Web to Rescue for News Outlets

Sep 12, 2005  •  Post A Comment

The ongoing coverage of Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath last week demonstrated that television has become inextricably linked to the Internet.

After all, if any technological hero emerged during coverage of the disaster it was the Internet, which served for many local TV stations damaged by the storm as a platform to broadcast their news, for network news reporters to provide greater detail via quickly launched weblogs used for the first time for a story of this scope, and as a means for evacuees to locate each other.

Technology was used in other ways too. Satellite providers began offering service and storm information to shelters, using innovative platforms like text messaging and interactive channels to disseminate information and help survivors reconnect. But as field communications remained rough, Internet-related technologies proved most adaptable amid the disaster.

As TV news organizations continued their ’round-the-clock coverage last week, they encountered many of the same technical problems that plagued them in the first harried days. Cellphone communication was still spotty; when crews were able to get service they were met with busy signals from overworked networks.

Satellite phones were usable, but they’re expensive, so news outlets limit their use. Most TV news organizations found that their technological bag of tricks was no different from when they cover the war in Iraq.

“I would love to tell you we ran out the door with all kinds of new stuff, [but] we didn’t,” said CNN USA Senior VP Jack Womack. However, the Internet did come in handy at CNN. Its reporters used Google’s online mapping service Google Earth to track the flood damage during their on-air reports.

Among the other examples in which the Web has worked for broadcasters, Emmis-owned Fox affiliate WVUE-TV in New Orleans planned to begin streaming its news online, while Hearst-Argyle’s NBC affiliate WDSU-TV there saw its ongoing Web coverage draw north of 800,000 page views a day last week, four times its average.

The Weather Channel rolled out its storm coverage blog a month earlier than planned. Titled “Desperately Seeking,” the blog was so heavily used that the network converted it to a message board for people seeking friends and family.

Other news outlets launched similar efforts.

The first weekend after the storm, the NBC-owned stations created a Web site, missingkatrina.com, to help reunite people. As of late last week 850 messages and images had been posted and the site had been viewed by more than 378,000 people.

CNN.com added a database to its Web site, listing people who had been safely evacuated, said Mitch Gelman, senior VP and executive producer of CNN.com. In addition, CNN expanded its content publishing system to make it easier and faster for correspondents to file remotely for the Web and for their blogs via BlackBerries or by calling in to the TV/Web integration unit at CNN.com. The CNN reporter blogs received more than 5.82 million page views as of late last week.

“There is not one great new technology, but we are much more adept at using the technology we have,” Mr. Gelman said.

The extensive use of blogs was unique to Katrina and afforded better breadth and depth of coverage than did TV. “I don’t think we got that from the war or any other story,” said Nick Tzanis, VP of technical operations for MSNBC, which also hosted several reporter blogs.

CBS News reporters sent nuggets and short pieces of information for immediate posting to an ongoing Katrina blog on CBSnews.com. Many reporters also sent extended interviews for the Internet as well as Web-only stories, said Michael Sims, director of news and operations for CBSnews.com.

“It’s the first time, really, for all of us in the online industry, when it’s all come together,” he said. “The CBS news television journalists and producers all know that they are working for the Web in addition to working for TV.”

On the satellite side, DirecTV and DISH Network pitched in with new tech solutions. DirecTV’s Hurricane Katrina Information Channel went live four days after the storm hit. Through a deal with GoldPocket Wireless, individuals can send e-mail or text messages to friends and family separated by the hurricane. The messages are then scrolled across the bottom of the screen on the information channel, including many indicating that reunions had occurred.

As of late last week DirecTV had received more than 7,000 e-mails and text messages for the channel. Also, the satellite provider had installed service in 18 shelters and planned to add another 27 over the weekend and into this week.

Meanwhile, DISH Network has been installed in more than 50 shelters, and has added a Katrina information scroll to its new interactive TV news portal.

Technology came through in other ways too. Helinet Aviation has been providing aerial footage of New Orleans as the pool camera for the networks, and the helicopter pilot directed the Coast Guard to homes where people were waiting to be rescued.

Last week networks began their postmortems on what worked well and what didn’t. Mr. Womack of CNN said he is looking at new advances in cellphones and mobile communications to improve future coverage. “Anything that cuts down on your response or deployment time is something you are wise to invest in,” he said.

Mr. Tzanis of MSNBC is also looking into new solutions. “We know we can use satellite technology because it’s proven itself to be stable, but there is a tremendous cost,” he said. “So our challenge is how do we find a low-cost alternative? That’s probably the biggest challenge we face.”