Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Houston media relies on social media technologies in the wake of Ike

As a former Houstonian I have been following the news coverage of hurricane Ike with great interest. Looking back on my media consumption over the last couple of days, I've come to realize that I switched from TV to online media pretty much as soon as Ike came onshore. Yes, I watched the hurricane make landfall on CNN but since then I've been relying mostly on the online version of the Houston Chronicle and on KHOU for my information needs. What I've noticed is something a number of other crisis situations before this one have brought to our attention - namely the power of social media as a crisis communication tool. 
I've used Twitter search to see how my old neighbourhood fared, scanned Facebook for updates from friends in the Houston area, and caught a glimpse of the devastation from citizen journalists reporting their stories, uploading videos and sharing pictures. 

There is a lot of talk these days about the impending death of newspapers, but I think the type of reporting the Houston Chronicle pulled off this week in the wake of hurricane Ike shows that there is a lot of potential for media outlets who learn to harness the power of social media. Today, the Chronicle released a note to its readers, which lays out their approach to online journalism: 
If you’re visiting us because of Hurricane Ike, we hope you’ll stay awhile. We’re proud of our rich Web site with all kinds of nooks and crannies. You’ll find a formidable list of bloggers, including experts in science and technology, interesting databases, interactive features, photo galleries, lots of fun video and the best darn reporting of events in this part of Texas.
The Web has created a space where reporting is a partnership (emphasis added) between a news organization and its readers. Thank you for contributing to our coverage - whether it’s commenting on a story, uploading an image or sending us a tip. Your participation is much appreciated.
Thus far the Chronicle's hurricane reporting has made ample use of social media technologies. Below are just a few that I am aware of:
  • Houston electricity map - allows Houstonians to report which neighbourhoods have power and which don't. Mapped on a Yahoo map.
  • Damage report database - allows users to locate spots where flooding and damage has been reported. 
  • Houston gas station database - allows users to "find which gas stations are open and supplying fuel, based on accounts from eyewitnesses, Houston Chronicle staff, official accounts and reports in other news media." (I remember that 3 years ago, during the hurricane Rita evacuation, people called into radio stations to share this info)
  • Open businesses database - lists businesses that have reopened and allows users to submit additional openings.
  • Ike Answers blog - allows users to post a hurricane related question in the comments section and wait for Houston Chronicle staff or other users to answer it.
  • Free access to the electronic edition of the Chronicle - because of problems distributing the paper copy of the newspaper, the Chronicle has made its e-version available for free (user name & password=ike)
I think all of these examples show that the Houston Chronicle definitely "gets it" when it comes to social media. Their reporting and use of social media in this time of crisis has given us a glimpse of what the future of online journalism could look like.


CosmoPolitician said...

couldn't agree more. The chron has done a stellar job over the last 10 days. Bra-Vo.

Sheila Scarborough said...

I know the Chron's Interactive Journalism Editor, Dwight Silverman, and he's been working his tail off to craft a news organization that hews to good journalistic tenets, but also uses Web 2.0 tools to better engage readers and the community.

The fruit of his efforts, and that of so many hardworking Chron staffers, is their recent noteworthy Ike coverage. Awesome job!

Michael said...

During the storm itself, I relied heavily on Twitter (searching on #ike, the name of my part of town, and all of the tweeters who I knew were in the storm) and the Houston Chronicle's hurricane blogs and the SciGuy blog, both the postings and the comments. Plus the TV news, which gave us a look at the winds, rain, and radar.

corinnew said...

Yes - I've been really impressed by how they've managed to get their readers involved in the news reporting/news gathering. This is really what social media is all about!

@ michael - isn't it odd how quickly these new tools become part of our lives? It really didn't strike me until later that I was using Twitter to check on my old neighbourhood. Pretty effective way of doing so, I thought.