Crisis planning, web tools assist KPBS reporting
Ahead of the flames
KPBS’s crisis coverage plan lays out five levels of newsroom response, from level one, for standard news bulletins on isolated incidents, escalating to level five, which calls all hands on deck for live disaster coverage with no end in sight.
On Sunday, Oct. 21, the San Diego pubcaster sprinted to level five almost immediately as the infamous Santa Ana winds spread ferocious wildfires across Southern California with terrifying speed.
“We went from ‘normal’ to ‘Holy shit! Look out!’ pretty fast,” says John Decker, radio p.d.
The fires burned more than 800 square miles, consumed nearly 2,200 houses and forced millions from their homes as it transformed tranquil suburban neighborhoods into fiery, apocalyptic scenes.
Despite the head-spinning onset of the disaster, KPBS quickly became the go-to news source for the region’s bewildered, evacuating citizens thanks to a combination of careful advance planning and innovation under pressure.
The station’s clearly defined disaster scheme, developed after admittedly slack performance on breaking stories in the past, allowed it to quickly put reporters on the road and hosts in the studio.
Impromptu online creations including an interactive Google map and cell-phone alerts using Twitter, a microblogging service designed to help users notify friends about their activities, won praise for breaking new ground in catastrophe coverage.
The innovative approach represented “a historic moment for public broadcasting,” says Robert Paterson, the consultant who led pubradio through NPR’s New Realities process.
KPBS’s quick, steady reaction to calamity points up how crucial crisis planning is for pubcasters, says Michael Marcotte, news director. “It’s so important to plan for these things, yet so hard to invest the time in doing it,” he says. Marcotte, past president of Public Radio News Directors Inc., had recently announced plans to leave the KPBS job and PRNDI post and move to Santa Barbara.
The fire coverage highlights pubcasters’ need to invest in online news, says Deanna Mackey, KPBS associate g.m. for marketing and new media. Though the map and news alerts were developed on the spot, the continuous updating was made possible last year when the station enlarged its new-media team from one to six staffers, she says.
“If this had happened two years ago, there’s no way the web team would have been able to do what it did,” she says.
The station’s coverage also benefited from goodwill it had earned in the city. When flames torched power lines feeding KPBS’s mountaintop transmitter early on Oct. 23, San Diego’s commercial KBZT-FM, a past partner on special events, suspended its modern rock format and carried KPBS’s live feed until station engineers could install a temporary transmitter a day later.
The CPB Board last week passed special resolutions recognizing the community service by Southern California pubcasters as well as KBZT, owned by Lincoln Financial Media.
KPBS staffers also cited reporting by journalists who pitched in, including those from San Francisco’s KQED, Pasadena’s KPCC and NPR correspondents such as Southern Bureau Chief Russell Lewis, a former KPBS reporter.
All told, KPBS reported live for nearly 80 consecutive hours between that Sunday and the following Wednesday. The online staff, which sent out the alerts and constantly updated the map to chart the fires’ paths, evacuation routes and relief centers, kept cranking out updates even longer.
Public radio is “emerging as a primary news service in the community, and that brings a whole new set of responsibilities,” Marcotte says. “It’s a whole new game.”
KPBS learned the importance of planning the hard way. The station was caught flat-footed during a string of wildfires in 2000, Marcotte said, and its coverage of a 2001 shooting at the local Santana High School was “a debacle.” The newsroom responded too slowly and took too long to get enough people in place to properly cover the story, he says.
“We really blew that one,” Decker agrees.
After the shooting incident, a KPBS crisis-coverage task force hammered out the first edition of its disaster news plan. It defined the five levels and specified, among other things, the chain of command, the situations that require reporters to go straight to work or to just check with their editors, and the magnitude of news that will get immediate live coverage.
KBPS has tweaked the guide since, adding directions for the web staff and adjusting past guidelines based on experience. Now the station hopes to figure out how to better integrate its radio and web staffs so they can share information more effectively, Marcotte says. There are plans to equip reporters with emergency kits including goggles, water and windup radios with cell-phone chargers, Decker says. The station will also catalog the skills of its entire staff to identify non-news employees who could fill in on big, resource-stretching stories.
Marcotte says other pubcasters have shown interest in KPBS’s crisis guide in the past.
However, no more than half of pubradio outlets have any sort of plan, based on member surveys by the National Federation of Community Broadcasters and NPR, according to Ginny Berson, NFCB director of federation services. And only 25 percent have what she calls “fully functioning operational plans” that encompass both coverage considerations, such as clearly defined communication channels with first responders, and infrastructure backups such as emergency generators.
All stations know they need to create such schemes, Berson says, but “everyone gets overwhelmed with the enormity of the task—it’s not like stations have people whose jobs it is to do this.”
NFCB and NPR are seeking funding to create a downloadable online disaster manual that walks stations through the planning process step by step. They also want to set up a series of conference calls and devise related seminars to be held at stations’ regional meetings and NFCB’s annual conference.
NFCB hopes to hold its first seminar at its next annual conference in March.
Twitter as news tool! Who knew?
Leng Caloh, KPBS managing online editor, didn’t realize she was creating what would become the definitive survey of the fire scene when she began fiddling with Google Maps on Sunday the 21st. Within a matter of hours, the map and other online services drew so much traffic that the site crashed from overload.
At its peak, the station’s site received more than 132,000 visits a day, or roughly 36 times its average.
The Web staff created a temporary “very basic, very ugly” HTML site, Caloh says, that included the evolving Google map and headlines, compiled from emergency authorities’ news releases and the station’s own broadcasts. The headlines went out immediately to mobile devices receiving a KPBS feed through Twitter.com. (The alert site is twitter.com/kpbsnews).
After KPBS heard audience complaints that the map wasn’t kept up to date throughout the first night, it tapped non-news employees and web staffers from other stations, including WNYC and KPCC, to update the page overnight from their homes, Mackey says. KPBS created a wiki with passwords and links to news sources and its own audio stream to facilitate the shared effort.
Caloh worked with San Diego State University mapping experts, who had access to a wealth of wildfire data, to add burn perimeter data and evacuation information. As the staffers got new information from KPBS reporters or elsewhere, they added it to the map.
When excessive traffic eventually made it difficult to update, Caloh’s frantic e-mails were forwarded to the right people, and Google engineers “stayed up half the night adding servers to our site,” she says.
Fire news was a new purpose for Twitter.com — an online text relay typically used by groups of friends to quip and post dispatches on their doings. The service, accessible through cell phones as well as PCs, proved to be an ideal news alert tool. KPBS used it to spread the word about the fire’s progress, evacuation orders and road closings.
“This is probably the best use I’ve ever seen for Twitter,” wrote Amy Gahran, new-media blogger at the Poynter Institute.
Robert Paterson, who also writes about social media and related issues at the FastForward blog, has been advising pubcaster clients that they don’t need giant newsrooms to become trusted news sources in their communities, he says.
In KPBS’s wildfire Flickr page, Twitter feeds and the numerous user-created fire map mashups that sprang up, he sees a blueprint for how pubcasters can use free and effective media tools to prove their value in local news.
“This is not a big, big station,” he says. “And a handful of people, by using these new tools, really became the resource for the information people needed.”
Web page posted June 30, 2008
Copyright 2008 by Current LLC