Doug Schneider's one of my best friends in the newspaper business. We worked together in Binghamton about 10 years ago. He's now working for the Green Bay Press Gazette as a news reporter, and he's become famous for his #scannersquawk coverage of Packers games (it's always cool to see a friend called "invaluable" by Deadspin). Doug and I recently discussed #scannersquawk as part of an email interview:
SMG: What is Scanner Squawk?
DS: It’s a Twitter hashtag we use to designate stuff we hear on the scanner. It’s typically off-beat or downright funny – not the kind of thing that would ever end up in a story. It’s most popular during Green Bay Packers home games, when police and firefighters are dealing with the drunk and disorderly fans at Lambeau Field. Sometimes there’s a slight dose of snark, but generally the quote alone is strong enough.
SMG: How did the idea come about? When and why did it start?
DS: The first evidence I saw of the hashtag was from a Gannett colleague, Esteban Parra, at The News Journal in Wilmington, Del. He tweeted funny stuff and I figured it could work here. So I tweeted a few off-beat things from the police calls, cows in the roadway, stuff like that, and got a few RTs. One day I was working in the office on a Packers' Sunday and heard some oddball stuff, so I tweeted that and got a BUNCH of retweets and favorites. So I started doing it when I was in the office on game days, and the following kind of grew. That was several years ago.
SMG: Is it just on Twitter, or is this folded into a print story?
DS: Originally it was just Twitter, but it sometimes provides a small amount of color for an arrests/ejections brief that runs Monday in print. And because of its popularity, we’ve started compiling those tweets into a Storify that runs on our PackersNews.com.
SMG: What are the mechanics of your work day on Sunday. What does your workday look like doing this?
DS: As of about a month ago, it’s become #Scannersquawk and other Packers-related tweets. Before that, if I was in the office, I often was juggling these with an assignment … though fortunately our Sunday/Monday audience is so Packers-centric that the assignment often involved shooting photos from Lambeau tailgates (a bonus, because fans often offer to feed you). Had today been a home game, it would have been extra challenging, because one of the bigger names in Packers history passed away and I ended up working with Jeff Ash of our Online Department to write what became a 30-inch obit.
SMG: The police scanner is a mainstay in any newsroom, but it’s rarely been directly quoted. In fact, one of the first lessons a reporter learns is to take what they hear on the scanner with a grain of salt. How/why is this different?
DS: Great question. #scannersquawk tweets typically not what we’d consider traditional “news” – they’re more entertainment than information. Some of that is a function of the growing role of social media in, well, everyday life — Twitter provides a great venue for this concept, and an audience that loves it has grown since we’ve been doing it. But if we heard something about, say, a person firing a gun or taking hostages, we would likely tweet that we’d heard a call to that effect, and that we have a reporter en route.
That said, it’s become a useful way to convey information about traffic issues, accidents, etc. We used it well earlier this month when the electricity went out at our local state university campus. And fortunately, we’d already build a pretty good reputation for using Twitter for conveying breaking news – it’s worked with major fires, in a school hostage situation, what have you. Now I’ve found that people will tweet to me when they’re stuck in traffic, when they’re behind a bad accident, etc., because they know I’ll respond whenever possible. We’ve begun RTing those with the #Traffic920 hashtag. Finally, a *few* local public safety people keep us in the loop, knowing that they can reach far more people through my account and Press-Gazette media’s account than they can through their own.
SMG: What are you listening for?
DS: Things that are funny, weird, strange—generally things that make me laugh will make our followers laugh. And there are certain words—let’s call them sophomoric--that just make people go crazy. If you thought that people outgrow comments about vomit after college, well … Anyway, 245 followers engaged with this tweet:
SMG: What’s the best thing you’ve heard on the scanner during a game?
DS: Best in terms of audience engagement – see, we do it for a reason! – had to do with a Minnesota Vikings fan who was wanted for questioning in connection with an alleged assault in a parking lot after a game. About the only description the police had was that he was wearing a purple sombrero … which hit a nerve with the audience. People are still talking/tweeting about it two years later. Deadspin picked it up. Deadspin is my new best friend.
