Facebook delivers tiny Minnesota TV station a big roadkill story

On a typical day, KSAX-TV in Alexandria, Minnesota attracts about 10,000 page views. Recently, the station set a record, 250,000 page views in a single day and a million views in four days. The secret weapon: a photograph of a strange hairless roadkill carcass sent to the station via Facebook.

Five of the station's six top stories Wednesday were about mysterious roadkill.

On Wednesday, five of the top six stories on the station's website had to do with the roadkill story. (More on story number five in a minute.)

KSAX is a satellite of KSTP in Minneapolis. The tiny station has no half-hour evening newscast, instead it provides news cut-ins throughout the day, but mostly broadcasts the city station's signal.

On July 31, an Alexandria woman, Lacey Ilse, said she spotted a dead animal on a Douglas County road. The creature was white, practically hairless with five claws on its front paws. She took a photo and posted it on her Facebook page. She told KSAX reporter Joe Nelson that she never expected what happened next.

A  KSAX Facebook "friend" spotted the picture and passed it along to station. The station posted the photo. "The thing just exploded on our Facebook page," Nelson told me. "We had 200 comments on our Facebook page with people guessing what the animal was."

"People in town do stop me and want to talk about it," Nelson said. "The (Minneapolis) Star Tribune and KSTP picked up the story. Then the Huffington Post and The Drudge Report mentioned it. The story went worldwide. Ilse said she has been getting calls and emails and "friend" requests from journalists and others she does not know.

Nelson said KSAX was cautious about how much of the animal it was willing to show on TV, but as the story spread and people got used to the topic, "We put the image on the screen a little longer. I don't know maybe we put it up a little longer than we should have being dinner time and all. But we tried to limit it."

At first, it appeared that wildlife officials were interested enough in the roadkill furor to perform a DNA test on the animal (most read story number six). Rumors spread that it was some rare species. KSAX found a local retired biology professor who says he is 95 certain sure he has solved the mystery (most read story number two).

"He says it is a badger," Nelson explained. "We do have badgers around here but they are covered with dark thick fur. This thing kind of looks like a white dog but with unusually long claws."

That would be the end of it, except for Facebook. Viewers will not give up on the issue. They are critical of the state for not doing DNA tests and some just flat out doubt a badger could look like that (most read story number three).

It should be no surprise that one of the station's biggest stories arrived by a Facebook tip. The station's News Director, Cristi Jessee, set a goal for the station to have 3,000 fans "like" the station's page before she left her job at the station Tuesday. The staff was so determined to grant her wish that they dreamed up a Facebook promotion.

Which explains the fifth most read story on the list.

Last week, station meteorologist Mark Anthony allowed police to shoot him with a taser as part of the station's participation in the National Night Out, a crime prevention program. The station captured video of the stunt but never used it. As an incentive to online users to "like" the station on Facebook, KSAX said that if 3,000 people "liked" the station, the station would post the video of the weatherman getting tased. Within a half-hour more than 60 people signed up to put the station over the 3,000 mark.

I can imagine what you are thinking. It may go something like this, "With the stock market tanking and the British Empire burning and the world going to hell on a rocket-train isn't there some better way to spend news time than covering a story about roadkill?"

Yes. But the station also covered a manure spill that polluted a river, they covered the fact that the first week of August was one the deadliest months so far on Minnesota roads and they reported on a woman who threatened her boss with a machete down at the Farmer's Market. Sometimes news is what is important, sometimes it is just what people are talking about.

And about that taser stunt, there are plenty of places in the country right now that would like to take a shot at the weatherman.

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    Al Tompkins

    Al Tompkins is The Poynter Institute’s senior faculty for broadcasting and online. He has taught thousands of journalists, journalism students and educators in newsrooms around the world.


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