Blogging Bonnie

Like many journalists on the East Coast, we’ve been scrambling at Poynter this week to come up with ways to cover Hurricane Isabel. Jonathan Dube, managing producer at MSNBC.com and creator of CyberJournalist.net, reminded me this morning of his experience covering Hurricane Bonnie in North Carolina in August 1998. Jon’s a web reporting pioneer, a print dog who learned new tricks about online reporting at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. He soon put them to use at the Charlotte Observer and now does the same at MSNBC.com.

We talk a lot about convergence these days, but it is still a work in progress. Jon’s online reporting from the Bonnie-battered Carolina Coast offers inspiration and practical approaches for anyone trying to reach an audience across multiple platforms. Jon provided the following account for my textbook. I think it’s worth reprinting and rereading.

When Hurricane Bonnie hit the Carolinas’ coast in August 1998, the Charlotte Observer sent a team of photographers and reporters — including me — to cover the preparations and damage. No other news organization in the country devoted the resources we did to covering the storm, and it would have been a shame to use only the information we gathered for the newspaper. After all, by the time the next morning’s paper went to press much of the information would be useless.


So several times each day reporters filed dispatches (one of which follows, and includes links to storm photos), and they were posted to the website along with information gathered by Charlotte-based reporters working the phones. (See archived version of hurricane coverage Weblog)

We updated the Web every half-hour all week and broke previous records for pageviews. Our website also provided an outlet for many fine photos which never made the print edition and gave readers up-to-date county damage assessments, insurance contacts, useful weather links, and the ability to print out a storm-tracking chart, (see archived version of coverage)
 
From the reporting end of things, everything went smoothly — well, as smoothly as possible when you’re trapped on an island facing 100-mph winds!


I didn’t have to do any extra work for the website that I wouldn’t have had to do anyway. I took breaks from my reporting every few hours to write up my notes and file via modem, but I would have done that even if we weren’t putting the information on the Web, for two reasons: first, so that the editors in Charlotte were kept up-to-date on the rapidly developing situation, and second, because at any moment we could have lost electricity and telephone connections on the island and thus the ability to communicate.


Just about the only effect our website had on my work was that it kept a lot of it from going to waste. Writing and reporting that didn’t make the print edition because of space limitations found a home on the website. And there was the added benefit of knowing that my reporting would be published quickly and have an immediate impact.


We did not use audio or video, and that is the next step for many news organizations. For television stations audio and video come naturally, and many, such as MSNBC and CNN, are already incorporating such features into their Web stories. For newspapers to go down that road would require major training and equipment purchases.


All of the work — from reporting to writing to editing — was done by the newsroom’s reporters, photographers, and editors, with the same focus on quality as if we were putting it in the newspaper (albeit with never-ending deadlines). The only difference was that once the copy was ready, instead of giving it to layout we gave it to the Charlotte.com producers to upload. The producers also played a big role in creating a great site with useful links.


In my mind, this worked far better than it would have if we had separate reporters for the website, simply because the reporters already covering the story were the ones most knowledgeable about the subject. It’s also exciting as a reporter, because it negates some of the frustration newspaper folk feel about TV always getting the story out first.

This essay is excerpted from “Reporting and Writing: Basics for the 21st Century by Christopher Scanlan” (Oxford University Press, 1999). It was originally written in the fall of 1998 and offers one of the first — if not the first — examples of using the Weblog format to cover a breaking news story.

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