How to Cover Big Science Events: Lessons from the Great American Eclipse

Ernie Mastroianni/Discover

 

At 10:19 a.m. on August 21, 2017, the Portland newsroom of The Oregonian was nearly empty. It’s not that there wasn’t work to do. On the contrary, it was one of the paper’s busiest news days to date. But at that moment, the normally buzzing newsroom was put on pause.

Dozens of reporters, editors, and producers stepped out of the office, crossed the street, and gathered into a cluster on a grassy knoll on the banks of the Willamette River. They passed around plastic glasses, donned their eyewear, and turned their heads to the sky.

It was the day of the total solar eclipse—when the moon passed between the earth and sun, temporarily casting parts of North America into darkness. In the continental United States, Oregon was the first place to experience the eclipse, and while Portland wasn’t in the path of totality, people—including the staff of The Oregonian—still flocked to view the partial eclipse.

For a few minutes, they took in the awe-inspiring spectacle, and then “we walked back across the street and got back to work covering that story for the rest of Oregon,” says Karly Imus, managing producer for trending news at the daily newspaper.

Their newsroom was one of thousands across the country that jumped on the “Great American Eclipse” story, eager to contribute to the conversation, help their readers appreciate the event, and leave their mark on one of the most extraordinary science stories in decades. Yet what eclipse coverage looked like—and why it took the form it did—varied significantly from outlet to outlet.

For regional publications like The Oregonian, it meant providing a public service by answering questions and offering advice on the logistics of an event that would affect the lives of every person in their readership (and indeed other creatures, too). For national legacy outlets like The Washington Post, it meant coordinating a vast array of newsroom resources, from graphics to a live video, to produce a visually impactful package. For a younger, digital newsroom like BuzzFeed News, it meant capitalizing on the social media conversation around this science event by building stories from Tweets. And for specialty outlets like Science News, it meant homing in on the researchers investigating the eclipse to provide a unique angle on the scientific significance of the spectacle.

As they look back on those decisions, editors say they’ve learned key lessons—ones that may help them in another six years when the next total solar eclipse comes to North America. But in the meantime, the lessons from the eclipse, they say, can also be applied to how publications approach other major science stories.

 

Betsy Hammond

The Oregonian’s Kristi Turnquist, Kjerstin Gabrielson, and Karly Imus view the eclipse from Tom McCall Waterfront Park.

 

Lesson #1: Start Early—Really Early

The Oregonian began publishing total solar eclipse stories a full year in advance. Before the phenomenon was trending on social media or part of everyday conversation, editors and reporters were meeting to brainstorm different angles.

“Because there was such a long lead-up to it, we knew that we needed to help readers prepare for it,” Imus says.

That meant serving locals and tourists alike with articles about what the event was, when it was coming, and how to book campsites and hotels.

The early start also helped newsroom staff prepare for day-of logistics, like how to communicate outside the office, when long email chains might get confusing. (They used Slack.)

That type of planning was one of the biggest lessons Imus took away from eclipse coverage. “You may not get to every last story, and new things will come up,” Imus says. “But the more prepared you are, the better.”

Lisa Grossman, astronomy reporter at Science News, agrees. Grossman joined Science News in June 2017, and her plans for eclipse coverage began during her job interview, where she was asked to pitch article ideas around the event.

That head start turned out to be “incredibly useful,” Grossman says, but she wished she’d had even more time. “Give yourself as much time as you possibly can to come up with ideas, discard ideas, and iterate to get the best and most doable things,” she says.

For larger organizations like The Washington Post, eclipse coverage involved so many different teams that starting early was the only way to ensure everyone had time to coordinate.

One of the first meetings took place in February 2017, and included the science desk, the social media team, the graphics and video teams, and weather reporters, among others. It was important to get buy-in from these different groups early on, says Laura Helmuth, The Post’s health, science, and environment editor. But that wasn’t always easy.

“For the graphics team, everybody is always asking them to make something,” Helmuth says. “So a lot of the early work was getting people enthusiastic.”

