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The Real Question for Jeff Bezos: Time to Invest in Journalism?

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It’s been fascinating to watch the cheerleading that’s gone on since the announcement that the Graham family was selling The Washington Post to Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos.

When the announcement was made, the reaction from technologists and Web journalists was pretty reflexive.  Many out there are describing Bezos as a savior, as the person who will finally help The Post get its digital act together. Lots of cheerleading about the possibilities with new packaging, and the “bold” business acumen of Bezos.

We’ve seen letters to Bezos from former Posties and declarations of hope from former Posties who worked for Bezos. We’ve seen a little finger-wagging from current Posties as well as a long parade of sentimentalism praising Don Graham, and reminiscing of a time gone by.

It seems we’ve seen both ends of the spectrum — cheerleading from technologists and other journalists who seem almost giddy that a rich tech guru will become a major media player — and those lamenting the end of an era.

Where’s the healthy skepticism?

It’s been hard to find. As another former employee of the Post Company (I worked at washingtonpost.com from 1996-2006) I’m also curious as to how this new transition will work out but I’ve hesitated to jump on the Bezos bandwagon.

There have been a few out there who have registered concernsJeff Jarvis tweeted: “One thing about Bezos and a newspaper: He is no proponent of openness. A more secretive tech company it’s hard to find.” And, Christopher Mims tweeted:  “Jeff Bezos now owns both Washington Post, $600 million server cloud for CIA. That won’t be a conflict of interest.”

And, Felix Salmon pointed out some basic management issues that may not sit well at The Post: “It (Amazon) also employs, mostly indirectly, thousands of workers in warehouses around the world, picking and packaging the goods it sells; those workers are treated badly, and enjoy effectively zero slack in their working lives.”

Yet, it’s been difficult to hear any real analysis amongst the cacophony of cheerleaders saying Bezos will create a Post where the readers will finally get what they want (like with Amazon.) What exactly does that mean? More coverage of the Royals? More video of car chases? More shallow news of the weird?

There’s been plenty of commentary about what a technologist like Bezos can bring to a company like The Washington Post. And, yes, after stagnating for the past 15 years, The Post will finally have to change its business model and those not on board with a “digital-first” mindset will not last long.

But, what about the journalism? Yes, The Post was a great newspaper but just because the delivery mode is changing doesn’t mean the journalism should.

The real questions for Bezos have not been asked — or answered.

Will he invest in a timely, costly investigative pieces?

Will he devote time and resources to foreign reporting?

Will he re-open bureaus that have been closed in the past decade as cost-cutting measures?

Some have described Bezos as a bottom-line kind of guy, well the bottom-line is that good investigative journalism takes time and money. And, Bezos won’t see much return on his investment, unless you can start quantifying “afflicting the comfortable” and holding government accountable.

Since the onset of Web journalism, there has been a wrestling match over the role of journalists and editors. The gatekeeping role has disappeared — no longer do journalists and editors determine what the user/consumer should read.  The Great Decoupling, as JD Lasica put it.  That unwillingness to give up the gatekeeping role and create new roles hurt The Post and many other news organizations.

But, it’s beginning to feel like the pendulum needs to swing back a little. We live in a scary, secretive time where the idea of privacy is laughable and where the public, press, and judiciary all seem to support the right of the government to eavesdrop and collect information on the citizenry at will. Jay Rosen recently asked how we can get ourselves back to an informed citizenry.

Jeff Bezos can go a long way to doing that by investing in journalism. I think many are hoping he will. We’ll see.

Why are we spending so much time ‘Measuring the Impact of Journalism?’

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I love this question posed by Greg Linch in this month’s Carnival of Journalism.  Almost every newsroom these days is driven by the need/desire to generate pageviews.  The Washington Post’s newsroom receives hourly updates on what stories are trending in the “most popular” category. A recent New York Times article on the trials and tribulations of Marcus Brauchli noted that 35 reports a day track traffic to the site.

“Editors receive a midday performance alert, telling them whether the site is on track to meet its traffic goals for the day. If it appears that they might miss their goal, editors will order up fresher content,” notes the Jeremy W. Peters of The Times.

