What can local citizen journalists contribute to the coverage of a major natural disaster? What can we do well that others cannot? What are our limitations? As a journalism professor, I often explore those issues, but now I have had a chance to test my theories.
As co-publisher of Lansing Online News, I had a platform that others didn’t when a dangerous ice storm that began the Saturday before Christmas 2013 left hundreds of thousands of people freezing in the dark without power across a large swath of the United States and Canada. Here in mid-Michigan nine days later (Dec.30), thousands of people are still without power, and the overnight temperature last night dipped into single digits.
The local Gannett newspaper, the Lansing State Journal, is reporting that there are still 3,200 customers of the municipal power company BWL (Board of Water and Light) without power. (Only 65 Lansing-area residences served by the much-larger private utility, Consumers Energy, were still without power at the same time.)
A tick-tock of our coverage
Sunday morning after the storm, my first post on Lansing Online News offered a few pictures of the ice taken on my back porch. The weight of the ice on the trees made it treacherous to venture further, but I was only beginning to see how long the problems would persist. At that point, I thought that might be the extent of my contribution. After all, I had Christmas dinner to make, so I hoped the ice would melt soon.
A quick look at Facebook. however, suggested that the situation was more dire than I had realized. The tens of thousands of people in our state who awoke to find themselves without power but who had smartphones immediately turned to social media for information and to share stories. Friends without power or a generator wanted answers about when the power would come back on, especially if they had small children worried the ice might make it hard for Santa to find them. A couple who had launched a new retail store this summer saw their much-needed Christmas sales halted.
Most people were thinking the outage might last a couple days, but these would be a critical few days. I was home between semesters at Michigan State University, enjoying the opportunity to work on my book uninterrupted. As Sunday unfolded, I sensed that LON might be a useful vehicle for sharing information. Bill Castanier and I had launched the site five years earlier, expecting it to become an edgy alternative publication. It had instead evolved into a quirky mix of our preoccupations (books, politics, poetry) and those of our much-valued contributors. Our goal was never to replicate local news coverage, but perhaps we could fill in a few gaps.
The next two posts on Sunday illustrate our niche. To show the beauty and not just the danger, we posted some stunning Instagram images from Melissa Osborn, a young woman we know mostly from her work with the East Lansing Peace Education Center. Then I gathered information for a Resource Listing that I kept updating and adding to each day. Emergency numbers. A list of warming centers. How to keep the pipes from freezing. The carbon monoxide threat from generators.
Respected reporter friend Todd Heywood, known for his years of investigative work with Michigan Messenger, IMed to offer to use his new Christmas camera to capture videos with the experts at Preuss Pets on how to care for exotic pets as houses without power began growing cooler. Todd rendered and uploaded the videos so that we were able to begin posting them by Monday morning. (We would have been faster but he had play practice Sunday night.)
As it became clear that our community was becoming two societies – one with power, one without – I saw that LON needed to raise questions about whether enough was being done to deal with the crisis. On Tuesday, Christmas Eve, I asked “Should Governor Snyder activate the National Guard?” As a former victim of domestic violence, I worried about the families where violence against adults, children and pets is a threat when stress levels rise.
That’s the kind of issue that the mainstream press does not always think about, so I posted “Cabin fever increases the danger of domestic violence,” offering short-term and long-term strategies. The story touched a nerve. Not only did a friend reveal her past experience with domestic violence, but a woman submitted a comment about how she was trapped at home with an abuser. (As the gatekeeper, I did not post her comment, because I feared it could put her at greater risk, but I emailed her with telephone numbers to access help.)
Asking the tough questions
By Christmas Eve, it was obvious that state and local leaders were woefully unprepared to deal with the disaster, and their communication was almost non-existent. (Notable exceptions include Lansing City Council President Carol Wood and East Lansing Mayor Nathan Triplett.)Citizen journalists are less constrained, so I began hammering the theme that they needed to do more – Snyder and Bernero to us – let them eat Christmas cake? In addition to listing their sins, visitors also received a great recipe for Gluten-Free Golden Harvest Cake.
On Christmas day, the only post was my brief musing on how the issue of access to electricity cleaved us into the have’s and have-not’s, featuring my cheesy screen shot of the home page of our state’s online media powerhouse MLive.com. My background in community policing persuaded me to write “Applying the lessons of community policing to icepocalypse.”
