Disastrous flood reminds Calgary Herald of its dual roles as media company, neighbour

When a natural disaster strikes a community, the role of the media often expands. We see that the media isn’t just there to cover the disaster; it’s able to help the community as well, by providing accurate and timely information — both during the disaster and recovery period.

That was certainly the case when a horrific flood hit the Canadian province of Alberta on June 20, 2013. The flooding led to five deaths, billions of dollars in damage, and more than 100,000 people fleeing their homes to escape raging waters.

This flood became the costliest disaster in Canadian history, and one of the biggest stories of the year. However, the Calgary Herald — as a pillar of its community for 130 years — knew it didn’t just have the responsibility of covering the news. It also had a responsibility to help its hometown of 1.1 million people.

Virtually every Herald employee became involved in flood coverage and community assistance, through a variety of initiatives:

  • Publication of timely, complete and credible info provided online, on mobile devices, in tablet editions and in print. The online paywall was removed so everyone could access this information.

  • A live blog at calgaryherald.com was set up; it became the No. 1 online destination for people seeking immediate and accurate flood information.

    Dozens of writers and photographers posted content as soon as they collected it; and hundreds of readers shared photos, video comments and tips with fellow Albertans. It was like a super highway of fast and factual information, which was responsive to readers’ needs and broadened audience.

  • Engagement and interactivity with readers was a key feature of coverage on all platforms.

  • Immediate publication of cancellations and closures occurred; this was real news that people could use.

  • Extensive coverage and information was published in the print edition (14 full pages the first day; 28 full pages the second.)

  • A multi-part content series was published, designed to drive business back into flood-impacted areas.

  • A multi-part series of special sections was published to provide help to people who lost some or all of their property.

  • The Herald provided promotion and publicity of flood-relief concerts, along with promotion of agencies that could help victims.

  • A long-term fundraising hardcover book was coordinated by the Herald newsroom; the book raised a healthy six-figure donation for a flood rebuilding fund.

  • A special cash donation to flood relief was made during the holiday season.

There were several ways in which we were able to measure results of this coverage. Feedback from our readers is crucial. The Herald has also been honoured to receive recognition of its flood coverage from the National Newspaper Awards in Canada; the Great Idea Awards from Newspapers Canada; the Postmedia President’s Awards; and, of course, INMA (a third place award for “Best Public Relations or Community Service Campaign” for community-related flood initiatives. 

However, we also looked to our online metrics to see how readers engaged with us. Total combined page views for the month of June 2013 hit 58.94 million on calgaryherald.com. The increases were pushed by more than 17 million PVs to the mobile optimised site m.calgaryherald.com, for gains of 139% month-over-month, and 303% year-over-year.

When it came to measuring unique visitors via ComScore, UVs came in at 1,259,000 for June – triple the next closest media competitor in our local market. Additionally, the creators of ScribbleLive, which was implemented in creating the live blog, said the Herald’s live blog broke all usage figures they’d seen.

Staffed and fed for the first 10 days, 24/7, ScribbleLive said the live flood blog had engagement time of 16 minutes – the highest in the company’s history.

It was the dedication of Herald staffers, however, that made this coverage possible. There were no boundaries or limits. Everyone pitched in any way they could.

The food writer wrote some of the most compelling stories about families who lost loved ones in the flood. An entertainment writer staffed the emergency command centre all night. A business columnist spent the night tweeting reports from major roadways. 

These are just a few examples of how journalists rose above and beyond normal duties, with three even losing their personal vehicles when unpredictable flood waters changed course.

About Monica Zurowski

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