The Boston Globe’s newsroom has nice feature in it:  Three screens devoted to Twitter feeds — so reporters can see what is trending.  And, The Globe also has a major effort underway to find ways to get at audience through different methods thanks to their MediaLab operation

These efforts to generate pageviews; develop audience; get visitors to stay on the site longer — are not new.

Way way back in the early years of the Interwebs (pre-2000) I worked with one washingtonpost.com editor who was fond of photo galleries of animals.  Specifically, pandas.  Who doesn’t like a photo gallery with pandas?  Those of us at The Post at the time came up with the phrase:  “guaranteed pageview generator.”  There were a number of stories that we knew would generate pageviews — mostly celebrity news and anything with “Redskins” in the headline.

Did we become whores to the stories we knew would generate pageviews?  We tried not to.  The morning/afternoon/evening news meetings often became  battlegrounds where editors from each section fought hard for homepage space (back when homepage positioning mattered to pageview counts.)  But more often than not those arguments were fought on journalistic merit.

In 2002, I was the political editor at the site and spent months with my team building a package for the 2002 Election coverage.  It was a fairly involved effort with more than a dozen people involved. And, it was a fairly important election.  It was the first election since the 9/11 terror attacks and the first real test for George W. Bush after he won the contested 2000 election.

Most of the homepage the morning after Election Day was devoted to a major interactive feature we had developed which we dubbed Election Explorer. It was mapping before its time — giving state-by-state breakdowns.  We knew people would come to the site looking for results and analysis — we figured we would get a decent amount of pageviews.

Then, in the late morning, as the election coverage dominated the homepage, news broke that Winona Ryder had been convicted on two counts of shoplifting.  Despite my many pleas, the decision was made to blow up the beautifully designed page featuring election coverage to make way for the Winona news.  Several staffers, dismayed with the move to prioritize celebrity news over real news, were spurred to leave a few months later.

It’s only gotten worse….

Pick your story. Brangelina.  Justin Bieber.  American Idol.  The top “search” on The Post’s Web site right now is Mega Millions (the jackpot is $640 million but is this “news?”)

There has always been this push/pull relationship.  Do reporters and editors give readers/viewers/users what they want or what we as journalists feel they  need/should want?  (See: previous election coverage reference.)

Journalism used to be about finding that balance — trying to educate and inform as well as entertain.

Today, it seems more like we’ve become whores to the pageview count.

Perhaps we all need to remember that the true “impact of journalism” rests with the impact we have on people’s lives.  Have we given readers/viewers an amazing piece of writing or video that makes them appreciate parts of their life more?  Have we created an “Oh, wow” moment for readers/viewer?  Have we expanded someone’s universe?  Isn’t that why we got into this business?  Isn’t that what journalism has always done?

Perhaps the real question should be: “Why are we spending so much time measuring the “impact” of journalism?”  Because, it really isn’t quantifiable now, is it?

After the Paterno Debacle: A New Twitter Ethos Is Needed

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My blog entry taking a look at Twitter and the sloppy reporting surrounding the death of Joe Paterno was posted at the Online Journalism Review today.

‘Preemption’ Strategy: Where are the hard questions?

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During the runup to the Iraq War, The Washington Post’s Walter Pincus was one of the few national security journalists challenging the weapons of mass destruction assumptions being made by the Bush administration.  Unfortunately, the administration’s bogus claims were usually given A1 treatment, while Pincus’s stories often made their way onto A21.

At the time, I was one of the editors working on the newsdesk of The Post’s website and we would often try and get the “other side” from Pincus featured prominently on the homepage.  Still, you have to wonder what would have happened if his reporting was featured more prominently in the newspaper.

Pincus is still around, now authoring a column entitled “Fine Print.” He recently wrote a column which asked: “Has Obama taken Bush’s ‘preemption’ strategy to another level?” Pincus quotes a revised “strategic guidance” document which is startling in its bluntness:

“For the foreseeable future, the United States will continue to take an active approach to countering these threats by monitoring the activities of non-state threats worldwide, working with allies and partners to establish control over ungoverned territories, and directly striking the most dangerous groups and individuals when necessary” — emphasis added (by Pincus.)

I expected this column to get a lot of traction — for reporters and editorial boards around the country to pick up and run with this story.  But, the follow-ups have been relatively few. Where are the questions?  Where are the editorials? Isn’t this an issue worth probing?

