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Disaster reporting: What if we offered assistance instead of asked for material?

Just thinking out loud here…

I came to a realization yesterday that I had become predictable: Western Washington had a windstorm and my first thought was, “Oh, I should ask people to send us their photos.” I think just about every other newsbrand in the region had the same reaction.

But then it struck me: Between the Seattle TV stations and the Times and pi, how many people are really going to opt for PNWLocalNews instead? That’s not some defeatist attitude talking, it’s just reality. I work for a smaller newsbrand so I have to think like one; often that means thinking, What can we do that no one else is doing? So I posted this to Twitter:

"If the weather's messing up your day & you need info, @ us or DM us and we'll get to work on finding it for you."I had also posted this earlier on:

"Tip on checking the weather in your area: Use operators in a Twitter search. For instance: "near:seattle weather" in search box."Our newsrooms were obviously already covering the storm. And I had asked for photo submissions because they help tell a story. But I figured there had to be people out there living the story who were thinking, “Yeah, great, a tree that broke in half. But I can look out my window and see that and I’ve got an online test in 40 minutes, so where can I find a power outlet and free WiFi?”

Essentially, I was trying to flip the information flow around (again), by asking, “What do you need?” and hyperfocus it down to an individual level. To me, that’s what social media is anyway: connecting one-to-one to help each other. If even just one person @ replied me and asked about where to find a place with power and free WiFi, that’s one person helped (and I’m betting a few more people would’ve been interested in the information anyway).

I can’t really say my strategy was insanely effective—I didn’t have a lot of time to dedicate to Twitter or Facebook yesterday and I didn’t get any replies back—but I would like to keep trying it and putting more effort into it to see what happens next time. Yes, I could be deluged with way too many calls for help and yes, photos of blown-down trees are probably way more popular. But if we could supplement the “Send us your shocking photos” request with “By the same token, what do you need from us?” I think we could end up serving our communities a whole lot better.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • I think it was a great gesture (at worst) and a wonderful service. Relationships are built over time. People will always remember the good deed.

  • @Bridget – That was my thought, too. Worst case scenario, someone(s) saw that and will maybe think of us next time they go out looking for information.

  • My first reaction in a breaking news situation such as the one you’ve pointed out is to ask our Twitter followers and Facebook friends for pictures or information about a breaking news item, mainly because they’re there and we’re not. However, you make a good point. I’d also add that news outlets should stop using the phrase “We want to know …” in calls for submissions (on any topic, really).

    Thanks for the insight, Paul!

  • @Sona – Oh, I totally agree—news orgs are lucky to have one photographer these days, so if they can get good shots from the public, it makes sense to do so. I just think giving some form of personalized help might be a more attractive trade-off than the allure of seeing one’s photos end up on a news org’s Web site (or whatever the allure is).

    I agree with you on the buzzwords/phrases, too. The whole idea of crowdsourcing and social media is to make the audience a contributing part of the story and once jargon-y phrases are tacked on to the message, it just comes across like an insincere sell.

  • We had 4-5 days of really bad weather earlier this year in Liverpool and ran a live blog over several days on the Liverpool Echo website which,natch, asked for photos but also provided regular updates on school closures, traffic, gritting, public transport etc

    One feature of that which I really liked was people would ask questions on the blog (is a school closed, are buses running to A and B etc) and in a lot of cases, other readers would answer them, in some cases almost immediately.

    That interaction was great to see and is another side of the being helpful coin I guess. Nice blog post Paul.

  • Pingback: Paul Balcerak: Don’t just ask for news material via social media – offer help | Journalism.co.uk Editors' Blog()

  • @Neil – You got a link to that live blog? I’d love to take a look at it.

    I think what you’re describing is the ideal situation—where questions and answers are bouncing back-and-forth repeatedly between reporters, Web users and citizen journalists. I think that’s what newsbrands long for (or at least they should) and I think maybe just asking an open question like “what do you need?” could be a way to get that started in some cases.

  • Joy Mayer

    I love this example of attempting real engagement with users/readers, rather than assuming that the honor of seeing their content published is the extent of what they need/want! Thanks for sharing it.