The next day, LON contributor Therese Dawe, a beautiful writer whose Stone Soup offerings usually opine on issues of death and dying, posted her lovely “Ode to a Frozen Wonderland,” featuring a photo of a frozen leaf taken by one of her friends. (Many contributors post on their own, so I often awake to find a notification of a new posting I had not known was coming.)
Since then, our focus has been on holding officials accountable. Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero held a news conference on the Saturday after Christmas that also featured J. Peter Lark, the general manager of BWL, East Lansing Mayor Nathan Triplett, local police chiefs and representatives of the Red Cross and Advent House. As the video below shows, Bernero is hot-headed, which does not always serve him well. This is one of 14 YouTubes I produced and posted on the site, so that frustrated residents who couldn’t be there could see the full statements of the participants.
Todd joined me at the news conference, which was also open to residents. Here he challenges the GM of BWL about their emergency plan,which the company has yet to provide though they promised to do so (roll tape).
I was able to press Mayor Virg Bernero and East Lansing Mayor Nathan Triplett on their decision not to bring in the National Guard.
While the local news offered short soundbites, we could let people see this woman with three children who works at a local convenience store try to explain to the officials that she is at wit’s end because she had to throw out all the food in her refrigerator, has no money to buy more and temperatures are threatening to dip into the single digits. We also worry less about maintaining access because we never know when we might be kicked out.
What have we learned so far about the role citizen journalism plays? This experience reaffirmed how liberating it can be not to worry about commercial considerations. Because LON has no income stream (no ads, no fund-raisers), we can publish what we want without fear of losing advertisers or subscribers. If you think we were too tough on the local officials at the press conference, we don’t care if you never click again.
This also means that there are stories I would love to do but my day job intrudes – I need to finish preparing for my classes that start next week.
Good news as well is that we do not have to worry if many of our conversations occur on Facebook and Twitter and not on our site. Since clicks do not generate income for us, when I am pressed for time, I can post updates through social media without the pressure to drive traffic back to our site. Uber-responsive East Lansing Mayor Nathan Triplett and I conducted a back-and-forth on the Porch Light plan whose logic I questioned. A core group of committed community folk now “share” the Facebook updates so that FB becomes the go-to place for the latest.
Our ability to fill gaps has also prompted a local TV station to discuss how we can work together to FOIA the emergency plans the municipal power company promised. Todd’s questions at the news conference were so pointed that the station also wants him to freelance for them on this story.
Another advantage is that we focus on getting people the information they need rather than on producing everything ourselves. I have worked as a victim advocate for years, so I can quick to use resources on domestic violence created by others rather than to wait to interview locals who may be struggling with power issues themselves.
We used Scribd.com and other techniques to provide resources from places like Extension on issues like frozen pipes. One reason the local media were slower to post advice may well stem from the fact they waited to interview a local plumber. How ironic that the citizen media publication prioritizes speed over localization.
The storm also brought us new visitors. Our traffic for the week rose by more than 4,000 page views compared to Thanksgiving week in November, despite the fact as much as 40 percent of our audience was without power. However, in our case, this does not mean greater revenue but it could mean more costs.
The downside of our freedom from economics is that we have no money to pay people when we really need help. Despite a low-grade temperature, I spent 14 hours editing, rendering and uploading the videos from the presser. Even a student intern would be a blessing.
The good news, however, is that more people are now offering to help. A former student who is now in law school will help me carry my video gear to the special meeting of the Lansing City Council tonight. Indeed the momentum generated by our coverage has prompted us to recruit more contributors. Our core LON brain trust will meet this week to plan a meeting to enlist some newbies.
Our goal has always been to let the publication follow whatever path makes sense for the community. I remain proud of what we could do and frustrated that we cannot do more.
Whether it is a plus or minus, even our ice storm aftermath coverage reflects our individual talents and quirks. (A recipe for cake? Domestic violence? A poem?)
We have learned that we cannot do everything but what we can do we want to do well. We make mistakes, to be sure, but we try to be quick to correct them. I want to thank all our social media friends for asking questions, suggesting resources and keeping us honest.
Bonnie Bucqueroux teaches journalism at Michigan State University and is co-publisher of Lansing Online News.