When reported.ly’s European staff went online the morning of Wednesday, January 7, our news operation was less than 48 hours old. Launched two days earlier, we were a small staff of six people – three digital journalists in Europe and three in the US. We didn’t have a website yet – our URL redirected to a Medium page – and we were just establishing ourselves on major social media platforms. We were also just getting to know each other, learning how to coordinate our work across 10 time zones. We planned to ease into our coverage over the first week, taking care not to stretch our team too thin.
Then just before 6am ET that Wednesday, our European staff got word of a shooting in Paris.
We didn’t know it then, but this was the beginning of a three-day marathon covering a horrifying story – the terrorist attack on Charlie Hebdo magazine.
No one could have anticipated a story of this magnitude happening during our first week of operations. We had to rise to the occasion and cover it as if we weren’t a brand-new service less than 48 hours old.
Our European team – Malachy Browne, Marina Petrillo and Asteris Masouras – first got word of the incident while monitoring one of over 200 Twitter lists we created to track news events around the world. On one of those lists, an AFP reporter tweeted that shots had been fired at Charlie Hebdo’s office.
It didn’t take long to find eyewitnesses reporting directly from the scene. At 6:21am, just 25 minutes after initial reports of a shooting had appeared on Twitter, Malachy Browne used geolocation services to find footage from the scene of the attack. It was the very first UGC video to be found and verified by a news outlet that day.
Over the next 18 hours, we divided up our work based on specific topics and social platforms. Malachy Browne and Asteris Masouras created a Storify collection with the latest updates from Paris, while US-based editor-in-chief Andy Carvin began collecting protest art from around the world. Marina Petrillo, meanwhile, anchored our coverage on Twitter and Facebook. Within several hours, the rest of our US team – Kim Bui and Wendy Carrillo – came online to tackle other angles of the story.
All of this took some orchestration, given there were six of us, each working out of our homes. We had no physical newsroom, so we launched a Google Hangout to coordinate our reporting. The hangout allowed us to keep in constant contact, relaying our latest reporting to each other so we could review each other’s work.
For most of that first day, we divided our work between live coverage on Twitter, using Storify to publish our latest stories and mining more than half a dozen social platforms to discover and authenticate the latest user-generated content. We didn’t limit ourselves solely to social platforms, though. When names of potential suspects began to circulate through unofficial channels, for example, we began preparing dossiers on them using French archival resources and books that had been digitized by Google.
It was then we found a snippet of a story reporting that one of the three suspects had successfully passed a science exam in high school the previous summer. That particular nugget got our attention, because the suspect in question was a teenager, significantly younger than the other two suspects.
We began monitoring Twitter streams we geolocated to French towns where the suspects were reportedly from. It was through this social media monitoring we discovered a number of French high school students in northeast France who were insisting on his innocence, saying he was at school that same morning.
As the rest of the reported.ly team continued its rolling coverage, Kim Bui and Andy Carvin pieced together the web of relationships among these students, following their online paper trail to connect the dots on how they knew each other. We mapped a network of nearly two dozen students, all friends or classmates of the suspect. Based on their online conversations and our interviews with them, we created a Storify reporting that the third suspect had a potential alibi.
Later that evening, the suspect turned himself in to authorities and was eventually released, the authorities acknowledging he was indeed in school at the time of the attack.
As part of our verification efforts, we utilized geolocation to confirm the precise location of footage. This helped us find footage from the scene of the attack earlier that day and identify locations where police tactical teams were converging across France. At one point, someone circulated a photo of police near a butcher shop, allegedly in Reims, France. It didn’t have any geolocation data associated with it, but after a bit of sleuthing we were able to verify the photo’s location using Google Street View.
Sometimes our work didn’t involve any bells and whistles, instead focusing on how to handle unconfirmed reports from other news outlets. At one point, several outlets reported at least two suspects were under arrest and a third suspect killed. We didn’t want to suggest the reports were true, but we didn’t want to ignore them either. So we shared the reports in an appropriate context, acknowledging them but questioning their sourcing. Eventually, the news organizations walked back the story and acknowledged they had been incorrect.
By the time we signed off at midnight ET, we had been reporting live for 18 hours. Our team took a break for three hours and went back to work at 3am ET, continuing our coverage late into the next evening, then repeating the process the next day as well. By the time the crisis was over, our small team of six had covered the story live for nearly three days straight – more than 60 hours of tweeting, debunking rumors and old-fashioned reporting. It was a baptism of fire for reported.ly, but we managed to get the job done, just 48 hours into our existence.