How The South Florida Sun Sentinel connected with its community after the Parkland shooting

Last month, The South Florida Sun Sentinel was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in Public Service for “exposing failings by school and law enforcement officials before and after the deadly shooting rampage at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.”

Included among the investigative and watchdog reporting that the Sun Sentinel submitted for Pulitzer consideration was a round-up of the paper’s community-focused engagement reporting.

Over the course of the year after the shooting, the Sun Sentinel launched a number of audience-focused projects that tried to bring community voices to the coverage and help people heal.

This week in Solution Set we’re going to dig into a number of those projects, which included a Facebook Group, a year-long video interview series, and a Hearken-based project, which collected reader insight.

Solution Set is a weekly report from The Lenfest Institute for Journalism. Every Thursday, we take an in-depth look at one fascinating thing in journalism, share lessons, and point you toward other useful resources. Though we’ll be off next week for an extended Memorial Day break.

I reported this issue in partnership with Bridget Thoreson, who writes The Hearkening newsletter for Hearken. She’ll dive deeper into the Sun Sentinel’s use of Hearken in the next issue of the newsletter, which is out next week. Sign up to get it in your inbox. 

(It’s also worth mentioning that the Lenfest Institute has supported Hearken through the Community Listening and Engagement Fund, though they’re reading this issue for the first time here like you.)


Here’s the TLDR:


TLDR

• The Challenge: After the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, The South Florida Sun Sentinel wanted to provide a way for community members to share their voices.

• The Strategy: The Sun Sentinel took a number of different approaches to engagement — from a Facebook Group to using Hearken — as it has tried to meet different community needs.

• The Numbers: The paper highlighted dozens of community voices, while also growing its subscriber base.

• The Lessons: The Sun Sentinel had to prioritize serving local communities as national and international outlets swooped in to cover the tragedy.

• The Future: It has applied best practices it learned to other reporting projects.

• Want to know more?: Scroll down to learn more about how other organizations have mobilized community to cover gun violence.


The Challenge

The news was at once unimaginable but at the same time an increasingly common American story: A lone gunman attacked Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, killing 17 students and staff and injuring 17 others on February 14, 2018.

The shooting immediately drew wall-to-wall national coverage. The South Florida Sun Sentinel, the local paper covering the area, of course, jumped on the breaking news and began its coverage as well.

But in the days after the shooting, Sun Sentinel staffers began discussing the different role local coverage must play.

“Our newsroom did a great job of covering the breaking news. And obviously, it’s a hard story to cover the initial hours, but it was sometime either that next day or the day after where we were just trying to figure out, what can we do to really engage the community and create a resource where where people could come together and share their thoughts and what they felt and what they thought they needed to do going forward as a community,” Sun Sentinel Senior Digital Editor David Selig told us.

“We realized we’re good at bringing information to people and covering the news, but we didn’t have really the infrastructure in place to do a lot of engagement on the fly,” he continued.

I’ll discuss the paper’s strategy below, but the Sun Sentinel’s challenges around community-focused overage evolved as the months passed. And the first anniversary of the shooting approached this February, the Sun Sentinel confronted another challenge: It wanted to figure out how it could appropriately honor the victims, survivors, and community members without overburdening its audience.

“Our readers were maybe getting a little bit weary of just the updates of the play by play of that day and everything that happened. And obviously, it’s such a tough subject matter. So I just was trying to think of what can we do that would be helpful.” Selig said.


The Strategy

On February 20, 2018, six days after the Parkland shooting, the Sun Sentinel created a Facebook Group for community members to share their thoughts and feelings in the aftermath of the tragedy.

The paper decided to use Facebook as a quick and easy way to spin up a community. It made the group public, but it dedicated staff to help moderate the pages.

It focused on Facebook because it was easy to set up a group and move quickly in the wake of the shooting.

The paper’s thinking was: “How can we be a resource here?” Selig said.

Almost immediately, it received messages from parents in the group thanking them for creating a space where they could share their thoughts and grieve together. (However, because the group is public, it also attracted people posting conspiracy theories about false flags.)

In the following weeks, the Sun Sentinel continued to think of ways it could directly incorporate community voices into its coverage. For example, it did a series of Facebook Live interviews with students on their first day back at school two weeks after the shooting. The paper also used the platform to interview teachers and local government officials.

The Sun Sentinel also partnered with the local PBS affiliate to produce a town hall-style broadcast with local leaders.

But even as it was connecting with readers on outside platforms, the Sun Sentinel wanted to highlight community voices on its own website and its own dedicated coverage.

