Don Rogers: Neither rain nor fire
October 12, 2017
If you know reporter Liz Kellar at all, you know it could only go this way: Roused by a neighbor Sunday night, seeing the fire front across the NID ditch and coming fast, she in flip flops and her husband and son in bare feet escape.
Oh, but wait! She needs her laptop, and the other car. They drive back, flames about at the door now. She finds what she needs and flees.
Not necessarily the brightest of colleagues at that moment, but easily the most determined.
It will surprise no one she let her husband and son scoot on down to Lincoln, figuring she couldn't sleep anyway. Might as well cover this.
The internet has changed everything, of course, except for the essential fact of small-town journalism … The local paper and radio stations rely on real participation, not just watching or listening but joining in.
Editor Brian Hamilton had no such harrowing tale, thankfully. But he was on it all night, too, posting updates, catching video from allegedly retired photographer John Hart, coordinating coverage of what turned out to be two surprisingly intense wildfires.
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About a quarter of The Union's staff had to evacuate their homes, some not knowing for another day whether they still had a house.
Me? Slept like a baby up in Nevada City, practiced my new routine of avoiding email and media for an hour after getting up around 5:30 a.m., and had a great writing session on a side project, my meditative art.
Only after all that did I see my texts, my emails, pull up the website to see what a night our neighbors and colleagues had endured.
People hitting their horns, beating on doors, sometimes risking themselves to get everyone out ahead of the flames.
Here, homes were lost among the 50 or so structures that burned up. Across Northern California, it was worse: 23 dead as I write early Thursday morning, having checked email and for text alerts first thing.
I'm proud of our staff. They got after it, as colleagues across the state did, as they always do. Whatever lapses we might have had, they weren't from lack of effort, or dedication.
We got video, stories, updates as timely and accurate as the circumstances allowed. We did a good job of getting it all in context for the print edition, although we should have run maps there, too.
We posted to local Facebook news groups, we tweeted, we contributed everywhere we could. The Union Now feature for live reports collected posts from our folks, competitors, agencies and citizens alike. No one cared whose was whose or where people went to find updates. That wasn't the point.
But our online traffic numbers were eye-popping: 186,000 article page views Monday alone, not counting visits to advertisements or classifieds or such. Add Tuesday and up through Wednesday, we had what once might have been a month's worth of article page views, at nearly 380,000.
The live feed had 70,000 visits. The metrics on our live Facebook videos and social media postings easily matched the count on our website. The scanner feed we added to The Union Now peaked at 3,000 listeners at the same time.
The Facebook news groups alone were of little use, mostly the usual gossip and cries for someone, anyone to tell 'em what was going on. To the degree news media posted reports or neighbors shared those reports, there was some actual information amid a heavy dose of rumor and "seen across the street" observations, valuable for what they are.
There's a hallowed place for crowdsourcing. And lots of neighbors shared photos, news reports, tips, what they heard from a neighbor, the downed tree down the street. Juan Browne, the airline pilot with a true gift for video and clear explanation, provided great insights. Tim O'Brien and Annita Kasparian were, as always, terrific contributors, too, among a host of photographers who sent us enough to fill photo pages in print for days running.
The internet has changed everything, of course, except for the essential fact of small-town journalism, which is distinct from the nose-holding big time version. The local paper and radio stations rely on real participation, not just watching or listening but joining in.
No question this will evolve. So-called legacy news staffs are shrinking. Today the local radio station that once served as go-to in times like this but no longer can, maybe tomorrow the newspaper. Eventually blogs with no income and few readers may join echo chambers online and agencies pumping out press releases, and that will have to do.
This is a possible future, among others, for local news. Plenty of communities go without now. I don't think they're better for it.
But no doubt I have my biases, too, assuming Liz and others like her will always be there, dodging fire at their own homes if they must, so crucial is their work.
Publisher Don Rogers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 477-4299.
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