Some people didn’t realize the event would be large enough to attract the attention of millions. Part of convincing them involved publishing stories early and repeatedly, Helmuth says. Even when the science desk felt inundated with eclipse coverage, they always found an audience who hadn’t heard about the upcoming phenomenon.

“That was an important lesson,” Helmuth says. “Even if you feel like you’ve covered something a hundred times, you have to say it again and again because there are still people you haven’t reached.”

At BuzzFeed News, the process worked a bit differently. Instead of scheduling meetings, BuzzFeed News science editor Virginia Hughes sent out an email in June 2017 soliciting pitches from the tech and business desks as well as her six-person science team. She later included various other groups, from the entertainment team to the graphics team. Looking back, Hughes says she would probably have involved all the teams sooner. But even with some desks coming onto the project later, BuzzFeed News’s coverage eventually translated into approximately 40 stories published before, during, and after the eclipse.

 

William Marquardt

BuzzFeed News Tech reporter Nicole Nguyen (right) films a livestream from Oregon, demonstrating many mini eclipsed suns through a cheese grater.

 

Lesson #2: Leverage All Your Resources, However Large or Small

It’s no secret that national publications often have more resources than regional newsrooms. But both types of outlets were able to leave their mark on eclipse coverage, because of how they managed the resources they had.

Science News had just one reporter taking the lead on eclipse coverage: Grossman. Although she was supported by editors and producers throughout the newsroom, she was pitching, reporting, and writing most of the magazine’s eclipse pieces. That meant editors had to free up her time. They got freelancers to cover the rest of the astronomy beat while Grossman focused on eclipse stories.

“That was part of what made this possible,” says Elizabeth Quill, special projects editor at Science News. “We were able to carve out time for Lisa to do this.”

Quill was acting editor-in-chief during the summer of 2017. She says one of the challenges of that time was balancing eclipse coverage with the outlet’s mission to cover everything else in the astronomy world—a common problem for news organizations trying to take on large projects while still maintaining their normal coverage.

 

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At The Oregonian, editors had to make some tough calls about how much of their limited staff to dedicate to the eclipse story. The questions came up early: How often do we pull people off their normal duties? What’s worth doing? What’s not?

Early coverage started with just one reporter: Jamie Hale, who typically covers state travel and nature. But as the date of the eclipse approached, more and more resources were dedicated to the temporary beat.

The coverage wasn’t always about the science: Some stories involved a state politics reporter following the case of a neo-Nazi who hung anti-Semitic banners during the eclipse, or a business reporter figuring out which businesses would profit most from the event. One reporter attended a baseball game that was paused for players and fans alike to view the eclipse.

By the time it was done, more than three-quarters of the newsroom had contributed to the paper’s eclipse coverage, Imus says. “Even in today’s day and age when newsrooms are smaller,” she says, “when a once-in-a-lifetime story comes your way, you throw the resources at it that it deserves.”

At BuzzFeed News, having a small science desk embedded within a much larger organization gave it a unique advantage.

While science reporters focused on explainer stories and following researchers in the field, BuzzFeed’s entertainment team put together listicles, like the most hilarious tweets about the eclipse, and quizzes, like whether you’re a solar or lunar eclipse. The live team coordinated a video stream for the day of the eclipse, showing people what was happening moment by moment.

That collaboration was key to putting together a large package, Hughes says.

The process was slightly more complex at The Washington Post. Between the various in-house teams and the series of freelancers across the country, at least 100 people were involved in producing content in some way, Helmuth says.

“It was the most collaborative thing we’ve ever done at The Post,” she says. “The only thing that compares is election night.”

While that allowed for a variety of perspectives and stories, it also created the challenge of keeping everyone on task. Helmuth says it was often difficult to ensure people reserved time for long-term eclipse projects, when so many teams were also responsible for daily news coverage.

 

Eric Uhlir

The Washington Post’s livestream control room, featuring feeds from around the country.

 

Lesson #3: Play Up Your Brand

The Great American Eclipse was covered by almost every U.S. media organization. Readers could Google the event and pick indiscriminately from thousands of results to find out when and where the eclipse would take place. That’s why many editors tried to give readers a more specific reason to turn to their outlets in particular.

