Two weeks ago today (or two weeks ago last night – still not clear), the Waldo Canyon Fire started. It’s now more than 95% contained and has been 100% contained on all Colorado Springs boundaries for several days now. It feels like a good time to organize some ideas about the local television coverage of the most destructive fire in Colorado’s history.
Nothing here is advanced as definitive. Instead, it’s a handful of my personal thoughts, ideas, observations, and opinions. I feel it’s honest, constructive, and fair.
The 9 thoughts below are by no means comprehensive. Such phenomena as the incredible fire fighting effort, the Community Rises event (driven by the Colorado Springs Independent and aired and streamed live by every local television and radio station, producing nearly $300,000 in donations in just 3 hours), the WildFireTees.com explosion (really cool story involving local marketing and design folks), and the local print media are not addressed here. Also, this is more about the intersection of local television and social media than social media alone (for which the Waldo Canyon Fire is a fantastic case study).
Please add anything you’d like to the comments section below or by tweeting me (@ethanbeute).
1. I Woke Up To Infomercials
Like the entire experience, the first afternoon of the fire (Saturday, June 23) was surreal. Photos and videos from that time show a beautiful, sunny, and hot day with a huge smoke plume growing west of Colorado Springs. I’d hiked a handful of mountains this year, including Cameron Cone in the Pike National Forest; it was extremely and dangerously dry everywhere. By late afternoon, it was clear that this could be “the big one.”
Throughout the evening, rather than watching it on television, thousands of people headed out to watch the fire from various overlooks around the city. At 10pm, just before going to bed, my wife and I sampled the local television newscasts to get an update on the fire. It was growing fast.
When I woke up the next morning at 6am, I turned on KOAA-TV (5), the local NBC affiliate and the station for which I worked for 5 years. What was on? Infomercials. Really.
The station opted for regularly scheduled programming, so infomercials continued until the local newscast began at 7am.
Apparently they didn’t imagine that everyone who went to sleep interested in and concerned about the fire on Saturday night might want to be served the latest information immediately upon waking up Sunday morning.
I don’t know if it was due to being a weekend (thin staff, limited contact between managers, no meetings). I don’t know if it’s because the General Manager and News Director are both quite new to our area and, therefore, failed to grasp the enormity of the potential in the fire (I know and like the former, I do not know the latter).
There’s no sense in speculating further. No matter the reason, it felt like a significant missed opportunity.
2. Early Commitment to Non-Stop Coverage
Meanwhile, my wife slept poorly that Saturday night. She got out of bed early Sunday morning around 3am and turned on the TV. She was greeted by live news coverage of the fire on KKTV (11), the local CBS affiliate. She found this extremely helpful and comforting.
Apparently, the station made an early commitment to provided non-stop coverage. They continued it for 130 hours – that’s 5 and a half days straight. The other local television news operations also provided non-stop coverage starting some time on Sunday and continued for a few days, as well.
Bonus points to KOAA for refusing to use a “Breaking News” banner across the bottom of the screen when displaying information that was hours old. Bonus points to KKTV for including an in-studio interpreter translating live in sign language for the hearing impaired (that’s what service to the whole community looks like, btw).
Note to people who invariably complained about non-stop coverage on any/all stations: I get it. Once assured we were perfectly safe, our 9-year-old son became bored with the incessant coverage, too. But To complain about missing a repeat episode of the fifth incarnation of CSI is selfish at best. Try reading a book if you’re spent on wildfire coverage.
The fact is that our local television stations were honoring their commitment to the public, the foundation of their FCC licenses to broadcast. There was nothing more important that the stations could be doing than telling the community as much as possible about the Waldo Canyon Fire in those first few days. It’s impossible for any mass medium to satisfy hundreds of thousands of people with a singular, linear offering; you’re going to be disappointed sometimes if you rely on it.
It’s worth noting that non-stop coverage, which all our local affiliates provided for some period of time during the Waldo Canyon Fire, is extremely challenging to deliver these days.
Most local television stations across the country have very limited staffs, down several positions from their headcount highs of, perhaps, 5 years ago. I think it’s fair to make the generalized statement that most local TV stations are running as thin as possible, given the current challenges to their business model. I saw sports guys Jesse Kurtz (KKTV) and Rob Namnoum (KRDO) anchoring regular news coverage to help fill in the scheduling gaps. Beyond the handful of people you see on television, there’s an army of people behind the scenes – producers, photojournalists, technical directors, and others – necessary to get them there successfully. All these positions had to be filled 24 hours per day, likely at great overtime expense to the station.
Each local TV station, then, was pushed to its limits in staffing up to provide continuous, local news and weather coverage.
Still, this early experience on the first night of the fire was emotionally powerful for my wife; it left a strong impression. I doubt she was alone in this. These are the kinds of experiences that win hearts and minds in a way that’s not easily lost.