That led to Voices of Change, a Story Corps-inspired project, which featured community members telling their stories from the day of the shooting and the activism that arose in its aftermath.

The project was the idea of senior staff photographer Mike Stocker, Gretchen Day-Bryant, the Sun Sentinel’s content director for features, told us.

“[He was] covering the event from a distance for us,” she said. “The first day he was in a helicopter, [he covered] funerals across the street with a gaggle of reporters, and he thought ‘I need to get closer’. And so he came upon this idea where he would put up his video camera and just invite people to speak kind of on whatever topic they wanted.”

The Sun Sentinel published four installments of Voices of Change in the year following the shooting.

But as the anniversary approached, it was looking for other ways to bring community members’ voices into its coverage.

So the Sun Sentinel turned to Hearken.

Instead of inviting readers to submit questions on a topic, the paper created Messages to Parkland, which used the Hearken platform to invite readers to submit thoughts and notes to students, families, and the community.

The Sun Sentinel then published some of the messages on its website and in the print edition on the day of the anniversary.

“As we mark a year since the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, our readers share words of support for the students, families, survivors and the Parkland community. The heartfelt messages offer hope, encouragement, prayers and healing,” the front page of the paper read on the day of the anniversary.

The idea for Messages to Parkland came about as the paper was trying to avoid doing a massive anniversary issue.

“We resisted a natural urge to do big anniversary stories,” Day-Bryant said.  “Anniversary stories are kind of fraught with peril sometimes.”

She said the newsroom’s main goal was to respect the victims as well as the survivors and the broader community. This was a fairly last-minute project, and it sort of inverted the typical use of Hearken which is to solicit questions from readers.

The Hearken effort dovetailed really nicely,” Day Bryant said. “So again, it allowed us to honor the victims, and then it also allowed the community to express their grief again. So I thought it worked well without having to do a big kind of traditional journalist story.”


The Numbers

There are about 80 staffers in the Sun Sentinel newsroom. The paper’s Parkland Facebook group is still operating, and it currently has 849 members.

With Messages to Parkland, the paper got about 120 submissions, though some people submitted emails with essays that they ultimately couldn’t print.

“That to me, says okay we’re doing something that’s valuable because all these people have something on their mind, and they can’t wait to send it,” Selig said.

He continued: “There wasn’t a ton of actual traffic to the project when it posted. But I’m still certainly glad we did it because I think it gave an outlet for people to share what they had on their mind.”

For Voices of Change, the interview series, the Sun Sentinel interviewed about 60 people for the project. Day-Bryant said it didn’t drive huge amounts of traffic, but that it enabled people to see themselves in the coverage.

“It gave people a voice, and some of those people who may not have been sources for other stories or have been able to express themselves in a kind of a public way,” Day-Bryant said.

Selig emphasized that the Sun Sentinel’s primary goal with its Parkland engagement coverage was to give voice to community members, the work — together with its investigative and watchdog coverage — has helped drive subscriptions.

“We’re focused more on building subscribers and active users and people who are going to engage with our content versus just raw traffic,” Selig said. “If we just want to draw traffic and page views, we would be aggregating every news story out there on every Parkland kid and posting photo galleries and sensationalizing headlines, things like that. We didn’t want to do that. [Engagement journalism] wasn’t a traffic driver for us. But I think all of our coverage in Parkland in totality has been a boost for our subscription base, we’ve had more people who subscribe and more people who come back.”


The Lessons

Approaches evolve: The Sun Sentinel’s approach to community engagement has changed as the needs of its audiences evolved and as the story of the shooting and its aftermath continued to reverberate.

The Facebook Group started as a way for the community to mourn together, but it has become increasingly political and heated, Day-Bryant said.

“The Facebook group, admittedly, we’re not maintaining as we had, and it’s kind of become very political. So a lot of people who are still active in it have a very strong agenda or point of view,” she said.

Over time, the paper made a broader decision to cut back on some of its coverage — including the engagement work — to focus on investigative stories and not do as many breaking stories or profiles.

That meant stopping initiatives such as the Facebook Live videos that didn’t attract massive audiences and were taking up staff time.  

“It’s always hard because every time you commit to stopping doing something, you can find a few reasons why you shouldn’t stop doing it. But we’ve really kind of trained ourselves…to make sure we’re doing the things that matter the most,” Selig said.

• Know your role as a local publisher: Almost immediately after the shooting, satellite trucks and national reporters descended on Parkland.

The Sun Sentinel, obviously, was already there, and it is still there even as national attention has moved onto other stories.

