video/photo galleries. reader access to documents used in reporting. audience interaction via twitter and chats. blog entries from throughout reporting process. great background info provided for readers. not afraid to link off newspaper's site.”

“Wow, check this out,” I said to my wife.

The phone rang.

“Maybe that’s Rob Curley,” Gaye said with a laugh.

And it was.

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