First Responders  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Columns
From AJR,   August/September 2008

First Responders   

Citizen medias agility during the Iowa floods offers a lesson to traditional journalists.

By Barb Palser
Barb Palser (, AJR's new-media columnist, is vice president, account management, with Internet Broadcasting.     

On Friday, June 13, Denise Clark drove to an emergency shelter in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, to find out how she could help her flooding community. She was eager to lend a hand, but after waiting for two hours with no instructions, she headed home. Her husband, computer engineer Todd Millard, shared her frustration at not knowing where, how or whom to help. Seven hours later, Millard had built and launched, a community bulletin board designed to match helpers with people in need of labor or materials.

Within 24 hours, the site had received 100 requests and offers. By the following Tuesday, there were 270 active posts, and a half-dozen volunteers had signed on to help Millard and Clark keep things running. A California volunteer created an interactive map of road closures, and a programmer at a local community college added RSS feeds. Registration was not required; anybody could post or update anything, which meant the community needed to police itself. The site was clear, clean, searchable and easy to use.

The collaborative, functionality-focused nature of offers an interesting counterpoint to the way traditional media and institutions usually approach the Internet. This is not a critique of the way the Cedar Rapids media covered the story; the local news sites appeared to have all hands on deck updating articles, resource lists, viewer photos and streaming video. But one has to admire the agility that individuals unfettered by bureaucratic process and corporate caution exhibited.

The most ambitious online recovery resource launched by a Cedar Rapids news organization was, operated by the Gazette, the local daily, and KCRG-TV, both owned by Gazette Communications. It went live June 21, more than a week after the Cedar River crested. According to Operations Manager Jason Kristufek, it took about six days to go from concept to live site, with the help of internal staff and a third-party database provider. That time frame is not bad for a local news site in a midsize market, starting from scratch in the middle of a disaster. was just one of many priorities for the strained online staff.

While it may have lacked speed out of the gate, grew into a fairly robust database of offers and requests for help, lost and found items and missing pets. It allowed relocated business owners to publish their temporary addresses and provided a sortable list of more than 475 city-approved contractors for repair work. Unlike, users were required to register in order to post information to the site so that they alone could edit or remove their posts later. The site wasn't quite as uncomplicated as, and it missed a couple of nice-to-have features like an obvious date stamp with each post. But it was clean, interactive and pretty impressive under the circumstances.

(In e-mail interviews, both Kristufek and Clark mentioned that several sites were trying to help flood victims, and the public interest would be better served if those efforts could be coordinated. A single portal would be ideal but given the reality of how these things unfold, the best they can probably do is link to one another.)

Then there was, a cooperative effort of local government, nonprofit and corporate organizations. That site went live early in the crisis, but initially offered several blank pages inscribed with a notice that information would be "coming soon." Like, it gained momentum and grew to include a wealth of information mostly from government sources for businesses and homeowners. In terms of user experience, it had more of a hodgepodge aesthetic than the other two sites and didn't always live up to its promises. (For example, the "Opportunities to Volunteer" page didn't actually offer any specific volunteer opportunities as of June 28.) Nevertheless, it achieved its goal to be the official communication platform for the disaster.

These three sites, and exemplify the stereotypical differences among government, media and citizens when it comes to the Internet. On one end, you've got the official source: confusing at times and not really interactive, but ultimately authoritative. On the opposite end, you've got the citizen site: nimble, easy and totally collaborative, without any guarantees. Somewhere in the middle sit traditional media: striving to be comprehensive and engaging within the editorial sensibilities and resource constraints of a journalistic operation.

Maybe the middle is where news Web sites are comfortable right now. Their affiliation with traditional media companies implies some responsibility for the accuracy of information published on their pages. There's a generalized fear of what might happen if something went terribly wrong; traditional media companies aren't huge risk-takers in this area. Lately, they're even more averse to the financial risk of funding a spur-of-the-moment idea that might not work. (Gazette Communications should be applauded for taking that risk.)

Even so, they could take some lessons from the world's citizen publishers: Agility is crucial. Simplicity is almost always best. The community doesn't expect you to control everything. And don't be afraid to take a risk.




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