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Guest Post: Lessons from Obama's visit

By Erica Perel, newsroom adviser, The Daily Tar Heel

President Obama visited the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill campus Tuesday afternoon to give a policy speech on student loans and “slow-jam the news” on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon.

The big events happened early in the traditional  daily news cycle: students lined up to get into Obama’s speech starting at 5 a.m. before filing through security. The policy speech happened about 1 p.m., with the Jimmy Fallon taping immediately after. The presidential motorcade left Chapel Hill by late afternoon. Because of the timing — and because political junkies and the vast UNC alumni network would be following events from afar — the student editors at The Daily Tar Heel, the independent student newspaper, knew this story had to be covered online in real time.

Staff posted stories, videos, photographs and blog posts to present the sites and sounds of the day. They used the social networking aggregator Storify to present what people were tweeting. And then used Facebook and Twitter to promote our work and help drive up traffic to about double normal levels.

And it all happened on the last production day of the school year.

Here are lessons from the day. Not everyone will get a chance to cover a presidential visit, though if your school is in swing state, this could be your year. Even so, these lessons apply to almost any big news.

Make a plan, then plan some more

Big stories don’t always give notice. But elections, big sporting events and protests usually do. For the Obama visit, the editors started planning for the day’s online coverage at least two days ahead. There was a staffer in charge of writing blog posts. Someone in charge of getting press credentials. Someone to monitor social media. Etc. The night before, photo editors held a meeting with photographers to make sure they knew exactly what was expected of them in terms of sending photos. Photo Editor Allison Russell said her instructions were simple: She told them their photo coverage had to be the best thing they had ever shot. No pressure.

Make sure someone is back at the office coordinating the effort

We’ve made the mistake before of creating an online coverage plan and expecting it to just happen. But it won’t without one or two people in charge of corralling that effort and taking care of details. That job includes:

  • Communicating with folks in the field.
  • Making sure all content is tagged and weighted correctly so the home page displays well.
  • Editing stories for content and accuracy.
  • Editing pictures.
  • Using social media to promote new content. Twitter is great, of course, but don’t forget Facebook. In the analytics screenshot below, see that much more traffic comes from Facebook.

 Use as many different storytelling avenues as possible, but remember that they have to go up quickly

Stories and photos are easy to post, but videos often lag behind because of the lengthy editing process. In a big news situation, the video needs to go up fast.

On Tuesday, for this video, Multimedia Editor Zach Evans posted what he had early, then re-edited and reposted when another videographer’s footage from Air Force One was ready.

Online Editor Sarah Glen has played around with Storify for big-story coverage before, so she was in a great position to post what was the definitive collection of tweets from Obama’s speech with lightning speed. Sarah worked to collect the tweets through the speech, so it was able to go live immediately. Other lessons from Sarah’s Storify:

  • Search the official hashtag for the event, but do other searches to make sure you aren’t missing good tweets from people who aren’t using it.
  • Include as many picture tweets from people using Instagram or other photo apps as you can.
  • Include a mix of student journalists’ more serious tweets and tweets from non-journalists. Look for people using funny hashtags or otherwise tweeting with personality.

Promote your work and pay attention to analytics to learn what works

Use the obvious avenues to promote content — Twitter, Facebook, email blasts and Google-optimized headlines — as well as any non-obvious tools. But make sure to pay attention to analytics to see how they’re working and pay attention to where traffic is coming from.

At the DTH, staffers use Google analytics as well as Chartbeat Publishing real-time analytics. The real-time analytics are more valuable in this situation, because they can watch traffic go up or down based on the promotional work they’re doing.

The DTH has had Chartbeat, and then the more advanced Chartbeat Publishing, for about 13 months, and have found it to be a tremendous teaching tool. Watching the numbers go up and down helps students understand what drives online traffic. It also encourages them to post more frequently online when they can see how many people are reading it.

Here are Chartbeat screenshots from this morning – a more typical weekday, and from Tuesday afternoon.


According to Google analytics, the site had 51,474 page views Tuesday. The previous Tuesday, there were 27,014.

Have fun

Journalists live for these days. Enjoy the ride.

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