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Facing Disaster

Student journalists at the University of Alabama react to a deadly tornado with two weeks of non-stop coverage that draws national attention—and sets a new standard for online reporting.

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When a massive tornado struck Tuscaloosa just after 5 p.m. on April 27, more than two dozen students and staff took shelter in the basement of the Student Media Building at the University of Alabama. Although the storm veered away from campus, many other areas were not so lucky.

No one could know the full scope of the devastation during those first minutes and hours, but one thing was obvious even as the tornado was still churning: This was an unprecedented natural disaster.

It was also the beginning of an exhausting two weeks that would challenge our student journalists, bring national attention to The Crimson White and its editors, and perhaps serve as a model of collegiate reporting in a crisis—particularly in the use of social media as an instant means of news gathering and disseminating information.

“I’ve been through hurricanes and other storms on more than one university campus, but I’ve never seen a group of students who so quickly and so comprehensively reacted in covering a major story like this,” Office of Student Media Director Paul Wright said.

A familiar threat

It began, however, on what seemed like a relatively ordinary day, despite caution from meteorologists that conditions would be favorable for very severe weather.  After all, thunderstorms and even tornadoes are nothing new to Tuscaloosa in the spring.

Just a couple of weeks earlier, a smaller tornado touched down just south of town in an area where many UA faculty and staff live, including Wright and OSM Associate Director Joel Mask. At times like these, it has become standard operating procedure for students, faculty and staff to take cover in basements across campus during tornado warnings.

So it seemed that April 27 would be yet another day of dodging bad weather by hunkering down in a basement until the storms passed. In fact, most of the discussion in the office that morning was on a unique 3-D issue of the newspaper, scheduled for distribution two days later on April 29.

That edition’s 15,000 copies, with card-stock 3-D glasses inside, were already printed. Now it was simply a waiting game to distribute them, following what we thought would be a routine issue of The Crimson White on Thursday, April 28.

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As it turned out, nothing was routine. The Thursday issue never made it to press, and plans to distribute Friday’s 3-D issue were delayed, given the inappropriateness of such a light-hearted publication in the aftermath of a disaster. Tragically, the issue included some advertisers who lost their businesses in the tornado.

Gone, too, were plans to publish a special graduation section, to be inserted into the 3-D issue for distribution Friday morning. (Graduation exercises, planned for May 7, were later delayed until August 6.) In all, $35,845 in ad revenue was sold in the issues not published or distributed that week. But the loss paled in comparison to the loss of human life and property across Tuscaloosa.

A monster in plain sight

In hindsight, there were signs that April 27 might be different from other storm-tossed days, despite its routine start. Based on weather forecasts the previous night, Tuscaloosa city and county school officials cancelled classes. To some with school-age children, it seemed like an overabundance of caution, and even more so when the morning and early afternoon came and went with no storms.

Yet, to their credit, meteorologists across the state predicted the most probable time for severe weather would come during the mid to late afternoon. As reports started coming out of Mississippi, where a series of large tornados were wrecking havoc, it became clear the city was in for a long afternoon.

So when the first tornado warning came at 3:44 p.m., those in the OSM building moved to the basement, where most remained throughout the next couple of hours as the warning was extended. Offices for The Crimson White advertising staff are located in the basement, and everyone there watched, via computer, the various live video streams from area television coverage of what was becoming an almost unbelievable outbreak of tornadoes in the Southeast.

Multiple, simultaneous warnings were clearly testing the ability of TV meteorologists to keep up on live broadcasts. But one meteorologist in particular, Birmingham ABC 3340’s James Spann, is legendary for his storm coverage, and most browsers were linked to his station as a violent storm front approached Tuscaloosa.

Around 4:50 p.m., a live feed from a video camera mounted on the top of the Tuscaloosa County Courthouse captured the first images of what would turn out to be a massive EF-4 tornado, with winds at nearly 200 mph, nearing the city. Spann, one of the most savvy, experienced television meteorologists in the nation, seemed shocked by the sight of it, and told his audience to brace for the worst.

“This is a large, violent tornado coming up on downtown Tuscaloosa,” Spann said. “Be in a safe place right now… That is something that you pray that you never, ever, ever see… This thing looks like it might be over one-half mile wide, maybe up to three-quarters of a mile wide. Get into a safe place!”

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At the same time Spann was delivering a dire warning, we could see the twister on the live video stream.  Several of us commented that it seemed to be on a path heading for campus. Mask, pointing to a space beneath a nearby desk, joked that “if this thing hits, I’ll be down there. Don’t even think about making a play for that spot. It’s mine.”