As the features editor, Day-Bryant said she was frustrated when sources she wanted to talk to with her reporters but refused showed up in publications such as The New York Times, CNN, or The Washington Post.

But as Selig interjected: “We always knew in the back of our heads there was going to come a time when the [satellite] trucks are going to leave, and the national reporters are going to leave, but the story is still going to be here, and there’s going to be a lot for us to still be working on and reporting on. And I think the engagement was part of that too because we’re not going to expect The Washington Post to do an engagement story. That was part of our thinking early on about how can we be different. Certainly, we’re going to be covering all the news that we can, but what can we add to the dialogue, and the conversation that is going to be outside of what they’re doing?”

And even as some sources were reluctant to talk, the Sun Sentinel team continued to reach out and build relationships. So by the time of the first anniversary of the shooting, some were more willing to go on the record.

During stories that attract heavy national attention, it’s worthwhile for local outlets to recognize that they shouldn’t compete with every national outlet. While local news organizations should share their local knowledge and expertise with broader audiences, their priority should be serving the loyal audiences who will remain in the community long after the spotlight moves on.

• Don’t impose: For years, the Sun Sentinel has run a program for high school journalists. One of the program’s participants was David Hogg, one of the students who would become the face of the movement that emerged out of the shooting. Hogg shared video he shot from within the high school with the paper and participated in other interviews with the Sun Sentinel.

But as the students went back to school and the student journalists at the Eagle Eye, the school’s paper, began reporting about the tragedy, the Sun Sentinel offered to help in any way they could.

We made all kinds of offers to help and they kind of didn’t want,” Day-Bryant said.

Which was totally fine, she said. Instead, the Sun Sentinel decided to reprint the Eagle Eye’s end of year issue and distribute it with the paper.

By distributing the student paper, the Sun Sentinel was able to elevate the voices of the student journalists and give them a bigger platform without overstepping.


The Future

The Sun Sentinel has taken lessons it learned from its Parkland engagement reporting and applied it to other projects within its newsroom.

Last fall, the paper created a Facebook Group covering South Florida’s restaurant scene.

“It’s been one of the best things we’ve done probably in the last year, that doesn’t have to do at Parkland. And I think the idea sort of came from what we were initially doing with the Parkland Facebook group. It’s just a place for people to hang out. And it’s not just us sharing our links to stories all the time, which is something we’re concerned about…We want it to be a place where people can share stories that are posted elsewhere and have the conversation going in different directions. Obviously, at the root of it, we’d like people to participate in our coverage, but it can’t just be us sharing our links.”

The paper plans to continue to make engagement a focus as it moves forward and continues to cover both the Parkland story and other news.

The work has been a boon for the newsroom because it’s helped break down silos, Day-Bryant said.

“Good ideas can come from anywhere,” she said.

And as the paper continues to emphasize its reader-focused business model and subscription focus, it recognizes that audience-first coverage will to grow in importance as it continues to figure out what meaningful engagement means.

“Engagement, it matters,” Selig said. “I think it’s going to matter more and people are going to be looking at it. And it’s going to continue to be sort of a good challenge for newspapers and news outlets, in general, to figure out what is meaningful engagement that’s worth doing.”


Want to know more?

• If you want to know more about the Sun Sentinel’s approach to audience engagement, check out  Hearken’s case study examining how the South Florida Sun Sentinel’s staff brought community voices into its anniversary coverage of the shooting. Sign up for The Hearkening to learn more.

• Here’s the Sun Sentinel’s Pulitzer entry, which will give you a listing of all the stories it submitted for the award.

• Another phenomenal project around the Parkland shooting and the aftermath was Since Parkland, a project from The Trace, a news site that covers guns, which worked with teen reporters to tell the stories of the 1,200 children killed by gun violence in the year after the shooting in Parkland.

• Mass shootings are incredibly difficult to cover. Last year, I wrote about how Pittsburgh’s public radio station WESA mobilized its newsroom and collaborated with others to cover the Tree of Life synagogue shooting last fall.

• It’s obviously a different kind of tragedy, but earlier this year I reported how a local public radio station covered the aftermath of the devastating fires in Paradise, Calif. last year.


Anything to add?

Has your newsroom had to cover a tragedy? What did you learn? Is there anything you would have done differently? Please don’t hesitate to reach out if you’d like to share your story. I’m at [email protected]

See you in June!


Photos courtesy of The Sun Sentinel. An earlier version of this story misattirubed a quote to Gretchen Day-Bryant instead of David Selig. It’s been corrected, and I regret the error.
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