A journalism lesson from the ice storm

By the serendipity of advance planning and Mother Nature, I was out of town when the Friday ice storm hit Greensboro, taking down trees, power lines and, eventually, power for hundreds of thousands of homeowners and businesses. Because I love my hometown, I checked local news websites frequently to see how things were going. And because I love my own house even more, I checked to see how things were in my neighborhood and my street.

Where did I find the most valuable information? Facebook.

There is a lesson there for the news websites. My former newspaper is going intensely local. A local television station’s slogan is “Start local. Stay local.”  Both gave me fine overviews of the situation. But I didn’t want a 5,000-foot view. I could get that from the Weather Channel. I wanted a 10-foot view. And I got that from the social networks.

The opportunity? TV stations and newspapers have viewers and subscribers on every street in the city. Heck, the newspaper has delivery people who drive every street in the county. Could they create a news network of people that lets them know about who has power, where fallen trees have blocked the road, where the power crews are, who needs help with a chain saw, or, simply, who needs help? Could they create a wiki that people can post their own news updates with information or requests for assistance?

That would be a page I would go to often.

A few snows ago, I was up early because I have an 8 a.m. class in Chapel Hill and I wanted to know how bad the roads were. (I needed to know if I could make the one-hour drive safely or whether I needed to cancel class.) Chapel Hill doesn’t have a local television station or daily newspaper to help me. I used the I-40 traffic cams to gauge the interstate, but I could find no information about roads in Chapel Hill.

That would be a page I would go to often.

This isn’t an idea simply for weather emergencies. It’s an idea for everything that people want and need. Here’s the deal: If news operations want to serve the public — which is what most of the journalists will tell you — then they must figure this out. Now that mass no longer works, you must go individual. Facebook has given me individual. News sites can give me individual, if they want to. Yes, newspapers and TV stations cover large areas, but you also have large audiences (shrinking, but still large). Use the people. They want to share. They want to help inform. They want to participate.

It takes work and attention. It also takes a better understanding of what people in your communities truly want and need. It takes a true commitment to deliver on the promise of being intensely local.

But it will keep me coming back.

This is not a new idea. Jeff Jarvis describes it much better than I. It just recently happened to me.

7 thoughts on “A journalism lesson from the ice storm

  1. I found Twitter to be the best source. I was without power until Sunday around 6 PM. I found that local media websites loaded painfully slow on my phone; but Twitter and Facebook loaded quickly.

  2. Show me the money. I think there are lots of good ideas, but too many lack a revenue stream. With tight budgets and scaled back staffs, it’s hard to find bodies to throw at other tasks. Editors like to say that web first is their no 1 priority, but they are not telling the truth. As long as we have a print edition, the no 1 priority has to be doing whatever you have to do during the day to be able to get a paper to press and delivered on time. You might not want to, but you can post a story to the web late. You cannot go to press late, especially if you’ve got another paper waiting brhind u for the press.

    • Thanks, Scott. Of course, readership of the newspaper itself is declining. Most papers want to shift readers to the web. But if you’re not offering value on the web, why would people go there? I think news sites are missing so many opportunities because they don’t see a revenue stream. Meanwhile they are pulling in double-digit profits from the newspaper. As you know, those won’t continue forever. So, you need to invest in the future. You must build the audience first…before you build the revenue. No revenue today doesn’t mean no revenue tomorrow.

  3. Duplicating and expanding here the comment I left over on Facebook: Here in New Jersey, we have Jersey Shore Hurricane News, a Facebook page started right before Hurricane Irene. By the time Hurricane Sandy hit, he (and it is run by one person) had over 225,000 followers. That is where people went to find out which grocery stores had water and ice, which gas stations had gas and the power to pump it, and which stores had generators in stock. They were indispensable. Right after Irene, I called out my local media outlet for being pretty much slow and useless in the crisis. They were a little better during Sandy, but not much. I would never have relied on them as my only source of critical information post-storm. (I did a presentation about JSHN at America East in 2012; if there’s interest, I’m sure I can find it and upload it to SlideShare.)

    Also, to Don’s comment, above: Twitter/Facebook and legacy media are not either/or sources — the former are channels, available on mobile and via text for those without power, that any media outlet can and should be using in circumstances like that. My big complaint with legacy media, at least in my part of the world, is that they don’t capitalize on all these new tools in order to make themselves indispensable.

    And finally, not to beat the same drum over and over, but long ago and far away, the Newspaper Next research taught the concept of “jobs to be done.” In a crisis like a hurricane or an ice storm, what are the information jobs to be done? If media outlets would stay focused on that question, they stand a much better chance of being the indispensable information source for their communities.

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