The benefits of having your disaster snubbed by the national media

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The Weather Channel’s
Master of Disaster (via)

Yesterday, Andrew Romano wrote a piece for The Gaggle Blog on Newsweek.com called, “Why the Media Ignored the Nashville Flood.”

Quote:

“…the modern media may be more multifarious than ever, but they’re also remarkably monomaniacal. In a climate where chatter is constant and ubiquitous, newsworthiness now seems to be determined less by what’s most important than by what all those other media outlets are talking about the most. Sheer volume of coverage has become its own qualification for continued coverage. (Witness the Sandra Bullock-Jesse James saga.) In that sense, it’s easy to see why the press can’t seem to focus on more than one or two disasters at the same time. Everyone is talking about BP and Faisal Shahzad 24/7, the “thinking” goes. So there must not be anything else that’s as important to talk about. It’s a horrible feedback loop.”

Among the “hyperlocal newsers” and Twitter users tracking the disaster, there was an early bewilderment of why we were being ignored. There was something surreal in knowing that ten people in Nashville alone (and close to 20 more in the cities and towns in the region) had been swept from their cars and drowned, but tuning into CNN et al to find no mention of it. Even when the disaster started providing great video like internationally recognizable icons like the Grand Ole Opry and the Country Music Hall of Fame being encroached by the flood, still there was very little coverage to compete with BP and Shahzad.

The exception (no surprise) to the national media’s early no-fly zone policy towards th Nashville Flood was the Weather Channel. I discovered when their Jim Cantore parachutes into a disaster, the weather wonks start taking notice. Soon, a somewhat diversionary joke meme evolved as local Twitter users started wondering if Anderson Cooper would ever show up. (He showed up, finally, yesterday.)

Yet, about Tuesday, Day 3 of the flooding, just as the Cumberland River began to crest in downtown Nashville, providing some of the most dramatic visuals, it began to sink into those of us who were tracking the coverage, being the focus of lots of disaster may have its downside. (Note: The upside of lots of coverage is fund-raising. You need lots of cash early-on to address needs and saturation coverage helps raise the awareness of such a need.) First off, such coverage may cause people to cancel trips to Nashville. Yet within days, unless your visit involves the 2,000-room Opryland Hotel, Nashville will be tourist-ready. Even the flooded LP Field is going to be ready for the concerts that are a part of the giant CMA Festival in a few weeks. The things that are going to take months and years to fix are thousands of homes in the suburbs and surrounding communities. (And Opryland Hotel.)

Last night, I listened to a live-stream version of a local technology podcast produced by David Beronja called The Nashville Feed. In it, David, Lucas Hendrickson, Mike Byrd and Christy Frink recount the way in which the hyperlocal news community discovered it was not merely in the middle of a big rainstorm, but at the center of a disaster. (For those interested in hyperlocal news, I recommend listening.)

They note, rightly so, additional positives of not having the national media swoop into town.

First, they (and I) agree that the two other stories being obsessed over were, indeed, more newsworthy. Indeed, I fear the day when such a car-bombing (not just the potential of one) will be so ordinary as not to be considered news. And, as I have family along the Alabama Gulf Coast, I’ve been obsessed over the oil spill, myself. So, in Nashville, we know those are big news stories.

Second, by having a disaster devoid of the theatrics of cable news coverage, the local news community — those who are paid and those who do it for passion — realized they were serving as the only source of news — not only for Nashville and the region, but for anyone with loved ones in the area. (As a parent of kids in the age-group, I always think of far-away parents of students at Vanderbilt or one of the other local universities as the audience I’m serving at a time like that.)

When hyperlocal bloggers started seeing their traffic logs sky-rocket on Saturday and Sunday, they intuitively realized what was taking place — and they responded. The website Nashvillest.com came of age over the weekend. And the social media crew at the Nashville Tennessean displayed remarkable skills at circumventing and hacking the Gannett-chain-issued content management system and editorial policies that seem to cripple Gannett websites and news properties from being real-time journalists.

And while everyone in Nashville began to wonder why CNN, Fox, et al, were ignoring them, they didn’t really stop to actually care. They were too busy out helping their neighbors.

For reasons too complex to describe in one post, let me just say this: Nashville and this region have some unique traits, infrastructure, people, resources, points-of-view, institutions and other assets that make disaster response seem remarkably organized. It’s like when an ant hill is disturbed, but all the ants seem to know exactly what to do to get back to work. Everyone in Nashville has an inner-triage system that lets them know the order in which they should reach out to family, neighbors, families in their children’s school, families in their church, families in the church they’ve partnered with in other parts of town, volunteer coordination groups like Hands on Nashville.

Small and large businesses don’t need anyone telling them they should let employees off to do volunteer work. It just happens. FEMA? What’s FEMA? (Actually, I know, and I appreciate them being on the ground so fast.)

I’m sure this happens in other towns. But there’s something about realizing the world isn’t watching that helps people understand that “if it is to be, it’s up to me.”

In any disaster — especially one that affects tens of thousands of people — knowing you can’t depend on the outside world can provide a tremendous amount of incentive.