The Tuscaloosa News Drags the Media into the Twenty-first Century

Earlier this week, the Pulitzer Prize Board at Columbia University issued this year’s list of award winners (yay, Philly Inky!). While there was at least one thing that was unusual, those of us in the media-watcher segment of the world found something else that was altogether amazing.

The award recipients in the Breaking News Reporting section were the folks at the Tuscaloosa News for their breath-taking coverage of the April 27, 2011 EF-5 tornado that devastated Tuscaloosa, Alabama. While the award language notes the “in-depth print accounts even after power disruption forced the paper to publish at another plant 50 miles away,” PIOs and, I’ll bet, newsroom directors are all talking about the Tuscaloosa News’ staff use of Twitter to, in the words of the Prize Board, “provide real-time updates, [and] help locate missing people.” Some, like Gerald Baron and the Poynter Institute, are saying that they won because of their collective Twitter feeds.

Poynter interviewed City Editor Katherine Lee about the campaign and provided the following quotes and statements. (And frankly, I’m pulling them out so I can work them into the coverpage of my crisis comms plan.)

“Calls couldn’t get through, but texts and tweets could.”

“The first indications anybody was getting of how widespread this devastation was, was through [our reporters’] tweets.”

The News journalists arrived at many scenes of destruction even before emergency first-responders. The National Guard relied upon some of those tweets to decide where to deploy first, Lee said.

Those tweets were the Tuscaloosa News that day. The only way to get the latest, most up-to-date information. And possibly, they were used to save lives. Wow, kudos where deserved.

So, what’s next? Well, there’s another quote in the Poynter story that I think newsroom directors have already tacked to the cork board in the newsroom. And it’s one that we as PIOs simply cannot ignore, and I’ll explain why.

“They made it clear to all of us who were judges this year for Breaking News that we needed to look very hard at realtime reporting,” [jury member Kathy] Best said. “Were the news organizations that entered taking full advantage of all of the tools they had to report breaking news as it was happening? We took that really seriously and eliminated some of the entries because they waited too long to tell readers what was going on.”

Now put on your newspaper hat. What’s the best argument for not cutting newsroom staff? Win awards, get recognized! Win big awards, like the Pulitzer!

And how is the Pulitzer now awarding (at least) one of their awards?

Social media. Immediate. Real time. Not waiting too long.

Now, read it again; what’s the best way to keep from getting staff cut? Twitter, as the fireball is still curling into the sky.

If you had ANY belief that you could EVER get ahead of a story that isn’t COMPLETELY internal, you can stop deluding yourself. Those who award the biggest brass ring in reporting just lined up the greyhounds and let fly the rabbit. Not only will you not ever have the first word on a subject, but you’re likely to see reports from news organizations on social media before you’re even notified internally that something’s up.

Welcome to the twenty-first century.