At The Oregonian, that meant focusing on serving local readers. “We wanted to make sure we were a one-stop shop for eclipse coverage in Oregon,” Imus says.

Stories aimed to help readers understand what to keep in their cars during eclipse road trips, which campsites didn’t require reservations ahead of time, and more.

The strategy involved passing up some more general eclipse coverage, like national stories or detailed pieces about the science behind the phenomenon. “Where we drew our line in the sand was we’re a local newsroom and we’re going to serve local readers,” Imus says.

That approach paid off, with their website garnering record traffic that day, Imus says.

Science News experienced similar success by playing to the magazine’s strengths: focusing on the hard science behind the eclipse and the research conducted during totality.

“Given our brand mission, which is to cover the scientific advances, that seemed like the sweet spot of what we could offer,” Quill says. “This isn’t just a spectacle, there’s real science being done.”

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 That meant a different type of reporting. For example, Grossman hunted down a paper, written by members of an amateur astronomical society in the 1930s, about how insects reacted to the 1932 total solar eclipse. She also embedded with researchers days in advance and observed them conducting practice runs on data collection before the real thing.

“We focused a little less on culture and how people are responding,” Grossman says. “We got to be a lot more specific and nerdy.”

Hughes says BuzzFeed wasn’t hyperfocused on curating coverage to match the organization’s brand. But it happened naturally as the organization tried to serve its distinct audience. “So even if we did things similar to other places, we were doing it for our audience,” she explained.

The science team’s explainer article was one of BuzzFeed News’s most successful pieces of eclipse coverage, even though every outlet did a similar piece. “Our audience was hungry for that,” Hughes says.

That’s not to say BuzzFeed didn’t play to its brand at all. The explainer took a conversational Q&A format. And the non-news part of the site, known for lists, illustrations, and fun quizzes about pop culture and the internet, created its own eclipse coverage. For example, it had a list of all the odd places along the path of totality that people were renting on Airbnb, like churches and backyards.

Branding was a bit tougher for The Washington Post, which is known mainly for its political coverage. Helmuth wanted to use the eclipse as a moment to show readers that The Post can be a go-to source for science stories as well.

One of the best ways to do that emerged from an early meeting, Helmuth says. Members of the science team were trying to explain to the graphics and video teams how the eclipse works. “We found ourselves using hand symbols. And someone stood up and someone else walked around them like the earth and the sun,” she says. “We were trying to explain in words, but then realized that you just had to see it.”

That realization led to ambitious visual coverage. One of the most memorable components for Helmuth was a graphic, made with data from Google satellites, allowing the viewer to fly over the country along the path of totality. Another allowed users to rotate a picture of the globe and see where the paths of totality would fall for the next 50 solar eclipses.

“We want visuals to be part of our brand and we’re trying to be more visual all the time,” Helmuth says. The eclipse was a chance to showcase that for the public.

Mary Beth Mankin

Science News’s Lisa Grossman types out an article on the grounds of a camp in Wyoming immediately after totality ended.

Lesson #4: Experiment with New Platforms

Recognizing that the Great American Eclipse could be the largest science story of the decade, many newsrooms decided to go big. That meant ambitious coverage plans that pushed them from their comfort zones in search of new ways to reach new audiences.

As a semimonthly magazine, Science News faced a timing issue: If it covered the eclipse primarily in its flagship print publication, as it does for other large stories, much of its coverage during the weeks leading up to the eclipse and on the day of the big event would be published too late. The hype would have died down and the reporting would seem out of place.

So Quill and Grossman decided to focus on digital coverage instead. Grossman wrote 10 articles, one of which was posted each day from August 11 until the day of the eclipse. The newsroom also created an interactive showing the paths of the next 15 solar eclipses.

Grossman hosted a Facebook Live video—her first one done on her own—in which she answered questions about the phenomenon, including some from as far away as India.

“That was definitely an experiment,” Quill says. But it paid off. The multipronged approach helped expand the site’s audience, she adds.