To answer Arthur Brisbane’s recent question, yes, now would be the time to be a “truth vigilante.”

 

Hiatus Is Over….A Rough Week for Ombudsmen

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Hi and welcome back!  It’s been awhile.  Admittedly, the care and feeding of this blog fell off last semester (sometimes life takes over) but now I’m back to reviving my little plant.

So, of course, where to start?  As more than a few folks noted on Twitter the past several days, it’s been a rough week for newspaper ombudsmen.  Arthur S. Brisbane, the public editor for The New York Times, drew much attention  with his column which posed this question:  “Should The Times Be a Truth Vigilante?

The lede is poster-child verbiage for those wondering whether there are still out-of-touch editors roaming around in the mainstream media:   “I’m looking for reader input on whether and when New York Times news reporters should challenge ‘facts’ that are asserted by newsmakers they write about.”

Oy.

My head hurts.

The backlash on Twitter and on the comments board for the article was predictable. Christian Moerk of Brooklyn captured the feelings of many:  “As a former Times freelancer, and ’92 graduate of the Columbia School of Journalism, I’ll keep it short and to the point: Mr. Brisbane, even posing the question as you did reveals an appalling ignorance of what journalists are supposed to do for a living. You wouldn’t have lasted in a J-school ethics class for five minutes, let alone a newsroom.”

This old-school print mentality of he said/he said journalism still dominates too many mainstream newsrooms.  It’s one of the many reasons why journalists get a bad reputation.  Too many readers views journalists as nothing more than glorified stenographers.  NYU’s Jay Rosen calls it the “View From Nowhere.”  The Times should really know better (remember the assertions about the “weapons of mass destruction?)

Brisbane’s question on how to tell the truth while being “objective and fair” came on the heels of a column by Washington Post ombudsman Patrick B. Pexton, where he asked: “Is The Post innovating too fast?

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UMass Panel to Look Back at 9/11 Attacks on 10-Year Anniversary

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(Updated: Aug. 29)

Mark Stencel, the managing editor for Digital News at NPR, will join a group of University of Massachusetts educators on Sept. 8 to take part in a panel discussion looking at how the U.S. and the world has changed in the decade since the 9/11 terror attacks.

“The terrorist attacks of 2001 and the beginnings of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq came as newsrooms were still grappling with what exactly it meant to be Web publishers,” said Stencel, who was an editor at The Washington Post’s web site on 9/11.

“At the time, our interactive online channels were still relatively new. For many of us, these channels for the first time provided global reach around the clock — including a new workday news audience — as well as nearly unlimited potential to dabble in new formats. But there were consequences: Newsrooms had accelerated deadlines and new competitors.
And we faced difficult questions about accuracy and what NOT to report.”

The panel, entitled “After the Towers Fell: A September 11th Retrospective,” will be held at 4 p.m. on Sept. 8 in the Campus Center Reading Room on the campus of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

“This panel discussion will be of great interest to anyone whose life was changed by 9/11–which means everyone,” said Karen List, director of the Journalism program.

The panelists for the event are: David Kotz from the Economics Department; MJ Peterson from Political Science; Linda Tropp from Psychology and Stencel. The panel will be moderated by Steve Fox of the Journalism Program, also a former editor for The Post’s web site.

Peterson will discuss the Bush administration’s response to the attacks; Kotz will look at the economic consequences of the attacks in the past decade; and Tropp will talk about general social psychological processes involved in group categorization.

A reception will follow the panel discussion. The panel is sponsored by the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences, the Journalism program, and the Departments of Political Science, Economics and Psychology.

Reporting from Afghanistan: UMass Journalism’s Ben Brody

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Ben Brody filed this interesting image from Afghanistan recently for GlobalPost. (Courtesy of Ben Brody.)

I met UMass journalism student Ben Brody last year when we chatted about what courses he should be taking.  When we talk about “learning by doing,” Ben truly takes it to heart.  I told Ben I wanted to keep up with his travels this summer, and I recently had a Q&A with him over e-mail.  If you have any questions for Ben, leave them in the comments section and I will try and do an updated version in a couple of weeks:


July 12:  Things are crazy in Kandahar City with AWK’s assassination this
morning.  Since I’m tied to the computer anyway, here are some
answers.