Later that morning, she liked the station on Facebook and has relied on them for the past 2 weeks.
3. Fantastic Facebook Growth
My wife was not alone in turning to Facebook, either. Each station picked up thousands of new Facebook fans. I’d not been paying close attention, but my last memory of fan count by station went something like this:
Today they look like this:
KOAA 39,000 | KKTV 48,000 | KRDO 31,000 | KXRM 12,000 (rounded to nearest thousand)
Obviously, many, many people found a powerful reason to reach out to these stations on Facebook. I’d guess that a significant share are from out of town. Hopefully, the stations are already thinking about how to continue an engaging relationship with these new fans.
So much social sharing was taking place, though, that it was easy to keep up on the latest details of the fire, the evacuations, and other effects without watching the stations or liking them on Facebook.
As valuable a complement to the dissemination of information, exchange of ideas, and depth of coverage as social media proved to be, though, television broadcasting remained vital. There’s no other way to reach the masses with details so urgent and important. My take: valuable complement, but not yet realistic replacement.
4. Daily Press Briefings (To Watch Or Not To Watch?)
Press conferences have been held at least once daily since June 23. Incident Commander Rich Harvey and Forest Supervisor Jerri Marr became local celebrities. Mayor Steve Bach, El Paso County Sheriff Terry Maketa, CSFD Chief Rich Brown, CSPD Chief Pete Carey, and several other officials became fixtures, as well.
Dozens of local people, as well as the television and print media (individual staff members and entire organizations), would live-tweet important updates from these events – all with the #WaldoCanyonFire hashtag. These new facts would immediately make it to Facebook, as well. It was easy and convenient to keep up with evacuations, containment, resource adds, and other information without watching it live.
Aside from the horror of Tuesday night, June 26, as the fire blew down from the forest into the Mountain Shadows neighborhood (live television was an absolute necessity), I got everything I needed from Facebook and Twitter. This includes the heartwarming support of firefighters by people lining the streets at every shift change (pure gratitude, an absolute joy to see), daily press briefings, and other developments.
5. The Single Best Team on Local TV
Lisa Lyden and Rob Quirk have shared an anchor desk on KOAA for more than 20 years. Over that same period, they formed an unbeatable team with weather guy Mike Daniels and sports guy Lee Douglas, who sadly passed away earlier this year. This kind of tenure is extremely uncommon in the business these days.
The Colorado Springs/Pueblo television market has never seen a stronger news duo, nor will they ever see one again, given the state of the industry. With Lisa Lyden’s impending retirement after 30 years on the air and with the incredibly strong, unspoken connection between the two, Rob’s absence for a long-scheduled and well-deserved vacation was unfortunate for local viewers (and perhaps for the two of them).
With absolutely no slight intended to his substitute, who performed admirably, I felt that the single best anchor team on TV - Rob and Lisa – would have served this community better than any other. They’re both tried and true professionals, exceptional human beings, and deeply knowledgeable locals.
From the seat behind the anchor desk, no team has the combination of experience, perspective, empathy, and gravitas that they’d have brought to coverage of this disaster.
6. A Unique – And Missing – Perspective
Meteorologist Mike Madson is a 20+ year Colorado Springs television veteran, with another decade before that in Salt Lake City. Less than a month after his tenure at KOAA ended, the Waldo Canyon Fire erupted.
An intelligent, humorous, kind, and humble person, Mike Madson’s got a master’s degree in geoscience and teaches astronomy, meteorology, and other classes at a local college. In my opinion, his unique perspective would have added so much value to the news and weather reporting around this fire. He was the only Colorado Springs resident on the highly-esteemed KOAA weather team, toward which absolutely no slight is intended (I know and like each of them very much).
Just as former KRDO reporter and web guy (and insanely prolific tweeter) Barrett Tryon provided live reports for his previous station on Tuesday night during the firestorm, so too could Mike have provided the only truly enterprising weather reporting on the fire.
I put “weather” and “reporting” together here to separate it from the solid, in-studio work performed by the weather people on all the local stations (Mike Daniels, Craig Eliot, Brad Sowder, Brian Bledsoe, Brandon Borremans, Matt Meister, Terry Gerbstadt, and others). I added “enterprising” to connote the seeking out and sharing of an extra element or an additional layer of information beyond the press briefing facts commonly provided by all stations and reporters. So, the imagined role here is as an additional resource set out to gather and tell stories from out in the field from a weather and science perspective.
I’ve never worked with a more selfless television talent, so I doubt he’d have refused a request to add his perspective in the face of this unforgettable event. I reasonably suspect there was no request.
