The horrible fires in Southern California are providing a good test of what the media learned in covering Hurricane Katrina, especially in providing a place for readers to exchange information and get the latest updates on what's happening to their communities. So far, traditional media seem to be doing an OK--if not great--job of meeting the challenge.
The Web 2.0 features that a lot of media sites have begun experimenting with are incredible tools in a situation like this, and news sites based in the fire areas are getting a crash course in their power. SignOnSanDiego, the San Diego Union-Tribune's site, is effectively using a news blog to quickly publish the latest information; the site is also replete with video and up-to-date maps (this is a story that, frankly, can't have enough maps).
The Los Angeles Times site is not as Web 2.0-powered, with maps, photos and some video; there's no sign of a running news blog. Unfortunately, the Times.com home page is still full of non-fire stories, even though this is by far the biggest story in SoCal and the nation right now. I'm not real sure why the debate over Harry Potter's Dumbledore's sexuality--a story that's four days old, btw--is at the top of the LA Times home page, for instance. (I suspect it has something to do with rigid page-design templates--a real problem on the Web if really big news breaks out.)
Similarly, the Orange County Register site's layout is straining to highlight fire coverage; a special Fire Central page helps, but most of the content is standard journalism fare, without many Web 2.0 bells and whistles. (The featured discussion in the Register's "Publish Your Stuff" user-generated section is, ugh, "Are you over Britney Spears.")
Among TV stations, KFMB, the CBS affiliate in San Diego, has given over its home page almost completely to the fire, with maps, videos (natch) and a news blog. KGTV, the ABC affiliate, is doing a lot with video and maps, but can't get away from the usual promotional drivel that always seems to overwhelm local TV sites (do we really need to see a picture of the station's anchors?). KSND, the NBC affiliate, seems stuck in the same trap as the LA Times site--their strict page format apparently won't let them give full coverage to the fire (LostRemote has more on this). In Los Angeles, KCAL, the CBS affiliate, is promoting Dr. Phil's show at about the same level as the fire coverage; KABC, KNBC and the Tribune-owned L.A. Fox affiliate, KTLA, aren't much better.
What there isn't nearly enough of in any of these packages is something that this story absolutely lends itself to: User-generated content. Residents of Southern California have a better handle on what's going on around them than any overworked reporter, and these sites should be harvesting and featuring this valuable input from the audience--with fires burning neighborhood to neighborhood and block to block, this story couldn't be more hyperlocal. This also is an instance when social networking capabilities, to link people together, could be very valuable.
SignOnSanDiego does have very active old-fashioned discussion forums about the fires, but it's all but hidden on the home page. It would be great if the site was featuring some of the best and most interesting posts from the forums, rather than forcing readers to comb through them for information. LATImes.com doesn't have any sort of user-generated content, as far as I can see, except for weak "Share your thoughts/photos" sections. Some of the TV stations are showing user-generated video or photos, but that's about it. That's a missed opportunity.
Into these breaches come competitors: As was the case in New Orleans, craigslist spontaneously has become a major forum for ordinary people trading information about the fires, looking for lost relatives, and asking for and providing help. This is the kind of civic service that a newspaper site should be providing and highlighting for its affected readers. Update: Topix.com also is serving as a clearinghouse for information for and by local residents.
And for a fascinating look at how the community can provide coverage of an event of this magnitude, check out the Wikipedia entry on California Wildfires of October 2007. With maps, timelines, charts and detailed coverage, it demonstrates how Wikipedia can be as much of a site for news coverage as it is a (user-generated) reference source. This detailed Wikipedia entry provides a comprehensive, up-to-the-minute overview of the situation that's unmatched in any news site I've seen.
On the other hand, an upstart competitor of traditional media in the fire area is lagging badly on all counts: San Diego civic site Voice of San Diego is covering the fires very traditionally and scantily, using its own staff, and not tapping into its audience at all, as far as I can tell. Apparently to have a voice in San Diego you need to actually work for the Voice of San Diego.
Widespread community tragedies like the Southern California fires are a perfect place for aggressive Web 2.0 technologies to come to the fore. Tapping into the community to tell its story, share its experiences and create connections among victims is very powerful. Nobody knows more details than the people directly affected by the fire. In addition to maps, video and other features, the Southern California media should be providing the community with a place to get the word out.
Update, courtesy of the PressGazette.co.uk blog:
Both the Los Angles Times and San Diego’s public broadcasting station KPBS are using Twitter to provide rapid, rolling updates of the fires.
That's a terrific use of Twitter!