1.  What are you doing this summer? I’m working for GlobalPost in Afghanistan covering the aftermath of last year’s troop surge, which I spent four months covering as well.  At this point I’m still planning to return to UMass in the fall.

2. How did you end up in Afghanistan?  What is your background? I am a former Army combat photographer and am deeply interested in America’s military commitments overseas.  I spent more than two years in Iraq when that was the main story.  Afghanistan is the main friction point right now, so of course that’s where I am.

3. How did you end up at UMass?  When I left the Army I knew I wanted to live in the Pioneer Valley and attend school.  Some of my friends went to UMass after high school
and did very well for themselves.  So I applied, got in, and have two semesters left.

4. Tell us about the conditions in Afghanistan this summer.  Southern Afghanistan is hot, dry and violent in the summer.  Some areas are better than last year so far, and some are about the same.  I wouldn’t say there’s anywhere in the south that’s more violent than last year.  Land mines, both manufactured and improvised, are a major
threat down here.  The casualty figures don’t reflect the scores of soldiers who are being maimed every week here.  The typical result of stepping on a mine is the loss of both legs, and often one arm.

5.  Do you feel like you’re making a difference?  Was I supposed to be making a difference?  America has been fighting in Afghanistan for ten years.  What is different about Afghanistan now?

Here is some of Ben’s work:

A report on the insane Catch-22 that is killing and maiming U.S. troops every day.

Soldiers being stalked by caracal cats!

Soldiers show their love for chest waxing and hot pants!

Much of Ben’s journalism can be found on GlobalPost’s AfPak blog.

Carnival of Journalism: Talking to People IS a Life Hack!

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The question for this month’s Carnival:

“What are your life hacks, workflows, tips, tools, apps, websites, skills and techniques that allow you to work smarter and more effectively?


One of my favorite scenes in the Dead Poet’s Society is when Robin Williams tells his young students to stand on top of their desks.  It’s a lesson on seeing life from different perspectives, and not following the pack and doing what everyone else is doing.

Anyone who knows me knows I’m a huge Bruce Springsteen fan.  Usually in the middle of his concerts, Springsteen goes into a monologue, saying:  “I want you all to GET UP OUT OF YOUR SEATS…..”

So, how does this relate to work hacks?  Don’t worry, I’m getting there.

When I first saw this question from David Cohn, I thought of one word:  Twitter.   It’s become a place I turn to for information, updates, breaking news, etc.  But as I thought through the question,  I thought I would get radical on my buddy Dave.  I enjoyed Will Sullivan’s post as well, including this section:

  • Only use the “http://five.sentenc.es/” technique for (most) email responses (Or four or three or two sentences)
  • If it’s not time-critical, try to focus on emailing people around 8-9 a.m. in the morning so it’s at the top of their mailbox as soon as they get in, responses tend to be higher because they haven’t developed email fatigue yet.

But what struck me was, well, the lack of the personal touch.

Yes, I’m going to get radical here and suggest GETTING UP OUT OF  YOUR SEATS and actually talking to people!

There, I said it.

Radical, huh?

Now, I’m not sure how much discussion about face-to-face communication came up at the hip kids gathering organized by Mr. Cohn but it’s something I stress often in my Journalism classes at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.  And, frankly, such suggestions usually freak out 20-somethings.  Well, most people actually.

Yes, put aside your laptop, smart phones, tablets and mind-melds and go talk to folks!

And, you know what?  It works.

Recently, I was trying to deal with a complicated personal issue and my reflex was to send an e-mail.  You know what I did?  I called the person instead.  The discussion went smoothly and things worked out rather nicely.

Would I have achieved the same result via e-mail?  Probably not.

E-mail is actually a terrible form of communication, even moreso in a work environment.  You never know when one word might be received the wrong way, destroying a relationship.  Tone and body language are absent in e-mail — two critical forms of communication, especially in the workplace.

My old boss was fond of saying that if an e-mail goes back and forth three times, end it and go talk in person.  I try to follow that advice but even better advice would be this:  Why send an e-mail when you can actually talk to someone?

There, I said it.