7. The Most Helpful Technology on Local TV
I found one piece of technology so helpful and compelling that I wanted to include it in this post. Nothing gave me a better understanding of exactly where the fire was than the 3D mapping of KRDO meteorologist Matt Meister.
The ridgelines, the canyons, the neighborhoods, the streets, the highway – it was all very clear, put things into perspective, and provided context for references we were hearing in press briefings. Though an active local hiker who knows the area relatively well, I gained a better understanding of the geography and topography immediately west of Colorado Springs through this on-air presentations.
Even if locals didn’t see his 3D maps, I expect that we collectively have a far better understanding of wildfires, of our local geography, and of the character of our community for the Waldo Canyon Fire news and weather coverage in all its forms.
8. National Coverage (Good Enough For Who It’s For?)
I choose not to spend my hard-earned money on cable or satellite service. I watch no cable news. I saw the top of just one national network newscast (NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams on Friday, June 29 after President Barack Obama’s visit to Colorado Springs). So this thought is largely speculative, but I’ll back it with some anecdotal evidence.
My guess is that most national news coverage of the Waldo Canyon Fire was quick, dramatic, and shallow – six or eight shots of the worst flames in Mountain Shadows accompanied by four or five facts about the size of the fire and the progress of the fight. That may have been enough for most people, but certainly not for all.
I produced photos and videos every day from Saturday, June 23 through Tuesday, July 3. Though some of the photos are quite good, the work in general is unremarkable – nothing like the dramatic, fiery shots on local and national television or flying around on Facebook.
Still, the videos I’ve posted to YouTube have nearly 40,000 views and the photos and videos I’ve posted to Flickr have more than 25,000 views to date. Yet those are just drops in an ocean of “citizen journalist” content created during this event.
The comments that came with those views are what kept me going – people from all over the country thanking me for helping keep them informed. Some grew up here. Others just visited. Many have family here. All expressed their support and wished us well. Clearly national coverage was significantly lacking for those who cared.
Not only are individuals searching, finding, and consuming the content of “citizen journalists,” so too are the formal media outlets. National and local media all sought and used extensively photos and videos from local residents.
Requests to use my photos and videos came from ABC News/Good Morning America through YouTube (granted through email 6/24), CBS News through Facebook, Twitter, and email (granted by phone 6/25), and WeatherNation through YouTube (granted 3 times to 3 different producers).
I’ve got no idea what, if anything, was actually used by these outlets. I was far more interested in sharing content with my immediate social circle online, which has grown to include many new, local people during this event.
9. An Incredibly Well-Documented Disaster
Being one of the most recent, the Waldo Canyon Fire must be among the most well-documented disasters ever. As mobile devices that shoot 8mp photos and 1080p HD video become ubiquitous, we’ll all be equipped to shoot and share our experiences.
The two best videos produced during the Waldo Canyon Fire (in my opinion) did not come from media outlets, but from this north side resident (who had an ideal perspective, inspired vision, and nice equipment) and by this CSFD videographer (plays like an episode of Cops, minus the methamphetamine).
Two animated flyovers of the fire area with growth of the fire color coded were produced by this guy (using publicly available infrared flyover data!).
Often, the local stations would share this content socially or within their broadcasts. KRDO even brought into their studio a young videographer who irresponsibly, selfishly, and opportunistically headed into the mandatory evacuation zone during the height of the fire fight to shoot his own video (his business address is an apartment or condo 12 miles safely east of the Mountain Shadows evacuation zone – east, even, of Powers Boulevard (Kansas border in my book)).
During that in-studio interview, anchor James Jarman, who I respect personally and professionally, acknowledged that both the station and the shooter would take heat for the video captured in obvious violation of the evacuation order. I found the whole thing consistent with KRDO’s brand of news, which tends to be a bit more heightened or exaggerated in tone than KKTV or KOAA. Say what you will about that style – I accept it as an actual point of differentiation that some of the viewing audience prefers.
The obvious point: coverage came in many forms from all kinds of places. Television news on air and on social networks relied
Obviously, there are so many places I could have taken this and so many things I could have included. I produced this for myself (it’s interesting to look back on your ideas months or years later), but also to encourage thought and discussion.
Share your thoughts about what’s here (and what’s not) by leaving a comment. With what do you agree or disagree? Why? What are your most memorable television or social media moments of the past 2 weeks?
Thanks to the fire fighters who came from all over the country to help fight this fire (34 states represented, including Alaska and Hawaii). Thanks to all the agencies involved in the strategy and execution of fighting the fire and keeping our local citizens safe and informed. Thanks to our local media for keeping us informed and connected. Thanks to all the organizations that assisted those in need. Thanks to every one of our community members who made contributions of any kind to help one another.
A challenging chapter in Colorado Springs history is nearing its close.
My top two takeaways from the Waldo Canyon Fire experience: live in gratitude and love your neighbor.