Scrolling through Facebook one smoky evening last week, I came across a video interview with a local online marketing pro in which this successful social media advocate extolled the virtues of new media and asserted flatly that newspapers are not dying. They are dead.
To check this paper’s pulse, I clicked over to The World’s Facebook page, where I was hooked immediately by the beautiful, nightmarish photos of hillsides ablaze above Entiat and Wenatchee, taken by award-winning Wenatchee World photographers and by dozens of readers, amateur and professional. The page teemed with articles and quick hit updates about the fires — road closures, evacuation orders, detailed maps, compelling stories of folks whose backyards had become front lines in the annual fight against wildfire — all of which were tracked down and written up by World reporters.
All week, in fact, the newsroom at The World had been abuzz with fire talk. Some of the reporters and photographers were at their desks only long enough during the days to type or upload their work, then back out into the smoke to collect more information, more stories, more images.
Many of The World’s 24,000 Facebook fans added stories of their own to the page. Entiat resident Alan Moen shared photos and updates from near the Mills Canyon Fire. Bernita Baker-Landers commented: “As a mom of one of the firefighters working the fire, I just want to thank all of you out there for your prayers for them all. It is very reassuring.”
McKenna Chapman posted: “My mom and stepdad would like to offer up our yards to anyone with a tent who got evacuated because of the fires. We have a huge backyard and a decent size front yard. If someone would like to take us up on our offer have them call 509-470-7971 and ask for Sonia or Chris.”
By mid-week, the Seattle television news crews were in town, and the hashtag #Mills Canyon had become the way most news outlets, including The World, were tagging fire articles and photos, making all fire-related content easy to find.
In the days that follow natural disasters or other big news events, rumors and frightening falsehoods can spread quickly across social media, and this community — like so many others — looks to the work of its local newspaper to establish the facts and find out what they need to know. Not surprisingly, The World’s website numbers spike during fire season. Since the start of the Skyline Drive Fire on July 7, traffic on wenatcheeworld.com has more than tripled, as readers check back frequently for the latest articles and photo galleries. (As is The World’s policy during fires and any event that concerns public safety, all fire stories and photo galleries are available online without a subscription.)
Yes, new media is powerful and is changing the news industry in big, fundamental ways. Much of this power comes from the ability the Internet affords us to connect to people and information with extraordinary immediacy. There is a natural fit here for newspapers that employ talented, credible, professional reporters and photojournalists, particularly during fire season.