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Hot on the Web

Covering a fire

This column originally ran in ComputorEdge on November 21, 2003
(Issue 2147, Gift-Giving Gallery)

The recent storm of fires throughout Southern California provided an apt if tragic opportunity to illustrate the strengths and weaknesses of the Internet as a vehicle of mass communication.

While other recent disasters, such as 9/11 or the war in Iraq, were international in scope and thus played into the hands of the large corporate news outlets like CBS, CNN or the Washington Post, the Southern California fires were largely covered by local outlets – the local TV and radio stations, and the local newspapers. These organizations don't have the resources at their disposals that the national outlets do, and yet most of them have at least some kind of Web presence.

What the fire coverage showed, I think, is that the Internet is as unlikely to replace TV, radio or print as the TV and radio are to replace the newspapers. Back in the 1950s, forward thinkers had predicted that newspapers were obsolete in the face of television. Today, of course, there are many predicting that the Internet means the end of newspapers, if not TV and radio.

But that seems highly unlikely.

First, the strengths of the 'Net

What the Internet outlets did well was react quickly – somewhere between radio and TV in terms of getting the latest information out to the public as fast as possible. Working on the online desk of the North County Times – and having done radio news in college – what I realized is that it simply takes longer to prepare online content that it does radio content. Heck, with a major story development, you can wing it on radio if necessary – go ahead and report on the story without a prepared script.

On the 'Net, unless you're simply taking a live audio feed (possible, but with a limited return in terms of reaching your audience), that script is your content.

Often, we – and the other newspapers in the region – such as the San Diego Union-Tribune's SignOn San Diego site, the Los Angeles Times and the Riverside Press-Enterprise – had breaking news available before the television stations. Not always, of course – not on a story this big and spread out. With wildfires from Ventura County and Big Bear in the north to Baja California in the south, there were more developments than any one outlet could report on.

And if radio was able to report on the biggest stories a few minutes quicker than the Web sites, listening to the radio for news is still a passive, provider-driven experience: the audience has to wait for the radio announcer to present the information in an order of the announcer's choosing.

With a Web site (just as with a newspaper), the audience decides what order to take the news in. If you were more interested in the Valley Center/Paradise fire than the Scripps Ranch/Cedar fire, you didn't have to wait for the announcer to get to your story on a Web site – you would simply click through to it.

On stories like school cancellations and road closures, this difference is huge – the radio and TV stations might only get to the school closings every half-hour. On a Web site, they're available continuously, just for the clicking. (Although the local TV stations did a good job of using scrolling text at the top or bottom of the screen to supplement the reporting of their anchors and reporters.)

Further, the Web sites have an obviously stronger visual element to their reports than the radio stations. On a story like a fire, with rapidly changing geographic dynamics, an updated map can make all the difference in the world to an audience wondering about their homes.

The weaknesses of the Web

Which brings us to the biggest shortcoming of the Internet as a reporting medium: Connectivity.

If you've been evacuated from your home, gaining access to the Web is going to be a bit tough. Anyone can have access to radio for the price of a cheap transistor set at Radio Shack. And nearly every car on the road today as a decent AM radio at least.

So the universal reach of radio isn't matched by the 'Net – not now, anyway.

The other issue I found most frustrating in working on a Web site during the fires was how to present the voluminous information in as timely and easy to digest manner as possible.

There were time we had literally two dozen new stories within a 15-minute time frame – from our local staff and the wire services covering the fires up north in the Los Angeles and San Bernardino areas.

As with most medium-sized daily newspapers, we have a rather small online staff – trying to keep everything organized and updated was a bit hectic.

A learning experience

I write this as firefighters from throughout the Western states continue to battle in Julian, Palomar and Laguna here in San Diego County; similar efforts continue up north, too. The fires are not out, all homes are not yet safe. Folks from Tierrasanta to Mount Baldy are coming back to find a cement slab and ash where their homes used to stand.

Hopefully, our efforts to provide timely, accurate information online served the audience well. I'm sure that in the days to come, all of us at the different sites will be sitting down and going over the logs to see which stories our visitors found most useful; and which ones we, perhaps, shouldn't have invested so much time in.

And next time, God forbid, another tragedy strikes, those of us in this Internet news business will be better prepared to help disseminate needed information to those seeking whatever sliver of news they can find.