Some clues for covering wildfires

With all due respect to the good jobs that most of the legacy media are doing, their coverage could be much, much better if they paid respect to those listening and watching online, which includes their smart phones. What they need are plain hard facts, rather than the vague, boiled-down or sensationalized stuff that was News As Usual for the duration. Here are a few clues that should help:

  1. Make your audio easy to get. If you stream audio, do it in .mp3 and link to the actual IP address or URL of your stream. Don’t force users to open a “player” in a window. Many of us are listening online with other programs or on phones with sofware tuners. I’m listening to KNX right now using WunderRadio on the iPhone. I listen to KCLU on there too. (They’re not yet on the Public Radio Tuner, alas) Also feel free to use lower bandwidths. 24Kbps or 32Kbps deliver good-enough audio and make it to listeners who aren’t on wi-fi or 3G cell signals. The online equivalent of a 50,000-watt “flamethrower” (yes, they called them that) is a low-bandwidth .mp3 stream.
  2. Remember how many people are listening on hand-helds. Over 1.6 million copies of the Public Radio Tuner alone have been downloaded so far. Cell phones are the new radios. (They’ll be the new TVs soon. Count on it.) And they are much easier for listeners to “tune” than websites that hide means for listening. Which brings me to…
  3. Uncomplicate your damn websites. Without exception, legacy media have websites that are far too complicated and jam-packed with visual noise, including promotions of junk that is highly uninteresting to visitors looking for hard facts about their homes and neighborhoods. Look at Craigslist. Its “design” fails to qualify for the noun. Yet it succeeds because it’s it’s in simple HTML that loads instantly. It also confines itself to facts, and is easy to figure out. In other words, it is 100% helpful. Not 90% promotional.
  4. If you read emails on the air, or take phone calls, put your email addresses and phone numbers in places where they can be found on your websites, and say them on the air. KTYD last night kept reading emails from people, but I couldn’t find an email address.
  5. Remember you’re not alone. Your tweet stream is not the only one, or even the main one. Neither is your audio or video stream. The people who matter most — the ones listening, reading and viewing with the most interest — aren’t just paying attention to you. They’re jumping around looking for best sources. They’ll be watching Twitter search expecially closely. They don’t need you to boil down the story, or just to show one thing and say how awful it is. Let them do the boiling, and do your best to get them the ingredients they need.
  6. If you’re running Incident Command or otherwise in charge of Official Communications, set up your own live stream for your press conferences. That’s because police and fire chiefs, plus communications directors, tend to drone on in Officialese and that causes radio stations to drop the feed, summarize and move on. In the most recent of these (the one Saturday morning, May 9), KCLU and KNX both bailed, summarized and went to their usual programming. Only KTYD stayed for the whole thing (and kudos to them). In fact, I’d suggest setting up your own blog and Twitter accounts.
  7. For TV stations with helicopters on the scene, several key points:
  • Carry a map or a GPS and use it. KSBY’s reporter and pilot (and/or cameraman) seemed to have no idea where they were. (Wouldn’t they have a GPS that could tell them?) The streets are not hard to identify. Tell us what the hell streets they are. “This is Lauro Canyon Reservoir. The fire we’re seeing is north of it on Holly.” Not just “Look at this house that’s burning out of control in the foothills.”
  • Don’t just report on the flames. Tell us more about what else is happening. Where are they dropping water and retardant? Where are the power lines down? What escape routes are being used?
  • If you’re running a live feed, remember that everything you’re saying is going out there. I don’t know if we were hearing the pilot or the cameraman, or both. But most of what they talked about was getting interesting shots, not reporting good information for viewers for whom these guys were the only source of information about what’s actually happening on the ground where they live, or where their friends and neighbors live. Several times the guy talked about one large house that appeared to be getting an unusually high level of protection, saying “That must be the mayor’s house.” Well, we know where the mayor lives, and it’s not a fancy house in the hills. The firefighters were defending that house for a good reason: because it was defensible. When they are forced to make choices, they’ll always go for the high percentage shot.

I really hope, if KSBY folks read this, that they don’t react by shutting off the live feed from their helicopter. Even though the talk was about going to the Elephant Bar and other irrelevancies, it was far more real and interesting than anything the reporter said. I’m guessing that the pilot was not an employee of the station. Even if that’s the case, it doesn’t matter. What matters is getting hard about real stuff out there. Not just a few sound and sight bites for news breaks.

On a big plus side, KSBY is set up already (at 7:13am) to carry the official news conference at 9am here. I remember listening to one of the key news conferences after the Tea Fire on KSBY while driving up to San Francisco from Santa Barbara, last November. KSBY is on Channel 6. The audio for Channel 6 is on 87.7 FM. After June 12, no TV stations will remain on lowband VHF, which include Channels 2 to 6. They will all be broadcasting digitally on other (mostly UHF) channels. Even if they’re still branded with their old channel numbers. All the more reason to recognize that we’re all just tributaries of vast digital rivers pouring the Live Web into the Static Web sea.

9 comments

  1. Robert’s avatar

    Seriously…
    Your blog has been the most informative thing I have seen. My house is burned without a doubt but I haven’t had any actual confirmation, can you find another live feed somewhere?

    Thank you!

  2. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Thanks, Robert. Hope you’re wrong about your house. Here is KSBY’s live coverage of the press conference at 9am. Hope that helps. I’m about to enter a work tunnel that will keep me out of the flow for an hour or two.

  3. Adam’s avatar

    how about “use a custom URL for your tinyurl’d (etc.) sites, so I know where I’m going.”

  4. Jeff Evans’s avatar

    Great post Doc. Hope they listen.

  5. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Jeff, I see no sign of it. Other, perhaps, than KTYD giving out their email addresses on the air.

  6. Mary Lu Wehmeier’s avatar

    You’re on target as usual, Doc.

    Big hugs to you and the family. Hope everything’s okay up there. Need me for anything? You’ve got the numbers, use them.

  7. michelle kendall’s avatar

    I agree with all your suggestions for improving the media coverage, well done, I hope they listen. It is maddening to see houses burn and not have the street info. I am in Australia wondering how my family’s home is by Sheffield Reservoir. It would be so helpful if people who post photos had data, date time, location, be specific.

  8. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Michelle, from what I can tell, the Sheffield Reservoir area (which was burned on its east side by the Tea Fire) is outside the current fire perimeter. The Tea Fire provided a pretty good break, I would think. At least on the east side.

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