Flood Coverage on the Web Isn't Very Deep

By: Steve Outing

On Monday night, severe flash flooding hit the college town of Fort Collins, Colorado. At least five people were killed, and 20 more were missing, when heavy rains overflowed a creek. By any measure, this was a major news story. Yet, looking at most Colorado newspapers' Web sites, you might not know it.

The killer flood happened late Monday evening over the course of about five hours. Evening newscasts and morning newspapers reported on the heavy rains and spot flooding in Fort Collins and elsewhere along Colorado's Front Range. (Fort Collins is about 60 miles north of Denver.) But they missed the disastrous proportions of the Fort Collins flooding, because emergency officials didn't realize the enormity of the disaster until much later in the evening -- past evening TV news and print newspaper deadlines.

Morning newspaper editors always dread such timing of major news events -- just past their deadline, so that coverage in print won't come for another 24 hours. This is the kind of news event where TV news rules the day.

But because most newspapers today have World Wide Web sites, this no longer has to be the case. Papers can provide timely, breaking news throughout a disaster like this and publish it on the Web, providing information to a news-hungry populace and competing with TV newscasters directly. Yet, for large part with this particular story, Colorado's newspapers failed to take advantage of the instant nature of publishing news on the Internet.

Here's a look at how Colorado Front Range newspapers responded to this important story:

Denver Post

The Post, a morning paper, did the best job of any Front Range newspaper in putting up flood news on the Web quickly. New media editor Todd Engdahl (who used to be the Post's city editor) says he first heard about the story at home on the early morning TV news, and rushed to put together a story for the Web comprised of wire service and early Post staff reports.

When I interviewed him late in the morning Tuesday, Engdahl was about to put up a mid-day update on the story. Print newsroom reporters were producing stories especially for the Web site, and Engdahl and his sole other online editorial staffer were pulling together some other information to create a Web flood package, such as sidebar archive stories about other recent floods, a map, links to weather Web sites, etc. He also put up flood photos at mid-day, and planned to do a late-afternoon and mid-evening flood update. By midnight or 1 a.m., the Post's Web site would have a full flood package including coverage from the Wednesday morning print edition of the Post.

Engdahl says that for a big breaking story like this happening after print deadlines, "our general feeling is that we're going to put that stuff online as soon as we can" and not wait for print deadlines. He sees the Post site's mid-day audience as primarily office workers who have access to the Web -- and not television sets -- and thus look to the Post Online as a source for updates on a breaking story like this.

Engdahl is held back by the small size of his new media staff (three people), but says he does get good cooperation from the newsroom in providing original content for the Web in advance of print deadlines. During the Timothy McVeigh trial in Denver earlier this summer, the Post's trial team provided a mid-day report for the Web site, and the site had live packages online within 10 minutes of the verdict and sentencing. Engdahl says the paper also has put some breaking Jonbenet Ramsey murder items on the Web first.

Rocky Mountain News

The News, Denver's other morning newspaper, was the victim of awful timing on the Fort Collins flood story. News Web site executive producer Robert Niles says the site was undergoing a pre-scheduled software upgrade when the story broke, and the staff was unable to post anything new to the site until mid-day Tuesday -- after TV news and other Web sites had been reporting the story for hours. Tuesday morning, the News site showed news posted as of late Monday night.

After scrambling to get the site operational again, Niles put up the first story and photos, then began posting hourly updates through the rest of the day, based on wire reports. When I interviewed Niles mid-afternoon Tuesday, he was still waiting to see what local reporting he could get for the Web from the print-side reporters covering the disaster.

Niles says that for putting major stories on the Web prior to print deadlines, it's considered on a case by case basis. For a story like the Fort Collins flooding, where every other media is reporting it, it's a "no-brainer" to get news on the Web as quickly as possible. For some major stories, such as the McVeigh trial verdict and sentencing, the News did print "Extras!" as well as simultaneous "Web Extra!s", Niles says. For non-local stories, the News often will put on its Web site stories from the wire services or partners like New Century Network.

Like the Post, the News' 6-person Web team is dependent on the print newsroom staff for pre-print-deadline coverage of major local breaking stories. Niles admits that putting out the printed News is the newsroom's first priority, although print editors "have been very cooperative" in getting Web content in advance of the paper presses rolling. Yesterday afternoon, he was still waiting to learn what staff-produced stories and photos he might be able to get from the newsroom to post to the Web.