Anyone who has shot photos or video has heard of the phrase:  “Focus with your feet.”   So, the next time you sit down to hammer out an e-mail at work, consider “focusing with your feet.” 

GET UP OUT OF YOUR SEATS AND GO TALK TO THAT PERSON!

Get Rad People!

Q&A With Nancy Cohen

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This shelter is at Central High School in Springfield. About 200 people are there They're looking for donations of socks, t shirts, towels, baby wipes. (Courtesy of Nancy Cohen.)

Adjunct instructor Nancy Eve Cohen teaches Reporting and Writing for Radio and Podcasting at UMass.

Nancy is also the environmental reporter for WNPR, Connecticut Public Radio and the Managing Editor of the Northeast Environmental Hub, a collaboration of 20 public radio stations.

She’s been covering the aftermath of the Springfield tornado, producing several pieces including:

*  This report on tornado survivors for WBUR

*  “Clean Up Crews Get To Work in Springfield.”

An interview with Morning Edition host Ray Hardman

I recently caught up with her to get her thoughts on covering the tornado and its aftermath.

1.   Where were you when the tornado hit Springfield?   What did you do?

I drove into Springfield the night of the tornado, a few hours later. There was a torrential rainstorm… every exit off the highway to Springfield was blocked so i wasn’t able to see much, but it prepared me for the next morning.  I knew it might be difficult to get where I needed to be when daylight came…

2.   Were you surprised by the amount of devastation in Springfield?

Shocked. I’ve been working in this business for a long time…even worked in a war zone… Sarajevo in 1992, but to see my own community ripped apart stunned me. The sheer force of the tornado was humbling

3.    Describe what you did during coverage on Wednesday and Thursday?

I managed to be in the right place at the right time on Thursday. Some of that was planning, some was assertiveness, some was dumb luck.

I got to one of the Red Cross shelters at 5:00 AM and snagged the last legal parking place. You couldn’t drive anywhere so it was key to stage oneself as close as possible.

When I walked into the shelter people were sleeping. I heard snoring, a few people were crying quietly. A baby was whimpering. A few people walked around wrapped in blankets, smoking.

One young woman said she had just paid her landlord before the tornado hit. Now she had no money and no place to live. A man in a wheelchair described waking up that morning in the shelter and realizing where he was and what had happened. His building was destroyed and he was worried his apartment would be looted. But he had no way to get there and little hope of finding another accessible apartment.

Many of the people had little to begin with and now they had even less.

After interviewing several of the survivors I went outside and walked south until I hit a police block. I talked to the police and they pointed out a man getting out of the car who turned out to be Senator Scott Brown. I had the chance to talk with him for a while. Then Governor Deval Patrick showed up along with Senator Kerry and the mayors of Springfield and Westfield.  I interviewed each of them and then, along with a gaggle of press, followed the politicians as they surveyed the damage on foot.

After the officials left a photographer friend and I talked our way past the police to some of the worst hit places.

I got some incredible interviews with two people who lived through the tornado…one took shelter in a closet inside, but the wind was blowing so hard the door almost blew away. Another saw a roof flying through the air “like the Wizard of Oz”  A building inspector examining the damage said it was a miracle not more people were killed “God Looked over the city and protected the people.”

Today, Friday I went to a new shelter that had been set up. I  spoke with a family who were from Somalia. They had come to Springfield a year ago after spending 12 years in a refugee camp. The 25 year old mother of four told me her new situation– homeless after the tornado— reminded her of being in the camp.  “It’s like when we fled from our country … We feeling like refugee all over again. We don’t have nothing now.”

One woman told me she had broke down crying the night before. ” I finally realized. like this is serious. I can’t go back to my home. Like this is it for us.”

I left the shelter and drove to a suburban neighborhood that was also hit. There was an army of utility trucks installing new telephone poles that had been snapped in half. There were damaged trees everywhere. Big ones. One house had several huge trees broken and splayed across the roof.

4.   Describe the role of social media in your reporting.

None. This was old fashioned, on foot, on-the-ground from early morning until my deadline loomed.

5.   What has surprised you most about the coverage of the tornadoes?

I haven’t had time to see a lot of other people’s work yet. I haven’t really stopped, but I’m about to.

