Giving 4th of July Coverage A Digital Kick
Journalists know the story well: a local guide to watching July 4th fireworks. Typically rendered, the assignment can be informative, but boring and indistinguishable except for location from a thousand other Independence Day stories at community newspapers across the country.
So my colleagues at two other area newspapers and I decided to spice it up — for the readers, and also for the journalists writing it — using new digital tools. Here is how we transformed a regular “where-to-see-the-fireworks” story into something our readers have never experienced before, even though it was far from a straightforward path to the finished product.
With fewer resources and less time to get things done, the features departments of the Boulder Daily Camera, Longmont Times-Call and Loveland Reporter-Herald have been strategically working together to create better, digitally focused stories for readers (More about our digital features syndicate).
We each collected information for our respective coverage areas and wrote the article and sidebars together, first on Google Drive and then in our content-management system, Methode. However, one problem with a group project is making sure everyone sticks to the same style. It’s also easier to leave ends loose, such as writing the suggested headline, when everyone assumes someone else is going to do it.
Lesson learned: When working together, designate a project leader to make sure the different pieces flow before handing it to your editor.
Expanding the scope of coverage
During our in-person planning meeting, the three reporters on this project decided to expand the content, too. The story would not only include our local fireworks displays, but also a few off-the-beaten-path, lesser-known spots to view the shows without the crowds.
Lesson learned: When you stretch one perspective, other ideas follow.
Using digital tools to connect with readers in the real world.
As papers get increasingly more digital, we continue to wonder how we can connect with readers in the real world, too. So we decided to conduct a treasure hunt.
We would lead our readers to those special, off-the-path viewing points via map coordinates, and leave a hidden, patriotic surprise at the exact location to throw down the picnic blanket and watch the fireworks. But a digitally led, real-world treasure hunt was more challenging than we expected.
First, we tried to use Geocaching.com, a popular website and app that features 2.4 million geocaches (treasures hidden at specific, pre-approved latitude/longitude coordinates) around the world. More than 6 million people hide or find these treasures. Finders sign a log, typically stashed in a weatherproof box marked “Official Geocache Point,” and sometimes take or leave a gift.
After a long hike up Mount Sanitas in Boulder to acquire the coordinates and drop my Geocache bucket filled with an American flag banner and a note for the finder to Tweet me a photo, I submitted my Geocache Point. The website approved it. And the next day, it was removed. Turns out, the city and county’s open space departments don’t permit Geocaches, due to the potential for trash (never mind that we were going to remove our bucket after the Fourth.)
Lesson learned: Research a project’s limitations before embarking on it.
I created a fun, 10-clue hunt up Settlers Park, an hour-long hike to a beautiful lookout point over the city of Boulder. But when I reached the top of the trail, my phone lost its signal and the app lost its mind. It got stuck saving the hunt, and even after days of work directly with the app developers, I was not able to retrieve my hunt to share with readers before deadline.
Lesson learned: Off-the-beaten-path and outdoor reporting may not always be compatible with digital tools.
I also used a free app to retrieve the coordinates of this point. Later, a reader informed us that the coordinates were wrong, so I hiked back up to check them with a different app. They were nearly the same, but slightly different. The best I could figure, that signal drop at the top of the lookout interfered with the accuracy of my app, or perhaps I downloaded an unreliable app.
Oddly enough, another reader did find the treasure I left and sent me a tweet. He said he was going to come back on the Fourth to watch the fireworks there.