What does a newsroom do when more than 2 feet of snow dumps onto its coverage area within 24 hours, leaving its readers without power and stuck in their homes for a day or two? It does what it always does – reporters, editors and photographers put on their boots, get out their shovels, notebooks and cameras and they gather the news.
This weekend’s blizzard put journalists throughout Massachusetts to the test. Flakes started falling Friday morning, as daily newsrooms rushed to file their weekend content. Faced with a travel ban after 4 p.m., most departments tried to wrap things up early. Roads were already messy by early afternoon.
Everything changed Saturday. The state woke up under a thick, white blanket. The travel ban continued until 4 p.m. Saturday afternoon, so people were stuck at home. Those with power may not have minded. Those without it needed information. Thanks to smart phones, social media and our websites, we were able to get it to them.
The plans started hatching Thursday. Chris Biondi, coordinator of online content for the News & Interactive Division, got the ball rolling on a portal site that would gather all of the blizzard coverage from the more than 120 Wicked Local and six daily sites in Massachusetts. It was built in a way that allowed the blizzard page to live locally, so each site benefited from the traffic.
As of Monday morning, all of the special blizzard sites saw 44,050 pageviews from Feb. 8-10. Traffic on the regular sites shot up, more than doubling and tripling from the previous Saturday in many cases. The Patriot Ledger saw its best ever Saturday traffic with 174,983 pageviews.
The blizzard site wouldn’t have been successful without content. Despite the fact that several of our offices and much of our staff had no power, and all of our staff was buried or blocked in by snow, we managed to tell our readers in every corner of our coverage area what was going on before, during and after the storm.
More than 150 stories were posted to the blizzard site, and doubtless more were posted to individual sites. As of Monday morning, 44 photo galleries and 28 videos were posted to the blizzard site.
In addition to Associated Press material and information from our media partner, WCVB-TV, the content came from staffers who went to herculean efforts to gather the news, photos and videos.
John Basile, a managing editor in the Cape Cod unit, said he was able to post several storm updates each day throughout the weekend. “I shot photos and some video from as far as I could travel from home on foot,” he said, echoing how many staffers were forced to get around.
New media editor and photographer Mark Gardner lost power at his Marshfield home and the Marshfield office on Friday night. Marshfield was one of the hardest hit towns, with downed trees and wires and barely plowed roads. After shoveling his Ford sedan out for two hours Saturday morning, he went around Marshfield and shot great photos. He got stuck in two snowbanks and ended up sitting in his hybrid car uploading the photos to the web using an aircard.
He went back out that night to get photos and video of the National Guard moving residents to a larger shelter. He got more cleanup photos and video on Sunday. Gardner said he was grateful for the couple of restaurants that were open and let him use their electricity to power back up and file his work.
The office was still without power Monday morning, but a generator was en route to power up the servers. Still no heat, but at least they could work.
Marshfield Mariner editor Nancy White credits her reporter, Mary Jane Hanron, for keeping in contact with emergency management officials all weekend. In addition to web updates, she posted often to Twitter and Facebook.
“People without power were starving for information on what was happening and (Hanron) worked to provide that information to them in a timely manner,” White said.
Social media proved an invaluable way to get the word out.
Kris Olson, digital editor and the editor of the Marblehead Reporter, said he got more than 275 shares on a reader-submitted photo gallery he posted on the paper’s Facebook page. The page got about 80 new fans.
“Seems folks shared the photo a lot with people who moved away from Marblehead, and the nostalgia had them deciding that following the paper was a good idea. Pretty cool,” Olson said.
Digital editor and photographer David Colantuono said mobile reporting and social media distribution were key without power. “Also, we saw a 250% increase in mobile traffic on the Cape site over the weekend. I think more people saw my video on Facebook than on our site.”
Lynne Sullivan, editor in chief of the Herald News in Fall River, Mass., didn’t let a little snow stop her from getting her team into work.
“I got a call from my publisher, Lisa Strattan, that we had ‘a challenge’ to deal with: Quincy had no power and we needed to put out Brockton's paper. I was tasked with finding all the people who could come in and help (I was already nervous that my copy desk was going to struggle to find their way in that night to put out our OWN papers!). So I found some staff members who lived nearby, but either their cars were buried or they were a little (understandably) nervous to drive. Not me - I'm a New England chick at heart! So I fired up the minivan, got my husband to speed up his driveway shoveling and I headed out to pick up my five co-workers! We had a nice tour of the digging out process across much of our coverage area! And smart-thinking staffers brought the makings of Fluffernutters with them to share with everyone - what's better to get you through blizzard coverage than Fluffernutters?! Luckily, the power came on and we didn't need to put out Brockton.”
Patriot Ledger and Enterprise Editor Chazy Dowaliby credits the IT and pre-press departments and her editorial team (some of whom had no power at home themselves) for coming up with a game plan to address both papers’ power outages Saturday and produce a full Sunday edition of The Enterprise.
They cobbled PDFs from The Weekend Patriot Ledger pages, identified photos and stories that digital editors had been posting for 24 hours, and used email to gather live content from reporters, correspondents and photographers plowing through snow-buried towns.
Everything was going to be electronically transmitted to The Herald News copy desk. After cobbling together that "skeleton edition" initially, the team was able to put out a full "first-rate Sunday paper" when the power came back on.
"Don't miss it. It's one of our best," Dowaliby said.
All the hard work made it into the hands of the readers. Todd Peterson, vice president of circulation in New England, said everyone got their print papers delivered to their homes over the weekend.
Saturday's got delivered on Sunday, and some on Monday, because of the travel ban, and things were slow going, but the papers made it out. Peterson said the drivers did "a phenomenal job" and there were no major accidents.
Ironically, the same time the storm descended on Massachusetts, so did a bunch of journalists for the New England Newspaper & Press Association convention and awards in Boston. Many GateHouse staff, newspapers and websites were honored. The Herald News’ Sullivan said her publisher texted her Saturday night with the award results.
“… and I had totally forgotten about that. Not that it didn't matter, but more like, ‘You know what? I don't need anyone to tell me I have a talented, dedicated staff. I already know, and today proved it.’”