Taking a peek

Thinking the tornado was still a few miles away, several of us decided to go out the basement’s back door, up a couple of steps and take a look at what we thought would simply be a dark sky ahead of the storm. Not a wise choice, as it turned out: I opened the door, went outside, and basically froze. There, maybe two-thirds of a mile away (and a lot closer, it seemed at the time) was a huge rotating cloud with vortexes whipping around the top of it. It looked like the thing was headed toward Bryant-Denny Stadium and on top of us.

Traci Mitchell, assistant OSM director of operations, ventured outside with me, along with CW advertising representative Brittany Key, and maybe a couple of others. (I can’t be sure, because in the mad rush, the shock from seeing a giant rotating cloud, and those vortexes flying around like garden hoses had my full attention.)

I was on the cell phone talking to my wife as I went outside. She says I screamed “Oh my God” into the phone. All I remember is dashing back into the basement, along with Traci and Brittany. We slammed the door behind us, and placed a metal crossbar back in place to secure it.

But the sight of the tornado from our vantage point was deceiving. It was actually moving away from us, southeast of campus, through crowded neighborhoods, across perhaps the busiest intersection in town (McFarland Boulevard at 15th Street), and on through heavily populated areas of Alberta City to the east of town.

We were fortunate, of course. But so many areas of Tuscaloosa, and the people living or working there, suffered a direct hit. At latest count, there are 41 confirmed deaths from the storm in Tuscaloosa, and nearly 1,000 people injured.

The death toll includes six UA students, and a seventh who was set to begin classes this fall. Statewide, at least 238 people died from tornadoes on April 27. Thousands of others lost their homes, including two Crimson White staffers—Stephanie Brumfield, who lost her rented home in the Forest Lake neighborhood of Tuscaloosa, and Brittney Knox, whose family lost their home in a Birmingham suburb.

The coverage begins

Within hours of the storm hitting, Editor Victor Luckerson and his staff were already at work updating the CW’s website with whatever information they could glean, given the chaos across town. Nothing came easy.

With power out on campus, the CW editors and reporters first gathered downtown at The Tuscaloosa News, where the CW is printed and the location designated as an emergency backup for the paper’s production. It would be the first of three different locations they would travel to that first night, seeking electrical power. They settled finally at the home of graduating Print Production Editor Brandee Easter, whose Northport home was not affected by the storm.

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Despite intentions to produce a print issue the next morning, April 28, conditions changed those plans. The Tuscaloosa News lost power later that night, leaving The Crimson White without a workable alternative in getting to press. (Tuscaloosa News editors were able to produce a 16-page edition of their own using the presses at The Birmingham News.)

Instead, the CW staff began updating the newspaper’s website, www.cw.ua.edu, and getting as much information as possible out on Facebook and Twitter. It was a long night. By 7 a.m. the next morning, the staff was back at work, gathering in the newsroom to plan the day’s coverage.

“The main thing was to get information out as soon as possible,” Luckerson said. “At this point, a print issue was not a concern.”

Attracting attention

With power still not restored to campus, CW editors continued to rely on homes in the Northport area, including my house, where they gathered Thursday from 8 p.m. until well past midnight. They were joined by Luckerson after his 9 p.m. appearance on a live broadcast of Fox News’ “On the Record with Greta van Susteren” show from part of the devastated area of the city. The show became the first of many interactions that The Crimson White editors would have with national media

Later, MSNBC, the New York Times, Dateline NBC, and other national media outlets would link to stories in The Crimson White, or use images from the newspaper’s photographers. National TV personalities, including CBS News anchor Katie Couric and MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough (a UA graduate), “tweeted” links to CW articles.

The newspaper also produced a dozen or more videos as part of its coverage, including reports from affected areas of town.  Video interviews with NBC News anchor Brian Williams and celebrity Charlie Sheen drew tens of thousands of viewers nationally.

All told, about 30 reporters and editors contributed to The Crimson White’s coverage, and together published nearly 100 stories on the website within a week. A core group of 10 to 12 CW editors worked 14 to 16 hour-days for at least a week.

“We’d get here at 10 a.m. or so and not leave until after midnight, or up to 2 a.m.,” Luckerson said.

Social media impact

During this time, the CW made instant use of Twitter and Facebook as part of its news gathering and reporting. Twitter updates, in particular, were vital in getting information out quickly to those affected by the storms, as well as to students who needed information on how to proceed in the aftermath. (UA administrators decided to cancel all finals scheduled the week after the tornado hit, effectively ending the semester more than a week early.)

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Although no one was adequately prepared for such a devastating event, it helped that The Crimson White, following Luckerson’s vision as the new editor last year, established a “community engagement team” to develop and use social media in the marketing, reporting and dissemination of news.

