By David Hedley
When I spotted the word “zoo” in the email alert flashing on my computer screen Friday morning, I had a feeling.
The life of a tiny Siberian tiger newborn at the Calgary Zoo had been hanging by a thread all week. On our website, calgaryherald.com, the story had been generating plenty of hits ever since the announcement of the cub’s birth five days before. Whether the latest news was good or bad, we knew thousands of online readers looked to us to provide updates on the cub’s fight for survival.
This is a story about the multimedia life cycle of a typical cityside assignment at the Calgary Herald, starting the moment we learned of a change in the tiger’s health, and ending the next morning when the newspaper landed on Calgary readers’ doorsteps.
It’s also a story about a few of the successes and challenges faced by a Postmedia Network newsroom as it undergoes a transformation from a traditional to a digital, multiplatform operation.
8:32 a.m. A press release slugged “Tiger Cub Update” lands in my inbasket. I’m a web producer at calgaryherald.com, responsible for helping to maintain and develop our news website, in co-ordination with writers, photographers, and editors across the newsroom. Popping open the email, I see the words, “We are so sad to begin the day with unfortunate news about our tiny tiger cub.”
Our protocol for handling breaking news starts with getting something online immediately. I forward a copy of the press release to the citydesk, then begin writing.
8:42 a.m. Ten minutes later, I send a blanket email to subscribers of our Breaking News Alert service, announcing the cub’s death. The first version of the story uploaded to our website contains only four sentences, with “more to come.”
The zoo schedules a press briefing at 10 a.m., so I can expect my early, bare-bones version of the story to be replaced by updated content as the day unfolds.
As I write and upload about eight graphs based on the press release and past stories, I overhear the assigning editors making plans to send staff to the briefing and post a video ASAP. Sean Myers is assigned to report, while photographer Colleen De Neve juggles her schedule for the day so she can attend.
The Siberian tiger cub’s death has a troubled backstory. The mother tiger, Katja, gave birth to two cubs last year but mishandled them due to her inexperience, resulting in their deaths. Then this week, Katja abandoned her third newborn after 36 hours, forcing zoo staff to provide round-the-clock care, hoping to keep the cub alive.
9:26 a.m. By now I have added file photos, backstory links, moved the story into the #1 position on our homepage, Tweeted the story, and posted it to the Herald’s Facebook page.
It doesn’t take long for readers to wade in. The Calgary Zoo’s reputation has taken a beating after a disturbing number of animal deaths in recent years. An independent review by outside experts blamed human error for many of the deaths.
One Herald Facebook follower quickly offers the opinion the mother tiger abandoned the cub because she instinctively knew it wasn’t healthy and wouldn’t survive. As it turns out, after conducting a medical exam, the zoo will draw the same conclusion, blaming a failure of organs for the cub’s inability to digest food.
11:30 a.m. The early version of the tiger cub death is published in the noon-hour edition of the Herald iPad.
1:03 p.m. The edited video arrives on the webdesk, ready to upload to the site—just three hours after the press briefing started. Despite the outward appearance of an efficient turnaround, staff behind the scenes scrambled to overcome logistical hurdles.
Senior Herald photographer Grant Black says it’s both a “very exciting and frustrating time” for photographers and reporters as they learn new video skills and define production processes. The company’s goal is for staff who produce content to shoot video in addition to what they already do. The newspaper’s photographers, who have strong backgrounds in visuals and filing from the field, shoot much of the video.
On this day, the logistical challenges include the weather. De Neve arrives at the hot, humid zoo building with a cold camera, causing lens fogging.
“After the presser she went out to the tiger enclosure and shot some B-roll,” says Black. “She had a busy photo day skedded, so she took reporter Sean Myers with her to the tiger cage and then gave him her CompactFlash card to bring back to the office.”
On the fledgling video desk, Black converts the files, imports them into Final Cut and starts editing around noon. “It came together fairly quickly, considering I’m just learning video editing,” Black says.
Staff confront challenges every day with equipment, communication, and the steep learning curve. “We’re pushing a big rock up a steep hill with this process,” Black says. “I’m enjoying learning a new skill, but we’ve got a long, long way to go to make things shine.”
3 p.m. Myers makes his first file to the web desk, a swap for the earlier story. Myers leads with the angle that the director of North America’s tiger species survival program believes Katja, the mother tiger, should breed again. Myers goes on to present the zoo’s explanation for why the death happened, and calls from an animal rights group to stop breeding in captivity.
6 a.m. Saturday: Myers’ full story, with photos shot by De Neve, leads the City & Region section in next morning’s Calgary Herald newspaper, under the headline, “More bad luck.” The story also figures prominently in that morning’s iPad edition.
Another story enters the mix. For print and iPad, author and Herald columnist Val Fortney looks at the emotional turmoil and tension at the Calgary Zoo at the end of their nightmarish week.
Fortney says she usually approaches her craft the same, whether her work is for online or print. “Content is content, and I see the online reader as no less desiring of engaging and informative column writing than a print reader. I feel passionate about the style of writing I do, because in a world of instantaneous news, column writing offers something else: the context, the colour, the opinion/analysis behind the news, the kind of stories that stir up debate and welcomes the reader to the discussion.”
Looking ahead, the Herald’s director of online content, David Blackwell, sees the audience as the key as the newsroom reorients itself around a multiplatform identity. In fact, he feels the Herald has to “catch up to the audience.”
Blackwell says, “It’s not just a matter of skills, but also learning how to relate in a very different manner than many staffers were accustomed to, back in the day when the local paper was the only real authoritative voice about what was happening in this city.”
David Hedley is a web producer at calgaryherald.com and a Masters student at the Royal Roads University School of Communication and Culture. He has worked for almost 30 years at daily and weekly newspapers in Alberta, as a reporter, photographer, copy editor, assignment editor, and page designer.
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