MIAMI, FL — Atlanta became a national punch line last week, when 2.6 inches of snow paralyzed the city. But for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, “Snow Jam2014” was no joke. The paper provided impressive breaking coverage of the disaster, using social media to collect and share information with hundreds of thousands of area residents stranded along roadways with only their smartphones to guide them as city, county, and state governments failed.
That work didn’t go unnoticed. The newspaper’s website, which was opened up to non-subscribers, saw record-breaking traffic, with more than 8.5 million pageviews on Wednesday, Jan. 29, the day after the storm began, plus another 1.4 million on the paper’s mobile site. The following day, Jan. 30, saw an additional 5.4 million pageviews—the 11th highest day in the site’s history. For the full month, AJC.com drew nearly 89 million pageviews, said Drue Miller, the paper’s consumer marketing manager, with a monster slideshow of storm photos accounting for seven million alone.
As the immediate crisis abated, the newsroom pivoted, with a hard-hitting story over the weekend laying blame for the debacle on leadership failures and poor decisions by politicians and policy makers. Another story pointed out that while Atlanta is unique, it could learn a lot from other cities and regions, like South Florida and even New Orleans, about how to coordinate a disaster response.
I talked to AJC editor Kevin Riley this week about his newsroom’s response to the Snowpocalypse. One key element was that the newsroom did what state and local officials did not-it started planning for the disaster before it hit.
Staffers began calling around looking for hotel rooms near the newsroom Monday night, so stranded colleagues would have a place to stay the following night. They found a few, but not nearly as many as they had hoped. So between 25 and 30 people, including Riley, spent Tuesday night in the newsroom.
“It’s kind of a simple thing but it’s important to remember,” Riley said. “We say to our staff, make sure you’re safe and that you feel safe. I think when you give people that kind of guidance, not only do people tend to make good decisions, it’s part of why a lot of people ended up bunking in the newsroom. We said don’t go home if it’s not safe. You can stay here.”
Of course, they didn’t just bunker down. Reporters and photographers fanned out to cover the stranded commuters and school children-at 9 pm the day the storm hit, some 10,000 children were still stuck in their schools because buses couldn’t get them home and their parents couldn’t pick them up.
The AJC was also monitoring social media, and using it to get information out.
“Our own staffers were stuck in their cars in traffic and they were tweeting and posting information and photos,” Riley said.
As the storm lit up social media, AJC staff noticed that many people were posting stories about good Samaritans helping them. So the AJC set up a “shoutout” page to give the community a central place to post those stories.
“We are a place to come and gather from a digital perspective,” Riley said. “A lot of really good, warm, inspiring things were going on in Metro Atlanta. We saw it as a way to let people know that we were coming together.”
The AJC’s quickly assembled page got 8,000 pageviews and 600 posts in 30 hours—strong enough engagement to convince the paper to use the first-time feature again in breaking-news situations.
The paper realized “almost right away” that this was more than a weather story; it was a political story, Riley said. There were important questions about who was responsible. “Listening to our users is what led us to that story.”
“It became very clear that there was a lot of anger out there over this because people count on their leaders to help them through something like this,” he said.
Reporters Johnny Edwards, Dan Chapman and Shannon McCaffrey didn’t pull any punches with their Sunday investigation. It began:
Gov. Nathan Deal’s delay in taking charge during Tuesday’s snow catastrophe triggered a series of cascading failures, leaving hundreds of thousands of motorists abandoned and desperate for food, water and shelter.
With no one at the helm, dozens of local agencies took their own myopic approaches, barely communicating with each other, much less the imperiled public.
The story details what Georgia’s leaders were doing instead of preparing for the disaster—Gov. Deal and Mayor Kasim Reed attended a luncheon. The reporters obtained staff emails showing a lack of concern. They tracked money spent on disaster preparedness that failed to plan for snow, in spite of a storm three years ago that also paralyzed the city.
AJC photographers, meanwhile, continued to find ways to show readers exactly how bad things were, with thousands of cars still stranded two days after the storm hit.
Riley has plans to continue the watchdog coverage, hoping the AJC can push officials to finally find a solution before the next storm hits.
“We’re going to get out there around the country where this is done well and see what they do,” he said. “Next time something like this happens, my hope is it’s handled better and part of that will be because of our reporting.”
The paper has also begun to consider ways it can do better next time, starting with the basics. The real basics.
“It’s been less to do with the journalism and more with the basic necessities of life,” Riley said. “We want to cut a deal with a local hotel so we can reserve a block of rooms if we need it. We’ve been asking, are there supplies we can have in the newsroom, like blankets?”
Correction: The original version of this post misidentified two Journal-Constitution reporters. Their surnames have been corrected. CJR regrets the error.
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