“We really took advantage of the digital space in a way we’ve only done a few times in the past,” Quill says.

The Washington Post also experimented with various platforms. It had a live show the day of the eclipse, featuring a rotating cast of hosts discussing what was happening across the country. Reporters also paired up with NASA scientists to host “Ask Me Anything” sessions on Reddit. Then there were the Snapchat stories, text articles, and live blog.

“We were able to bring so many different ways of telling the story together,” Helmuth says. “It allowed us to reach a Snapchat audience that may not be going to our home page.”

Measuring that reach can be difficult, and Helmuth says she learned not to worry about it too much. The Post didn’t monetize the audiences it attracted on Reddit, Snapchat, and Instagram. But going to where the audience is can help expand your brand anyway, she says, citing the fact that The Post had more than a million readers on Apple News the day of the eclipse—their highest figure up to that time.

At BuzzFeed News, the team created an interactive map showing when totality would occur across the country and built a series of explainer graphics about the science behind the event. Reporters in New York and Oregon collaborated to host a Facebook Live video explaining what the day of the eclipse was like in different states. They also tried a new collaboration with the merchandise department: tagging stories with a link to buy BuzzFeed-sponsored certified solar filter eclipse glasses.

It was meant to be a fun and creative expansion of traditional coverage—a way to engage with the audience on something practical they needed, Hughes says. The experiment paid off. “We sold out within a week,” she adds.

For The Oregonian, their experiment involved sending a videographer on an Alaska Airlines flight to videotape the solar eclipse from 38,000 feet. They also had reporters scattered throughout the path of totality, sending in photos, videos, and dispatches, as well as posting to social media.

“There were a lot of different types of coverage because the audience is so segmented today,” Imus says.

 

Maura Judkis

Washington Post staff Lisa Bonos, Zach Pincus-Roth, and Kara Elder gather along with others to view the Great American Eclipse on August 21, 2017.

 

Lesson #5: Have Fun

Covering the solar eclipse was serious business. It involved months of planning, cross-team coordination, and experimentation on different platforms. But amidst it all, editors and reporters alike say they never forgot to have fun.

“I look back on it and it was a lot,” Hughes, of BuzzFeed News, says. “But it was extremely fun.”

One of her fondest memories is brainstorming dad jokes about the eclipse in an email chain with colleagues, and then deciding to turn that into a story. For a science desk that normally focuses on investigative journalism, the eclipse coverage was a chance to let loose and have fun.

Grossman enjoyed her time in the field with researchers, watching them plan out their data collection and run practice drills. Even as she typed up her story in the 30 minutes after the eclipse, she says she was excited to be busy. “I wanted to be there, doing that,” Grossman says.

For Imus, the realization that she was participating in coverage of a once-in-a-lifetime story forced her to savor the experience, even in the middle of that hectic day of coverage. “All the stars aligned for us that day—no pun intended,” she says, “and it was the biggest story around.”

For that day, it truly was. In a summer permeated with dramatic and polarizing political stories, the awe and wonder of the eclipse broke through across every outlet. Helmuth says there was a palpable sense of joy at The Post, where people needed a break from politics.

“The subtext of everything,” Helmuth says, was, “Let’s look away from the earth and our divisions, and look up for a moment and find something that unites us.”

 

 

Aneri PattaniConner Jay/AAJA

Aneri Pattani

Aneri Pattani is a TON fellow sponsored by the Burroughs Wellcome Fund. She is a health reporter at The Philadelphia Inquirer, where she covers health issues in young people. In the past, she has worked as an assistant producer on the health team at WNYC, a James Reston reporting fellow on the health/science desk at The New York Times, and a reporting companion to columnist Nicholas Kristof in Liberia. She has also written for The Boston GlobeThe Texas Tribune, CNBC, and The Hartford Courant. Originally from Connecticut, she graduated from Northeastern University in Boston in May 2017. Outside of reporting, Pattani loves to travel, cook, and practice Indian classical dance. Follow her on Twitter @aneripattani.

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