How the South Florida Sun Sentinel engaged the community after a school shooting
In the days immediately following a mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School that left 17 dead, staff at the South Florida Sun Sentinel began asking themselves questions. How could they engage the community and create a place where people could come together to share their thoughts?
In the coming months they would create several projects designed to convene community members in the wake of the tragedy. But as the first anniversary of the shooting approached, a new question arose: What could they provide to readers, after months of extensive coverage, that would be helpful on that day?
“We knew that the families and the community would be very sensitive to an anniversary,” Content Director for Features Gretchen Day-Bryant said. “And so we didn’t want to do anything gratuitous or anything that looked like it was self-aggrandizing. And frankly, I think we were a little bit exhausted.”
With just one week to go before the anniversary date, they turned to their community. And the community came through.
The idea for a reader submission project tied to the anniversary began after Senior Digital Editor David Selig got a suggestion from Hearken to collect reader questions about the shooting.
Collecting questions didn’t feel like the right fit for Selig — they had recently published an in-depth timeline of the day’s events and it seemed the readers were getting tired of updates on what happened, he said.
But by asking himself what he would he want to do on the anniversary, he came up with the idea to share people’s messages of support.
The week before the anniversary, Selig posted a call for submissions for Messages to Parkland, inviting readers to share messages with the Parkland community.
They published more than 100 Messages to Parkland online and more than 50 in print, on both 1A and a full page inside in the anniversary issue. The messages came from the community and from other states and countries. They came from alumni, activists and school shooting survivors.
The traffic online for the Messages to Parkland project was not particularly high, Selig said, but the 120 messages they received over seven days was “way more impressive.”
“That, to me, said, OK, we’re doing something that is valuable, because all these people have something on their mind that they can’t wait to send,” Selig said.
Messages to Parkland also added to the community outreach efforts the Sun Sentinel had been pursuing since the news of the shooting first broke.
The Sun Sentinel’s overall engagement work in the months following the shooting was so important to the staff that they created a video to highlight their work in their entry for the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.
“It wasn’t just about the investigative work and the breaking news, we wanted the engagement to show up as part of what we did,” Selig said. “I can’t speak to whether that helped us win or not, but I’m sure it didn’t hurt.”
Keep it focused. Having a character limit on the Hearken embed where people submitted their responses online was needed in order to get messages that could easily be displayed both online and in print.
“The fact that (the Hearken embed) required short responses was key, because we could really show the volume of the responses we got as opposed to having a lot of essay-length things that people may want to write,” Selig said.
Experiment. The initial suggestion to answer questions about the shooting didn’t fit the editorial needs of the newspaper, but taking that idea and turning it onto something that would serve to respectfully commemorate the day did.
“If there’s an idea usually you can find a way to twist it into finding the one you want to do,” Selig said.
Reach across silos. “Good ideas can come from anywhere in the newsroom and collaborations can come from anywhere,” Day-Bryant said. People were working far outside their typical responsibilities, but she said it’s important for managers to recognize when to let people follow their instincts.
Selig said now newsroom staff is more comfortable pursuing engagement work than they would have been before the shooting.
“We just were thrown into a situation where we felt like we had to do it, we should do it,” Selig said. “It made us take our at-bats and figure out some of the things we can do.”
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