Given the News Web site's technical problems and delays in getting local content out of the newsroom, the site didn't have serious non-wire coverage of the flood until later in the day Tuesday.

Fort Collins Coloradoan

The flood hit in this morning Gannett newspaper's back yard, but the Coloradoan does not yet have an operational Web site. (One is in the works.)

Rocky Mountain Collegian

The campus newspaper of Colorado State University in Fort Collins publishes a Web edition, but it is shut down for the summer. The paper's office in the Lory Student Center building was flooded, along with much of the rest of campus.

Loveland Reporter-Herald

Lehman Communications publishes the Loveland Reporter-Herald and Longmont Times-Call, which have Web sites operated by a 2-1/2-person staff in Longmont. (Loveland is about 20 miles south of Fort Collins.) Both are afternoon papers, which meant the flood disaster story broke at a more "convenient" time. Internet project manager Joel Radtke says he was called by his managing editor at 5:45 a.m. Tuesday and learned about the flood deaths. From his home, he logged on to the Internet and posted a wire service story on the Web sites by 6:15 a.m. and a promotional announcement urging Web visitors to look for more coverage in the afternoon newspaper -- then took a shower and went to work.

Radtke put a full flood package online by about 1 p.m., including reporting and photos from print staff journalists. The newspapers roll off the press at about the same time, so newsroom managers were not faced with the question of whether to put local reporting online prior to it appearing print.

Because of the small staff, the Lehman Web sites publish only print coverage, although the sites are sometimes used to publish long lists -- such as the full list of Emmy award winners -- that are referred to in the newspaper. Radtke said he might publish on the Web additional photos from Fort Collins that didn't make it into print.

Boulder Daily Camera

The Camera, a Knight-Ridder morning paper, posted as its top Web story a wire service article on the flood; the print edition -- like other Colorado papers -- missed the flooding deaths story. Publisher Harold Higgins says the paper sent reporters to Fort Collins to cover the disaster, but their reporting was not scheduled to be used online.

Boulder is about 50 miles south of Fort Collins, so the flooding did not register with the paper's editors as geographically close enough to warrant major breaking Web news coverage. Had the disaster struck in Boulder, "we'd be on BoulderNews (the paper's Web site) right away," he says.

Higgins, whose Web staff consists of three people, says that he has no problem with putting breaking news on the Web site that might "scoop" the print edition. But "the logistics of getting it done is a greater challenge than the philosophy," he says. Like many medium-sized papers, the Camera is not so well staffed that reporters and editors can easily support publishing breaking local news to both print and online editions.

Greeley Tribune

This city is about 30 miles southeast of Fort Collins, but the Tribune does not yet have a functioning news Web site -- although it has one under development.

Colorado Springs Gazette

Colorado Springs is about a 2-hour drive from Fort Collins, so this paper perhaps can claim that this story is out of its local area. The Gazette Web site included the flooding deaths as its top story, but merely linked to Associated Press coverage on The Wire (AP's national news wire service for Web sites).

Barely passable

Overall, I give Colorado's newspapers mediocre grades for handling this major local story on the Web. What appears to be the case is that while most Front Range papers have Web sites, they are modestly staffed and must rely on print-side journalists to provide them with news coverage. Most of the papers I surveyed indicated that they get some newsroom cooperation, but not enough to do a really good job of covering a major breaking story for the Web.

Internet users, of course, are now trained to go on the Web when major news breaks and find substantial coverage that's deeper than what's found on TV or radio news or in print newspapers themselves. Well staffed news Web sites in some parts of the U.S. rise to that challenge, but such is not yet the case in Colorado.

Colorado's newspaper Web sites also can do more with this big story -- such as set up online disaster-relief fund-raising pages, or create online discussion areas where Internet users can post their condolences to victims, or offers of help. (When a tornado hit the tiny town of Jarrell, Texas, some weeks ago, an Austin newspaper Web site created such a "public bulletin board" site; it was very well used and provided a valuable public service.)

I won't criticize Colorado's papers for the lack of such Web features, because when I interviewed the site managers, they'd had little time to plan a strategy for online coverage. But I hope they can do more with this major, developing news story in the coming days.


Previous day's column | Next day's column | Archive of columns
This column is written by Steve Outing exclusively for Editor & Publisher Interactive three days a week. News, tips, and other communications may be sent to Mr. Outing at steve@planetarynews.com

The views expressed in the above column do not necessarily represent the views of the Editor & Publisher company


No comments on this item Please log in to comment by clicking here