Some lessons l learned about ‘citizen journalism’ ten years ago today

Lost photos: I shot this photo from
my office window last April.
Unfortunately, I can’t locate the photos shot
from the same location on April 16, 1998.

My first ever accidental online “citizen journalism” (before the term existed) experience occurred ten years ago, today. Unfortunately, because of the ephemeral nature of the web and certain “wish we knew then what we know now” practices, there is no place for me to point to what I did on that day.

Today, posting “weather photos” is one of those participatory “user-generated-content” activities that even the most up-tight control-freak media company encourages. In the past week or so, I’ve been emailed by at least two big brand online services requesting that I join their network of weather watchers due to my practice of posting photos of weather outside my office window on the 7th floor of a building near Vanderbilt University in Nashville.

Ten years ago today, Will Weaver (then an employee at Hammock, now the big-guy — literally and figuratively — at the e-mail marketing company, emma) and I did a rather remarkably dumb thing. We had an early digital camera and decided to take photos of a tornado that was heading straight towards our building.

All the smart employees (everyone but the two of us) headed to the core of our office building, but we were thinking how great it would be to take some photos and post them on the Hammock.com website. That was a rather out-of-the-box idea as the site was your basic brochure site at the time. Not like today where not only do we have several work-related blogs on the site, but every employee also has a “people page” where they can post information they’d like to share.

Back then, Will and I shot a series of photos (actually, I think Will was “shooting” and I was “photo directing”) of what turned out to be the tornado passing by our office as it touched down in Centennial Park on its way to hitting downtown (including the stadium, then under construction) before doing major widespread damage in East Nashville. (Today, the Nashville Tennessean has a retrospective of the days events.)

After the tornado passed our office building, Will and I and a few other Hammock employees jumped in a car and (I don’t recommend this to anyone — indeed, do not ever do this) drove out to survey the damage in the area immediately surrounding our office. A few blocks from our office, we came-upon what turned out to be one of the most tragic events related to that day. As we watched, a large team of Nashville emergency service and fire department personnel were attempting to save a Vanderbilt student who was pinned beneath a tree in Centennial Park. Unfortunately, the student died later.

When we returned to the office, Will posted the photos at the URL (which no longer works) hammock.com/tornado. Within an hour, CNN.com and other news services were pointing to the photos and the site, which perhaps on a good day got 100 visitors, was (thanks to a robust server) getting tens of thousands of viewers. Sometime during the night, a radio talk show host I had never heard of until then, Art Bell, linked to the photos and started talking about them on his show. (Later I learned that visiting aliens and bad weather were a staple of his show.) The link from Art Bell ended up crashing our servers, as I recall.

Several years ago, we discovered that we had “lost” those photos and any archive of what the site was like on that day. I haven’t actually given up on them turning up somewhere, but searches of the WayBackMachine and other services have not turned up any mirror sites that captured the photos.

One of the reasons I now am obsessed with backing up and organizing digital media — and displaying it on multiple platforms — is my disappointment in having lost that April 16, 1998 moment in time — as experienced by a few of us.

Today, Hammock Inc. would have the photos uploaded to Flickr.com/hammock and YouTube.com/hammockinc instantly and the photos would be backed up on three different servers in our offices and off-site. And, oh yeah, they’d also be posted on that “Out My Office Window” Flickr set. Additionally, we would grant rights to anyone wanting to display the photos for news-coverage purposes.

We’ve come a long way in the past ten years. Today, the city of Nashville has a network of siren alarms that warn people of weather emergencies. Vanderbilt students can be contacted immediately via text message during any type of emergency. And today, the notion of individual witnesses of an event providing personal coverage directly to an audience, and not mediated by a professional news operation, is accepted as a norm — and even “covered” by traditional media.

Later: Laura Creekmore, who then and now lived in East Nashville, recalls the day’s event (she was one of the smart people who went to our building’s basement). I spoke today also with Will Weaver whose recollection is similar to mine. If Lewis Pennock or others are reading this, please comment to fill-in-the-blanks of any details from that day.