When Twitter is ablaze with images of a riot, revolution, or raging fire, Thunderdome leans on Storyful—the social media verification start-up. Storyful’s staff of 18 monitors social media, YouTube, and other video sources to see what images and stories are trending; then they try to verify if the video is what it purports to be and pass along the results to their clients in newsrooms. “If there’s nothing on the wire and we’ve seen Storyful is investigating the image, if we can find a verified reporter who’s tweeted the image, we’ll go with it,” says Karen Workman, Thunderdome’s deputy breaking news editor.
But even as Thunderdome finds ways to create facsimiles of the vetting process it and other news operations can no longer afford, a stark fact remains: Most of what they’re gathering is what someone else reported originally. Thunderdome has but one reporter, Bianca Prieto, who came from the Orlando Sentinel. She relishes being a tradition buster, which is a good thing, because she’s learned that she often has to be the editor on her own work. So she improvises: “When I finish a story, it’s, like, print out my story, get my red pen and go through it again. Then I’ll get it peer-edited—Skype a message, ‘Hey, can someone take a look?’”
On the Friday I spent at Thunderdome, I had a story back at my own paper that was being edited for that Sunday’s Washington Post. After I spoke to Prieto, I checked my messages to find that five levels of editors had questions or thoughts about my story—my assignment editor, a copy editor, the section editor, another section editor, and the Sunday editor. That multi-layered approach—unusually dense because this piece was going A1 on Sunday—comforts the writer, but is no guarantee of perfection. Within four hours after the story appeared on the Web, one of the main characters complained that I had endangered his family by providing too much detail about where he lived—a decision that had generated zero discussion among the six of us who read the piece closely before publication.
Still, there are days when I wouldn’t mind working under Topel’s credo: “One good read, post that baby.”
Speed has always been a part of journalism. That drive to get the scoop ahead of everyone else sometimes led to going with stories despite flimsy sourcing. So what’s different about the new blended newsroom standards? It comes down to intent: In the early years of digital journalism, the craft avoided imposing its own choices and values on readers, trying instead to meet them at their own interests. Lately, though, digital editors have been touting an old-school precept: What readers crave is guidance and credibility. They want to know what’s real, what’s true—and journalists, even in operations with lean budgets and harried staffs, can be debunkers and fact-checkers.
Thunderdome’s editor, Robyn Tomlin, said she’s found that the old procedures have vanished, but traditional values still undergird the place. “Everybody here has print dna, so there are certain standards they have deep inside them.” As Tomlin says that, just behind us, Workman and two other producers—no copy editors here—get into a heated debate over when it’s right to capitalize “Earth.”
NowThis News is a small start-up, a couple of dozen producers and editors shouldered together along white laminate tables in a second-story newsroom in lower Manhattan. They churn out 40 to 50 videos a day—six-second clips for Vine, 10-second spots for Snapchat, 15-second versions for Instagram, and longform work (30 seconds to a minute) for Facebook and the Web. When New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie says during a two-hour news conference that he’s not a bully, NowThis takes a few seconds of that clip, marries it to three or four snippets showing him being a bully and posts the 15 seconds on Instagram within an hour.
“Everything we do is irreverent, but not glib,” says the editor in chief, Ed O’Keefe, 36, a veteran of ABC News. “We remove all ornamentation, anything that distances. The YouTube generation understands that stories evolve. It’s dirty and it’s not always right, but it’s instantaneous.”