“We didn’t’ have to stop and figure out what we needed to do with social media,” Luckerson said. “We were already doing it.”

In the days that followed, the CW would be praised for providing a lifeline to those in need of information following the storm. Joe Scarborough, host of MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” show, was in London when the tornado hit Tuscaloosa. He not only “re-tweeted” CW posts on Twitter, he also sent this message to the editors on April 29: “As an Alabama grad halfway across the world, I am following your great work under the worst of circumstances. Thank you!”

And emails, like this one sent to Paul Wright, were common:

“I wanted to write to you and your staff to tell you how extremely vital your newspaper has been to me over the last eight days,” wrote Jessy Thorn with UA’s Children’s Program, part of the College of Health and Environmental Sciences. “From the start of the storm I began using The Crimson White website, following your Twitter account, and reading your newspaper. I have been so impressed with how much information has come out of these sources and how accurate it has been.”

In addition to its constant updates through social media and online stories, the CW also produced several videos showing damage in the affected areas, talking to survivors and interviewing local and national newsmakers.

Site traffic peaks

The overall result was a dramatic, and unprecedented, spike in traffic on the CW’s website.  The number of visits to the site skyrocketed 358 percent—from 22,876 visits in the week before the storm to 104,850 visits the week that included first four days of tornado coverage. Those numbers included 76,943 unique (or individual) visitors. Page views jumped even higher—582 percent (from 49,872 a week earlier to 340,525 the week of the tornado). By May 4, a week after the storm, page views topped 500,000.

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However, the coverage was not without glitches, despite the intense work. On Friday, April 29, the CW reported online that eight students had been killed in the storm. The story was taken offline within a couple of hours after questions were raised about how the deaths were being confirmed.

“That night we re-evaluated how we screwed up, or how we needed to better confirm deaths,” Luckerson said. “We developed a much more logical and thorough system. We will be much better prepared next time because of it. As editors, we needed to decide what information is reputable enough to be published.”

Later reporting confirmed that six UA students were among the dead. Three other students at area colleges, including one who was planning to enroll at UA for the fall, were also among the dead—bringing to nine the number of college students killed in the storm.

Following two days of concentrating on the impact the storm had on university students, the CW expanded its coverage, sending teams of reporters to the most heavily-damaged neighborhoods of the city and beyond.

With all classes and final exams cancelled, a core group of CW editors and reporters remained on campus to continue coverage of the storm’s aftermath in the days that followed. This group included several editors and designers who were technically no longer on staff, having ended their term on staff or completed their degree.

Going to print

On May 4, one week after the tornado hit, the CW published an eight-page print issue, without advertising. The issue included in-depth coverage of communities devastated by the tornado, along with a report on President Barack Obama’s visit to Tuscaloosa, information on how students who lost their homes could find housing, and a special full-page tribute to the nine Tuscaloosa area college students who lost their lives in the storm.

“We wanted to make a definitive statement to the community,” Luckerson said. “We wanted the print issue to deal with the scope of the devastation. We wanted to show that it wasn’t just McFarland (Boulevard) and 15th Street, but places beyond that. We covered all areas of the community hit by the tornado.”

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As if to underscore Luckerson’s objective, the New York Times published a photo a few days later, showing a storm victim living in a Red Cross shelter holding a copy of The Crimson White’s May 4 issue. Check it out here.

Other student media also contributed to getting information out, including WVUA 90.7 FM, which initially lost power in the storm, but began broadcasting public service announcements highlighting FEMA and other aid information when power was restored two days after the tornado. The spots ran continuously every 15 minutes for a week. The station also used Twitter and Facebook to alert listeners to aid and volunteer opportunities.

Members of the OSM staff also contributed to volunteer efforts across the city and campus, beginning with answering phones from concerned parents and others at the UA Calling Center in the first days after the storm.

Slight impact, huge effect

By mid-May, with the recovery in full force, plans for the summer term could finally be addressed. The 3-D “Year-in-Review” issue, delayed by the tornado, will be distributed with The Crimson White’s first summer issue. Going forward, there is still uncertainty about the advertising impact the tornado has had on student media here.

Associate Director Mask reports that the two tornadoes in April impacted at least four of the eight sales territories for The Crimson White, including a dozen or more advertising clients in the 15th Street, McFarland Boulevard area. As many as five distribution points across town for the CW were also destroyed.

But no one at OSM is complaining. The university and those on campus were very lucky. For others, recovery will take years.

“Student Media has been very fortunate during this entire disaster,” Wright said. “We escaped with relatively very little impact on our operation and have evolved and learned from it. It has been an educational experience for our students and will yield more mature newsgathering and reporting for the UA campus in the future.

“I am very proud of our students and the impact they made.”

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