I contacted Eric Athas (Journalism ’08) after I saw him post a photo from outside the White House after his Sunday night/Monday morning shift occupied by the Bin Laden news. My Q&A with him follows:
I was editing the washingtonpost.com homepage Sunday evening, and news had come to a screeching halt. Our lead story was hours old — about how embassies in Tripoli had been attacked. The Capitals had just lost their second straight game to the Lightning. The most interesting story we had was about a dangerous shortage of U.S. medical supplies. There was also one about oysters in the Chesapeake Bay. Then a reporter sent an e-mail saying that Obama was going to address the nation on an undisclosed topic. The next piece of information we received was that it was national security-related. My first thought was that it had something to do with Libya given Saturday’s news that Gaddafi’s youngest son had been killed by a NATO air strike. Typically in these situations (knowing there’s news, but not sure what that news is) I head to Twitter. I had Tweetdeck open, but I had to focus on getting a banner headline on our homepage and begin planning for a major news story. I first heard it was bin Laden-related from MSNBC, which was on in the background. But the actual “Osama bin Laden is dead” news then popped up in my Twitter feed.
2. What are your thoughts about how the story broke on social media?
Breaking news on Twitter is the standard. Look at the major news stories this year — and there have been a lot of them — and they all developed on Twitter and Facebook in a way that is incomparable to any newspaper, Web site or broadcast. The bin Laden news was no different, especially considering the raid was inadvertently tweeted by @ReallyVirtual as it was happening. What’s funny is that this story was moving so fast on Twitter that I had to quit out of TweetDeck to prevent myself from getting too engrossed. With reporters calling sources and other producers monitoring Twitter, it would have been more of a distraction for me.
3. Did you go immediately to work?
Lucky me, I was there.
4. Tell me about how you handled the story Sunday night/Monday morning.
On washingtonpost.com, the story developed like this: When we got the report Obama was going to address the nation, I put up a breaking news banner and simultaneously sent a breaking news e-mail alert with a link to where the live video would be displayed. Meanwhile, as our reporters worked on figuring out what the story was, our social media team signed on and began tweeting. When we confirmed bin Laden was dead, it obviously became our lead story, but I kept a live video banner headline up so users could watch Obama on our site. At this point we began building a big package that would have a giant photo, big headline and all of the bells and whistles of a major story. We added components such as photo galleries, video, stories and a place where users could submit photos. After that, it was a matter of creating a package that would deliver the story — the biggest I’ve ever encountered at The Post — in the most effective way possible. With stories like this, one challenge is sifting through all of the content that’s pouring in and feeding it to our users steadily.
5. Did you use social media in getting the story out on your site?
One of the advantages of working at The Washington Post is that we have many producers and editors handling all of the different moving parts of a mammoth story such as this one. We have a great engagement team that was able to focus on social media all night and day — which not only means tweeting and posting to Facebook, but also finding other ways to tell the story. Here’s one example.
On a personal social media level, once I finally had a chance to get out of my seat (4:30 a.m.), I took a stroll over to the White House and shot some video and photos of the cheering crowd. I uploaded the video to YouTube and posted the photos on my Instagram, Facebook and Twitter accounts. It was a fun Washington moment.
6. Any lessons learned from how fast this story moved?
I was reminded how important it is that a news organization’s Web presence doesn’t get caught up in the the freight train of information spilling out. People will go to Twitter for the news as it’s happening, and they’ll go to washingtonpost.com, nytimes.com, wsj.com and elsewhere to learn more about it. I also think there’s a lot to learn from this story, along with the Tucson shooting, the turmoil in the Middle East, the tsunami in Japan and the storms in the South. Once the dust settles, all of those stories will help teach us about better ways we can help deliver news to he world.