Q&A With S.P. Sullivan

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The devastation in Springfield after Wednesday's tornado was surpising to many covering the aftermath. (Courtesy of S.P. Sullivan)

S.P. Sullivan is a 2010 graduate of the UMass journalism program.  Upon graduation, he took a job as a producer for MassLive, the online operation of The Springfield Republican.  I was chatting with him online prior to Wednesday’s tornado and caught up with him to see what the past several days have been like.

1.   Where were you when the tornado hit Springfield?   What did you do?

When the first tornado hit I was in the office. I stuck around because I have a little car and I didn’t want it to blow away during the NWS’ tornado watch.

We saw the tornado pass a few blocks from our building, tearing debris off the tops of buildings, but honestly I wasn’t that impressed. Even when our general manager came back from a meeting with photos of a few uprooted trees downtown, I didn’t think it was anything more than the microbursts that sometimes happen around here, destroying a random barn and leaving everything else untouched.

So I left! I don’t think I’ll ever forgive myself for that. I went grocery shopping. But there was no way to know the extent of the damage at that point, and I couldn’t get downtown because of gridlock traffic in that direction. It wasn’t until I got home that I heard about the level of damage. So, jaw ajar, I went back to work from my dining room table.

2.   Were you surprised by the amount of devastation in Springfield?

I don’t think I’ll ever forget what I saw.

3.    Describe what you did during coverage on Wednesday and Thursday?

Because I was 40 minutes away in Amherst when I started working on tornado coverage, I did a lot of back-channel stuff Wednesday night. I’m a producer, not a reporter, so the paper had reporters all over the scene. I tried to flesh out details of what happened from the streams of media reports, the chatter online and communicating with other staff. I made sure the latest stuff was on the homepage as it was coming in and added all the necessary media.

Then, I started recording statements from the governor and other officials remotely using a complicated set-up involving my smartphone, a Zoom H2 recorder and a stereo cable. Because of that I was able to listen in on the governor’s press briefings and file stories on the site about the state response within minutes of them ending. I edited and embedded audio from those briefings.

Most of Wednesday night I was glued to Twitter on the back end, trying to vet information as it was coming in and post stuff as soon as it was confirmed by us or our media partners.

Thursday, I came in early and started out with my normal morning routine, which is manning the homepage. I built what we call a ‘defcon’ promo, which is a module that we roll out for large, breaking news events like this one. Then I worked with a reporter at the paper on a live blog, bringing together dispatches and photos from reporters in the field, user-submitted photos and video and updates on traffic, office closures and whatnot from state agencies.

In the afternoon, I was sent out in the field to capture images and on-the-ground perspectives of the recovery process. I visited the badly damaged South End and talk to a security guard from one of the towers, who had helped his tenants to the shelter at the MassMutual center. I got yelled at by cops and National Guardsmen for crossing police lines, and told by others that I was OK as long as I had my press badge. It was a confusing time, and I was struck by the number of people wandering the South End, taking pictures of the damage with their cell phones.

Between disaster areas, I found some women flagging down cars for a car wash to raise money for victims. A few of them had been impacted themselves. I thought it was a touching story and, for our readers’ sake and mine, I shot some video so we’d have a positive piece to balance out the desperation.

4.   Describe the role of social media in your reporting.

I got on Twitter as soon as I knew it had happened because I have a decent base of followers in Western Mass. I knew they would be posting about the situation wherever they were at. It’s also useful as an aggregation tool, because it would take me 30 minutes to sift through all of the state’s news organizations that were covering this, but as everyone was sharing from their news site of choice, I was able to see headlines from all over in real-time.

Twitter was most useful in the hours right after the storm hit, and I keep checking it to this moment, but since Wednesday night I’ve mostly been using it to keep our 3,000+ followers up on what we’re doing, what other orgs are posting and what the various state agencies and aid groups are saying. I posted updates from the field, but that was somewhat difficult with spotty reception due to downed cell towers.

5.   What has surprised you most about the coverage of the tornadoes?

It’s a friggin’ tornado in New England. Everything about the past 48 hours has been surprising. If I have to pick, I’d say the courage of the folks like the women I met at the car wash, who managed to remain positive amid all of the rubble.

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