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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.
by David Poulson, associate director of the Knight Center for Environmental JournalismStephen King recently offered advice useful for journalists covering the environment.
I don’t mean covering it as a horror story – although that’s certainly a reader engagement strategy we all use often enough.
The prolific author of scary tales like The Shining and Carrie and of the current mini-series Under the Dome, tells the Atlantic about crafting first sentences. He spends months – even years – rewriting them, often while lying in bed before falling asleep.
Any writer can benefit from what King has to say about minimalist first sentences chock full of meaning and that establish the voice that carries through the piece. Follow that link; read what he says.
That said, no journalist in the deadline-a-minute crunch for news can afford the luxury of nightly rewrites while lying in bed. My students panic when I suggest they spend half their writing time before deadline crafting a lede.
And yet I argue that it’s time well-spent. It makes the rest of the job much easier. Nail that first sentence and you’ve focused the story and launched a path to the end.
It is a wondrous relief when I get that first sentence right, or at least close enough to right that I know the rest will come.
Environmental reporters write about complex stuff. We have limited space. We know way more than we can report. And we need to engage readers with limited time and attention and perspective and context on what we report.
The challenges are steep enough that until I find that lede, I fret – even panic – if I can ever adequately tell the story. But once I do, the rest is almost following a recipe. Hard work may remain – checking facts, finding quotes, handling nuance, understanding complexity, deciding what to leave out – but the way forward is clear.
I have a roadmap and I know that I have a better than even shot of getting to my destination.
Of course, there is a whole lot more to writing than that first sentence. There’s a danger in overemphasizing its importance. As King notes in the Atlantic, “Listen, you can’t live on love, and you can’t create a writing career based on first lines.”
And I don’t want to make the case that every first sentence has to be a literary gem worthy of lengthy honing. We do journalism. In the best scenarios we have very limited time.
We rarely deal with the best scenarios.
The creation of the lede for the piece you are reading now is an example of what I’m getting at. King’s advice is relevant to any writer. But for this use I needed to connect it with journalists interested in reporting on the environment.
I had a vague idea of linking King’s genre of horror writing with writing about environmental horrors. It’s a hokey concept. And I unsuccessfully worked with it before doing what I often do when I’m stuck for a lede: I wrote a poor one just to get the piece underway.
I rarely can get far without going back for another try. And this time, about four paragraphs in, it struck me that merely including Stephen King and environmental journalism in the same sentence is a plenty good hook for my audience. He’s famous enough that I don’t have to immediately explain him. And sticking King and environmental journalism in the same sentence prompts readers to think, “What’s up with this? I’ll read more to find out.”
As a nod to my original idea, I stuck that reference to environmental horror storytelling in the second paragraph. It just seemed to work there when I couldn’t make it work in the first sentence.
The rest of this piece was work – but I’d call it downhill writing once I figured out those two paragraphs. I’m not saying it’s a first sentence that I’ll lie in bed re-crafting. It certainly won’t show up among the favorite first lines cited by these authors, also in the Atlantic.
But in my view it does the job and was worth the additional time I invested. You may disagree. Got a better idea? Stick it in the comments below.
The importance of compelling ledes is hardly news to journalists. Writers and writing instructors rightfully talk about the importance of beginnings to readers.
But I like what King has to say about their importance to writers:
“Because it’s not just the reader’s way in, it’s the writer‘s way in also, and you’ve got to find a doorway that fits us both. I think that’s why my books tend to begin as first sentences — I’ll write that opening sentence first, and when I get it right I’ll start to think I really have something.”
David Poulson is the associate director of Michigan State University’s Knight Center for Environmental Journalism
Karl Gude, former Graphics Director for Newsweek, now teaches at Michigan State University’s School of Journalism. He created this series of video tutorials about Twitter for his students in 2011. They remain valuable because Twitter has changed little in the meanwhile. The series not only explains the mechanics of this remarkable social media tool but how you can make the most of it.
Twitter tutorial 1: How to sign up, follow someone and send a tweet
Twitter tutorial 2: Settings menu, Design, Profile photo
Twitter tutorial 3: What are # @ RT symbols for?
Twitter tutorial 4: Lists, how to find cool people to follow
Twitter tutorial 5: Tweeting links and shortening them
Twitter tutorial 6: Twitpic.com for posting photos
Twitter tutorial 7: Forget Twitter.com! Use TweetDeck or Hootsuite
CJA Note: Journalists rely on Twitter to stay abreast of breaking news and to solicit tips and information from the community.Tweets can also be embedded directly into stories using Storify, one of the 5 Cool Tools we think everyone should know about.
Karl’s full bio on Huffington Post:
Karl Gude is a creative storyteller and visual communicator who who teaches courses at Michigan State University’s School of Journalism on The Creative Process, Social Media Marketing, Visual Communication and Information Graphics. Gude was the Director of Information Graphics at Newsweek magazine, the Associated Press and other news organizations. During his more than quarter century in news, Karl, an artist and designer, used visual tools like drawings, maps, charts and diagrams to communicate the stories behind seven presidential elections, a slew of wars, natural disasters, scientific and medical discoveries and a multitude of terrorist attacks, including the attack on the World Trade Center while at Newsweek.