Over lunch this week with a large group of communications students from a local university, I found myself answering some very tough questions about a series of posts from the fall of 2007 in a category I call “Fire Blogging.”
Some of the students had stumbled on the posts and gave me an honest critique. One theme surfaced early on: “Why didn’t local papers update their coverage using blogs?”
I can’t answer for my local or other papers and electronic media, but I think I know what’s happened; economic forces and management that’s rooted in an older, pre blogging, era got in the way.
But rolling into the fire season I have some observations I shared with the students.
1. The editorial departments of most news papers and electronic media have been pared to the bone. It’s hard to rally reporters when they’re working 60 hours a day and fearful of the next round of lay-offs. Most reporters are trained to deliver everything they have in a tightly crafted story; if there re any scraps left over, they’re filed as sidebars to a main story
2. Covering fires is hot, dirty work that’s most often done out of range of cell phone coverage. The coverage tradition is to get the facts, dash to a phone, call your story in, or zip back to the office to file.
3. From an editorial manger’s view, the focus has always been getting topical product to its delivery point. And for small a newspaper that means the loading docks behind their printing plants, not a website WordPress or TypePad blog-- which to older edit managers still seems counterintuitive to the print product.
4. In the fires that scorched San Diego County in 2007, about one-half million people were in shelters throughout the county. Surprisingly, one of the first things that were brought on line at shelters was Wi-Fi networks and computer rooms where evacuees could make contact with far flung friends and relatives. Many of the reporters working the Witch Creek and other fires were unaware of this, which may have contributed to a lack of reporters’ and media outlet topical blog entries.
5. With one-half million people shuttling around the county, local media did an abysmal job of reporting what roads could be used to safely leave the effected areas. While Television and radio reporters were quick to report the approximate five mile deep grid local on I-15 north they completely overlooked the obvious open routes from Fallbrook, CA through Camp Pendleton to the cool coast and I-5 north. Another back rod north that was open—through Pala, CA, and north on Temecula Road to I-15 in Temecula, also remained open for much of last year’s fire storm. An enterprising local reporter whose beat includes the rural lands north and east of Escondido finally reported the open routes as did an airborne traffic reporter for one of the news radio stations in San Diego
a. One of the toughest questions about my fire blog stories was: “if you knew about the open roads, why didn’t you post a map showing the exit routes?” Gulp.
b. Does local media, including bloggers have a responsibility to report such information? Truthfully, I would feel horrible if I posted a piece saying a road was open and some innocent traveler were burned or trapped by a wildfire moving at 45 MPH on a route I recommended.
6. While local print media languishes, bloggers can play an important role in local news coverage. In fact, I believe that by letting reporters blog, local papers can survive and flourish.
7. At the end of my lunch, I suggested to the students “nothing catches a prospective editor’s eye faster than a young reporter who does a great job on a local story and blogging can be a ticket to a reporter’s desk in a real newsroom.”
Oh, to be young again. Not! Jim Forbes on 10/21/2008