SMG: What kind of reaction does this get in your community. Do people love it (small-town police report style), or have you gotten any kind of blowback?
DS: “Community” can mean different things here. It’s definitely wider than just a northeastern Wisconsin audience. The Twitter audience is national – heck, we have regulars overseas – and if they don’t like it, they can simply tune it out. The local response has been overwhelmingly positive. About the only complaints have come from a “legalize marijuana” guy who doesn’t like when we tweet about the occasional pot arrest, and from a sheriff’s dispatcher. But it’s not unheard of to gain 200 followers on a game day. We do get an occasional troll, but we don’t feed the trolls.
One reason I think we haven’t had many complaints is that we know not to go too far. We don’t use people’s full names in tweets. We don’t tweet seat numbers, even though we hear them on the scanner, because the team collects them to determine if it wants to revoke season tickets. We tweet anti-DWI messages, safe-driving alternatives, and the like. And we’ve used the hashtag to do positive things – I tweeted a report of a child missing at the game, and followers began tweeting the description to their friends at the game. Outside of the Packers realm, I used #scannersquawk to get followers paying attention to weekly tornado siren tests – and then tweeting at the local emergency-management office (which is great with social media) if they didn’t hear a siren. So we’ve built up some goodwill there. Finally, I figure that if I’m having fun, others are probably having fun, too.
SMG: What NFL stadium would you like to read a Scanner Squawk from and why?
DS: Your Bills might provide interesting fodder, based on what I’ve heard and read about the way that fans pregame. And some of the horror stories from Jets and Eagles games might make interesting fodder, though this loses its purpose when it turns to crime instead of simple stupidity. However, I don’t know that this would work in every market. I can’t see people in metro New York getting worked up over a drunk passing out in a stadium bathroom.
SMG: I feel like this is cool example of what newspapers/news organizations can do to cover the NFL or other events that aren’t reliant upon the traditional building blocks of sports journalism. What other things could newspapers do like this?
DS: We’re already seeing some of that, and doing some of it here. Photo galleries before and during games. Twitter play-by-play (better at local sporting events that aren’t broadcast). Getting audiences in better touch with reporters before, during and after games. We do a live video stream before the game (from a restaurant, which is a sponsor), sometimes do live chats at halftime, and always do a live chat from the stadium as soon as it’s over. It’s pretty clear that sports fans like to engage, especially during games, and will use a second screen to do so. The sky is really the limit with this kind of stuff; reporters who know their audiences can often spot opportunities.
SMG: Your work is primarily in public watchdog reporting and digging through databases for serious data-driven stories. What’s it like to be known as the Scanner Squawk dude?
DS: “Dude”? What year is this? It’s … interesting. As an older guy, it’s taken some getting used to. But so have many of the other changes in journalism; when I began working at the paper in Binghamton, we had a Metro staff of 15.5 reporters and four or five editors. Today, I work at a larger paper that does a TON move with Online, social and video, and we have seven reporters and 1.5 editors. So many of us are doing much less to specialize.
At the same time, it’s great to be able to connect with members of the audience. First, they’re looking to me to provide something they want, and as a group they can be a powerful voice—I joked on Twitter a few weeks ago that I couldn’t see any of the six TVs in our newsroom, and people started tweeting #GetDougATV at some of my editors, and there was talk of a KickStarter. I made sure to gently quash that, but there might be an opportunity to use it to do some charity work in the future.
It’s also amazing that we’re hearing from people all over the world… and we’ve been able to leverage those connections to tell better stories. Today, as I mentioned, I had to write a news obituary about a former Packer. After slamming the basics up on the website, we needed human voices. I could have used the “traditional” approach and wasted time going to a random bar and hoping that someone had had an experience with this player, but instead I tweeted a request and included my email address. The first response I got was a from a guy in another part of Wisconsin who pretty much had a perfect quote. Last year when the team was preparing to face the 49ers in the playoffs, I did a story on couples where one rooted for the Packers and the other rooted for the other team. One of the best couples I found happens to live in Scotland – no way we could have done that without social media.
SMG: Is “Invaluable” going on your next business card? Or at least in your Twitter bio?
DS: Talk to my agent.