Flat-footed in Omaha
If you work at a newspaper, please don’t let what happened in Omaha happen to you. We’ll discuss the fundamentals of contingency planning in a few minutes. But first, let’s review the carnage – and I don’t mean the tragic casualties at the mall.
Less than half an hour after gunfire broke out at the Westroads Mall shortly before 2 p.m. today, local television and radio coverage was well under way, according to a detailed account at Omaha City Watch, a blog written by Jim Minge and Sean Weide. The television coverage included all the trimmings: live shots, interviews with survivors, details about the assailant who evidently killed himself and pictures taken by eyewitnesses at the scene.
As for the Omaha World-Herald, its Omaha.Com website crashed within minutes of the event and was not revived for nearly three hours, according to City Watch. At this writing, more than nine hours after the event, the creaking site still is unable to reliably load a page. (UPDATE 12.6.07: Twenty-four hours after the shooting, the site is not responding at all.)
But Omaha.Com readers weren’t missing much. Once the outage was overcome, readers got a single lead story and roundup of predictable harrumphing from local politicians. There were no splash graphics like those at Fox News; none of the hundreds of reader comments like those at USA Today; nothing like the eyewitness photos and elaborate aerial map at CNN, and no sign of the extensive live video aired and webcast throughout the day by KETV and other local outlets.
While Omaha.Com managed to post a single, well-hidden video, its production values were so weak that it was difficult to hear the shaken victims over the sounds of idling emergency vehicles. The site asked people to email comments, pictures and video but none were in evidence nine hours after the event. The newspaper hastily launched a blog on the Blogger.Com platform that invited user comments, but the one-paragraph blog – and the resulting handful of comments – were painfully lame.
After working in the business of electronic content delivery for more than two decades, I know that anything can go wrong – and will – at such inopportune moments as a Super Bowl or emergency like the one in Omaha. The best way to prevent such embarrassing collapses is by over-engineering your systems and training all hands in a well-orchestrated disaster-recovery plan.
But the worst problems in Omaha were not technical, but editorial. The poor coverage evidently was caused by a lack of contingency planning on the part of editors, web producers, reporters, photographers and all the other people who are responsible for rapidly, thoughtfully and accurately gathering the information and visual assets necessary to tell a story like this in the age of multimedia.
While the print product remains the primary business at newspaper companies, their websites are strategically important not only for their long-term revenue potential but also because of their immediate power to engage readers and, most importantly, non-readers.
Even though newspapers are no longer part of everyone's daily information-consuming routine, they still rank among the first places many people will turn during a powerful and emotional event like the Omaha shootings. If the newspaper delivers a timely, compelling and sensitive report, it has a good chance of winning new fans and influencing advertisers to ship more dollars their way. When it fails, as Omaha.Com did, it reinforces the concept that newspapers are irrelevant has-beens.
While no one can plan precisely for a tragedy like this shooting, newspaper people – who should be ever mindful that any number of online and broadcast competitors are trying to eat their lunch – should have protocols in place to drop everything they are doing to swarm a big story.
This includes not just calling the cops, covering the emergency rooms and interviewing the victims but also gathering the electronic assets that make modern storytelling possible. In addition to traditional reporting, newspapers now and ever more need to task reporters, photographers and videographers with hunting down the photos, audio, videos and first-person anecdotes that enrich contemporary coverage by letting real people tell their own stories.
This, not the day-old, dispassionate, inverted-pyramid, third-party narrative that guys like me used to write, is the future of the media.