Four newsrooms, 350 volunteers ready to engage Virginians on sea's rise

Dave Mayfield knows that sea level rise and other environmental issues aren’t the most easily understood, nor are they the most fun to write about.

So, he’s enlisted a lot of people to help him out. Four newsrooms, a couple scientists, an app developer and more than 350 volunteers in the Hampton Roads region of Virginia will help measure the king tide, the highest astronomical tide of the year, in an area that’s particularly vulnerable to sea-level rise.

The Virginian-Pilot, the Daily Press, WHRO Public Media and WVEC, the local ABC affiliate, are dedicating coverage to the king tide and co-sponsoring “Catch the King Tide” on Nov. 5. For most of the newsrooms, it’s the first time they’ve collaborated with a competitor for such a project. 

Volunteers will download the Sea Level Rise App and trek to designated locations to measure how far the tide reaches on the first Sunday in November, which in some areas may be three feet above normal. The affected region includes Virginia Beach, Norfolk and Newport News, Virginia. The media partners also created a Facebook group, Help Catch the King Tide, for volunteers to join and learn more. 

Mayfield, an environment reporter for the Pilot, pitched the idea of crowdsourcing the sea level rise to editor Steve Gunn. Gunn was initially skeptical.

It’s not a blockbuster story, Gunn said. 

“What this is is getting people engaged with the most important civic issue in our region.” 

Gunn also hired a contractor, Qaren Jacklich, to organize the hundreds of volunteers and facilitate the "test sessions" where she, along with representatives from local environmental group Wetlands Watch, help participants learn how to use the app to measure the tide.

Quaren and Skip


Qaren Jacklich, coordinator of the volunteers for Catch the King, and Skip Stiles, executive director of Wetlands Watch, at a recent practice session for the phone app that will be used in the community-wide king tide measurement project, scheduled for Sunday Nov. 5, 2017. Credit: The Virginian-Pilot.

The idea to co-sponsor with other news organizations came from Gunn, a proponent of fostering partnerships. This collaboration works because each of the other groups contributes different resources and brings a different audience. 

WHRO received a $3 million gift to fund environmental education in February and will provide lesson plans to teachers incorporating the sea level rise project in the classroom. WVEC brings a visual medium that the Daily Press and the Virginian-Pilot don’t have, while the two papers cover markedly different areas of the Hampton Roads region.

Collaborations are gaining popularity as more newsrooms work with limited resources, while many news organizations have been eager to experiment with ways to foster audience engagement.

The goal of the project, Gunn said, isn’t necessarily something that can be measured with metrics, like attracting new readers or converting participants into subscribers.

“I think it’s already a success,” he said. “It’s shown that we can come together around a topic and get citizens involved.”

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    Ashley McBride

    Ashley McBride is an interactive learning fellow with the News University team at Poynter, where she facilitates online learning for journalists, news organizations, educators and students.

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