From the wildfires that ravaged the state to the tragic theater shooting in Aurora July 20, some of the biggest events that captured the nation’s attention this summer happened in Colorado.
Newspapers and other media found themselves using every tool at their disposal to gather and report the news — and doing so with a breadth and depth that would not have been possible even three years ago.
Thanks to those technologies — from tablet computers and more robust broadband access to more powerful smartphones — newsgathering and news distribution have become a whole new ball game.
The Waldo Canyon fire caused millions of dollars of damage and destroyed almost 300 structures in the neighborhoods of Colorado Springs. Many homeowners learned about the fate of their homes from online photo galleries at The Denver Post.
“You are talking about a staff that grew up in Colorado and they have been covering fires for years and now they had these tools in their hands that allowed them to do tremendous real-time reporting,” said Jon Cooper, vice president of media relations and employee communication at Digital First Media, which manages the MediaNews Group-owned Post.
“The advent of mobile journalism — distribution and the ability to send reporters into the field using mobile devices and the accessibility of Wi-Fi have been huge. It allows journalists to spend more time in their community than in the newsroom.”
Smartphones and iPads with geolocational capabilities allowed photographers to pinpoint the location of the photos they were shooting. That enabled The Post to cover the fire as it occurred as well as providing critically important and extremely accurate information about houses that were lost or damaged.
Those capabilities were brought into even sharper focus in the early morning of July 20, when 12 people were killed and dozens more injured by a gunman at an Aurora theater, said Tim Rasmussen, The Post’s assistant managing editor for photography and multimedia.
“During the fires we really realized the value of all these mobile tools, but then after the theater shooting — the ability for reporters and photographers to work wherever they stood was pretty stunning,” he said.
“In the past this type of coverage would not have been possible without having to leave the scene, and now reporters and photographers don’t have to miss anything. The real difference is to be able to transmit and edit right from where you stand, and get that stuff back to the newsroom and online in minutes.”
In the case of the theater shooting, video posted on The Post’s homepage was updated as rapidly as the story unfolded. In short order, the newspaper was able to include quality video footage of press conferences with the Aurora police chief, eyewitnesses who were in theater 9 during the shooting and family members sent to a nearby high school to await information about their loved ones.
“We were putting all of this on the homepage as we were getting it, so as you come to the website you can watch a video that gets you up to date on the story and then you can go deeper into that story through our photo galleries, stories and blogs,” Rasmussen said. “We were moving, in real time, these story videos of what we knew at the time.”
Video was a constant in both the fire and shooting stories — particularly the latter with eyewitness accounts beginning right after the tragedy until later that day when police went to the alleged shooter’s booby-trapped apartment.
“We hit every part of the best of the Web to tell these stories collectively,” Rasmussen said.
Video has grown to be an ever-larger component of many newspapers’ newsgathering process, mirroring the availability of camera-equipped mobile devices and easier-to-use editing software.
Times Shamrock Communications, for example, beefed up its video capabilities last fall when it rolled out Bethlehem, Pa.-based Viddler’s video player across three of its eight daily newspapers — the Times-Tribune in Scranton, Pa., and sister Pennsylvania properties the Republican Herald in Pottsville and News Item in Shamokin.
Three more will go live in September, said Ed Pikulski, Times Shamrock’s digital audience director.
“We don’t just want to put it up on every site to put it up, it needs to be populated to look good,” he said.
Times Shamrock’s papers produce two types of video — the first is created by a Web editor and reporter or photographer with scripted questions and planned shots, and the second is raw video generated by reporters in the field with video cameras or smartphones.
Viddler’s platform, Pikulski said, makes it easy for writers and reporters to regularly incorporate video into their coverage.
“If you have ever uploaded a video to YouTube, Blip or Facebook, you could use Viddler — it’s very intuitive,” Pikulski said. “With the availability of these types of recording devices and the skills journalists are getting in college now, there aren’t too many that are uncomfortable with shooting video or making it part of what they do when they’re out getting a story.”
That is not to say Times Shamrock is trying to generate the kind of video content or quality of the TV news media.
“We don’t want to try to be television, but we know we have newsrooms that are a lot bigger than most of the TV stations now,” Pikulski said. “It’s a small, important complement to something we are already doing.”
Conversely, he said, TV stations aren’t out there trying to be newspapers or be the authority on long-form journalism.
“It’s more natural for us to add video than for TV stations to add long investigative journalism pieces.
“No, we’re not TV, but we are not afraid to produce video and we can do it pretty well.”
Conley Publishing Group Ltd., which prints a group of small daily newspapers in the Milwaukee area (as well as News & Tech and other papers and magazines in Wisconsin and Arizona) is focusing its efforts on exploiting the capabilities of Apple’s iPad. The publisher two months ago equipped five reporters with the devices to support newsgathering functions ranging from writing stories to capturing photos and video.
While technology has revolutionized newsgathering, the basic responsibility of journalists to accurately tell the story hasn’t changed, Pikulski said.
“At the end of the day, they still have to write stories,” he said. “But our writers understand
there is a balance — there is a social media component they need to be aware of, there are the breaking news things and they must know when they need to be communicating back to the newsroom. There are so many pieces and components to a story now.”
In the case of the fires and shooting this summer, The Post and other local media focused on marrying technology with the talents of writers and editors who were able to tell the story with words, said Cooper at DFM.
“You want everyone to have a strong grasp of all these elements like social media and the various tools they can use, but what you really want them to have is a strong foundation for journalism,” he said.