Remembering the Minneapolis Bridge Collapse
The Web site for WCCO-TV in Minneapolis has produced a large and innovative package to memorialize the bridge collapse that occurred at 6:05 p.m. Aug. 1, 2007.
"The Bridge" includes videos of survivors, rescue workers, officials and journalists describing the collapse, their recovery and other events since then. I really like how the site uses interviews shot for the Web that will be used on TV as well. The Web interviews are broken into subject areas; so for each person, you might see three sections of the interview.
I interviewed WCCO.com's director of new media, John Daenzer, about the project.
Tompkins: These interviews appear to have been recorded just for Web use. Why spend that kind of energy on a Web presentation?
Daenzer: The interviews were actually done in tight coordination with both our online staff and the reporters, photographers and editors who typically work more on our television newscasts. All of the interviews were shot for both platforms. So while it may appear that we spent all of that energy on a Web presentation, we didn't. Instead, we spent collective energy on a project that will span an entire week of coverage on TV, in the more traditional news coverage on WCCO.com and within this special project. We also hope to use those raw interviews in other ways that will grow beyond those main platforms. You can't do anything anymore that isn't started with the expectation that everything you gather might have value in a lot of different places.
What do you hope users get from this presentation that they have not seen, heard or felt before?
Daenzer: I think a lot of our users have heard little bits and pieces of these stories in traditional news coverage. But for the first time, these interviews presented in this way will give them a chance to really connect with the people involved. The more than two and a half hours of extended interviews are very personal, and I think that one-on-one experience will be something few users have really felt before. We also hope our users will learn something about how lives changed forever and how people are living now that a year has passed. In many ways the wounds for them are still very fresh. But in others, their courage and resilience are inspiring.
How do you think the bridge collapse changed your Web site? Your newsroom?
Daenzer: This might seem like a weird answer, but I think the bridge collapse made us more confident. We all lived through what will probably be the most challenging breaking news story of our lives. And while there were problems and hiccups like any other day, our systems worked. Our Web site didn't crash. We came up with creative ways to share a developing story. Our people jumped into the fray and I think really served our readers and viewers very well -- both on TV and online. I should note that could be said of all of the local media outlets in town. It was a "good" day for all.
The other big thing it did was force us to ask "why?" more often. Too often journalists, and especially TV and online journalists, seem to get caught up in spewing out the who, the what and the where of a story. That's easy. A huge disaster like this begs one very big question: Why? And I think we continue to learn as a newsroom to do a better job of asking that much harder question in our coverage day in and day out.
What did you learn by producing this project that the rest of us could also learn from you?
- Start as soon as possible. We began work on planning for this about six months ago. We had that luxury because this was an anniversary.
- Don't be afraid to just start. We had never done anything like this before. And we made a ton of mistakes that I wish we'd known about before we started. That said, we know them now and won't make them on the next project.
- Engage people from all areas of your building. Somebody in sales might not know a lick about telling a story -- but they might have a hidden talent or interest in Web development. We did all of this work with in-house staff, and without a true Web designer/developer in the building.
- Call in help from the experts. We did not do this as well as we should have. We wanted to offer users something of our own that would be special. But we should have done a better job of using the expertise of people outside our building, but within our company. I think in some way we felt very protective of the idea because the bridge collapse affected all of us in a personal way. It's weird to admit that, but I think journalists need to remember to stay detached enough to make smart decisions.
- Know when to say when. There was pressure to continue to improve the project. But collectively we decided that we had spent enough time building and learning and that we needed to move on to other station priorities. Ultimately, the changes we would have made wouldn't have affected the users' experience that much. So we had to let them go and move on.
I also recommend the Star Tribune's extraordinary "13 Seconds in August" package, which enables users to select a vehicle on the bridge and hear the story of the person or people inside. It is a remarkable example of how interactive journalism can enrich the user's understanding of a story.