How we covered the crash of Amtrak 188

Last Tuesday was winding up to be a pretty average school night. I was in my kitchen, talking with my wife and preparing school lunches for my kids, when my phone rang at 9:39 PM. Caller ID showed Beth Davidz, Billy Penn’s director of product and a friend.

“Beth! What’s up?” I asked, spreading peanut butter and marshmallow fluff across sandwich bread.

“Hey, so a couple of things? I’ve been in a train crash, and, uh, well, I probably need a place to stay tonight? And also I think this is news for Billy Penn?”

That was the understatement of the year.

Beth, shod in one shoe, with no laptop, purse, or credit cards, was our heads-up about the crash of Amtrak 188 in Philadelphia. It was also what put us on the story, and provided the first real-time test of Billy Penn’s content strategy around curation, social media and original reporting.

That sent me right to my laptop, searching Twitter for a link to the crash (found via NBC10) paired with a photo from Beth. And to Slack, the communication tool we’ve used since launch.

Honestly the next three to four hours, for me, are a blur. I recall everyone on our small staff checking in — Anna Orso, Mark Dent, Shannon McDonald, Chris Montgomery, and intern Jared Whalen. I remember updating social like crazy, pinging Anna to start curating social media via Storify and embedding that in a post on our site. We created a “story” on Billy Penn — our word for a content type that combines links to other places, original work we create and posts from Twitter, Instagram and YouTube.

And I remember tweeting. A lot.

We tweeted everything. We re-tweeted primary sources, those reporters who were at the scene or updating from afar. All told, we tweeted 94 times; 42 original tweets, including live coverage of Mayor Nutter’s on-the-scene press conference; as well as 52 retweets of other information providers.

We also stopped tweeting anything else, and shifted our internal strategy to focus on follow-up, original posts that advanced the story.

(By the way, the results of that Tweetstorm: More than 100 Twitter followers during that night; a highlight was being included in CNN media reporter Brian Stelter’s “who-to-follow” recommendation, which was retweeted by Discovery Network’s “Bizarre Foods” host Andrew Zimmern, in town for a show.)

The next morning, I struggled to think of a way to sum up everything that had happened the night before in an intuitive way. So I bulleted a brief list of things we knew about the crash, and things we didn’t. Almost as an afterthought, as I left my house that morning for the train station, I tossed that into an article post, added three bylines to it, and hit publish.

That item, which summed up everything that was known about the crash, and every open question, wound up being our most popular post over the next two days as we updated it when developments crossed our radar.

Of course, once we got past the initial news break, our curation strategy became more important. Several reporters for news outlets — local and national — were going to be covering every press conference, writing up every significant break of traditional news, interviewing all the victims, waiting outside hospitals. We could link to the news they were broadcasting, and write stories that weren’t yet done:

And we asked Beth to write up her experience, in a pair of harrowing posts. (Part One, and Part Two)

Oh, and we tried an experiment that we intend to continue: We launched a public-facing Slack group, inviting our readers to use the same real-time platform we use to share information internally. As of now, we’ve signed up 15 non-staffers.

Now, there are a few things we did not do, in the course of covering this news event:

We didn’t send our staff to the scene. There are hundreds of incredible journalists in Philadelphia; there were hundreds of first responders who hurried to the scene; there were hundreds of victims of the crash, all providing first-hand reports. It was far more effective for us — in the hours and the days that followed the derailment — to curate content from home, or from our Center City office. We let Instagram and Twitter provide our on-the-ground coverage. And the press conferences from both the mayor’s office and the NTSB were all live-streamed. We just divvied up that coverage internally.

How’s it going so far?

It was our second-best week ever in terms of page views, uniques and sessions, all trailing behind one week driven by one article that went viral. And while it may place second all-time in those key metrics, I believe it was the most important week in Billy Penn’s brief history because we saw the impact of a total team effort around a story of huge importance to Philadelphians. And we are incredibly proud of that, and what it says about how open the city is to our approach.

We’ve got a lot to do to build an audience, but we’re pretty happy with how our coverage has been received:

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