In the early 1990s, CNN’s coverage of Desert Storm essentially redefined the television news landscape for American viewers. CNN’s 24-hour, on-location coverage demonstrated that a “mere” cable network could go toe-to-toe with the major broadcast networks (ABC, NBC, ABC) on the day’s major news story and actually do them one better. Industry experts point to this moment in media history as a sea change in the evolution of video news reporting and viewer acceptance of a new cadre of cable network news organisations. Today, there are several dozen credible cable news networks covering general or niche news categories that have achieved strong brand acceptance in the consumer marketplace.
Well, it hasn’t made news on the global landscape, but in the arena of local news coverage I believe the “multimedia” 24-hour newsroom of the daily newspaper has essentially achieved the same milestone.
If I were to identify the first such instance, I would probably point to the Times Picayune coverage of Hurricane Katrina’s devastating impact on New Orleans and other gulf coast communities in 2005. Essentially unable to publish and/or distribute their print product, the newsroom focused on their Web site, nola.com, providing unprecedented around-the-clock coverage and earning accolades for their response to the public’s need to know in a time of great crisis.
In August of 2011, however, I was able to witness firsthand and fully appreciate the competitive prowess of the new age multimedia newsroom of the daily newspaper. In a seven day period, New Jersey residents endured an uncommon and perhaps unprecedented sequence of natural events that created a critical “need to know” news environment.
In just seven days, New Jersey was struck by a 5.8 magnitude earthquake, visited by Hurricane Irene and endured unprecedented and unexpected flooding as the mountains in the northwestern part of the state shed the half foot or more of rain into the rivers and streams of eastern and central New Jersey. Lives were lost, roads were closed, homes were lost and hundreds of thousands of residents were without power. This experience was shared by many communities on the East Coast from Florida to Maine. I am wondering if the news environment elsewhere registered the same change in the reporting landscape as I witnessed in New Jersey.
The television news networks were there with on the scene coverage showing dramatic weather conditions, and passing along warnings to residents about the evolving situation. Status quo.
Radio commentators did their audio version of the same. More status quo.
The Star-Ledger’s newsroom covered these events from the start (we even had live video of the earthquake — it occurred during an interview in our newsroom) and we continued to cover the situation non-stop until the crisis had passed. Anticipating the hurricane, our news staff planned for “sleepover” staffing to be sure that the 24-hour desk was manned and that adequate reporting resources were available. Before the hurricane, we published a comprehensive “survival guide” in print and digital forms. During the hurricane we provided video, photo and text reporting non-stop and we made sense of the mess that followed with incredibly detailed reports including graphics and maps on road closures, damage, flooding, etc. And on September 2nd, we profiled the 12 residents who died in hurricane related situations with photos and interviews with family and friends. A heroic effort overall.
Unsung but equally heroic were the incredible efforts of the newspaper carriers who delivered the print edition to our home delivery customers and retail outlets under the worst of conditions. We were stunned at the delivery success rates reported and awed by the anecdotes of what lengths carriers went to in order to get their papers to their customers.
On September 21st, roughly a month later, I happened to be on hand for a meeting of the New Jersey Governors Advisory Council on Volunteerism. At this meeting were most of the state’s key emergency management directors, including the person responsible for coordinating the hurricane preparedness and response. This was the moment when I realised that something profound and transformational had occurred. As the members of the council reported on the events of August and discussed what had happened and what they had learned, a recurring theme emerged. In the emphatic words of one county level official, “thank God for The Star-Ledger and nj.com.”
The discussion revolved around two things. First, the fact that while the TV and radio community were on hand and cooperative, they provided, at best, colour commentary. The detailed, useful information that officials found themselves referring residents to during the crisis was presented in print and digital form by the newspaper. Second, when power was lost, residents had no access to TV or radio, but somehow the newspaper was delivered and it was the only source of information for hundreds of thousands of residents. The newspaper, in print and digital form, with words, photos, videos, graphics and maps had carried the day. Capping the meeting was the distribution in printed form of the leadership report on the crisis communication process. I was handed a copy just as the official stated, “I am sharing a printed copy of my nj.com blog report…” The official had been given an online home in our “Helping Hands” feature on our Web site.
The parallel to the CNN anecdote that I began this report with would not be complete without one key element: audience growth. CNN’s reporting achieved sea change status not because of the quality of their coverage, but because the viewing public tuned in and ratings soared.
Well, unique visits to our Web site in August were up 50%, an increase of several million. The 50% number carried through in page views and video views as well. And traffic levels in September suggest that just like the CNN scenario, about a third of those new visitors liked what they found here and are staying with us. Welcome to the new media landscape. Long live the multimedia newspaper model.