When a tornado struck Dexter, a small town west of Ann Arbor, Mich., March 15, my reporters’ and editors’ digital storytelling skills, community engagement efforts and digital first mindset, which they’ve been building on for the last couple of years, were tested as they covered the devastation, emergency response, community reaction, cleanup and healing as the community pulled together to overcome.
As a group of weekly publications in print, it has been an ongoing challenge to get our audience to realize we’re now a daily online. I think the tragedy of the tornado served as a reminder to readers that they don’t have to wait until Thursday to get their local news, and we were happy to oblige, providing breaking news coverage, from news stories, Storify compilations, photo galleries and videos to Tweets and Facebook posts, and SMS texts to email alerts.
Our coverage started at 5:16 p.m. March 15 as online coordinator David Veselenak sent a SMS text message to readers signed up for alerts that the National Weather Service had issued a tornado warning for Washtenaw County. This was followed by another text message at 5:42 p.m. that a funnel cloud had been spotted near Dexter. About a half-hour later, I received a phone call from David that he was en route to Dexter as a tornado had struck. I was on my way to the Dexter Area Chamber of Commerce Annual Dinner to shoot video of the program and honorees, and my phone battery was just about to die. I asked David if he needed help, and he said he and Dexter Leader Editor Erica McClain were in contact and had it covered.
Still, while eating dinner and hearing from state Rep. Mark Ouimet that the car wash and Laundromat in Dexter were wiped out, I felt that I had to help with the coverage. So, I left and headed for downtown Dexter, filming uprooted trees, debris, traffic backups and police blockades while I found a place to park. I was able to speak to a Michigan State Police trooper directing traffic and then drove to Dexter High School, where a command center had been established, and interviewed the community engagement officer for the Washtenaw County Sheriff’s Department, schools superintendent and village president. Since I didn’t have a way to communicate with David and Erica, I decided to return to our office in Saline at about 9:30 p.m., put together my video and posted it on our website, confident my reporters were taking care of the news story and communicating with our audience via social media. My video loaded just before midnight, I shared it on Facebook and Twitter, and then drove home to charge my phone — and get some sleep. Little did I know at that time all of the efforts my staff had made.
The next morning, Sean was up early shooting dozens of photos of the devastation and cleanup efforts for a Flikr photo suite set up by Eric and David to share photos with our sister publications and among staff. Sean covered an emergency council meeting on the tornado Friday and then returned to Joe and Rosie’s Café in downtown Dexter, where he filed his story, photos and two videos. Meanwhile, David filmed a few interviews on his Flip and both Erica and David wrote sidebar stories. They connected with residents who were returning home to survey the damage, and shot photos of the Laundromat and car wash before returning to their command post to start filing stories online. David attended a press conference, which Erica live Tweeted using the @HeritageNews account. David also wrote the story and produced a video from the press conference.
TOTAL NEW ‘LIKES’ ON THE DEXTER/CHELSEA FACEBOOK PAGE: 40
All of this effort has paid off as we have heard from scores of readers, near and far, complimenting us on our coverage. The story about the tornado’s destruction in Dexter made the national news, and I think the community newspaper that was looked at for news every Thursday has become known as a source for up-to-the-minute news and information any time of the day.