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Sharing is Caring: Lessons learned from #washoefire news coverage


Citizen created Washoe Fire map
A map of the Washoe Fire created by Bryce Leinan. Click to view the original at Google Maps.

Society is increasingly entangled online, which means we are frequently connecting with one another in ways we would not have done in person prior to the Internet.

It’s clear that online social media have transformed societies in recent years; anyone who’s been paying attention to news coverage has noticed how online media is frequently driven by citizens.

The recent Washoe Drive Fire in Reno drove this point home for Washoe County residents. Arguably, the most popular sources of information were TV news and social networks. (A serious nod goes to KOLO/Channel 8 for its ongoing coverage running live for hours and responding directly to citizens on air from their social networks.) Courtesy of the Washoe County Sheriff’s Office, the #washoefire hashtag on Twitter exploded much like the fire did in real life.

While RGJ.com had coverage with quality multimedia, it was frequently late to the game in getting out information. At any given moment during the fire RGJ.com showed “Updates” and “Breaking News” that were often a half hour old or more – even though news was literally breaking by the minute. In addition, we at ThisisReno were linking to their website content before they were posting to their own social networks.

The point is that news agencies treat news and information as one and the same: proprietary. They frequently pretend as if other news outlets don’t exist. It’s a necessary part of being a competitive business enterprise.

It’s also why news agencies have downsized so much in recent years. Citizens and consumers frequently don’t care where they get information; they just want to assume it’s reliable — a whole different discussion — and timely.

When it came to the Washoe Drive Fire, information was coming from multiple sources – citizens, officials, Twitter via the #washoefire hashtag, journalists, business, government agencies, hotel/casinos and so on. Rather than generate original content, at ThisisReno.com we simply linked to these updates as they were being posted.

The result was a kind of information dissemination completely uncharacteristic of traditional online and print journalism. Being able to cull reports from myriad sources provided information very quickly and in a format suitable for cell phones and smartphones (ThisisReno is mobile optimized).

TV news, which arguably had the best and most up-to-date coverage, fails here. Streaming live video via smartphones is more difficult, and local TV news sites, even the mobile versions of the sites, are still designed around the concept of news stories and short video clips.

Legacy media are called such in part because of the ingrained need for original reporting. This takes time, money and resources. In emergencies, however, information is changing by the minute and from different directions. No one news outlet can possibly cover it all. Moreover, on-the-spot reporting via Twitter or Facebook by news reporters still means the information is getting to consumers from disparate sources.

When lives are dramatically affected, citizens and consumers need credible information regardless of source – and they need it quickly and in an easy-to-find place. They simply cannot wait for legacy media to play catch-up.

While anecdotes never tell the full story, one evacuee complained about not being able to find reliable information from any one source – presumably the person was using a smartphone – until they went to ThisisReno.com’s post about the fire.

More telling, that single Washoe Fire post surpassed in one night every other post on the site in terms of visitation.

While we at ThisisReno are quick to say we are not here to compete with local news media – our stats will likely never compare with the heavy-hitters in town – we are grateful to fill the wide open niche social media has afforded us.


Bob Conrad is co-founder of This Is Reno. He is author of the new book, Spin! How the News Media Misinform and Why Consumers Misunderstand, available at Amazon.com.


Bob Conrad
Bob Conradhttp://thisisreno.com
Bob Conrad is publisher, editor and co-founder of This Is Reno. He has served in communications positions for various state agencies and earned a doctorate in educational leadership from the University of Nevada, Reno in 2011. He is also a part time instructor at UNR and sits on the boards of the Nevada Press Association and Nevada Open Government Coalition.