Video and radar ruled media coverage of Hurricane Irma on Sunday, with the Washington Post providing a tidy case study in how aggressive expansion of video resources holds consumers in good stead at such a moment.
Be it live video from a Miami high-rise, Facebook Live coverage from Sanibel Island or images to show how storms are literally yanking water away from shorelines in the Bahamas and leaving them dry, many thousands of well-reported written words were amply complemented by evocative moving and still images.
Few "old" print media have invested in video capabilities like the Post and New York Times, be it dozens of daily breaking news stories, explainers, mini-documentaries or ones tailored for others platforms such as Snapchat, Instagram and Facebook. What works on those can be quite different than what's tailored for Washingtonpost.com
Video chief Micah Gelman started 2017 with a staff of 40. But in a sign of the times, especially under the ownership of Amazon's Jeff Bezos, that cadre is now up to 60. That includes about 20 video editors responsible for creating what Gelman calls "quick turn content," which includes its own coverage and, with Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, a mix of that of some others, such as the Associated Press and Reuters.
For the hurricanes, it's had about 10 video journalists in the field, supplemented with freelancers. During Harvey, they were deployed in Houston, Corpus Christi, Beaumont and Galveston. Their work included live shots and longer features stories. Along they way, one team bought a canoe and was out with rescue workers, in the thick of the story.
Sunday, they were in Florida, most in groups of two for safety reasons, with the majority in South Florida. Two were headed to Tampa in a rented SUV with canisters of gasoline and equipment allowing them to go live from anywhere.
"Obviously, these are huge visual stories," Gelman said. "People stories. So we're probably among the most aggressive out there, making sure we have compelling storytelling. "
For sure, it's expensive, including making hotel reservations in multiple locales as they've tried to guess along with everybody else as to the storms' paths. But, so far, he says the paper has produced more than 1,000 separate videos on the storms, as well as lots of live shots and a mini-documentary on Harvey based on all its coverage. On Saturday, it accompanied a hurricane hunter out of Biloxi, MS.
"We're spending what we need to spend. We obviously want to be good stewards of the company's money. But we have to be aggressive about coverage."
Notably, the Post under editor Marty Baron has been focused on supplementing an editorial staff of about 750 with a strong freelance network, initially in print, then video. "We put them on standby and then pulled the trigger," said Gelman. Bottom line: He's had a solid group of previously vetted individuals to call upon when needed.
As his two staffers were headed to Tampa, the others were elsewhere, including in a high-rise hotel in Miami and two in Fort Myers, where they'd just done Facebook Live from Sanibel Island. Those colleagues planned to ride out the storm Sunday night at a radio station and provide video.
Gelman, who carries the title of director of video and senior editor, previously worked at the Discovery Channel and the Associated Press.
He has reason to be satisfied. And not just with those braving the catastrophes but with many back at Post headquarters. Indeed, it's hard not to be impressed by the quality of the Post’s (and Times’) efforts the past week. The enormity and drama of the tragedies is being captured.
"I am beyond happy with the quality of the work, said Gelman. “We've got some of the most talented videojournalists working today. I think we're telling stories better than some of the TV networks.”
He also knows he's a lucky fellow to be employed where he is. During a chat several months ago, Gelman left no doubt that the new ownership of the newspaper was in and of itself an incentive to come and have an opportunity to flourish at moments like this.
"It's a phenomenal opportunity to be at a place that's growing. Jeff is an incredible attraction. I was in a declining TV world. This is a great chance to be on the front lines to figure out the future."
Correction: An earlier version of this story used the wrong form of complemented. It was been corrected. We apologize for the error.