By Josh Mabry, News Partnerships

“The Kansas City Royals are the lifeblood of this city,” says Eric Nelson, assistant managing editor of digital at The Kansas City Star, the area’s largest and oldest newspaper. That’s why news of the death of 25-year-old Dominican pitcher Yordano Ventura, who in 2015 helped the team win its first World Series in 30 years, devastated fans across the city.

In response, The Star sent a columnist and photojournalist to the Dominican Republic to cover the funeral. “We were hoping we’d get a good photo,” says Nelson. Instead, photojournalist John Sleezer found just enough reception from the streets of Las Terranas to go live on Facebook during the funeral procession. For more than 45 minutes, Sleezer broadcast the procession that started with Ventura’s teammates, friends and family carrying a coffin through the town and ended with a ceremony on the pitching mound where he first learned to play baseball.

It became one of the more emotionally resonant, impactful and popular stories the paper had published recently. “It was jaw-dropping to see the number of viewers, comments and shares,” says Nelson, who notes the live video did multiple times better than the newspaper’s other Facebook Lives. “When something like that happens and you can step up and give back to the community, it feels great. It gave everyone a real lift during what was really an emotional and traumatic story.”

How it Was Shot

John Sleezer didn’t plan on doing a live video from the Dominican Republic. In fact, he’d tried to go live from his phone only once before. But as he left Ventura’s home, he noticed a cell tower, then checked his reception. With full bars, he decided he’d go live for 4 minutes on his personal page but had to multi-task. He had a DSLR camera in his right hand taking photos for the newspaper, and his phone in his left, broadcasting live on Facebook.

“I saw a sea of those sad faces going across my stream and I thought, ‘I have to keep going with this,’ ” Sleezer says. “No one else was there sharing this scene, except us.” The Kansas City Star shared his broadcast to its main page, and everyone from Royals executives to fans from other Latin American countries to even reporters from ESPN and MLB were watching. Other journalists, including those at The Star, were back in their newsrooms translating the speeches at the funeral and using the scene to inform their stories.

“This was a perfect storm of opportunity to go live because it allowed people to see something that they couldn’t participate in themselves,” he says. “In this case, Facebook Live was my best tool to disseminate this news to a broad audience.

 

Why This Story Worked

Sleezer and columnist Vahe Gregorian were able to get amazing vantage points. Sleezer was at the front of the procession through the town, and just feet away as people mourned next to Ventura’s casket on the baseball field.

Nelson notes that beyond the raw emotion of the moment, the video was powerful because of the sounds of the music ringing through the streets and the backdrop of the Caribbean island. It made for a strong visual story that could capture a viewer’s interest at any point during the broadcast.

Most important, it let people who love the Royals have immediate access to an event they felt a strong personal connection to. “It made the Kansas City community feel like they were part of this procession in real time, and gave fans a chance to mourn,” he says. “The city sees this team as family, and we got to share this moment with everybody.”

 

Building a Live Following Around Sports

A few years ago, The Star shifted from focusing on its print newspaper toward being a digital-first publication. The editorial and digital teams viewed Facebook as one of the ways to not only deliver but also develop content for a digital audience. “Facebook is a connector to the community,” Nelson says. They saw Live in particular as achieving two purposes: to foster conversation around a topic and take audiences to places they couldn’t otherwise reach.

The Star has consistently experimented with the possibilities of Facebook Live since the feature’s debut. The paper built a strong following around local sports, so the paper went live with pre- and post-game coverage of Kansas City Chiefs games. With University of Kansas basketball, reporters have gone live with a weekly show and pre- and post-game events, including at Allen Fieldhouse and a local Kansas City tavern.

Currently, Sleezer is doing live videos from spring training every Thursday, reporting on the latest from camp and life for the Royals after Ventura.