Covering a tornado while thinking digital first

ImageMy staff has been tested over the last week and passed with flying colors.

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.

Erica, who had turned on the Radio Reference scanner the night of the tornado for updates, grabbed the now-famous video from YouTube that an Ann Arbor resident shot of the tornado in Hudson Mills Metropark and she aggregated it to our website while staying in communication with David in the field. As David was en route to Dexter, Erica started making calls to dispatch and the fire department to verify information from over the scanner. She pieced together a story, adding information as she heard it and updating our audience on Facebook. With David’s eyewitness accounts, Erica added his byline to the story. Sheriff’s Community Engagement Officer Derrick Jackson released some information in a press release, which reporter Ben Baird added to the story. Erica updated Facebook and the story into the evening as more information was released and she answered readers’ questions on Facebook.
 
Also that night, reporter Amy Bell, who met David at McDonald’s in nearby Chelsea, aggregated content, posted on social media and searched for user-generated videos on YouTube. Reporter Sean Dalton was also in Dexter shooting video, conducting interviews and collecting information, funneling it to Erica over the phone. He checked out the temporary shelter at Mill Creek Middle School and the tornado-ravaged Huron Farms subdivision. Erica kept the scanner on until about midnight concerned about injury or fatality reports, routinely posting on Facebook and adding details. Before going to bed, she changed the headline online to reflect the additional damage Jackson had shared.

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.

The Oakland Press, a sister publication, sent videographer Aftab Borka to help. Erica showed him and an intern the Huron Farms subdivision and the worst-damaged houses. More residents were in the subdivision at this time, so Aftab was able to shoot a video for the Michigan cluster of Journal Register Company newspapers and WADL-TV, one of our partners. Throughout the day, David shared our news coverage, as it was posted, with our sister publications to also post on their websites and for use in print.
 
On Friday, Amy went back to Dexter and wrote a story about volunteer efforts going on in the community. She also spent some time at Huron Farms subdivision, where she took a number of photos for our website. Sean’s coverage continued over the weekend, as I edited and posted his stories and shared links on social media. Also on Saturday, Ben contacted Dexter businesses and asked how they were helping the community. He first posted a story Saturday and updated it Sunday. In addition, both Ben and copy editor Tonya Wildt aggregated content shared by sister publications.
 
Reporter James Dickson, who wrote the story “Ann Arbor man who filmed Dexter tornado to appear on ‘Good Morning America,’” wrapped up the vast amount of our coverage by taking all of our raw video and some user-generated clips to produce a documentary-style video of the tornado, the aftermath, community response and cleanup.
 
In all, there were about two dozen stories, more than a dozen videos posted and scores of links shared on social media between Thursday night and Monday afternoon. Our text message subscriptions increased slightly and our @HeritageNews Twitter account saw followers increase by about 20 just over the weekend. The @ChelseaDexter account saw 14 new followers. Both accounts saw several dozen retweets over the weekend, as well.
 
By Monday morning, the metrics looked like this:
 
TOTAL PAGE VIEWS: 12,843

TOTAL VIDEO PLAYS: 2,605

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.

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3 Comments on “Covering a tornado while thinking digital first”


  1. […] of breaking-news techniques that journalists use in covering disasters today. As Managing Editor Michelle Rogers explained in her blog post about the coverage: As a group of weekly publications in print, it has been an ongoing challenge to get our audience […]

  2. sampiroton Says:

    Michelle, have to say the documentary-style video was really great. interesting, not too long, collaborative. good job!


  3. […] through Dexter, Mich. Managing editor Michelle Rogers posted an overview of the coverage in a blog post: “As a group of weekly publications in print, it has been an ongoing challenge to get our […]


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