After a few false starts, “#boulderfire” was the tag soon adopted by everyone trading information about the fire online. A whole ecosystem of information developed, quickly and organically. In one especially impressive feat of crowdsourcing, by 1 p.m. that day, graduate student Amanda Pingel had put together a collaborative Google map of the areas affected by the fire, embedded with geo-specific alerts and residents’ photos.
There is no way to know for sure exactly how many people evacuated from their homes as a result of seeing an alert on Twitter or Facebook, as opposed to another mode of communication. But social media certainly had a wide reach. By social media analyst Tery Spataro’s account, the Twitter tag “#boulderfire” was seen by 985,000 people and was used by 688 Twitter users within the first five days of the fire.
Bruce Barcott, a freelance journalist who was following the story as it broke (and who has written for CJR), was one of the readers who grew frustrated and gave up on traditional media as a source of breaking news. “The speed with which the fire was moving, was such that people really needed minute-by-minute updates,” said Barcott. “And I essentially stopped looking at The Denver Post.” He added that this was the first news event he found himself following almost exclusively on Twitter and Facebook.
Fish sees the Fourmile Fire as a case in point for why traditional media in the area need to adjust their attitudes toward social media. She doesn’t think that shrinking newsrooms are an adequate excuse for their lack of speed and thoroughness in covering a story like this one, either.
“It’s partly a matter of being understaffed, but it’s also that the traditional [media] culture sees social media as something separate,” Fish said when she spoke to CJR after the fire had been contained, about a week after it began. “There are a lot of people who really get it. But then there are a lot of people who think, ‘This is just more work for me.’”
Tom Yulsman, co-director of the Center for Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado, was another active contributor to the #boulderfire Twitter stream. He agreed with his colleague that the wildfire should serve as a lesson to traditional media about the value of tools like Twitter, especially in an emergency situation. If news sites don’t pay attention, he argued, it will have a negative impact on both the safety of their readers and on its online traffic.
“Emergencies are fast-moving; information needs to get out as quickly as possible because lives are on the line,” Yulsman said. “The real societal need is speed… I think if they don’t take this seriously and have a plan for how they will be involved when an event like this happens, then everybody’s going to bypass them,” Yulsman said. “And that’s not good for the community, because they have resources, and they have things that they can bring to bear that can be useful.”
For instance, he added, a news site like the Daily Camera or The Denver Post could have someone in the newsroom assigned to participate in the Twitter conversation, post the information on the paper’s website, and in some way facilitate the conversation. If she had been running a newsroom in Boulder or Denver, Fish said, she would have put someone—even an intern—next to the scanner and had them do what she was doing at home. She said she also would have had someone live-tweeting the county’s emergency news conferences, rather than just writing articles of them after the fact.
To be fair, the Daily Camera did embed Pingel’s Google map in its site within a day or two, but it didn’t create an interactive feature of its own. And The Denver Post did have someone monitoring the #boulderfire Twitter stream in its newsroom—that job went to social media editor Daniel Petty—but he posted and re-posted much more sparingly than Fish, Yulsman and others.
But if Fish and Yulsman speak to a fundamental difference in attitude toward social media between themselves and their Daily Camera and Denver Post counterparts, they’re absolutely right.