Reporting on a tornado in a 24-hour news cycle
We're all familiar with the 24-hour cycle in which news circulates today. For complex political and social issues, that cycle gets blamed for a lot of premature, misinformed and incomplete reporting. When a tornado strikes at 11 o'clock on a Sunday night, though, that cycle can be undeniably beneficial.
No doubt, some incomplete and some mistaken information got passed around on Twitter, Facebook, other social media and perhaps even some news reports Monday as people and agencies worked to understand and share information about the storm that ravaged neighborhoods in Naperville and Woodridge Sunday night. But at the same time, the immediacy of the reporting also facilitated the dissemination of important information throughout the day that could, among other things, help get assistance for victims under way more quickly, help motorists seek out alternative routes around the most seriously affected areas and give residents throughout the suburbs a picture of the range and depth of damages left in the wake of a storm that struck just as many people were going to bed for the night.
For our part, the tornado was touching down while we were sending our print editions to press Sunday night, too late for us to get reliable information into Monday's paper. But we were able to include a general description of the devastation by early Monday morning and by 7 a.m., our Katlyn Smith had managed a well-researched story with interviews and an initial assessment from authorities of injuries and damages, supplemented with pictures from the scene by Paul Valade, who had secured an interview with the fire chief that added depth and perspective to our reporting. Before 9 a.m., Managing Editor Jim Baumann had sent editors the basic structure for a coverage plan and by noon Smith and Lauren Rohr had combined for a comprehensive report that included detailed assessments of the damage as well as heart-wrenching interviews from residents, and Jeff Knox, senior director of visuals, had produced and posted a gallery of Valade's pictures.
By then, too, numerous editors and reporters, notably including Scott Morgan, had shifted to focus their attention on developing individual stories. Many were posting in real time on Twitter and Facebook thumbnail descriptions of what they were learning and what they were seeing. If, as has often been said, the newspaper is the rough draft of history, our website and social media became for our reporters and photographers the notebook where, throughout the day, they shared with readers the key facts and ideas they were gathering to build their stories.
An event of this magnitude demands adaptations beyond merely the reassignment of photographers, reporters and editors. It also leads to reorganization of work schedules and page allocations to ensure we can get the broadest, most detailed and most descriptive collection of stories and images into the next day's print edition. Pages normally planned for wire or certain local news stories were commandeered for tornado coverage. Our entire front page was given over for reporting on this historic event, and the early pages of the front section were all devoted to storm reporting.
Which leads me to a final observation about the 24-hour news cycle. It was without question useful for updating the suburbs on the impact of the storm throughout the day, but what was particularly valuable was to see that completed first draft of suburban history on Tuesday morning, which included pictures both from the air from Valade's drone camera and on the ground of the massive devastation, a detailed listing of ways people could help victims, portraits of diverse cleanup and volunteer efforts and numerous first-person interviews from people directly affected by the storm.
That same type of reporting continued through the 24-hour news cycles of Tuesday and Wednesday in the production of the various drafts of local history produced Tuesday, Wednesday and today. To some extent, of course, such an interplay occurs every day between constant updating on fluid electronic platforms and the comprehensive presentation of reports in the static print edition. A tornado certainly intensifies the dynamic.
• Jim Slusher, firstname.lastname@example.org, is deputy managing editor for opinion at the Daily Herald. Follow him on Facebook at www.facebook.com/jim.slusher1 and on Twitter at @JimSlusher.