Breaking news, big events and the ‘second screen’

I remember the day the Egypt uprising began. It was Tuesday (25 January, 2011) and during the night I learned about it through Twitter – I was using my iPad. My first reaction to this breaking news was to turn the TV on and look for a news channel broadcasting about Tahir Square. I found Al Jazeera’s coverage and started ‘drinking’ all the information.

Regardless of the great job the network was doing with their coverage, I sensed that there was ‘more’ going on and my iPad become my ‘second screen’, to get live online information from Egypt.

I followed the same behavior when Osama bin Laden was killed by a United States special forces military unit, on May 2, 2011 (this time turning the TV to CNN). The same thing happened when, on July 22, 2011, the Norway attacks where perpetrated. The death of Steve Jobs, on October 5, 2011, made me do it again.

As it turns out, I was not alone with this ‘second screen’ behavior and my ‘digital quest’ for further information. Various studies reveal that, while watching TV, audiences are also online (here is one of those studies). It has also become common knowledge that most big events news break first on Twitter – some defend it started with the Hudson river landing, on January 15, 2009.

As I see it, this is how such behavior works: A user gets a tweet on her stream about a breaking news. Felling interested on the subject, this user senses a need to ‘validate’ that piece of information (140 characters). To do so, she will turn to the TV to find a news media trusted brand that can validate the Twitter information. Since most of us still think about TV as the place to follow breaking news, our user will stay ‘glued’ to a broadcast about the event. Nevertheless, being a ‘digital’ user, she will keep browsing online and on social networks to be able to get more information than what the TV broadcaster is giving her.

It is this need for more information, about something that is airing on the TV, added with a digital habit of being able to connect with huge streams of information and people online, that develops the multi-tasking habit of the second screen.

We’ve all read or heard about the second screen experience. In the last months, we’ve witnessed an amount of online services and applications launched to address this ‘need’. But upon further look, one can evaluate that these new services are mostly based on the entertainment side of the second screen usage.

Applications like Yahoo’s IntoNow, or British Zeebox are great fun when it comes to entertainment, enhancing the TV watching experience a lot.

Even the American newspaper The New York Times did a second screen feature, on last year’s Oscar night. It was a great experiment, but it was also based on a entertainment event.

I think about the second screen concept and believe there is a place for ‘live’ coverage of breaking news, done not only on the TV station’s websites, but also by traditional news media print publishers, through their websites.

If I’m right about how the ‘Twitter – TV – Trusted News Brand’ cycle works, than news publisher can fill these ‘trusted news brand’ shoes. Any publication that has a community of readers can use the second screen approach to further explore their relationship with that group of readers.

Also, if we think about traditional print news media assets for second screening, those companies have really interesting content that can make the difference during the early stages of a breaking news: their archive, the staff opinions and the power to ask for other opinions from the publication’s set of contacts. For further enrichment of the experience, journalists can curate and display content from social media; chosen Twitter hashtags can be filtered and displayed; pictures can be turned into slideshows; etc.

One of the problems TV companies face with breaking news is that, usually they don’t have enough material and data to ‘keep’ things moving forward. Live means the need for having people talking to the camera. You can have some specialist talking through the phone, while broadcasting footage (again and again) of the breaking event, but it is not a very nice experience for the audience.

TV broadcast also suffers from a lack of real estate to show related information. Since TV news are based on moving pictures and people, the amount of free screen space available to display other information is very low. Therefore, the TV experience can become very linear – one thing after the other.

On the other hand, if we design specific webpages for the second screen experience, we can use the available real estate to offer a non-linear experience. Editorial hierarchy can be translated through the design of the page and the amount of various contents to be delivered live on the page can vastly outtake that of the TV broadcast.

As I see it, one key element for a breaking news, or big event, second screen solution is the designing of a specific webpage, with curation of content and different information feeds in mind. For both breaking news or big events (like elections night, sports big competitions, Oscar night, etc.) what audiences are looking for, on the second screen, is validation and as much information and reactions as possible. This cannot be provided easily, as we’ve seen, by TV broadcasting, thus becoming mandatory to be served on the second screen.

Another key element on implementing a second screen solution is the need to have a newsroom with the right mind set. What the audience ‘out there’ is looking for is to make sense of something; to understand, not only what is happening, but also the implications of that event. People are looking for guidance, for opinions, for depth.

The breaking news, or event team, working on the newsroom should produce and provide answers to that need from the audience, but also find other possible answers outside the newsroom and deliver them. Curating is key here, either from social networks, or from other newsrooms.

We shouldn’t be afraid to point to other competing outlets. The new app Election 2012, by New York Times, does just that. As is announced on the NYT’s website: “You literally don’t have to go anywhere else for your political news”. If you’re delivering a good second screen experience, audiences you point to other websites will return to your specially designed page because you’ll be their provider of everything they need from their second screen.

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