When the news breaks: Inside two Toronto newsrooms

The Eaton Centre doors blocked off after the June 2 shooting. (Photo: Andy Miah/Flickr)

The Eaton Centre doors blocked off after the June 2 shooting. (Photo: Andy Miah/Flickr)

Simon Kent’s shift at the Toronto Sun began at 8:45 a.m. and he worked until after midnight. The shooting that occurred at the Eaton Centre at about 6:30 p.m. that day meant the assistant news editor stayed late, working on the paper’s coverage. Issues of budgets and overtime are no matter when situations like this arise. Breaking news happens when it happens; it doesn't wait for newsrooms to organize their staff, change their layout and wait for another story to finish.

The timing of two breaking news stories last weekend made coverage even more difficult. The Eaton Centre shooting took place early Saturday evening, and the day before, updates on the Union Station flood story continued late into the night as crews worked to restore TTC service.

J-Source was interested in finding out how Toronto news organizations managed their resources in covering the two events. We talked to Richard Bloom, the managing editor of CityNews.ca, Erin Criger, a writer for the website and Simon Kent, assistant news editor at the Toronto Sun, about their organizations’ methods of covering the breaking stories from last weekend.

At both CityNews and the Sun, we were told the main objective is to get every person possible onto a breaking news story. When the Eaton Centre shooting happened, the Toronto Sun called in two extra senior writers to help cover the shooting. City had cameras, reporters, web writers, producers and TV writers on the story.

“We threw everybody we had at these stories. We instantly knew the importance of them and the sheer volume of people affected, like the impact of shutting Union Station would have on this city from a commuter’s perspective,” Bloom says. “It was all hands on deck.”

Since the events happened later in the day, we asked about any issues with staffing or overtime.  Kent says that the Sun doesn’t even consider the budget or overtime hours when breaking news occurs.

“That’s not the situation. We wouldn’t not cover a story because we don’t want to pay overtime. It’s not a consideration, you just put in as many people as the story can have. You have people work as long as they can to get it done,” he says.

Bloom was unable to comment on managing City’s budget but said that “overtime did occur.”

Overtime or not — reporters are certainly ready to help in whatever way they can. Both newsrooms agreed that it is not difficult to get staff to work long hours when breaking news strikes. Kent says that people volunteer to come in and want to be a part of the story. As for CityNews, it generally has reporters in around the clock and they have an assignment editor working twenty-four-seven, every day of the year.

Bloom says that employees view themselves as part of a team, and when they recognize the gravity of the story they ask what they can do to best support City News.

“Do we call people in? Yes, absolutely! Do we have resistance from people? Nope. This is what our reporters do.”

CityNews web writer Erin Criger chimed in, saying, “It’s what we live for. It’s in our DNA and it’s a weird thing to think you kind of live for those stories — that’s why we’re here.”

The journalists are needed to not only report on the breaking news, but organize for and accommodate it. Kent says that prioritizing stories is key. Since the Sun’s layout is prepared for the following day’s paper some changes had to be made to accommodate the breaking news.

“You have to create space for the top story or get rid of some stories completely,” he says.

CityTV ran simultaneous on-air coverage — it interrupted its regular programming for the Eaton Centre shooting and airing whatever they had at the time on their live news channel.

Bloom says that City has “internal processes and communication methods” that allow it to handle breaking news.

“If breaking news happens while we’re on air we can easily communicate from an assignment editor to a producer to an on-air anchor in a matter of seconds in order to bring that news through.”

Aside from long hours, extra staff and tried-and-true methods, there is one facilitator that is a huge help in news coverage: social media. Not only does social media help in breaking the news and gathering tips, but to garner traffic to the outlet’s website. Criger says social media adds additional “context and colour” to stories, especially when the public sends in photos or videos at an event. Both the Sun and City agree that verifying the tips, tweets and posts is extremely important. When City receives tips via social media it makes sure they are valid by running them by a reporter on the scene.

“We’ll flip a video or link to an in-house producer to watch and make sure that everything is legit,” says Bloom. “For an example, when Union Station was flooding we had a reporter on the scene and we just said ‘Hey! Can you just confirm this is where the water is coming down?’”

He continued: “When someone validates it then we absolutely will go with it.”

City first heard of the Eaton Centre shooting from a text message sent by a staff member’s friend who was locked in a shoe store in the mall. City believed it to be a reliable source, but they sent cameras and reporters to check it out first. The Sun did the same thing — it heard of action at the Eaton Centre and right away sent reporters to see for themselves.

“It’s helpful, but you can’t write stories off a Twitter feed or Facebook. You still have to send reporters to events to talk to the people and police and build from there,” says Kent. “Twitter is good for alerting people to events but ultimately it’s still reporters on the ground that do the job.”


See also: Following the gunshots: HuffPost intern Brian Trinh on reporting from the Eaton Centre shootings