Tornado Web Forum Provides Public With a Voice

By: Steve Outing

When a powerful tornado struck the tiny town of Jarrell, Texas (located about 30 miles north of Austin), last week, the World Wide Web did what no other medium could: it provided the public venue for concerned citizens to express their feelings and eyewitnesses to tell their stories about the disaster, which killed 30 people.

Austin360, Cox Interactive Media's city Web site, which is a collaboration of Cox's Austin American-Statesman newspaper and a Gannett-owned TV station, KVUE - Channel 24, did the expected and produced an extensive Web site covering the disaster -- with news articles, photos, video, live Doppler weather radar images, and tornado resources. Also within the tornado area of the site, Austin360 staffers created a place for people to post messages of condolence to Jarrell's tornado victims, and another area for posting messages about "heroes" of the storm.

An outpouring

The response to the call for condolence messages was larger than anyone expected. "We were humbled and in awe of how much people were responding" on the Web, says John Triplett, general manager of Cox Interactive Media, who heads up the Austin studio that produces Austin360. Somewhere around 1,000 messages of condolence and offers of assistance to townspeople were posted to the site. They came from across the U.S., and occasionally from overseas.

Triplett says that this was something that neither Austin's newspapers, TV or radio stations could do: allow anyone to have their thoughts and offers of help published. The American-Statesman published some of the Web messages, in another example of the Web providing original content to print media.

Jarrell residents also had the opportunity to read the public outpouring of support. Triplett says his staff took a PC to Jarrell and hooked it up at the local high school. Jarrell High School technology coordinator Earbie Matheny used his fax line to hook up to the Internet, then downloaded and printed out the many messages, and posted them on the school's (paper) bulletin board for townsfolk to read.

"People (in Jarrell) stood there reading the messages with tears in their eyes," says Triplett.

Most of the messages were simple outpourings of support for survivors and "you are in our prayers" notes. Former area residents used the forum to ask for information about how friends weathered the storm. Eyewitnesses to the tragedy told their stories. Others posted offers of help -- from the person with "extra chain saws" to donate to the mother of three who offered to watch victims' children.

Simple technique

The condolences and heroes forums were set up very simply. Users filled out a Web form with their messages, which were then added to a long text file containing all the postings. When the document got too long, it was split up into multiple pages.

Triplett says his staff watched the messages being posted, but made no effort to control what went into the forums. Guidelines were posted explaining what sort of messages were appropriate for the tornado forum, but only one message was taken down after being posted because of inappropriate language. Triplett says there were no problems with people posting profane or distasteful messages to the forums.

Triplett says the forums were "just awesome" in their ability to bring out the raw feelings of people involved in and close to the tragedy. You can read some of the messages at

Contact: John Triplett,

Hockey rivalry, media cooperation: Part 2

Philadelphia Online director Fred Mann wrote in to report on his site's preparation for the Stanley Cup championships:

"The Knight-Ridder newspaper Web sites in those two cities famed for their manners and civility -- Philadelphia and Detroit -- are cross-promoting their brains out (and building the sports rivalry) over the Stanley Cup hockey series. Philadelphia Online and The Detroit Free Press' 'Freep' site are linking to each other's sites prominently and sometimes posting each other's content. (We, for instance, have been writing blurbs leading people to the Free Press' coverage of Philadelphia fans' notoriously bad manners and hostile nature.)

"We have been out shooting video not only for ourselves but also for Detroit (interviews with the Red Wings as they practice here) and The Freep has been promoting the video on their site. We have been sending users to each other's forums and Talk Shows to spice up what is already a rabid rivalry. We are each running ticket giveaway contests. (Separately; our attempts to run a joint contest didn't quite work. But we are sending our winner two seats to a game in Detroit plus airfare and hotel.)

"And we have developed an interactive game which resides on both sites. Users log in and click on a picture of the Stanley Cup, moving it down the ice to score goals for their team. Total goals are kept throughout the series.

"And finally -- in what is looking like a really stupid idea -- (Free Press online director) Laurie Bennett of the Freep and I agreed that the losing city would have to run the opposition's hockey team logo on their Web site for a week after the series ends.

"Both staffs are having fun with it, and we are running in-paper promotions, urging readers to come online and 'see what the enemy is saying about us.'

"Given the intensity of hockey fans, the heavy usage by sports nuts and the tough-as-nails reputations of these two cities, we've got a nice little rivalry going. Both of our sites are recording record hits. And our five varieties of screensaver wallpaper, all featuring the Flyers, seem to be a great hit in our town. ... Now if the Flyers could just win a few games."

Contact: Fred Mann,

Time for a correction

In my column about Canadian election laws and media restrictions on polling, I should have said that Canada covers 4-1/2 time zones not 3.


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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

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


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